Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Now is a little on the early side, don’t you think? We never arrive there, then again, we’re never anywhere else. I like to think of history as a set of frames that let us see one part of what’s before our eyes at the cost of framing out something else. That’s why seeing is always temporal, always mediated by words.
We see not just through words but with words. There’s no way around it.
Yet the idea is precarious.
Put it this way: Abstraction is never more than an extension of figuration just as figuration is never more than an extension of abstraction.
In Bruce Pearson’s paintings, you see the figures melting into the paint then look again and all you see is abstract patterns. Since the work is filled with letters, which in small groups make up words, and which, in turn, constitute phrases, so much depends on how you frame it. Indeed, the frames—verbal, visual, textual, textural—come fast upon one another, piling up like the layers of a palimpsest.
The idea that you see a painting all at once, or that colors or shapes are any less symbolic than words or figures, is a malady of critical discourse that is given its comeuppance in each of Pearson’s works.
Pearson’s paintings offer balm for sore eyes. They are an aesthetic oculus lucidus. But unlike the medieval powder, which was made of dried, pulverized honeysuckle, they are made of oil and acrylic on polystyrene foam.
You have to read Pearson’s paintings, but that just intensifies the visuality.
Charles BernsteinThere are a lot of terms I want to throw at you, like flashcards or inkblots from a Rorschach test, to see how they might reveal aspects of your craft and thinking. So let me ask, as a first keyword, about legibility. What’s legible here?
Bruce Pearson Maybe everything is legible, and it’s just a matter of knowing how to read the material. It’s true that elements of my past work had become so embedded that they were difficult or nearly impossible to read, but now I find myself more attracted to legibility. In my current collaborations [with the poets Claudia Rankine, Anselm Berrigan, and Mónica de la Torre], I’m trying to bring the words forward, make them more present rather than part of a lattice.
CB But what does legibility mean for you in a broader sense? There’s the ability to recognize characters and read words, sure. But there’s another facet here, another bias equally at play—could we speak about a legibility of the visual? Because your work is as textual as it is imagistic, interlocking the two, binding them up into some syncretic response. So, what might visual legibility even mean? Asking a painter about this seems odd somehow, but your work raises the issue.
BP Tell me more about how you’re thinking about this.
CB Okay, for one thing, the paintings give us certain cues—like in the way you frame areas of a canvas to bring out certain features, popping them out into the foreground. What falls away from the eye, receding, tends toward the illegible.
BP What I’m interested in is a condition without stable ground, where you’re constantly having to move through unfamiliar optical experiences. You look in one particular way, then something else occurs to unsettle your perception. The work often has three layers of information going at once, and maybe they don’t stack up in order. Going back to your idea of the Rorschach test, I’m trying to set up visual systems that will trigger unexpected responses. Sometimes this is done just with formal devices, like with color or grids. At other times I use a photographic source, pushing it almost to the point of abstraction, where it kind of hangs there in indeterminacy.
CB So there’s this teetering abstraction of both textual and imagistic material, each derived from some particular source. You include photos, but we can’t quite apprehend what they depict—that’s the visual legibility being compromised. A figure might emerge or not. You’ve got a spectrum of obscurity or invisibility going on, with things coming in and out of phase. This dialectic is what makes your work so kinetic. Even as we look from one painting to the next, at the serial experience of the whole body of work, there’s a constant shifting. It’s four-dimensional because it’s temporal. Over time it flips on the viewer, toggling between what they do and don’t observe—or else a third element comes in, changing the
relation between the other two.
BP Yes, or it can be thought of as simultaneous, which means I can draw or paint it. I had a studio visit with another artist who pointed out that reading text and seeing an image exercise two different regions of the brain. Ultimately the conflict between these parts resolves, and you can see both sets of information at the same time. You almost have to puzzle the inputs together.
CB We’re on the same wavelength here. My next keyword was puzzle.
So, I’d say that the role of reading within the visual arts is often repressed, kept at bay. You break down the distinctions that keep things separate, exposing linguistic materiality—putting shapes of words into the picture. But, of course, writing has always been visual! And so much reading that we do tends to make the letterforms invisible, tends to erase the physical manifestation of the word in favor of running off with its meaning.
There’s seeing something all at once, like you say, but also, crucially, reading it over time in some sequence. Everything may indeed be present, but we don’t really experience visions in an instant; we read them. People say the difference between reading a poem and seeing a painting is that you take the visual material in all at once, but I’ll maintain that we can’t do that. We see different things over time. There’s definitely an impact to a picture’s simultaneity, but not any more so than what we see here, looking at this beautiful garden. My eye moves around it, with alternate projections occurring. This quality is so beautifully present in the late works of Ad Reinhardt. They’re not static monochromes; they move.
BP Reinhardt was very influential to me in terms of perceptual experience. I remember seeing one of his black paintings for the first time. With just a quick glance, I saw only black. And then, as I looked a little bit more, I realized it actually wasn’t one black but many. There was a lot going on.
It was like being in a dark room and realizing you can see much more as your eyes adjust to the lighting conditions. In one of my series, the paintings appear to be all white, but in fact each makes use of 80 or 135 different whites. Sit with what seems to be a monochromatic work for more than thirty seconds, next to a natural light source, and you’ll realize it’s never the same. It’s always in motion.
CB So there’s this subtle variegation in color, which can be unlocked, just as there is with legibility. Seemingly obliterated into abstraction, your paintings might open into clearly identifiable images or words, flipping into the figurative mode.
BP I’m constantly thinking about a fluid way of dealing with these categories, so that viewers’ experiences can escape figure/ground and word/image hierarchies. Or they can start with one assumption and use it as a place to jump off from. I like your choice of the word flipping.
CB And I like your use of the word fluid. In some paintings, I can see fluidity or a melting—obviously not like an image of, say, ice melting, but rather an overall movement that the painting encourages in my perception, a shifty way of seeing.
BP Melting makes me think not just of liquefying but also of exposing underlying structures, getting to what you hadn’t seen before.
CB Layers atop layers, like a palimpsest, with erasure determining the differences among them—all very significant in terms of the tension between abstraction and figuration. In the context of Western art, these used to be loaded categories, divided by a line. What do you think about that history? In the nineteenth century, we have Turner and Monet muddying that line, figuring within the abstraction that itself is figured. In the postwar period, it became a binary opposition.
BP I’ve always found it suspect to separate these concepts because I think of painting as operating within a much larger bandwidth. When you travel out to either extreme, you find it comes around to meet the other side again. I’m very aware of these historical tracts, but compartmentalizing things doesn’t seem like a good idea—especially now, when we have so much information, so much history.
CB We might say that figuration and abstraction have dissolved, and perhaps, that text can melt into visuality. What I get interested in is the opposite trajectory, where language seems capable of emerging from the visual. It’s more mystical or counterintuitive that way—like matter springing from the void. Fundamental poesis. A lot of painters don’t read poetry though, thinking language is always strictly figurative and about something. They’re seldom sympathetic to the kinds of poetic practices so analogous to what they do.
BP Well, many early American abstractionists were deeply involved in words and the calligraphic form. Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline dealt with this, and both were very literate.
CB And obviously the Russian Futurists were liberating letters. There’s the emergence of visual poetry in the modernist period and concrete poetry in the postwar period. So there’s an audience for your work that is interested in the history of words-in-freedom. There’s a rich vein over the past thirty years of what Jay Sanders and I called “poetry plastique.” Your work might be part of that, even though the painterly dimensions are so strong. What you’re doing isn’t easily reproducible within the conventions of poetry, but poetry plastique is expressly concerned with exactly nonreproducible linguistic work that is not based on the page.
BP I’ve been interested in concrete poetry for a long time now. I probably first became aware of it when I was discovering experimental music and writing. What attracted me to these forms was how they kept taking me somewhere else, some place I didn’t know about. I’m always looking for what I don’t know. I have this beautiful seven-LP history of sound-text poetry put out by Cramps Records [Futura: Poesia Sonora, 1978]. It’s absolutely amazing, starting with the Futurists and Dadaists and going up to Henri Chopin.
CB It’s interesting that when I ask about visual poetry, you quickly melt into sound art and sound poetry. Similar dynamics are at play, but the durational, musical element of performed poetry is utterly different than something that emphasizes or breaks open the visuality of the alphabet. There’s no sound. It’s not speech-based. And yet, you melt one into another. Your paintings are silent, but the dimension of sound touches them.
BP I’ve been influenced by certain sound poets—and also, just conceptually, by certain writers. The Oulipians were a huge influence when I first started using words. Their constraints enabled them to move into unexpected territory, and in a kind of objective way too. By contrast the Surrealists seem totally subjective. I’m interested in rule-based systems because they enable me to push in directions I could never have imagined. If I have figuration, opticality, and language, and put them together systematically, then I’m able to surprise myself.
CB One thing that linguistic sound and alphabetic writing don’t generally have is color. With typesetting, for all practical purposes, we have black as default. How does color factor into the words in your work?
BP I work within different series, and each has its own palette as determined by certain conceptual underpinnings or constraints. There’s nothing objective about a color, but the way it’s been viewed historically around the world gives it different meanings. Take white in the West—there are associations with purity and benevolence. White in Asia signifies death. We can play with the opposition of these connotations.
CB We observe a color, recognizing some facet of its symbolic dimension. This actually goes against the idea of pure visual eminence and puts seeing into a realm more like reading. My view is that visuality is a lot more linguistic than commonly thought, at least within the reception of visual arts. And color, like everything, is highly historical and historicized. Everything is marked. Some visual experiences seem to offer, like, “Aha, finally I’m in an unmarked, unmediated, or non-iconic space!” But we can’t really do that. Are you deeply committed to colors having particular meanings?
BP It really depends. I’ll gray down a palette to produce one set of connotations—somber, refined. Or I’ll come up with an impossible constraint: to use every color I can. For instance, in my Encyclopedia series, no color repeats. There can be up to 3000 unique colors in a single painting. Playing with psychedelia and optics is part of my history, which certainly informs my use of color, though colors have significance of their own too.
CB Another keyword I had at the ready: psychedelia.
So you have one approach where a great multiplicity of colors are adjacent but can’t repeat, which to me isn’t just about vision. It’s not conceptual in the strictest sense because it’s wholly evident and seeable. I know you’re interested in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, but that isn’t necessarily something one would know outside of reading a label text, right?
BP Yes. In Diderot’s time, there was this idea floating around that everything known to exist could be represented with a graphic image. It’s a fascinating quest. I started to think about how I could incorporate this notion, even though it’s absurd. The absurdity itself appealed to me. So I dug into this idea and developed it for a couple of years. But I also wanted to deal with current events. I was reading way too much news then—and still am! For that series, I would take a story from the daily paper and underline keywords and create a kind of found poem out of them. Perhaps found poem isn’t the correct description, but I would take some words and phrases, stacking them up. Then I would project pages from these iconographic encyclopedias on top of that language. The result was a very dense webbing and mapping. From there I decided, since it’s all part of this encyclopedic quest, that no two elements should repeat.
CB I’m curious about how encyclopedias relate to this title of yours: Not to Interrupt Your Beautiful Moment. It has the sense of a visual sublime, freed from history. But encyclopedias are quite the opposite. What attracts you to that title?
BP In that particular painting, I was dealing with Josef Albers’s color theory, but as if he had taken mescaline. What I liked about the title is that I could use it as a foil to set up the painting; it’s like the straight man, and the painting’s the comedian. Or it’s like the painting is an actor talking to the viewer. There’s often a sense of humor tucked inside a title or a painting, right alongside complete seriousness. I like that kind of slippage—the whole vaudeville thing—slipping on a banana peel. Funny or dangerous?
CB This leads to another keyword: performance. I’m thinking of the act of reading and seeing your work; it’s a subliming of the historical and historicizing the sublime; it’s a melting between phases, all as a kind of performance. We watch it unfold.
BP I think about the sublime at times, but I’m suspicious of what people say about it. I can’t reduce the sublime to a sound bite; it’s irreducible.
In terms of performance, one of the most important concepts I’ve ever encountered comes from Duchamp: the viewer completes the work. I like the fact that you put something up and the viewer has to interact, have an experience, almost perform with it. Viewing is itself a performance. Does that make any sense?
CB Absolutely. You could have a very beautiful pastoral image, like the one we’re looking out on right now. While our view of this garden is a performance in itself, you could project all kinds of memories and fantasies onto it. And one doesn’t just project onto a static image because it pushes back—in your case, by way of flipping layers, toggling between this and that. I’m completely in tune with the idea that the viewer and reader create meaning by projecting into something that is, to some extent, indeterminate, but there’s something specific about how you do this. You almost create a mise-en-scène, like something’s going to happen in a theatrical way. We keep talking about elements in play.
BP I think about interaction and interference, but never about what the result will be.
CB One of the most influential ideas around this issue comes from Michael Fried—theatricality versus absorption. He was writing about Minimalism, which he called theatrical because viewers become aware of themselves. He put forward Pollock’s work as a case where viewers get involved and thus absorbed in the pure opticality of the painting, without self-consciousness. This was a good thing, and Rauschenberg was bad.
BP Rauschenberg, bad? I’m surprised.
CB Yes, in Fried’s view in the late ’60s, such work was theatrical. I might call it performative. And for Fried, having any linguistic element in a painting contaminates it. When I worked on the exhibition Poetry Plastique [at Marianne Boesky Gallery in 2001], we included this wonderful collaboration between Philip Guston and the poet Clark Coolidge. But regarding market value, a Guston painting by itself, without the Coolidge, is worth much more. When the poem was added, it actually decreased the value! I love that there’s a bit of quasi-empirical evidence for the spirit of Fried’s claim. But obviously there’s a whole range of artwork important to both of us that questions this premise. Your work is not so obviously on either side of the equation. It’s more John Cage, more Duchamp. Though for Fried, Duchamp is a bad modernist, the person who initiates a turn away from absorption.
BP I love both Duchamp and Cage. Do you agree with Fried?
CB I have the opposite view, but what Fried says is still real, in the Lacanian sense. I suppose by mentioning it I want to say that while you are connected to this Cagesque, Duchampian mode, you do so via the absorption of intense visual pleasure. A viewer might say, “Oh, Bruce, why do you put cues into the title? I just want to experience it. I don’t want to decipher anything. The paintings are so beautiful, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
BP I’ve soaked up so many different aspects of the visual art and writing of my time. Duchamp died a few years before I went to art school, and there was a lot of discussion about what art could be and about expanded painting. Painters were questioning conventions, adding and combining things. They used shaped canvases, unstretched canvases. There were no limits. And Cage was so instrumental for me—this idea of freedom through chance.
CB So which side are you on, Bruce? Linguistic or visual? You must pick, no waffling! (laughter) But seriously, what I’m saying is you have the slash; your work exists in the slash.
BP I love that idea.
CB Reinhardt is amazing in this respect, because he could seem conceptual, displaying that idea of painting with multiple blacks, but in fact allowing for a virtually mystical experience. I feel the same with Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946–66). It’s ravishing just at the visual level.
BP It’s the hinge that allows one to pivot in both directions. It’s able to hold two sides at once. It’s not an either/or.
CB Let’s move on, as if in a political debate, to the lightning round: 2-D or 3-D?
BP Definitely 3-D. I don’t think painting needs to be on a flat surface. Combines, I think, opened things up for painters. There’s a lot of area to mine. The relief qualities of my work bring in another aspect. Sometimes I’m figuring out how to collapse that 3-D texture to make it appear 2-D.
CB And vice versa. Next term: echo.
BP Resonance, interaction between levels.
CB One thing triggers another, call and response—which is more of a musical or durational or poetic thing. We’re not quick to think of echo in a static, visual context.
BP Upsettings, ruptures—that’s exactly what I hope to get with the work. I set up these ideas that will then generate and create their own echoes. And that echoing will go out and become something else.
CB Next keyword: subliminal.
BP At one point, when I first started using words, I was very interested in the idea of subliminal messaging. I would write things backward, have a phrase and then repeat it elsewhere upside down. Or I’d start with one letterform and repeat it in rippling patterns. The subliminal is totally in there.
CB We both grew up with the Cold War, with subliminal anti-communist messages on television, even in the aspirin commercials. Hidden persuaders.
BP Yes, and it was all about sex and death back then. I play with the subliminal in my ongoing Post-Feminist Masculinity series, where I poke fun at how masculinity has been kind of scrambling after feminism. I project photographs of models and sports figures from magazines and newspapers, recombining their traced silhouettes so they become a tangle of lines. The forms come out almost looking like maps, but subliminally you can feel figures and bodily gestures.
CB So experiencing your work isn’t necessarily deciphering it.
BP My work can be read in multiple ways. There’s stuff to decipher, but it’s not necessary to do so. I like to create puzzles that keep puzzling. The puzzle is never finished or solved.
CB You have a painting called Code Breakers (2018), but your work is about experiencing the encoding in terms of its own visual and linguistic materiality. As Gertrude Stein said, “I am not puzzled but it is very puzzling.”
Here’s another term: camouflage.
BP It often emerges from the process. I don’t intentionally seek it out.
CB But you’re aware that when things read as camouflage, there are particular associations ascribed to the painting.
BP Yes, of course. I’ve actually been trying to develop a series of paintings that go outdoors, that have open lattices and deal specifically with camouflage through the palette. The landscape comes in through the paintings’ openings. At the same time, the work is painted to pick up on the site’s colors and blend into the landscape.
CB Camouflage in a military context means that we can’t see something that’s there, but it has also become a design motif. In Fat Chance (2016), there’s fragmentation, elements that read as parts. You seem to evoke a particular kind of fragment, though—one that’s not a piece of any whole. It reads as free floating, composed in relation only to other fragments.
BP Again, that comes out of a process. I was lucky to get a residency in the South of France, where I took a lot of photos of the landscape. Fat Chance and its companion drawing make use of two of these images overlaid on top of letters. For the work on paper, I broke down the colors from that particular time and place. In the painting, that system didn’t work, so I ended up making a gray monochrome. The works look very different although the forms are the same. I’m fascinated by how shifting the colors of the same source material can yield such different results.
CB So your process often involves additive operations, but also fragmentation, desaturation, erasure, and degradation. The resultant paintings are so explicitly broken up that they challenge the romanticism inherent in the idea of the fragment—that is, that a part yearns for some lost whole. I can’t help but turn to this theological question: Is there a lost whole? Is there something beyond fragments and codes, beyond the source material—something outside of all that?
I’m being a bit sardonic, as I’m a no-whole-beyond-fragments type of person. Some other folks are mystical, believing there’s some ideal, some eternal perfection.
BP Yikes, that concept is very hard to get behind at the moment, isn’t it?
CB Your work is very much on the John Dewey side of art: art as process, process as its own value. The work doesn’t have a conception of some lost transcendence, though that absence itself can be mystical. Many people have a religious view that relates to what I’m saying. Theism. Order. Belief in God as a transcendent truth.
BP Well, in the current political climate, I’m starting to wish that I did believe in such things, like a homeostatic world of ideal social and environmental health—an order to return to. But no.
CB One reason some religious people like Donald Trump is that they long for a transcendent truth more real than history, than facts. Creationism trumps climate change. Trump represents an ideal order for them—the strong father who knows better than us and can do no wrong—can’t fail—because he’s outside of history.
BP Horrifying, isn’t it?
CB But this idea of transcendence does lead us in another direction—back to psychedelia, as it taps into—
BP —the Other.
CB Is psychedelic an active term for you?
BP Maybe in the way Aldous Huxley—in Doors of Perception—or Antonin Artaud and Henri Michaux thought of it. That’s how I first came across it. Psychedelia was something I grew up with as a young artist—this idea of your brain taking stuff in and having your consciousness altered. Perceptual experimentation still interests me, along with taking yourself outside of the normative.
CB Would you like your art to accomplish this? To derange the senses and reformulate one’s consciousness, à la Arthur Rimbaud?
BP Maybe on some level, yes. Not only like Rimbaud, though. There’s also María Sabina, William Burroughs, Hilma af Klint. They sought to access ecstatic experiences and other dimensions through their art and writing, or in the case of Sabina, through ritual chant. It really goes back to this idea of the expanded consciousness—not of moving through things, but of moving outside of yourself.
Charles Bernstein is the author of Near/Miss (University of Chicago Press, 2018), Pitch of Poetry, Recalculating, and Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions, among other titles. He is the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
Originally published in
For our 150th issue, we have redesigned our flagship print magazine. This design reaffirms our mandate to deliver the artist’s voice, supporting the vital discourse that appears in BOMB with vivid imagery and innovative juxtapositions that encourage dialogue across the arts—from conversations between artists, writers, and performers to exciting literature. We present exchanges in their formative state: revelatory, fluid, and iconoclastic.
This issue features interviews with Bruce Pearson, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Jacolby Satterwhite, Cathy Park Hong, Christiane Jatahy, and Seth Price, as well as fiction from Amelia Gray, Deb Olin Unferth, and Jenny Wu, and poetry from Sawako Nakayasu, Andrei Monastyrski, and Bob Holman.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.