The Getty Research Institute recently acquired the second portion of poet and visual artist Emmett Williams’s archive, a trove curator Nancy Perloff plans to mine in the future as she explores ideas for her next exhibition. We asked her for a bit of background on this fascinating concrete poetry personality.
In early October 2018, I visited Emmett Williams’s widow, the graphic artist Ann Noël, in the Berlin flat she had shared with Williams since 1980. There I encountered the wealth of materials that comprised his archive, including letters he wrote during the 1960s to his first wife, Polly Williams. Amongst this correspondence, I discovered a letter identified only as “April the Wednesday” (but surely written in 1964, judging from the dates of the surrounding letters). The subject was a fellow poet:
“. . . my dear letter-friend whom I’ve never met, Ian Hamilton Finlay . . . is one of the most important people in the world, the way I see it. He’s broken the concrete thing, and makes the rest of us, rühm, rot and Williams look like writers of textbooks. He has invited me to a mutual-poverty vacation in the Orkney Islands. . .”
It struck me that this small snippet revealed a lot about Williams. It indicated that he had a fine capacity for friendship, in this case for the great Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay; that his humor could be self-deprecating but was lively; and that he participated actively in the “the concrete thing,” hence the reference to fellow concrete poets Gerhard Rühm and Dieter Rot.
I was also quite curious to know more about the role Williams played in “the concrete thing.” How was he connected to fellow concrete poets? At the time I had recently curated an exhibition on concrete poetry and was beginning to write a book, Concrete Poetry: A 21st-Century Anthology (forthcoming, Reaktion Books, April 2021). In concrete poetry, a poem is not just a column of words on a page, intended to be read silently or aloud, but a spatial construct whose design is central to its meaning.
A little background on Williams. He was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1925 and died in Berlin, Germany, in 2007. He made a name for himself as a key avant-garde poet, artist, and collaborator who worked across multiple media. And he was particularly known for his experiments with words, letters of the alphabet, inventive colors, and sounds that resulted in an impressive range of artists’ books, performance scores, and suites of prints.
Williams participated in both Fluxus and the concrete poetry movement after World War II, often inspiring their direction. Fluxus was a loosely organized, international network of artists, composers, and poets who emerged in the early 1960s and sought to collapse what they considered the false wall between art and life. Chance, accident, and humor were important components of Fluxus.
Roughly concurrent with Fluxus, concrete poetry sought to make the sound and shape of words its explicit field of investigation, and depended on what James Joyce called the “verbivocovisual.” In a given concrete poem, the visual, sonic, and semantic dimensions cannot be separated: form equals meaning. Williams’s archive offers an unusual opportunity to study the relationship between concrete poetry and Fluxus, since the practitioners of these movements, not only Williams but also his friends and colleagues, sometimes overlapped.
The significance of Emmett Williams lies very much in his lifelong commitment to combining different disciplines in his work. During his early years in Darmstadt, Germany, where he met the teachers of the annual International Summer Courses for New Music, Williams developed an interest in experimental poetry and music. As he recalled,
“In Darmstadt, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, I took a deep plunge into contemporary music… The compositional methods and processes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono had a profound effect on my own efforts to work with words and letters in a new way, as the raw materials of a new kind of poetry that would reflect the experimental tradition of the non-literary arts.”
In 1957 Williams joined Swiss poets Daniel Spoerri and Dieter Roth and German poet Claus Bremer in forming the “Darmstadt circle” of concrete poetry. It was through this group that Williams published his first book, konkretionen (concretions), in 1959. Serving as the third issue of Material, a German avant-garde periodical, konkretionen contains typographic poems (“constellations,” Williams called them) comprised of individual letters, sometimes repeated and arranged to suggest spatial, even three-dimensional, forms.
According to a press release by Spoerri accompanying the first issue in 1958, Material “forms a system of words, letters, or signs that first begin to make sense when the reader contributes…These texts are conceived so as not to burden the reader with the poet’s personal opinion, conscious that a poet’s opinions are always relative, that is, anchored in perspective.” Williams’s use of die-cuts on many pages of konkretionen challenges the reader to participate by peering through the gaps to find the text.
Williams pioneered the use of the alphabetic letter in art throughout his career. A marvelous example is his concrete sound poem, Alphabet Poem (1963), which developed out of his Alphabet Symphony (1962). The latter is a Fluxus performance piece in which the 26 letters of the alphabet are represented by 26 objects, each accompanied by an instruction card specifying the action the performer should present. These actions, whether “Pouring,” tearing a cloth into the shape of a “Y,” or making “Noise,” follow the order of the alphabet. Williams designed Alphabet Poem in the form of a scroll that the performer gradually unfurls and reads aloud. The first 25 letters of the alphabet appear in rows and long columns like numbers printed on adding-machine tape. (Mysteriously, “Z” is omitted.) As he did in konkretionen, Williams combined the everyday expression of Fluxus—and the popularity of the scroll format among Fluxus poets—with the linguistic play of concrete poetry.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Williams showed a particular penchant for suites of prints. In 1978 he created his Graphic Portraits, 13 serigraphs in homage to 12 artists with whom he had worked. The print entitled Group Portrait incorporates all 12 artists, each assigned a different color. By matching the dots of a particular color—yellow for Rauschenberg, for instance—with the typewriter keyboard at the top, Williams spells the last name of each artist. His print bears a striking resemblance to a musical score.
Two slightly later print sets capture Williams’s fascination with letters of the alphabet. First Love, a series of three silkscreen prints from 1983, uses the color blue to spell “I” (Part 1) “Love” (Part 2) “You” (Part 3), concealing these words by dispersing their letters and surrounding them with other letters in different primary colors. Dance Fragments, produced in collaboration with Italian gallerist Rosanna Chiessi and Italian collector and gallerist Francesco Conz, offers a different kind of experiment with letters; the work animates them amongst the dancing human forms.
Williams’s archive spans his entire career, from his years as a features writer for the U.S. Army daily newspaper The Stars and Stripes in Darmstadt; to the friendships he developed in Paris with French Fluxus poet Robert Filliou and French sound poets Bernard Heidsieck and François Dufrêne; to his friendship with the American Fluxus composer George Brecht and, beginning in the 1970s, with German publisher and concrete poet Hansjörg Mayer and Japanese Fluxus artist Ay-O.
Happily for the Getty Research Institute, this collection completes the “Emmett Williams archive” already contained within our archive of the American collector Jean Brown. In the mid-1970s Williams sold correspondence he had received from leading poets, visual artists, and composers, as well as scores and artists’ books, to Jean Brown. (When the Research Institute acquired the Jean Brown archive in 1985, we received this “Emmett Williams archive.”) Bringing his archive from Berlin to its home in Los Angeles seems like a match made in heaven to me!