Mapping poetry onto the visual arts : Carl Andre's Words



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As innovative as his sculpture, Andre's visually oriented poetry, however, has yet to receive the same rigor of attention as his sculpture. His inventive use of poetic and visual form, which he described as poetry mapped onto the visual arts, provides a compelling example of the interrelationship of word and image, a practice, although often overlooked, that suffuses twentieth-century visual art and poetry. Whereas Andre produced approximately 1,500 poems over many decades, this project focuses on his Words installation, the largest permanently installed collection of Andre's poems in the world. In 1995, Andre gifted 465 pages of poetry to the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Andre's experiments with genre, including lyrics, autobiographies, novels, odes, and operas, push literary convention to the edge of irreconcilability. Despite the array of genres, I argue that all of the disparate kinds of writing found in Words demonstrate Andre's poetic sensibility. Until recently the critical discussion of Andre's poems proceeded as a one-sided discourse, which advanced the notion that this large body of work was best suited to enhancing the understanding of Andre's sculptural practice. To redress the one-sidedness of the discourse requires approaching Andre not only as a sculptor who made poems, but also as a poet deeply engaged in the visual qualities of his poetics. Engaging the spirit of the "make it new" sensibility of modernist poetics, Andre developed his own practice by "mapping language on the conventions and usages of 20thcentury abstract art."¹ Andre's poetry operates in the space between art and language. In this space we find Andre's engagement with poetic history, particularly the innovations of Ezra Pound, his relationship to important poetic developments such as fragmentation and quotation, and his experimentation with poetry as a visual medium. An examination of Andre's poetic oeuvre, the publication and exhibition history of his poems, and the manner of critical attention given to the poems from the 1960s onward contextualizes Andre's practice of mapping poetry onto the visual arts, while also bridging the gap in discourse between the fields of art and poetry.