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Susan Howe's Art and Poetry, 1968-1974

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 47, Number 3, Fall 2006
pp. 440-471 | 10.1353/cli.2007.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

To search for infinity inside simplicity will be to find simplicity alive with messages. In my end is my beginning.

Susan Howe, "The End of Art"

Despite a few commentaries that borrow painterly metaphors, such as Bob Perelman's proposing that Susan Howe "uses // the page like a canvas" (7), no detailed account of the relationship between Howe's poetry and her artistic foundations exists, mainly because scholarship continues to focus on books she wrote long after she stopped painting. Even the first full-length study, Rachel Tzvia Back's Led by Language: The Poetry and Poetics of Susan Howe, skips over the first three books of poetry and gives no mention of the art criticism that Howe published during this time. The more closely we examine her poems, however, the more we realize the necessity of looking at these early years, especially if we are to believe her statement that her "sensibility was very much formed in the sixties" ("Interview" 19). Indeed, on the one occasion when her artwork has received substantial attention, Brian Reed is able to draw a compelling link between her installation works and her recurring use of "word squares" in later poetry. What we still need, however, is a broad sketch of her artistic foundations, especially her painting, and more specifically, an account of why her turn away from painting ends up leading to the historical poetry with which her readers are more familiar.

Unfortunately this task is confounded by the fact that Howe's paintings remain largely unavailable. We have no actual paintings to analyze in museums, galleries, or her archive in the Mandeville Collection at the University of California, San Diego. Reed bases his study on archival photographs of Howe's installation art, which he notes "looked like her later word squares" (28), but for the paintings that predate her use of linguistic elements, we are forced to make do with a few scraps of information that cite or describe them, often in sparse detail. Take, for example, an intriguing 1968 interview with her partner, the sculptor David von Schlegell. About midway through the interview, which took place in their home, the interviewer remarks that "Schlegell's young wife and small daughter came in to say good-bye before going for a walk" (54). Despite the fact that Howe remains unnamed—consigned to an absence that ironically anticipates her later recuperation of lost women's voices—her sudden appearance in the room captures their attention, and the conversation, which until then had been strictly about Schlegell, turns briefly to one of her paintings:

"My wife is a painter," [Schlegell] said when they were out of earshot. He pointed to a large canvas above the table—three or four stained-in curves of clear color. "I'm always amazed at the way she can just lay that color so cleanly," he said. "When I painted, it was always so labored and muddy. I don't like much contemporary painting."

So what can we tell about her painting? If it contained words or other linguistic experimentation, then presumably those elements would have received more attention than the "three or four stained-in curves of clear color." We might guess from Schlegell's description that the work is nonrepresentational. His affectionate wonder at the manner in which the colors "just [lie]" on the canvas "so cleanly" signals to us that the painting has none of the trademarks of expressionism. We can only speculate, of course, but the painting seems to be disciplined or ritualistic, not personal or effusive. Schlegell's dismissal of painting that is "muddy" lets us hear a quiet protest against artwork that is unrestrained, like a Jackson Pollock, or casual and everyday, like pop art. Even though the painting is "large," we wonder if Howe may have been seeking an alternative to the heroic, masculine assertiveness associated with what Daniel Belgrad has called the "culture of spontaneity" in cold war America.

While the interview leaves us wishing for a clearer image of Howe's painting, it nonetheless helps us to locate her artwork in the late-sixties world of artistic minimalism. Consider that Schlegell's work was included in the first major exhibit...



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