Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tomorrow marks the "soft" opening of LETTERS: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC, an exhibition I have been working on with co-curator Scott Watson these past few months (the official opening is Thursday January 19th).

At the centre of the show are the six "Letter" paintings Morris did in the late-1960s. Surrounding them, concrete works by Morris, Haroldo de Campos, Henri Chopin, John Furnival, Eugen Gomringer, Decio Pignatari and many more. There are also some mirror works that relate to the mirrors Morris inserted in his paintings.

Much of my curatorial work can be found in the "print gallery", a section called LETTERS: Transparent and Opaque: Concrete Poetry in Canada, 1963-1973, the subtitle derived from an essay Ian Wallace contributed to the UBC Fine Arts Gallery's 1969 Concrete Poetry exhibition ("Literature -- Transparent and Opaque"), which Morris co-curated with then-director Alvin Balkind.

Accompanying LETTERS will be a catalogue with essays by Watson, Jamie Hilder, William Wood and myself, to appear at the end of the exhibition in April. In the meantime I have been asked to write three short texts to help orient viewers to the relationship between Morris's paintings and concrete poetry, as well as the relationship between concrete poetry and the New York Correspondence School, all of which are included below:


The relationship between the Michael Morris paintings on display and concrete poetry has its genesis in two letters: Kurt von Meier’s June 1967 “Los Angeles Letter” in Art International, a site survey that includes a discussion of Morris’s paintings; and a May 1968 letter Morris received from New York Correspondence School founder Ray Johnson in response to Morris’s painting The Problem of Nothing (1967), which Johnson saw reproduced in ArtForum earlier that month.

Art International produced five more site surveys in their “Letter” series (Rome, Paris, New York, Madrid and Beijing), and Morris would respond to each with a painting (all but one were displayed at Vancouver’s Douglas Gallery in November 1968). As for Johnson’s letter, Morris responded to that as well – and in receiving a further letter from Johnson, Vancouver became a node in the NYCS network.

Johnson’s first letter to Morris was included in the unbound catalogue that accompanied Morris and Alvin Balkind’s 1969 UBC Fine Arts Gallery Concrete Poetry exhibition. The impetus behind this show began with Morris’s exposure to concrete and sound poetry as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in the mid-60s, where he first experienced the work of Bob Cobbing, Edwin Morgan and Ernst Jandl during a visit to the 1965 “Between Poetry and Painting” exhibition at the London Institute of Contemporary Art. The result was a series of concretist works Morris undertook towards a book he was calling The Problem of Nothing.

When Morris conceived of this book, in 1965, he envisioned an “imaginary museum” filled with his concrete poems and “related collages.” It was only after his engagement with the NYCS that the contents shifted. Although “Michael Morris’ Book” appears as a foldout poster in the Concrete Poetry catalogue, much of the “related” work is collagist correspondence, and many of the concrete poems are from others (bill bissett, Haraldo de Campos and John Furnival, to name a few). Thus, Morris’s book became an anthology, not a monograph. As for what is “correspondence” and what is “concrete”, that might be the problem of nothing.


Concrete Poetry is often referred to as one of the first international movements in Modern Art, one that began simultaneously in Brazil and Switzerland in the mid-1950s, with vital editorials in Belgium, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom. Although much of this activity appeared in handmade magazines such as blewointment (Canada), Labris (Belgium) and Tlaloc (England), often alongside manifestos, collages and expressive poems, some of it was circulated through the mails, to be hung on walls and looked at in the same way Mallarme wanted us to look at Un Coup de Des (1897) – as painting.

The New York Correspondence School was the name Ed Pluckett gave to the mailings undertaken by Fluxus artist and “Nothings” founder Ray Johnson in 1961 and formalized in an April 1968 first meeting in New York City. These mailings, which often included collages, drawings and rubber stampings, were the material extension of Robert Fillou’s “Eternal Network”, connecting practitioners the world over. But Johnson proved to be an eccentric postmaster and would drop members who attempted to sell their letters or, in some instances, for having hung around too long.

As with all avant gardes that enter a larger public, Concrete Poetry and the New York Correspondence School began to wane in the 1970s, just as Abstract Expressionism had in the 1950s when department stores such as Sears Roebuck introduced paintings that matched their couches (Pop Art reversed that by returning commercial design to large scale painting and sculpture). A good example of the aestheticization of Concrete Poetry can be found in Robert Hollander’s literal representation of a Coca Cola bottle (“You Too? Me Too – Why Not Soda Pop?” 1968) – this in contrast to Decio Pignatari’s “beba coca cola” (1957), where the words “coca cola” are reorganized to spell cloaca. The same could be said of the New York Correspondence School when Rolling Stone announced “Mail Art” in 1973.


The emergence of a self-conscious Canadian concrete and sound poetry scene began in Vancouver in the early 1960s with the publication of bill bissett’s blewointment magazine (1963-1970). Prior to that, experiments with typography and language were more often than not isolated occurrences, like the work of UBC English professor Earle Birney who, as early as 1950, was using multiple type-faces to construct poems such as “The Ballad of Mr. Chubb” (1951/1956).

When one of Birney’s students, bpNichol (1944-1988), arrived in Toronto in 1964, he was shocked to learn that no one had heard of Vancouver poets bissett, Martina Clinton, Judith Copithorne, Pierre Coupey, Lance Farrell, Maxine Gadd and Gerry Gilbert. To rectify that, he and David Aylward began work on a magazine similar in design and content to blewointment, called Ganglia. In 1967, after having connected with concrete poets in England, Belgium and Brazil, Nichol started a second magazine devoted wholly to literary concretism, called grOnk.

Today, bpNichol is arguably Canada’s best-known concrete and sound poet. However, what is often overlooked when speaking of Nichol this way is that he, like bissett, continued to work in both concrete and expressive styles, expanding the medium, as opposed to seeking its perfection or destruction. Something else worth noting: while their concrete works are known for their political economic critique, Nichol’s is restricted to Canadian nationalism (“INQUIRY OF MINISTRY”), while bissett’s knows no bounds (“in praise of all quebec bombers”).

Michael Turner

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