Wednesday, 3 September 2008


Hold on for the conversational ride. This is Charles Olson on Josef Albers:

who was one of the damndest, as you know, if you know his paintings, is one of the - well, how could you - those of you who know - how do you say what Albers was, what Albers is, as a painter (he was eighty-two years old last week)? You know those damned things, those squares, and those squares and those squares, and those circles and those circles and those circles, and those angle lines and those angle lines and those angle lines, and those labyrinths of those visual optical trappings. What is that? I mean, think of it. It's one of the stiffest, dryest forms of both line and paint that still is known to me. Mondrian and he, say, - as of, say, Klee and Kandinsky who were his contemporaries at the Bauhaus and were young painters together... (Muthologos, Vol II, 75)

26 March 1968. An informal talk by Charles Olson at Beloit College, where he'd gone to deliver a series of lectures in contemporary poetry. If Robert Rauschenberg had studied with Josef Albers for the discipline of someone far removed from himself in temperament and practice, Olson's response is more one of engaqed incomprehension, bordering on annoyance and frustration

Perhaps I should practice this as a critical stance. But is it hard to find work so obligingly and provocatively and engagingly incomprehensible?

There's an energy to this response - it seems to be something that has obsessed Olson for a while. Indeed, he says this in response, not to a direct question about Albers, but  to a question about whether being a poet effected his administrative decisions whilst rector of Black Mountain College!

I'm intrigued that Olson, although expressing his incomprehension, actually finds an effective language to talk about Albers compositional and serial procedures, largely through the rhythm of thought and monologue. It offers me a model of critical response that balances engagement with total incomprehension...

Those squares and those squares and those squares

Those circles and those circles and those circles

with annoyance and frustration...

Those angle lines and those angle lines and those angle lines

as you know if you know well how could you is one of the well how do you say

was, is, as, one of the