JOHN YAU SAYS THAT as a teenager, he decided he wanted to live the sort of life that John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara had constructed for themselves — a life of poetry and writing about visual art, which was separate from academia. He’s deeply engaged with what he calls the “experimental” faction of the literary world, and with those who value painting in the art world; he sees the possibility of materiality in painting, and argues against its “lower” status.
Yau has authored works of fiction, poetry, collaborations with visual artists, and of course, art criticism. Since January 2012, he’s been writing for the “weekend edition” of the online art magazine, Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art and Its Discontents, which publishes uncensored responses to exhibits and the social constructs of the art world. He also runs a small press, Black Square Editions, which publishes translations, poetry, and fiction. Here, we talk about those projects and his most recent collection of poetry, Further Adventures in Monochrome.
The title poem of Further Adventures, written in 15 sections that alternate between poetry and prose, addresses issues central to Yau’s work: his insistence that “painting is not dead,” the materiality of paint and language, language’s plasticity. He takes on the voice of Yves Klein throughout the poem’s 15 sections, and also speaks to Klein’s own writing about painting in 1954, and engages with Baudelaire, Mallarme, Dickinson, Rilke, Trakl, Whitman, Pollock, Warhol, and Johns, among others. The work is sometimes playful, as in the section titled “(Robert Desnos and Yves Klein meet in the sky),” but he’s pushed past what might be categorized as ekphrastic poetry or criticism, to create a form that combines the two. He speaks from or with the art, rather than “about” it. The penultimate section opens in the voice of Klein:
What I wanted from art was impossible. This is what every artist wants. If you settle for the possible, then your failure is ordinary, although, in a few cases, spectacular. I didn’t want what was there for the taking, the images of things that could be named. I didn’t want to add names to the vocabulary.
And the closing lines of the section read: “I became an artist because I wanted what art couldn’t give me: I wanted to be immersed in what I could not experience: the impossible.”
Rachel May: In your review of the painter Katherine Bradford’s show at the Edward Thorp Gallery last year for Hyperallergic, you write that she’s critiquing masculinity, and you chose a Bradford painting for the cover of Further Adventures in Monochrome. I also recently read a review of your book Forbidden Entries by Marjorie Perloff from the 1990s, in which she describes your author photo as one of “an angry young man.” Is masculinity something you’re thinking about in your own work?
John Yau: I’ve definitely thought about it in terms of writing about art and the artists I write about, and also the fact that I am Asian-American. And, to go back to the Marjorie Perloff critique — I was wearing a shirt that had a Polish name on it. I had bought the shirt in a secondhand store. I deliberately wore that shirt because it didn’t have my name on it. So I was amused that she couldn’t see that the author’s photograph could be constructed deliberately by me, to be a critique of the mainstream image of Asian Americans. I had long hair, I was smoking a cigarette, and I was wearing a shirt that had a Polish name on it. I’m playfully subverting notions of ethnicity just through that, but she didn’t see it that way at all, which I thought was a bit shortsighted.
[Laughs.] She missed it.
I definitely think about Katherine Bradford and the way she made the Superman figure that’s not typically masculine. His clothes are a little baggy, he doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing. You never see him saving anyone. But issues of masculinity is not a program of mine; it’s only if I see it in the work, then I’ll write about it.
I feel like painting doesn’t get the credit it should for doing lots of different things that other art forms supposedly do. Photography, video, installation, and performance are able to deal with social issues. But painting, which is marginalized within the critical discourse, has to justify itself in the right way. This is a situation presided over by commissars.
Painting is marginal to the other forms?
If you think about major museum shows, a lot of attention is paid to installation, photography, and appropriation. There’s this kind of mantra, probably since Andy Warhol began using silkscreen in the early 1960s, that painting is dead, that it’s about craft and craft is obsolete; so, this minor form is disliked — even hated by a lot of curators, though they don’t come out and say it that clearly. In a way, because it’s flown under the radar, it’s also, to my mind, an interesting art form. Painting is capable of doing a lot of things that people don’t think that it can do. The same is true of poetry.
By the materiality of it?
Yes, the materiality of it and its relationship to imagination, and the materiality of it in relationship to our own material existence. Those are all things that I think painting is able to address in a world of circulating images and the internet. And I also think there’s something quite interesting about someone who makes work by himself or herself, rather than using lots of other people to make their work. I don’t think labor is a bad thing.
Because it’s not as common for painters to rely solely on assistants to construct their pieces?
Right. Fabrication means you participate in the global economy. So, how critical are you of the global economy if you’re outsourcing your work?
In addition to the problems of capitalism, there’s something inauthentic seeming about having assistants or other people creating your pieces. Is that part of it, too?
Yes and no. I think people can get very sentimental about the painter’s touch as a marker of authenticity. Robert Rauschenberg critiqued that standard in the 1950s, when he made two paintings that were remarkably similar. He repeated abstract expressionist paint strokes, slyly replicating authenticity. I’m comfortable with that. I think a lot of painters have moved beyond the notion of the mark as a sign of authenticity. I don’t think it’s either/or. I don’t think that you’re either making a silkscreen painting to prove the author’s dead, versus “Oh, look, I’m making a mark and it’s all about my authenticity.” There are many other possibilities — ones that reject the values attached to both the mechanical and the sensitive hand.
One of my favorite artists is Catherine Murphy, who has completely gotten rid of painterliness (or the touch) in her paintings. They’re among the toughest paintings that I know about. They are powerful in that they are the result of Murphy’s attention to the surface and detail of things that are underfoot and overlooked, knotholes in a wall that the paint can’t cover over, a permanent blemish. There is nothing charming there.
What drew you to her work, and to Gary Stephan’s?
Well, I walked into a gallery sometime in the early ’80s, saw Catherine Murphy’s work and loved it, and I decided to write about it right then and there. I didn’t know who she was, or anything about her. I have been writing about her work ever since.
Gary Stephan was a longer process. I was critical of his work twice in the 80s, and then friends whom I trust kept saying, “He’s doing the best work right now,” and I thought, “Oh, but I was already so critical of him.” Finally, I decided to go talk to him and invite myself to his studio, which I did. He said, “Sure, come on over!” I think people change, and I think I change, and one day you might think about somebody’s work differently.
I read an interview that you did once with Jenny Holzer where you talk about the language she uses being really visceral, and you say that’s what writers want of their writing. Is that part of what’s drawing you to these works — is it the same as the materiality?
That’s part of it. In a way, what I learned from painters is that words could be treated as things, that you could put any one color next to any other color. And I thought, in poetry, you should technically be able to put any one word next to any other word. So, looking at painting made me look at language differently.
I’m interested in what language is capable of, and I am interested in collage without collaging. In other words, I do try to put one thing next to another — words, phrases — but I haven’t actually collaged. I haven’t taken it from one place and collaged it next to something from another place.
So it’s really all of the same fabric.
Yes. I mean, I do take language or use things from other sources, but I often rewrite them or do other things to them. As Jasper Johns says, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” So, it’s never a direct lift where I take it from one source and use it in another.
So, it’s been altered, or ingested and rewritten.
Much of my writing is revision. When I write an essay, I start at the beginning everyday when I work on it, and then I add a few sentences to it. I work incrementally. And I write my poetry or prose in the same way. I begin with what I have, read through it, and then revise it or add something to it. I always start at the beginning.
Your book, In the Realm of Appearances: The Art of Andy Warhol, is a book of criticism written in fragments. I wonder how you chose the form for that. When do you know you’re writing about a piece critically, how do you shift into poetry, or how do you create a new form for writing critically like you did in In the Realm of Appearances?
I don’t know how that happens. I start to write things, and then I think, “What would happen if I did this?” It’s a lot of, “What would happen if?” With the Warhol, I thought, “What would happen if I kept a notebook on him, and responded to individual works without having an overall narrative, just keep going at his work face to face?” I went at it very slowly. I wanted to look at everything close-up, rather than from a vantage point.
In that book, there’s a section where I talk about looking at both Johns’s sculpture and Warhol’s painting, and I suddenly had an insight into both Johns and Warhol. That helped a lot. It wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t look at something face to face and try to understand it. It’s flat-footed criticism — to look at the thing in front of you and write about it. That’s the kind of critic I am — I’m object-driven. As a writer of poems, I’m after something, but I can’t tell you exactly what it is because I am not sure. I’m trying to surprise myself.
To go back to the notion of critiquing masculinity — I wrote a poem in Further Adventures in which the speaker, “Sir Geoffrey” describes himself (or myself) as a “limpid nerd.” I was playing with that notion of how does a male writer describe himself’ especially after he has turned 60, which I had? As the character in this poem, I describe myself as someone who doesn’t “possess many special qualities.” I thought, “Why not say that?” I’m not hung up on notions of either masculinity or the sensitivity associated with being a poet. Masculinity feels threatened, which is why there is a lot of reactionary hypermasculine work being made.
It’s an interesting critique and connection between your work and what you were saying about Katherine Bradford. I’m also interested in how you engage with ethnicity and the sense of humor in your poetry, and your language play — the way words become more spare and spread out on the page and take on this more visual sense. (I’m thinking about your sequence of poems “Genghis Chan: Private Eye.”) I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit? You move into this fractured and really pared down poetry that’s funny at times, but you’re also talking about race and racism and identity.
I started that series in 1986 or ’87. I wanted to make a character, an Asian character. I was thinking about the movies and representations of Asians in film and how there was no masculine male figure, except in Hong Kong kung fu movies — there were black figures and white figures, but there were no Asian male figures in Hollywood films. At the time, a genre that I was interested in was detective fiction, so I made up this Asian “Private Eye.” Obviously, there are issues raised about “private eye,” and looking in the eyes themselves. I took the figures of Genghis Khan and Charlie Chan and jammed them together. The minute I came up with the title, I knew that I had created an identity. In the beginning I played with the language and phrasing that I associate with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I was interested in the notion of slang, and made up something that sounded as if it was slang even if it wasn’t. Originally, I said to myself that I’d write a hundred of these, having no notion what that might mean or how long it would take. I kept changing it, and some of the language changed over time. At a certain point, I stopped working on it, and then four or five years ago, I decided I would finish it.
By then, I was interested in the possibility of undoing the Chinese ideogram, especially as Ezra Pound represented it. I thought, “What would happen if I made up a concrete poem where you would read it and you would hear it and there would be a tension between what you read and what you heard? Could I do this using the page as a site for a concrete poem or ideogram? Could I invert Pound’s understanding, make it into something else?” That’s when I started the group of “Ideograms” within the series. A lot of it is about hearing phrases, things that are commonplace, and taking them apart; suddenly something becomes something else. I wanted the language to push against the constraints of understanding, to say three or more things simultaneously. That comes from reading or hearing something, slowing it down and taking it apart.
Your writing is so much about engaging with art and being a part of both the art world and the literary world. Maybe this is too simplistic, but how has the visual art you’re engaged with changed your own sense of your writing or what writing is?
In the poetry world, I’m part of the community that cares about experimental writing. There’s this argument in poetry between creative writing and what some people call “uncreative writing.” I don’t stand on either side of that. I’m interested in how to use the internet in my writing, how to use whatever language is available. But I’m not rigid about it. I got the idea from art that words are things, and that they don’t have to exist solely on the page. Little Sparta, the garden by Ian Hamilton Finlay, and the paintings of Squeak Carnwath are good examples of what I’m getting at.
An artist’s job is to be open to experimenting and trying everything — trying new mediums, new materials. I admire artists that don’t have a style. That was a big influence from the art world — that I didn’t want to have a style.
What do you mean by that?
Alex Katz has a style that’s immediately recognizable, a brand. But, someone like Jasper Johns doesn’t have a style; he changes subjects, he changes the way he paints. Kenneth Noland has a specific way of painting, while Thomas Nozkowski doesn’t have a style. How do you give yourself enough room to move, but also — more importantly — move away?
Style, as the poet Robert Kelly says, is death. It’s better to have more possibilities — some of them even contradictory — than less. Collage would be a method. It’s good to have as many methods as possible: it’s your bag of tricks. It’s better to have a big bag with a lot of tricks than one bag with one trick. Best of all is make them, the tricks, into something more.
That’s true, so you have a lot of room to play.
Exactly. I want as much room to play in as possible, and I don’t want to know where I’m going to end up when I start out. It’s the walk, not the destination, that counts.
How have you avoided what you critique in Eric Fischl’s paintings, which is the name-dropping and the allure of fame? I think you touch on it in In The Realm of Appearances, too, with the difference between fame and notoriety. I wonder how you think fame and notoriety are changing these days. We seem to be bombarded with quick fame all the time and there’s even a reality TV show for artists. How do you avoid all of that?
It’s easy. You decide whom you’re going to write about based on something other than the marketplace and social climbing. And you’ll never be famous. [Laughs.]
I mean you should write about artists that nobody writes about, critique things you’re not supposed to, like other critics. In a world full of signs telling you which way to go, you should try and go your own way.
I like writing for an online magazine. It’s perfect for me. I’m not trying to write for something else. Somebody asked me about going back and writing for a particular magazine, and I said, “Only on the following conditions: I can write about anything I want to, and I can say anything I want to say about the work, and I can write it the way I want to.” And that person said, “They’ll never let you do that.” So I said, “I’ll never write for that magazine.”
Name-brand magazines, they all have certain requirements. You’re not to say anything bad about certain people. For instance, Jay Z recently did a piece at Pace Gallery. And only somebody writing for Hyperallergic was critical of it. The review was cited in The New York Times and The Washington Post as the only piece critical of that situation. Everybody else found a way to not be that critical. I think there’s a kind of built-in censorship in operation at all times, an accommodation you are expected to make. You have to be willing to expose it.
To maintain your integrity.
Yeah, I feel like that’s going to guarantee that I’ll never be famous in that mainstream-media way, and I’m happy with that. But I would not go so far as to say “integrity,” which seems a tad self-serving.
Do you think you’re able to reach a different audience with Hyperallergic than you are with essays or books?
I think so, because people can access Hyperallergic for free, I feel like I’m able to put something before a wider audience, and I can write whatever I want.
And, are you still working on Black Square Editions?
Yes. I have a wild, experimental novel by Eugene Lim, called The Strangers, and a book of poems called Red Flash On A Black Field, by Joseph Donahue, which are going to press. I’m going to publish a book, Form/Force by the Swedish poet Karl Larsson that’s been translated by a Japanese-American woman Jennifer Hayashida. She was my student many years ago, and she told me she spoke Swedish; I told her she had to translate from the Swedish because she would instantly be the only Japanese-American woman translating from the Swedish. And this might make people redefine ethnicity. I do think about ethnicity in a variety of ways.
Do you think about ethnicity when you’re choosing the artists whose work you might write about?
Yes and no. There was a show [at Cheim and Read] recently called Reinventing Abstraction, and one of the writers for Hyperallergic brought this issue up, but he didn’t say it as strongly as I might have — there were two male artists of color, Stanley Whitney and Jack Whitten, but there were no women artists of color in the show. Was the marketplace a factor in the selection? One way to challenge the situation is to consider someone who has really been neglected or overlooked, confront your own way of looking, and defy the way things have been looked at, and processed, if possible.
A number of the women artists in the show were really good. They included five women and nine men. What would it have been like if the curator changed it around, without saying anything about it, without announcing it? Without making a big deal about it, and tooting your own horn, you have to be conscious for yourself and think, “You know, I’m putting together this show, and what would happen if I put in eight women and six men?”
Would that change things?
Yeah, eventually it would, and you don’t have to announce it or brag about it. It’s not about you; it’s about the status quo.
I want to talk about your collaborations, it seems like the collaborating is a natural part of your process. I’m especially interested in your work with the painter Dan Walsh. How did that project come together? How do you typically do a collaboration? Do you write the words first or do you go back and forth? How does it evolve?
I work in all sorts of ways. Sometimes we’ll work in the artist’s studio, other times someone will say to us, “Oh, you should collaborate,” and then we’ll talk and think through some things, like the Romantic poets, like Shelley and other people. Dan Walsh always has a kind of methodology in his paintings, so I was going to come up with a methodology to follow in response. Those poems are not like other poems I’ve written; they’re pretty different. In a way, I was inspired by a conversation with Robert Creeley about that. He collaborated with lots of artists, and he was interested in the artists’ process. They had a show of these collaborations in 2006–2007, and I wrote the catalog for it. We spent a lot of time, Bob and I, in talking about the process.
Lesley Dill, whose work I like a lot, said, “Would you like to work with me?” I sent her my poems, and said she wanted my permission to do anything that she wanted to with them. She wouldn’t rewrite the line, but she can use the lines in different pieces. I feel secure enough that if someone did something to it — other than rewriting — it wouldn’t ruin the poem. The poems also live elsewhere. It’s not like they are monuments made of stone.
I’m willing to try different things out and see what happens. I feel like I’m learning something about my own writing by collaborating with someone else. I guess it’s thinking about my writing differently, and anything that gets me to read my own work from another perspective is useful in some way. It gives you another way of approaching what you might be doing.
For Further Adventures in Monochrome, someone from the Walker museum asked if I would write about Yves Klein, and I said, “Yeah!” and then I got off the phone and thought, “How do you write poems about monochromatic art?” I like putting myself in situations that are kind of challenging, like, “Oh, now what do I do?” And, that poem I would say, is part poetry, but it’s also part art criticism, in some way I didn’t expect would happen. I didn’t know what I was doing. I think I blurred the boundaries between poetry and criticism in that poem, and I thought, “Oh that’s interesting.”
I love the way you start that poem with Emily Dickinson and Yves Klein together, enjambing the poetry and the visual art.
What do you want to write about or do next?
I’m working on series of prose poems now that don’t tell stories. I write all the time. I write every day. I get up early in the morning, I walk my dog, and I start writing. That’s what I do. And then I get approached to write about a lot of artists, and I choose which ones I want to write about. Last year, I was asked to write about an artist who lives in Ireland, and I became interested in writing about her and went sat in her studio every day for nearly a week. I sometimes act impulsively and hope that it works out. That also challenges me, because I have to learn how to write about the artist that is true to the work and myself.
I think I can do it. I love that challenge — I love writing about art. I think I’m so lucky in a way. I go out and look at art, and then go home and write about it; that’s great. It is about learning to see, which is different than learning how to see. It is a never-ending challenge.
Rachel May’s writing has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her book on modern quilting is forthcoming from Storey/Workman.