Elementary Poetry No. 1 is the first in a series of short artist books that the Russian poet, artist, and theorist Andrei Monastyrski (b. 1949) produced in quick succession in the spring of 1975 by drawing on typewritten pages with pen. The book’s opening section, “Elements,” features basic shapes labeled with corresponding words: circle—wheel, oval—egg. From there multiple words describing the same pictures begin to proliferate. A rectangle divided into quadrants is both a kite and a door; two long lines joined by shorter ones designate both a ladder and railroad tracks. The eye plays tricks on the mind. Leaps of logic seem credible.
The final section of Elementary Poetry No. 1, reproduced here, is titled “Dreams.” It develops the insights of the earlier sections in increasingly complicated configurations that resemble the schematic organization of floor plans. But this appearance belies the irrational world the drawings depict. Absurd relationships pit local readings against overall coherence. The ultimate impossibility of resolving the individual elements into a complete picture leaves the poem in a state of tension and mystery.
Elementary Poetry No. 1 ushered in a period of Monastyrski’s work exploring the formal relationship between sign and meaning produced by the acts of looking and reading. Subsequent works under his Elementary Poetry rubric examine the poem’s ontological status, the physical condition of the text, and the consciousness of the reader. These works predated (and then ran in parallel with) Monastyrski’s better-known involvement with Collective Actions, the conceptualist performance art group he cofounded in 1976, whose activities had a profound influence on underground art in Moscow from the late Soviet period to today.
—Yelena Kalinsky and Brian Droitcour