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Cabaret Voltaire


This was the favored name of the first venue for Zurich DADA. Essentially a room perhaps 30 meters square (320 square feet) in the back of the Meierei restaurant on Marktgasse, an alleyway a few yards from the entrance to the Spiegelgasse in Zurich’s Niederdorf (reddish light) section, it contained a small stage, a piano, and enough tables and chairs to seat fifty people, which is to say it was ideal for small pieces for a small audience. Operating only for five months from February through early July 1916, Cabaret Voltaire housed the epochal presentations of T RISTAN T ZARA, E MMY H ENNINGS, and H UGO B ALL, among others. Members of the audience frequently became performers. The classic 1916 painting of Cabaret Voltaire ebullient participants was done by MARCEL JANCO, who was there.

Once the cabaret closed, Cabaret Voltaire also became the name of a one-shot anthology (May 1916) and a twenty-first-century Zurich art gallery, not to mention later publications in other countries, so honorific had the name become.

Cage, John

(5 September 1912–12 August 1992; b. J. Milton C. Jr.)

Cage was one of the few individuals of whom it can be said, without dispute, that had he not existed, the development of more than one art would have been different. The truest POLYARTIST, Cage produced distinguished work in music, theater, literature, and visual art. As a de facto esthetician, he had a discernible influence upon the creation of music, several areas of performance, the visual arts, and, to a lesser extent, literature, and social thought. His principal theme, applicable to all arts, was the denial of false authority by expanding the range of acceptable and thus employable materials, beginning with non-pitched “noises,” which he thought should be heard as music “whether we’re in or out of the concert hall.”

Though some consider Cage an avatar of “chance,” I think of him as an extremely fecund inventor who, once he disregarded previous conventions, was able to realize a wealth of indubitably original constraints. The (in)famous “PREPARED PIANO,” which prevented the emergence of familiar keyboard sounds, was merely the beginning of a career that included scrupulously alternative kinds of musical scoring, idiosyncratically structured theatrical events, and unique literary forms. Perhaps because Cage never doubled back, never dismissing his earlier works as wrong, his art remained “far-out,” challenging, and generally unacceptable to the end. In the last months of his life, he completed a ninety-minute film whose visual content was a white screen violated by various shades and shapes of gray.

So much of an icon has he become that many forget that, six decades ago, when I first began following Cage’s activities, no one, but no one, received so many persistently negative comments, not just in print but in collegial conversations. When invited to give the 1988–89 Charles Eliot NORTON lectures at Harvard, perhaps the most prestigious appointment of its kind, he delivered statements so barely connected that few professors returned after Cage’s initial lecture! When Cage accepted the Norton position that gave him a title elevating him above the rest of us humans, I asked him what it was like being a Harvard professor. “Not much different from not being a Harvard professor,” he replied, true to his politics.

As an anarchist from his professional beginnings, he worked, as much through example as assertion, to eliminate authority and hierarchy, even in his life, never accepting a position that might give him cultural power (as distinct from influence), never composing any work that requires an authoritarian conductor or even a lead instrumentalist who stands before a backup group.

Not unlike other avant-garde artists, Cage made works, in his case in various media, that are either much more or much less than art used to be. Though the M INIMAL pieces should not be slighted, in my considered opinion the greatest Cage works are his M AXIMAL compositions: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946–48) is his longest and most exhaustive exploration of his first musical invention. Williams Mix (1953) is a tape collage composed of thousands of bits, intricately fused onto six tapes that should be played simultaneously, so that the result is an abundance of sounds within only several minutes. In HPSCHD (1969), Cage filled a humongous 15,000-seat basketball arena with a multitude of sounds and sights, and E UROPERA (1987) draws upon 19th-century European opera for musical parts, costumes, and scenarios that are then distributed at random to performers in a professional opera company. Given my bias toward abundance, my favorite Cage visual art is the sequence of Plexiglas plates that became Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel (1969); the single most impressive Cage text, the Harvard lectures that became the long poem l-VI (1990).

In his notorious “silent piece,” the superficially much, much less 433″ (1952), he became an avatar of CONCEPTUAL ART. By having the distinguished pianist D AVID T UDOR make no sound in a concert otherwise devoted to contemporary piano music, Cage framed four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a pianist’s silence to suggest that the inadvertent sounds within the auditorium constitute the “musical” experience and, by extension, that all sounds, whether intentional or not, can be considered music. (One strain of conceptual art consists of demonstrations or statements that convey radical esthetic implications.) Since the content of 433″ and its successors is miscellaneous sounds, it is more accurate to characterize it as a noise piece.

Cage also revolutionized musical scoring (eventually collecting an anthology of Notations [1969] that mostly reflects his influence), introducing graphic notations and prose instructions in place of horizontal musical staves. The most extraordinary of his own scores is the two-volume Song Books (Solos for Voice, 3–92) (1970), which contains, in part through length and number, an incomparable wealth of alternative performance instructions. He was also among the rare artists whose statements about his own work were often more true and insightful than his critics’ writings.

The surest measure of his works’ canonicity is that they were realized and, yes, discussed as often in the 21st century as they were before his death.

Cahun, Claude

(25 October 1894–8 December 1954; b. Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob)

As a more modest POLYARTIST, she worked strongly in both images and words around themes of gender and identity along the fringes of French SURREALISM. In his early A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935), the British writer David Gascoyne (1916–2001) quotes her as “he,” while some later surveys of Surrealism don’t mention her at all. Well before CINDY SHERMAN, Cahun produced photographic portraits of herself in various guises, including a coquette, a bodybuilder, a vamp, a young boy, and a Japanese puppet. Cahun’s single classic, an androgynous face often reprinted, is Self-Portrait in the Mirror with Checkered Jacket (1928). Her written “Heroines” (1925) contains monologs entwining female fairy-tale characters with contemporary female images. Her book Carrefour (1930) includes dreams illustrated with photomontages. In 1937 Cahun settled in Jersey (in the Channel Islands) with her life-partner Suzanne Malherbe (1892–1972), who took the name, likewise ambiguous in gender, of Marcel Moore for her own work as a writer and photographer. Under German occupation during World War II, the women engaged in subversive artistic activities, mostly requiring the printing of fliers, until they were jailed, though not deported. As much through their ambiguous themes as their polyartistic courage, their artistic fame grew posthumously.

Cal Arts


This has become the commonly accepted name for the second American arts college (after BLACK MOUNTAIN) to concentrate on avant-garde activities. To the rescue of two finally troubled Los Angeles schools – one teaching visual art, the other music – came the WALT DISNEY family who respected Walt’s vision that all the arts should be taught together. The nick name of California Institute of the Arts echoed that of the California Institute of Technology, likewise around L.A., commonly called Cal Tech.

After moving to a new campus in the Valencia section of Santa Clarita, CA, roughly exurban Los Angeles, it hired genuinely avant-garde artists for its faculty. As this new formula worked for a while, some of its students from the early 1970s had visible careers. However, once a Disney son-in-law became the school’s chief, many art stars left the faculty, leaving behind an institution scarcely different from other American art colleges that had by the late 1970s become more progressive than they used to be.

My own sense is that Cal Arts began too big, recalling JOHN CAGE’s two reasons for Black Mountain’s success: 1) it never had more than a hundred students; 2) the students regularly ate with the faculty. Another interpretation for Cal Arts’s decline identifies the hiring of the philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), no friend of avant-garde art, as prompting the new chief’s blanket dismissals. If true, then it could be said that a lefty political agenda undermined the progressive artistic agenda, finally to the detriment of both. Too bad.

Calder, Alexander

(22 July 1898–11 November 1976)

The son and grandson of sculptors, but also an alumnus of the Stevens Institute of Technology, Calder was a great inventor who recognized that the early modern avant-garde idea of KINETIC ART could be realized without motors. His innovation was three-dimensional art that, while suspended from a ceiling mount, moved through the natural balancing and counterbalancing of weights within the piece itself. Early in the history of this departure, his colleague M ARCEL D UCHAMP dubbed them mobiles, which became an epithet that stuck. Initially Calder used simple wooden shapes, most of them painted, which are delicately suspended from wooden dowels. He later used metals of various kinds, in various shapes and sizes.

Whereas individual images in the 1930s reflected the geometries of P IET M ONDRIAN, whose Paris studio Calder first visited in the early 1930; those from later times echo the more organic abstract forms of Joan Miró (1893–1983). Thanks in part to his engineering education, Calder figured how some of his mobiles could be quite large and hang in public spaces, most notably airport terminals.

In lieu of physical space typical of previous sculpture, a mobile creates virtual space, which is to say that it needs much more space than it physically occupies (and thus becomes an implicit precursor of other virtual art). Of all Calder’s many enthusiasts, none is more curious, or perceptive, than the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), who wrote:

A mobile does not suggest anything; it captures genuine living movements and shapes them. Mobiles have no meaning, make you think of nothing but themselves. They are, that is all; they are absolutes. There is more of the unpredictable about them than in any other human creation.

The later major Calder sculptures can be divided into those that hang freely from supports and those that rest stationary on the ground. Having become known for “mobiles,” he had to give another name to his stationary sculptures, “stabiles,” which seems an ironic joke on himself. Generally larger than mobiles, these fulfilled commissions for outdoor sites. The largest, the 60-foot high Teodelapio, was installed at a road junction in Spoleto, Italy, in 1962. None of these, in my judgment, are as strong as his best mobiles. Indeed, most of them, when actually seen nowadays, function to remind me of his superior mobiles.

Prior to his discovery of the mobile, Calder was known to his Parisian colleagues for his miniature puppet-circus (late 1920s), with figures and animals made from wire and string. Extraordinary in spite of its modesty, this survived, not only in a short documentary film and in a book but as a semi-permanent display long on the ground floor of the Whitney Museum in New York, becoming perhaps his greatest single masterpiece. A 1943 exhibition of this work at the MUSEUM OF MODERN ART admitted Calder to the canon of modern sculpture.

Though Calder’s unwillingness or inability to talk about art made him seem unserious, if not a sort of idiot esthetic savant, the physical truth is that he produced approximately 15,000 pieces, which is to say nearly one a day for fifty years. He was a sort of automatic artist. In a documentary film about Calder, someone notes that, though he may have drunk too much alcohol, his hands never stopped making objects.

Caldiero, A. F.

(23 September 1949; b. Alissandru F. C.)

Sicilian-born, NEW YORK CITY-reared, Caldiero has created distinguished sound poetry and performance, as well as visual art, most of it as elaborate expositions of spiritual themes that draw upon his European background. “The sacred and the secular have been at the very core of my formative years,” he writes. “For me this twin presence is a pivot between sideshow and temple, between entertainer or jester and priest. In the process of making and presenting a work, this precarious position is the opening by which I can hope to glimpse the Real.” He moved around 1980 to Utah, where he became a Mormon, and has since been exhibiting and performing mostly in and around Salt Lake City. OR, Book o’ Lights ranks among the most imaginative and ambitious visual-verbal books of the 1990s.

Callahan, Michael


Calvino, Italo

(15 October 1923–19 September 1985)

If I could write a satisfactory entry about this Italian author connected to OULIPO, I would, because colleagues tell me that he belongs here; but as I can’t, I reluctantly leave some white space below for his better admirers please to write their own.

—Thanks, appreciatively.

Camini, Aldo


Canada Council


A culturally superior counterpart to our own N ATIONAL E NDOWMENT FOR THE A RTS, this makes the NEA look amateur, perhaps because of the Canadian recognition that the best work and avant-garde art especially must be supported if a country’s culture is to survive. Should you not believe me, just compare its publicly available–once in print, now online–annual reports to those of the NEA.

Cappa Marinetti, Benedetta

(14 August 1897–15 May 1977)

At a major ITALIAN FUTURISM exhibition mounted at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2014, the greatest revelation was the excellence of large paintings by F. T. MARINETTI’s wife Benedetta, who professionally signed only her first name. Resembling murals in scale, created in 1933–34 for the conference room of a post office in Palermo, Sicily, these five canvases epitomized certain Futurist principles made large. Collectively titled “Synthesis of Communication,” they depict communication by telephone, telegraph, air, sea, and land, all representing the modernization advocated by Italy’s prime minister at the time, Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), whom certain Futurist painters idolized.

Cardew, Cornelius

(7 May 1936–13 December 1981)

In that vacuum that is avant-garde culture in Great Britain, Cardew filled a big balloon, less through his own originality than for his association with advanced developments elsewhere in the world. The son of a noted potter, he sang in the chorus at Canterbury Cathedral from 1943 to 1950 and studied, from 1953 to 1957, at London’s Royal Academy of Music (granting its alumni a lifetime professional imprimatur unknown elsewhere), before assisting K ARLHEINZ S TOCKHAUSEN and writing music, mostly for piano, in the SERIAL tradition. Coming under the contrary influence of J OHN C AGE in the 1960s, Cardew then preached and practiced graphic scores and INDETERMINACY, cofounding AMM, an improvisatory group that resembled the Americans in MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva). By the 1970s, he was writing, mostly for nonmusicians, which he called a Scratch Orchestra, defined as “a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily musical) and assembling for action.” Several Cardew compositions from this period acknowledged the influence of Mao Zedong, prompting Cardew to renounce his bourgeois past, and, need we say, the influence of Stockhausen, though Cardew still won attention, especially in England, as a former R.A.M. golden boy. He died after a traffic accident near his home in East London.

Carlos, Wendy

(14 November 1939; b. Walter C.)

Educated first in physics and then in music composition, Carlos released Switched-on Bach in 1968, which was the first recording of “E LECTRONIC MUSIC” to sell a million copies. Working with an early monophonic Moog synthesizer, Carlos laid individual lines of notes on a MULTITRACK tape recorder. He then adjusted the levels of the various tracks (or lines) in creating (literally mixing them down onto) a two-track, stereophonic tape. It was painstaking and pioneering work, unlike anything anyone had done (or thought about doing) in Electronic Music before; but one benefit, especially in comparing Carlos’s interpretation of J. S. BACH’s Brandenburg concerti to traditional instrumental recordings, was revealing the master’s contrapuntal lines that were previously muffled. Though these technologies of a sound synthesizer and multi-track tape were widely available then, no other musician utilized them so well. Decades later, Switched-On Bach Set (1999) was a brilliant retrospective.

Carlos subsequently produced other albums, some likewise original interpretations of classical warhorses, others of his own music (e.g., the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), none of which were quite so innovative or successful. By the 21st century, Carlos was producing the most extraordinary photographs of solar eclipses.

Born Walter Carlos, he became Wendy C. in the mid-1970s, discussing this voluntary gender reassignment at length in a memorable Playboy interview (May 1979).

Carlson, Chester

(8 February 1906–19 September 1968)

As a teenager he worked for a printer and even acquired a printing press. After taking a degree in physics from Cal Tech, he joined the BELL Telephone laboratories, which was for decades a hot-house for significant modern inventions incidentally useful in art (computer music, transistors, information theory, etc.).

After taking a law degree, Carlson later ran the patent department of another, smaller electronics firm. In his spare time, in the late 1930s, he developed a dry method of direct image production that moved technically beyond wet processes of photography. By 1944 Carlson consigned the development of this invention to the Battelle Memorial Institute, which in turn sold the invention to the Haloid Company, which later called itself Xerox.

Whereas writers, say, exploited this new technology to make extra copies previously possible only with carbon paper or expensive photostating, artists in the 1960s exploited Xerox copying for its imperfections, typically making copies of copies until marks indigenous to the copying process obliterated an original image. The introduction of color copying increased the possibilities.

However, by the 1990s, copies in both black & white and color were so clear and clean they were superficially indistinguishable from the originals. This technical advance meant that Xerography could replace offset technology in the neat production of books and other “printed” materials.

For a while the Xerox company insisted in that word be spelled with a capital letter, even when used as a verb; but once competitors developed equally accurate technology, the preferred epithet became “photocopy.” From the historical point of view, Carlson’s principal error was not naming the process after himself. Had he enough foresight to do so, Carlson would have become a verb, much as Google did.

Carpenter, Edmund

(2 September 1922–1 July 2011)

By common consent the most artful anthropologist of his time, he connected early with MARSHALL MCLUHAN, co-editing the avant-garde interdisciplinary magazine Explorations (1952–59) and then the book selecting from its pages, Explorations in Communication (1960). As an academic, Carpenter made his subject The Inuit inhabiting Canada’s northern regions, initially compiling in Anerca (1959) their lyrical legacy. While an American teaching at the University of Toronto, he co-produced for the CBC documentary films about northern peoples. Carpenter’s single most extraordinary BOOK-ART is Eskimo (1959), which sympathetically discovers their unusual perceptual experience.

After marrying a culturally classy supportive heiress, Carpenter retired early from teaching. Her Rock Foundation supported a Houston (TX) museum collection bearing his name and several handsomely produced limited editions that wouldn’t otherwise exist. That’s exactly what culturally classy benefactors are supposed to do, especially after they hook up with world-class cultural avatars; sad it is that so few of the contemporary Medicis do.

Do not confuse this Ted with Edward Carpenter (1844–1929), a British writer avant-garde in several ways.

Carrillo, Julián

(28 January 1875–9 September 1965; b. J. C.-Trujillo)

Probably the greatest avant-garde Mexican composer, a near contemporary of CHARLES IVES, he discovered as early as 1885 that within the fourth string of his violin, the instrument he mastered, was a tone between the traditional notes of G and A. This “13TH sound,” as he called it, opened the possibility of microtonality to him, as he subsequently worked with as many as ninety-six tones to an octave. Carillo later rethought such compositional staples as rhythm, notation, and textures.

Respected in his home country, perhaps because of musical education in Europe, he became, while young, a professor of composition in the National Conserva-tory and then a kind of Inspector-General for Music in Mexico City. After a year as director of the National Conservatory, he immigrated in 1914 to NEW YORK CITY, where he organized an American Symphony Orchestra to compete with the New York Philharmonic. Invited by return to Mexico in 1918, he soon became head of the National Conservatory until his early retirement in 1924 to concentrate full-time on his own work. His principal patron was the American conductor LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI, initially with the Philadelphia Orchestra, prompting Carrillo to compose with both tones and semitones for a full orchestra. In 1930, he organized an Orquestra Sonido 13 that toured throughout Mexico, sometimes conducted by Stokowski. Carillo also patented a scheme for fifteen pianos variously tuned. Eventually built, these were exhibited at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Such radical compositional principles notwithstanding, some of this microtonal music sounds mellifluous to tonally biased ears. Unlike other avant-garde artists who die too young, sometimes because of professional neglect, Carillo lived long enough to collect deserved honors, including a 1962 commission from Stokowski, who premiered his Concertino for fraction-tone piano with an orchestra in Houston.

Carrión, Ulises

(1941– October 1989)

Mexican by birth, he published in the late 1960s in his native country two collections of short stories that Mónica de la Torre characterized as “competent but unexceptional.” After moving to Amsterdam in the early 1970s, he became active in several dimensions of avant-garde art. In addition to running a bookshop/ exhibition space called Other Books and So, he became the first great theorist of “Bookworks,” as he preferred to call them in English (over my “Book Art” or the more common “Artists’ Books.” In his classic 1975 manifesto, “The New Art of Making Books,” his simple formulation held that in the “old art the writer writes texts,” but “in the new art the writer makes books.” Exploiting the new technologies initially of mimeographing and then photocopying, implicitly forecasting such later developments as ON-DEMAND PRINTING, Carrión foresaw that the book-artist can safely ignore the cultural gatekeepers in distributing radically innovative (and possibly first rank) work. Variously active, Carrión also produced performances and videos that are recalled decades after his passing, particularly in a 2017 retrospective with nearly 350 pieces in Mexico City titled (in English) “Dear Reader. Don’t read.” I remember best when Ulises and his Dutch partner Aart van Barneveld (?-1990) visited me in ARTISTS’sOHO the day of a 1977 blackout in New York City, when he gladly accepted a plate of melting ice cream.

Carroll, Lewis

(27 January 1832–14 January 1898; b. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

A university lecturer in mathematics who was also an ordained minister, Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), probably the first children’s book to have enough cultural resonance to interest sophisticated adult readers as well. M ARTIN G ARDNER, among others, has interpreted the book as portraying more than three dimensions and similarly sophisticated themes. Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) continues the story, with a greater sense of what adults might appreciate. Another Carroll classic, The Hunting of the Snark (1876), is a highly metrical nonsense poem, written well before similar efforts by K ENNETH K OCH, among others. After you’ve read Carroll, whose complete literary works fit into a single volume, check out the editions intelligently annotated by Martin Gardner.

Carter, Elliott

(11 December 1908–5 November 2012)

Educated in English literature before he turned to music composition, Carter was, until his forties, one of many Americans working in “neoclassicism,” which was in the 1930s and 1940s an encompassing term for tonal music that acknowledged traditional forms (purportedly in reaction to both 19th-century romantic E XPRESSIONISM and SERIAL MUSIC). With his first Piano Sonata, however, Carter began to explore overtones (sounds inadvertently produced by notes in combination) and also the ways in which these overtones create their own semblance of melodies. His Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948) incorporates a musical idea that he would subsequently develop: the individuality of each instrument prevents a group of them from blending together completely. This idea was developed in a series of string quartets that rank among the strongest in contemporary music (1952, 1959, 1971, 1988–89, 1995). To enhance individuality Carter required that the performers sit farther apart than customary. Carter also introduced an innovative technique, since called “metrical modulation,” which depends upon continual changes of speed. That is to say, his rhythms are neither regular nor syncopated but continually rearticulated until the sense of perpetual rhythmic change becomes itself a major theme of the piece. He recalled in 1969, with characteristically multicultural reference, that:

Rhythmic means [had] begun to seem a very limited routine in most contemporary and older Western music. I had taken up again an interest in Indian talas, the Arabic durub, the “tempi” of Balinese gamelans (especially the accelerating Gangsar and Rangkep), and studied the newer recordings of African music, that of the Watusi in particular. At the same time, the music of the early quattrocento, of Scriabin, Ives, and the techniques described in [Henry] Cowell’s New Musical Resources also furnished me with many ideas. The result was a way of evolving rhythms and rhythmic continuities, sometimes called “metrical modulation.”

Such Carter music realizes a textual intensity that reflects the complexity of serial music without literally following Schoenbergian rules. Indeed, precisely because Carter’s best music must be reheard even to begin to be understood, it could be said that he composed not for the live concert hall but for reproductive media, at first records, then cassette tapes, and now compact disks, which enable listeners to rehear an initially evasive work as often as they wish. Of his other pieces, the most monumental is A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1977), in which Carter continually divides and redivides the instruments into smaller groups more typical of chamber ensembles. Incidentally, this interest in rearticulating pace prompted the art critic John Russell (1919–2008) for one to suggest that Carter had “speculated about the nature of time and memory as persistently as anyone since Marcel Proust and Edmund Husserl.” Though Carter continued composing into his hundreds, his late monumental birthdays were recognized with more fanfare, not to mention premieres, in England than in the United States, for reasons that are perhaps indicative of larger cultural discrepancies.

No other composer ever was as active as Carter past the age of 90, often appearing at concerts aided not by a wheelchair but a cane. Sometimes he would sit on a concert stage answering questions. Between the ages of 90 and 100 he published more than forty new works; once a centenarian, Carter completed at least twenty more.

Not unlike other composers of his generation, Carter could also be a discriminating critic, eventually collecting his best essays and talks into a single book, where the strongest single line mocks American orchestras for commissioning in the 1960s not “good, effective yet technically advanced scores [that] would be helpful in maintaining high performance standards in an orchestra … but new works that make an immediate effect with a minimum of effort and time.” Decades later, that critical assessment is still true.

Cartoons (Film)




This was the prototypical prophetic undergraduate literary magazine that was so strong it was banned from its campus, even though it served as a launching pad for several distinguished avant-garde careers. Begun at Brown University in 1923, under “the conviction that undergraduates have things to say,” Casements published not only students but established writers. Among the former were S. J. PERELMAN and Nathan Weinstein, later known as NATHANAEL WEST. In the second issue appeared a parody of D. H. Lawrence authored by Fredson T. Bowers (1905–91), later a professor renowned for his reauthentification, yes, of classic American literary texts. After some city official in Providence, RI, judged this parody “obscene and unfit for public reading,” Casements was banned from the Brown campus.

Among Casements’ editors was Gordon Keith Chalmers (1904–56), who some fourteen years later, soon after becoming president of a small Midwestern college, founded another literary magazine, The Kenyon Review (1939–69, 1979–), that, though scarcely avant-garde, incidentally publicized internationally the existence of its small sponsoring school. (Other provincial American colleges have since tried to follow Kenyon’s example with an eponymous literary magazine, less successfully.)

Some decades after Casements, later students at Brown University published a single issue of another literary magazine, Hubris (1961), which was likewise banned from campus, even though it too printed writers who later had visible literary careers. With certain avant-garde activities, with certain institutions, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Cassavetes, John

(9 December 1929–3 February 1989)

Before he became a prominent Hollywood actor and sometime director, Cassavetes independently produced an innovative feature-length film in which he didn’t appear. Shot on 16 mm. film, reportedly for less than $50,000, Shadows (1960) is an extraordinarily intimate portrait of a love affair between a white teenager and a fair-skinned black girl – decades before inter-racial romance ever became a more familiar subject. Filming in situ in NEW YORK CITY, Cassavetes directed his cameramen to move around, getting close to things and people, again well before such moves became popular. Some of the most memorable scenes were filmed in rooms with low ceilings. At the time, I remember comparing the scene of the protagonists in bed to a more formal treatment of a similar sequence in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which was made around the same time. Indicatively, when Cassavetes’s female protagonist walks down 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, the lights flicker not up in the sky but right behind her ears. A scene in which guys pick up three girls has an air of authenticity precisely because of the clumsiness of both the actors and the camera. Perhaps Cassavetes’s real achievement was making the camera more responsible than the actors for defining his characters. Even in Hollywood, he did not forget his independence, financing his own films, using hand-held cameras, allowing his releases to appear erratic and perhaps unfinished, frequently blaming corporate studios for their insufficiencies, etc.

Casseres, Benjamin De

(3 April 1873–7 December 1945)

Very much an odd man out in the history of American literature, he worked mostly for newspapers while contributing prolifically to literary magazines. Most of his books appeared from small publishers who didn’t survive very long. One poem favored by anthologists in his own time was “Moth-Terror,” which is a sterling example of his apocalyptic prosy poetry in the tradition of WILLIAM BLAKE (well before ALLEN GINSBERG):

  • I have killed the moth flying around my night-light; wingless and dead it lies upon the floor.
  • (O who will kill the great Time-Moth that eats holes in my soul and that burrows in and through my secretest veils!)
  • My will against its will, and no more will it fly at my night-light or be hidden behind the curtains that swing in the winds.
Sephardic-Jewish in ancestry, perhaps descending from the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77), his writing didn’t get support from younger Jewish-American literary publicists mostly descended from recent immigrations from Eastern Europe. In 1977, the Gordon Press reissued several earlier books in three pristine hardbacks, though they were, alas, scarcely more visible than Casseres’s initial publications. In the 2010s, Underworld Amusements both reprinted and recollected his fugitive writings in five perfectbound books.

Castelli, Leo

(4 September 1907–21 August 1999; b. Leo Krausz)

During the second half of his long life, no gallerist in America succeeded as well at selling new work by certain avant-garde artists. Born in Trieste, educated in Austria and Italy, he came to America during World War II and, though already in his forties, connected to emerging artists by helping with the NINTH STREET SHOW. Later opening an eponymous gallery in the large living room of his Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse, Castelli sponsored initial exhibitions by ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG and JASPER JOHNS before discovering the major avatars of POP ART. No gallerist was shrewder at establishing prices and reputations. Loyal to his chosen artists, Castelli nonetheless kept exhibiting some whose success was limited (e.g., Nassos Daphnis [1914–2010] and Mia Westerhund Roosen [1942]), as Castelli’s touch was hardly golden.

Relocating his gallery downtown to a larger space in SoHo in the early 1970s, in the wake of the success of the O.K. Harris Gallery founded by his sometime assistant Ivan Karp (1926–2013), Castelli sold his artists’ newest produce to collectors and institutions loyal to him at levels above other merchants of avant-garde art, rather than of, say, old masters or some exotica. In this respect, he was the principal American successor to such fabled European gallerists of avant-garde art as Ambrose Volland (1867–1939) and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884–1979).

At 420 W. Broadway, along ARTISTS’sOHO’s main drag, his eponymous gallery became the anchor that newcomers to SoHo visited first. Once I suggested that a biography of an art dealer could not be written, because too many of their dealings were kept secret; but Annie Cohen-Solal (1948), a French writer once on a diplomatic mission in New York City, produced Leo and His Circle (2010), which I found credible.

Castle, James

(24 September 1899–24 October 1977)

Born deaf in southwestern Idaho, he resisted education for the disabled, preferring instead to draw on miscellaneous paper. As his family was urged to forbid him art supplies until he could speak or at least use sign language, young Castle retreated daily into the forest or the second story of a family ice house. Innately resourceful, he made ink from stove soot and saliva and pens from sharpened twigs, in addition to thread and yarn for binding his images into unique books. When his family later offered him professional art supplies, he still preferred his informal materials, creating hundreds of objects we would now identify as epitomizing BOOK ART. Since Castle never used titles, they are currently known by images on their covers, realizing OUTSIDER ART at its most innocent and yet intelligent.

Some of Castle’s sequential pictures tell stories as visual narratives or in sophisticated associational ways. He used words and numbers eccentrically, even redoing calendars so that months may have only two weeks, a week ten days, and a year almost four hundred days. He occasionally incorporated images and papers found in the family trash, reinventing modernist COLLAGE in his isolation. Tom Trusky (1944–2009), a University of Idaho professor, wrote that Castle “relentlessly explores and exploits possibilities of the codex format, frequently altering and expanding the definition of what a book is in profound and witty ways.” Aside from trips to visit relatives in eastern Oregon perhaps 75 miles away, he lived in Idaho and never learned to speak. After his death, his relatives found caches of work that he had hidden away on family property. Twenty-five years later, institutions outside not only his native Idaho but the USA sponsored exhibitions of his work. One in Madrid, in 2011, came with a thick appreciative catalog.


Unfortunate it is that once the name of an artist, even if his or her work was once avant-garde, becomes familiar with people scarcely interested in art, then he or she often comes to prefer the company and culture of other celebrities over fellow artists and thus to learn more for their professional lives from other celebrities, especially about how to be a celebrity, than from their artistic colleagues. Otherwise, the problems with celebrity for the artist are, that after obtaining it, her or his work usually declines, often because of remunerative commissions reflecting sponsor’s designs over the artist’s purposes, and then that celebrity cannot be tenured, often disintegrating well before the artist’s death, in a negative fall that can’t be controlled or reversed. Consider that among the artists once featured on the cover of TIM E magazine since 1923, surely a measure of highest public “classy” fame in, were the painters Thomas Hart Benton, Augustus John, and Andrew Wyeth; the architects Wallace Harrison, Richard Neutra, and Edward D. Stone; the jazz musicians Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington; and the composers Sergei Prokofiev and David Byrne. Q. E. D.

Céline, Louis-Ferdinand

(27 May 1894–1 July 1961; b. L-F. Auguste Destouches)

Céline was a notable French writer and, by all reports, a humane doctor, in spite of his disagreeable Fascist politics and bursts of inexcusable anti-Semitism. Seriously wounded in the head during World War I, he suffered for the rest of his life from vertigo, chronic migraine, partial paralysis of his right arm, and a constant buzz in his ears. Out of this deranged mentality, he concocted a literary style of unprecedented splenetic frustration and despair, comic in its excesses, whose truest subject is not society but the contents of his damaged head:

My great rival is music, it sticks in the bottom of my ears and rots … it never stops scolding … it dazes me with blasts of the trombone, it keeps on day and night. I’ve got every noise in nature, from the flute to Niagara Falls …. Wherever I go, I’ve got drums with me and an avalanche of trom-bones … for weeks on end I play the triangle …. On the bugle I can’t be beat. I still have my own private birdhouse complete with three thousand five hundred and seven birds that will never calm down. I am the organs of the Universe.

As his later translator Ralph Manheim (1907–92) points out, the slight innovation of three dots, sometimes called ellipses, “which so infuriated academic critics at the time … mark the incompleteness, the abruptness, the sudden shifts of direction characteristic of everyday speech.” Those who can read his Parisian slang, itself new to French literature in his time, testify that Céline’s prose is even more extraordinary in the original.

Cendrars, Blaise

(1 September 1887–21 January 1961; b. Frédéric-Louis Sauser)

Born in Switzerland of a Scottish mother, Cendrars wrote in French mostly about his mercurial cosmopolitan life. Creating the persona of himself as a man of action, he concocted a propulsive, rhythmically abrupt literary style that informed both his poetry and his prose. To put it differently, self-possessed and up-to-date, he made much, in style as well as content, of the mania of being so self-possessed and up-to-date. “I have deciphered all the confused texts of the wheels and I have assembled the scattered elements of a most violent beauty/That I control/And which compels me,” he writes in La Prose du Transsibérien et la Petite Jehanne de France.

Remarkably generous in collaborating with colleagues, he produced GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE and SONIA DELAUNEY an edition of Transsibérien (1913), which is commonly regarded among the monuments of modern literary book-art. Printed in an accordion format, over 6 feet tall when unfolded upwise, its continuous vertical imagery becomes a counterpoint to Cendrars’s continuous text whose multiple fonts compliment Delaunay’s free use of many colors. Acclaimed at the time, this book has been inferiorly reproduced often.

Cercle Et Carré

(1929–30; 1936–43)

Though a 1930 Parisian exhibition with this title found little audience at the time, it became legendary, thanks to a three-shot magazine with the same name and then the later writings of MICHEL SEUPHOR, an enthusiast who later portrayed it as more successful than it actually was. With 130 works by many artists, it tried with numbers to establish credibility for geometric abstraction epitomized by the shapes in its title, all in opposition to SURREALISM then dominant in Paris.

Among the featured artists were PIET MONDRIAN, then already in his mid-fifties, ROBERT DELAUNAY and MOHOLY-NAGY. As another theme was the international range of such art, the exhibition included Germans, Russians, Poles, Italians, another Hungarian, a Catalan, a Dane, a Czech, an American, a Dominican, an Alsatian, and an Icelander.

In its wake came another group calling itself Abstraction-Création that attracted more members, including NAUM GABO, BARBARA HEPWORTH, and JOSEF ALBERS. This too became the title of another French-language magazine (1931–36).

Participating in both exhibitions was JOAQUIN TORRES-GARCIA, who, when he returned to his native Uruguay, published in Montevideo in Spanish and French yet another art magazine titled Círculo y Cuadrado

(1936–43; though not between 1939 and 1942) with the same C&C logo, natch.

Chadabe, Joel

(12 December 1938)

A certified composer, with an MM from Yale University, he ventured early into electronic music, directing an E. M. Studio at SUNY-Albany in 1967, soon afterwards building with ROBERT MOOG a pioneering Coordinated Electronic Music Studio. He later developed early software for composing wholly on a computer. Chadabe also authored an early article on “The Voltage-Controlled Synthesizer” (1975) and the book Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music (1996). Enterprising as well, Chadabe founded Intelligent Music (1983), a not nonprofit, initially to “distribute software and hardware for interactive composing,” and in 2012 an Electronic Music Foundation in part to publish ebooks about avant-garde music. Curiously perhaps, Chadabe and TED NELSON, both culturally classy computer explorers, went simultaneously to the same Manhattan day high school.

Chagall, Marc

(7 July 1887–28 March 1985; b. Moishe Shagalov)

What to say? From the beginning of his career he participated in various phases of modernism without dominating or losing his SIGNATURE of fantasies at once audacious and charming. Two stylistic tricks were situating his subjects in mid-air and recoloring them. Though a Russian who became a Frenchman, he wisely refused to join Parisian SURREALISM, which invited him, as perhaps did other recruiting art groups, and thus survived its and their decline. PICASSO reportedly judged that Chagall understood color almost as well as MATISSSE.

Overcoming a limited imagination, Chagall worked in many media, including stained glass, murals, tapestries, illustrated books, ceramics, and stage sets. At the last, he especially excelled. Glib “humanists” praise his anthropomorphic semblances. Widely admired for his “Jewish art,” Chagall nonetheless violated the proscription against producing graven images, which may or may not be unacceptable. So remarkable was his redoing the interior of the Moscow Jewish Theater late in 1920 that it alone became the subject of a 1992 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. One critical question is whether anything he produced after departing Russia in 1922 was as innovative and/or substantial? Unusually adept at surviving, Chagall nonetheless prospered into his late nineties. Enough said?

Chamberlain, John

(16 April 1927–21 December 2011)

Taking from D AVID S MITH a taste for industrial materials and a competence in welding, Chamberlain made sculptures composed initially of iron pipes and then of crushed automobile parts, usually preserving their original industrial colors. Even with materials so culturally declassé, he realized formal qualities rather than social comment. Reflecting DE KOONING’s interpretation of C UBISM In their compositional syntax of colliding planes, his sculptures also epitomize ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM in metal. DONALD JUDD credits Chamberlain in making color an issue in contemporary sculpture. Though he later worked with other materials, including urethane and fiberglass, and then galvanized steel and aluminum, nothing else he ever did was quite as stunning and innovative as his “junk sculpture.”

Charlip, Remy

(10 January 1929–14 August 2012; b. Abraham Remy C.)

A superior man of (minor?) arts, Charlip had a rich avant-garde career, initially as a founding member of the MERCE CUMNNINGHAM Dance Company (until dismissed for becoming prematurely bald) and then as an alternative choreographer whose specialty during the 1960s was “air mail dances.” For these he sent instructions to a dance company that would execute them without his participation, much as musicians would perform a distant composer’s score.

Charlip later founded a children’s theater company called the Paper Bag Players, taught kindertheater at American universities, and both wrote and illustrated marvelously different children’s books that have remained in print. From the last, my colleague the fictioner Johannah Rodgers (1968) particularly recommends Charlip’s Where Is Everybody (1957), It Looks like Snow (1957), Thirteen (with Jerry Joyner, 1975), My Very Own Special Particular Private and Special Cat (1963), and, especially Arm in Arm: A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia (1979). She adds, “Charlip was at the vanguard of understanding the importance of multiple media to reading practices. I also think he had a very forward-thinking understanding of what literacy meant and what literacy education could be.”

Chicago, Judy

(20 July 1939; b. J. Sylvia Cohen, later Gerowitz)

Her monumental feminist installation, The Dinner Party (1979), identified and represented visually 1,038 women from various historical periods. 999 of them are named on luminous porcelain floor tiles, while thirty-nine honorees are represented at the dinner table itself with elaborate needlepoint placemats reflecting techniques from the period in which each woman lived. Her art reflected women’s domestic labor in needlework, ceramics, china painting, and vulva imagery. Comparable in form, scale, and thrust to Picasso’s Guernica, The Dinner Party toured and became the subject of a commercially published book before being reinstalled decades later at the Brooklyn Museum. As a feminist art avatar Chicago imagined bigger. Thanks to her celebrity, commercial publishers produced slick coffee-table books about her art.

Her principal sequel book, Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1993), is less successful, perhaps because less initiatory and less personal.

Chicherin, Aleksei Nikolaevich

(February 1889–20 October 1960)

Initially F UTURIST in his orientation, Chicherin became the founder and theoretician of Russian Literary Constructivism in the early 1920s, attempting to apply the principles of C ONSTRUCTIVISM (practical application of avant-garde achievements in the visual arts to design and architecture) within the literary sphere. The main principle was “maximal concentration of function on units of the construction” (“We Know,” 1922). His most significant works are Fluks (1922), in which he introduced a system of phonetic transcription and diacritical marks to convey the precise features of idiolect, and his contributions to the important Constructivist collection Change of All (1924). His works in Change of All initially employ a transcription like those in Fluks, which are designed to ensure the accurate performance of a compact text, but step by step the recitation cues become more elaborate, resembling musical notation, while the text becomes briefer. In the final stages of this development, verbal elements give way entirely to geometric figures that can be interpreted symbolically. Chicherin’s booklet Kan-Fun (1926) elaborates on his theories of Constructivist functionalism. However, a split developed between Chicherin and his less radical, more practical colleagues in Literary CONSTRUCTIVISM, who expelled him from their association in 1924. He spent the latter part of his life quietly working as a book designer.

Childs, Lucinda

(26 June 1940)

Noted throughout her career for her cool but dramatic performing presence, Childs contributed to the innovative spirit of the J UDSON D ANCE T HEATER. In Carnation (1964), she made surprising use of props, such as a colander that she placed on her head like a weird hat and foam hair curlers and sponges that she both stuffed into her mouth and attached to her colander-hat. Her later choreography reflects M INIMALISM. Childs collaborated with P HILIP G LASS and R OBERT W ILSON on the classic original production of Glass’s opera, Einstein on the Beach, in 1976. In the evening-length Dance (1979, in a collaboration of choreography with music by Glass and film and decor by S OL L E W ITT, eight dancers seem to be in perpetual motion as they sweep through the space. In technically based but minimally ranged movements that seem highly repetitious but are full of subtle changes, their carriage is elegant, their legs extend and point (but do not lift high), and they move buoyantly (but close to the ground, eschewing, say, spectacular leaps).

Chirico, Giorgio De

(10 July 1888–20 November 1978)

Born in Greece of Italian parents, he studied engineering in Athens and Munich before going to Paris, where he met artists gathered around GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE. His most memorable paintings were produced from 1909 to 1919. Coming to Italy in 1915 for military service, for which he was judged unfit, he went back to a Paris where his sometime admirer Apollinaire was no longer present.

After 1920 or so he developed a romantic neoclassism that in its other worldliness resembled Surrealism, but was never so popular. In revenge perhaps but also to make money, he produced backdated paintings that resembled his earlier more successful art while protesting that other lesser paintings with his name were forgeries. He also wrote a single novel, Hebdomeros (1929), as well as distinguished criticism and experimental prose. His career is perhaps too rich a subject for a perfunctory biographer.

His brother, who called himself ALBERTO SAVINIO, was a POLYARTIST who produced writing, painting, and even music compositions that are still remembered.

Chopin, Henri

(18 June 1922–3 January 2008)

A Frenchman who emigrated to England in 1968, this Chopin published for several years a challenging periodical titled simply Ou (1964–74), which included a record, of mostly TEXT-SOUND, along with printed texts. His own compositions display hysterical articulations and overlapping speech-sounds, thanks to elementary MULTITRACKING; they are, by common consent, unforgettable.

His 1979 book-length history of sound poetry suffers from an egocentrism that makes it no more reliable as criticism than as history (see Claudia Reeder’s review in my anthology Aural Literature Criticism [1981]). Nonetheless, Poèsie sonore Internationale came with two audiocassettes containing works by M ICHEL S EUPHOR, F RANÇOIS D UFRÊNE, and B ERNARD H EIDSIECK, among others, whose audio realizations were then unavailable elsewhere (and perhaps still are).

Christmas Truce

(December 1914; in German, Weihnachtsfrieden; in French, Trêve de Noël)

This great collective PERFORMANCE occurred near the beginning of World War I when roughly 100,000 German and British troops spontaneously agreed not to fight. Instead, they sang carols, exchanged Christmas gifts, perhaps played soccer against each, etc., as well they could, thanks to a fortunate press embargo, until their generals, stationed far away, instructed them to return to killing each other, which, nearly all Christian, they were naturally reluctant to do.

One dozen years later, a World War I veteran, then a British parliamentarian, imagined that if only the young solders could have kept their essentially anarchist performance going, repudiating their commanders, they could have changed not only World War I but set a beneficial precedent for modern history. Silent Night (2001) is a great appreciation by the major American literary historian Stanley Weintraub (1929). What isn’t commonly celebrated as a great work of innovative Folk Art, with such a large number of participating performers, should be.


(13 June 1935; b. C. Vladimirov Javacheff)

Born in Bulgaria, Christo emigrated first to Paris, where he took a wife, Jeanne-Claude (1935–2009; b. J.-C. Denat de Guillebon), whose collaborative support was envied by other artists and their spouses, and then to New York. His original sculptural idea, in the late 1950s, involved wrapping familiar objects in cloth, initially, I suppose, to give them esthetic value by destroying their original identity. He began with small objects before wrapping a wheelchair, a motorcycle, and then a small car. Instead of moving onto other ideas, Christo escalated his wrapping schemes to monumental and, at times, comic proportions, encasing at various times an exhibition space in Berne, Switzerland, a section of Australian coast, islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Reichstag in BERLIN; and most famously perhaps, in Manhattan’s Central Park in February 2005, each of them for a limited length of time. Temporary and theatrical, such work involved a large number of people.

In my own experience, nothing in my hometown had the temporary enhancing presence of over seven thousand tall orange curtains, rearticulating the familiar landscape with a wealth of new images, until they were dismantled, best remembered now with videotapes or large-format picture books. The Gates, as it was called, differed as sculpture in that spectators were invited to walk through and around them for two glorious weeks in an otherwise bleak winter. Self-financing, Christo sold drawings and relics, incidentally giving the official date(s) of this project as “1979–2005,” to acknowledge how long it took for the proposal to be realized. Though several other public artists have promised to do as well again by NEW YORK CITY, which can be a “tough space,” none has come close.

Thinking big, not only with his structures but about their “gallery,” Christo also built a fence running 24 miles long in California in 1976. His installation of hundreds of oversize umbrellas in Southern California and Japan (1991) became notorious, particularly after several umbrellas toppled during storms, endangering local populations. Though some of his projects were unrealized, Christo’s proposals, presented in drawings, benefitted from arriving in the wake of CONCEPTUAL ART. Later works were customarily credited to “Christo and Jeanne-Claude.”


This is my epithet, not commonly heard, for artists who assume positions within institutions, such as universities or foundations, where they gain sufficient power to befriend more successful colleagues with the offers of lectures, exhibitions, publications, etc. However, for these artist-functionaries such generosity isn’t entirely eleemosynary if they expect favors in return.

Such a power-hungry artist becomes a chump when their benefactors don’t reciprocate. Consider, for example, a minor literary agent ensconced high in a university whose book press has published certain poets, which has sponsored conferences featuring them and their conspiring, etc. Yet his beneficiaries never reciprocated with any benefit for their generous host. Or the composer who invites performing musicians to his university, even if they scarcely, if ever, play his compositions. Or the professor of painting who invites museum curators who never even tokenly exhibit the painter’s canvases.

One wrinkle on this theme is the foundation official who has independently accomplished indubitably major work but never for his beneficiaries who, when they invite him, get lesser efforts. That raises the question of who’s chumping whom?

About such hidden history more can no doubt be written, especially with the addition of real names.


(c. 1925)

Invented by the French physicist Dr. Henri Chrétien (1879–1956), this is the name for a film projection system that produces a far wider image than that of conventional film. Thirty-five-millimeter film is shot with an anamorphic lens that horizontally squeezes the wider image into the standard film ratios. To be seen properly, this compressed image must then be projected through a compensating lens that extends it horizontally. Cinemascope was first used commercially for The Robe (1953) and contributes, in my opinion, to the excellence and character of such visually spectacular films as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. When shown on television or videotapes, such films generally are visually compromised, their sides lost from view, unless reproduced in the so-called letterbox format with their tops and bottoms blackened.


(c. 1938)

Invented by Fred Waller (1886–1954), this is the name for a three-screen projection system whose images were recorded by three synchronized cameras. The synchronized films were then projected with their seams aligned onto a curvilinear screen that filled the audience’s horizontal vision. This Is Cinerama (1952) was one of the great movie going experiences of my youth, establishing my taste for physically expanded film. The success of that film prompted the use of C INEMA S COPE, which offered the economic advantage of requiring only one projector at the esthetic cost of a flatter, less extended image; but every time I remember any multiple projection, I wish that I could see This Is Cinerama again. It is unfortunate that it is no longer available, as some of its esthetic terrain was appropriated by more recent developments such as IMAX.

Cirque De Soleil


While most circuses are kitchy, the genre has been a fertile PERFORMANCE art susceptible to innovation. The great departure of the most famous American circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (1918–2017), came from the employment of elephants, many of them, some of them more intelligent than others, all of whom incidentally made the smaller bears favored, say, by the smaller Russian circuses look slight. Indicatively, not only were RB&B pachyderms featured in logos but they became the co-stars for GEORGE BALANCHINE’s single most innovative choreography, Circus Polka (1942) for fifty ballerinas and fifty elephants. The simultaneous use of three stages, called “three rings,” supported RB&B’s claim to be “the greatest show on earth.” As indeed it was –for decades.

More recently, none could equal, though some tried to rival, Cirque de Soleil, a French-Canadian group that began on the streets of Quebec province before eventually moving to LAS VEGAS, where they found a corporate patron who employed them regularly, and built theaters especially for them so they could perform simultaneously in more than one venue. Eventually Cirque de Soleil toured their brand around the world.

Among the more subtle departures are abolishing the ringmaster that earlier circuses used as a master of ceremonies, if not a guide with his stentorian introductions. Cirque de Soleil retired as well animals, freaks, and unnecessary dangers by having trapeze artists, say, perform with harnesses visibly attached to their bodies. Performers, not stagehands, change props. Technologically sophisticated is the use of both lights and sounds. Rarely are their performances vulgar.

Oddly, the story of how an innovative performance group became a billion-dollar company hasn’t yet been fully documented.

Citroen, Paul

(15 December 1896–13 March 1983)

While many artists have made PHOTOMONTAGES that pieced together fragments from different sources within a single frame, the most influential masterpiece was Paul Citroen’s Metropolis (1923), which includes shots of many tall buildings laid side and side to establish the verticality and density typical of the modern city. As only a bit of sky is visible at the top, another theme of Metropolis (1923) is diminishing the presence of Nature. So immediately respected was this Citroen image, it was reprinted widely at the time in both magazines and books, also influencing visibly Fritz Lang’s 1926 film with the same name, as well as such paintings such as Downtown (c. 1925) by the American Jan Matulka (1890–1972) and Broadway (c. 1935) by Mark Tobey (1890–1976). Citroen, a Dutch Jew born and raised in BERLIN, made variations, all apparently with the same title. Decades later, his photomontage became a kind of logo for audio portraits of the world’s cities, likewise collectively called Metropolis, produced by various individual artists for Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

If an exemplar establishes the validity of a new art form, this is it. Closest are the pre-1925 photomontages by JOHN HEARTFIELD, who, as a Communist political critic, later favored topical subjects; for his Nazis did not survive past World War II as well as Citroen’s vertical Metropolis has. Yet far, far away from arts history are the simple photomontages usually appearing in advertisements.

Čiurlionis, Mikalojus

(10 September 1875–10 April 1911)

A trained Lithuanian composer who worked in Warsaw as a choral conductor from 1902 to 1909 and whose Symbolist music resembles that of his contemporary A LEXANDER S CRIABIN, Ĉiurlionis developed theories of “tonal ground formation” that presaged SERIAL music. Clearly a proto -POLYARTIST, he later became a painter of cosmic, Symbolist landscapes, often in series, with such musical titles as Sonata of the Stars and Prelude and Fugue. Sea Sonata (1908–09), for instance, has panels with titles such as “Allegro,” “Andante,” and “Finale.” The third number (1914) of the St. Petersburg magazine Apollon, as well as a 1961 issue of the Brooklyn journal Lituanus (Vol. 7, no. 2), were entirely devoted to the composer-painter who, like K ANDINSKY, explored analogies between the two arts. One principal scholar on Ĉiurlionis has been Vytautas Landsbergis (1932), who, after editing his letters, writing monographs, and introducing his visual art, became president of Lithuania in 1990. Unfortunately, Ĉiurlionis himself died young of tuberculosis.

Clair, René

(11 November 1898–15 March 1981; b. René-Lucien Chomette)

He was among the few involved with experimental short films to have a long filmmaking career, not only in his native France but also later in England and America. Whereas his collaborators in the classic short Entr’acte (1924) –ERIK SATIE, FRANCIS PICABIA, MARCEL DUCHAMP, MAN RAY, among others –later made significant visual art and music, Clair made longer films, some of which reflect his avant-garde origins; others, not. During World War II, he even worked in Hollywood, which at least didn’t destroy him, as it did NATHANAEL WEST, among other avant-garde figures, before Clair returned to his native France.

Unlike other American veteran filmmakers, both immigrants and native-born, Clair published prose –his journalism and a novel as well as books with his own screenplays and prefaces. Which Clair works are strongest –what’s most likely to be remembered –is an open question.

Close, Chuck

(5 July 1940; b. Charles Thomas C.)

Extending the familiar tradition of human portraiture, Close has created innovative paintings that depend upon making faces devoid of expression very large, say 9 by 7 feet, and thus capturing a wealth of facial detail unavailable even to conventional photography. Initially working in black and white before turning to color, he nonetheless kept his method of subjecting a photograph to a grid of varying light and dark areas that were then transferred to canvas. His familiar subject matter notwithstanding, he developed alternative means of producing a portrait with dots (often sprayed through a grid) and continuous tones (where each color in an image is a single color).

Especially in prints, watercolors, and pastels, Close customarily reveals his alternative processes by leaving the grid visible. Sometimes his blurred images resemble computer printouts, increasing the impression of impersonality. Though working with sizes classically conducive to heroic sentiment, Close still presents individuals objectively. Severely crippled by a spinal-artery collapse in his late forties, he later made gridportraits with brighter colors and with less realistic images.

Coburn, Alvin Langdon

(11 June 1882–23 November 1966)

As a Boston native who became an Englishman, he was a pioneering photographer at the beginning of the 20th century, famed mostly for his respectful portraits of prominent artists and writers. His more remarkable photographs, however, portrayed overlapping faces thanks to a contraption made around 1916 of three mirrors clamped together. EZRA POUND, one of the first subjects for these representationally radical portraits, called them Vortographs reflecting VORTICISM that was prominent in England at the time. Though the first great photography gallerist ALFRED STIEGLITZ refused to exhibit Coburn’s departure, which he stopped producing after only a few dozen examples, others did, crediting him with inventing photographs that reflected painterly cubism and thus approached abstraction. Nonetheless, by 1930, as Coburn sadly lost interest in photography, he destroyed several thousand glass and film negatives.

Cocteau, Jean

(5 July 1889–11 October 1963)

Cocteau was one of those figures who flirt with the avant-garde without ever quite influencing or joining it, who championed certain innovative art without actually making any, perhaps because he was too self-conscious of his early CELEBRITY to be courageously radical, mostly because he simply lacked originality while aspiring to be fashionable. As he once told F RANCIS P ICABIA, “You are the extreme left, I am the extreme right.” Among his professional associates at various times in his career were SERGEI DHAGHILEV, PABLO PICASSO, GERTRUDE STEIN, ERIK SATIE, IGOR STRAVINSKY, and KENNETH ANGER.

As a slick POLYARTIST who published his first book of poems while still a teenager, Cocteau wrote plays, scripted scenarios, designed theatrical sets, and directed films, in addition to exhibiting drawings that, in L UCY R. L IPPARD’s phrases, “remained firmly Picassoid, dry, coquettish, over-refined, and elegant.” Though he was renowned when alive, posterity defeated his work. Of all his efforts, his film La Belle et la Bête (1946, Beauty and the Beast) is most likely to survive, if any at all.

In his pretentious compromises, as well as his position in French culture, Cocteau very much resembled his fellow Parisian, the composer P IERRE B OULEZ.

Coleman, Ornette

(9 March 1930–11 June 2015)

Born in Texas, self-taught as a musician, Coleman around 1960 challenged the world of JAZZ music much as I GOR S TRAVINSKY did in classical music decades before. Coleman’s innovation was instrumental independence, which is to say that the soloist performs independently of any preassigned harmonic scheme, and then that everyone in his group performs with scant acknowledgment of the percussionist’s beat. Called “free jazz,” Coleman’s own improvisations, mostly on the alto saxophone, gained a strong following in New York in the’60s and Europe in the’70s. In addition to performing on the violin and trumpet, he composed extended works for classical ensembles.


(c. 1910)

The earliest fine-art examples of collage depended upon the incorporation of real objects, such as bits of newspaper or other mass-produced images, into a picture’s field, the objects at once contributing to the image and yet through difference suggesting another dimension of experience. One visual theme was perceiving the difference between pasted object and material surface. Initiated by C UBISTS, the compositional principle was extended by F UTURISTS, D ADAISTS, and S URREALISTS, always in ways typical of each. Collage was, by many measures, the most popular artistic innovation of early 20th-century art. Later collages depended upon using separate images for ironic juxtapositions; others functioned to expand the imagery available to art. The collage principle influenced work in other arts, including sculpture, where ASSEMBLAGE is three-dimensional collage; PHOTOMONTAGE; music, where the post-World War II development of audio-tape facilitated the mixing of dissimilar sounds; and VIDEO, even though that last art did not arise until the late 1960s. Max Ernst’s La femme 100 fetes (1932) is a book-length narrative composed of collages. The Czech artist J IRÍ K OLÀ R (whose last name is pronounced to sound like “collage”) has extended the compositional principle, often in ironic ways, to works he calls “crumplage,” “rollage,” “intercollage,” “prollage,” “chiasmage,” and “anti-collage.” Another innovation in this tradition is the composer M AURICIO K AGEL’s “Metacollage,” where all the materials for his mix come from a single source (e.g., Beethoven’s music, for example, or 19th-century German culture). I judge that collage, as an easily adopted innovation, became dead by the 1960s, which is to say that, although collages continued to appear, none of them, especially in visual art, were strikingly original or excellent.

A contrary interpretation of collage sees it as not early modernist, as I do, but proto-postmodernist:

Unlike the works of modernism proper, it is an assault on the integrity of the work of art in that it brings foreign materials into the space previously reserved for painting on the canvas. Since these materials include such things as newspaper clippings, collage thus forges a line between ‘high’ art and mass culture.

This comes from The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism [1995], which was on publication self-consciously up-to-date.

Collectors, Avant-Garde

While people collecting avant-garde paintings are plentiful, rare are the individuals who compile notable, discriminating, usually unique gatherings of avant-garde materials in the other arts. Most prominent among those for musical manuscripts was PAUL SACHER, already acknowledged here. For kinetic sculptures, few rivaled David Bermant (1919–2000), a developer of retail malls who incidentally placed some of his holdings in them.

For FLUXUS scores, objects, and other ephemera, the greatest collectors were Lila and Gilbert Silverman, a Detroit real-estate developer. By contrast, the collection of Francesco Conz (1935–2010), an Italian based in Asolo and then Verona, included much FLUXUS along with VISUAL POETRY, LETTRISM, and VIENNA ACTIONISM.

Another collection, not only of Fluxus but also of Happenings documents, was amassed by Hanns Sohm (1921–99), a suburban Stuttgart dentist, who donated it to a local Staatsgalerie. As its website claims, “As these were objects which no-one else bothered to keep, Sohm can be said to have preserved this culture almost single-handedly.” Martin Sackner (1931), a Miami (FL) physician and inventor, and his wife Ruth (1936–2005) gathered over 75,000 objects relating to CONCRETE and visual poetries.

Discriminating collectors are special people, as scarce as discriminating critics, and perhaps much like artists in their passionate focus. When the Italian-German collector of avant-garde materials Egidio Marzona (1944) visited my SoHo studio in the 1990s, he looked at my library and estimated 17,000 books. When I asked how he derived that number, which was news to me, he replied, “I have 40,000.” Dispute I couldn’t. When the director of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas visited the Sackners, he noticed many books he had never seen before, implicitly measuring their collection’s distinction.

Marvin Sackner tells the illustrative story of his visiting Sohm in the latter’s home/office/archive. He invited Sackner to select from the dentist’s collection any duplicates that Sackner didn’t already have. While Sohm attended to a patient, Sackner selected several items. When he eventually showed his choices to Sohm, the latter rebuked Sacker by identifying which ones were already in Sackner’s collection whose inventory Sohm had apparently memorized. Normal people scarcely know what’s in their closets.

Colombo, John Robert

(24 March 1936)

Very much a strong man both inside and outside within Canadian literature, a prolific writer and editor whose achievements are so plentiful they are foolishly taken for granted in his native country, Colombo has worked with a variety of unusual poetic strategies. His first books were found poetry, each dependent upon making art from esoteric texts found in his unusually wide reading; his term at the time was “redeemed prose.” The Canadian critic Douglas Barbour (1940) writes that Colombo’s The Great Cities of Antiquity (1979):

Is a collection of found poems in a dizzying variety of modes, based on entries in the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Written in 1969, it is possibly Colombo’s most extreme collage, a veritable textbook on the many formal experiments of modern and post-modern poetry.

Finding language, rather than creating it, has been a fertile idea for new poetry into the 21st century. Of the poems written, by contrast, out of Colombo’s own head, consider the excellence of “Secret Wants” in Neo Poems (1971).

A full-time booksmith, writing, and editing well over two hundred volumes for publishers both large and small (no false snob he), Colombo has also collaborated on literary translations from several languages and edited several important anthologies of poetry and of paranormal experience, including New Direction in Canadian Poetry (1970, perhaps the only English language anthology of avant-garde poetries aimed at high school students). In addition, he compiled such pioneering culturally patriotic compendia as Colombo’s Canadian Quotations (1994), Colombo’s Canadian References (1976), Colombo’s Book of Canada (1978), and The Dictionary of Canadian Quotations (1991), which all have the distinction of being books that nobody else could create, even if they tried. That’s one reason why they’ve survived decades later. One mark of his anthologies is bookish distance, perhaps reflecting the Olympian influence of his teacher NORTHROP FRYE, as distinct from journalistic topicality.

Colombo’s single most marvelous book is likewise unique – Self-Schrift (1999), which contains, as he puts it, “commentaries –anecdotes, insights, appreciations, criticisms, ideas, and theories –about the 136 books that he has written, compiled, or translated over the years.” Why invite others, the book implies, when a prolific author can honor himself? Contagiously readable, at once proud and modest, it will become, I suspect, a model for similarly professional autobiographies by authors fortunate enough to be prolific. In reviewing The Collected Poems of John Robert Colombo (2005), three volumes that gather a rich assortment of verbal departures, I discovered a major unintentional poem within the book’s table of contents, which, incidentally, became a “found” text that no one else could have written. Innately irrepressiable, he has in the 21st century self-published annual collections of his latest writing, incidentally setting a good example for other veteran writers overcoming what he charmingly dubs “a publishing block.”

Colon, Fleury

(9 September 1905–21 May 1964)

This enigmatic French architect carried reduction-ist architectural doctrines to new heights by isolating the decorative finial, or épi, that usually adorns the top of a gable, canopy, or pinnacle in French architecture, thus making the finial his ultimate form. Educated at L’École d’Architecture (Paris), Colon was one of many gifted graduates employed in the construction of the Maginot Line. Eager for exciting architectural challenges in postwar Paris, Colon was drawn to Isidore Isou’s Lettriste ideology wherein art, according to Isou, has two characteristic phases: amplic (expansion) and “chiseling” (deconstruction). Colon saw Isou’s doctrine as further justification of his own theory to dismiss traditional structure and to focus solely on the finial. But the ideological tryst was shortlived. In a fierce cafe debate, Colon accused Isidore Isou (1924–2007) of expanding his ego and nothing else. Isou’s followers retaliated by accusing Colon of “intention to collaborate” with the Vichy Government, citing his failed proposal to design train station shelters shaped like finials.

Bruised by the politics of L ETTRISM, the architect manqué relocated to Montreal in 1950 and changed his name to Regarder Plus (To Look Further). Colon acquired financiers, and established an artistic commune in the wilderness northwest of Montreal, wherein his application of the finial was finally realized. Although similar in some regards to R. B UCKMINSTER F ULLER’s Dymaxion Deployment Unit, Colon’s Max Épi Maison (MÉM) was finial-shaped, stood 25 feet high, and was made of pewter. This commune consisted of sixteen of these spire-like MÉMs standing in a teepee-like cluster on the edge of a meadow. Amidst the dense Canadian forest and without the artificial light of the city, Colon became enamored with the stars and turned MÉM 3, his studio, into an observatory complete with telescope. Convinced he could see Sputnik in orbit above the tops of the pines, Colon hurled himself into the most peculiar of his finial-related obsessions: Aeronautics. Blueprints and sketches for hundreds of finial-shaped missiles and rockets adorned the inside of his studio/observatory. Colon wrote volumes of letters petitioning the Canadian Space & Aeronautics Commission (CSAC) with the hope of gaining funding for the finial’s aerodynamic possibilities. Small finial-fuselage test models were built from scraps of pewter while Colon anxiously awaited access to CSAC’s wind tunnels. But his pleas for assistance met with bureaucratic indifference. The letters slowed to a trickle.

Colon cloistered himself inside his MÉM developing a morose dementia for the night sky. It was clear, even to the commune, that Colon’s cause was failing. Death can be impressive, even to the avant-garde, and Colon’s demise was no less ironic. Alarmed commune members looked on as the aging architect, with the intention of cleaning his telescope lens, scaled the MÉM Observatory using a new system of ropes and pulleys. A pulley snapped, and Colon fell, impaling himself on a small doghouse shaped like a finial.

Color-Field Painting

(c. 1950)

The theme was using color apart from drawing, apart from shape and shading, until it acquires a purely visual status. However, in contrast to monochromic painting, most color-field work involves at least two colors, which prompt surprising retinal responses, such as ambiguous figure-ground reversals, usually along the sharply delineated border between the colors. The last fact prompted the epithet “hard-edge abstraction,” which is also used to describe this style of painting. One master was ELLSWORTH KELLY, who was also among the first to paint on nonrectangular canvases. Since some post-World War II color-field painters had worked in camouflage during the War, their military experience must have taught them strategic tricks about color relationships that afterwards were turned to esthetic uses. In my collection is a SUZAN FRECON painting, in which a deeply repainted black rectangle sits in the center of a very white larger canvas. Stand at least 14 feet away from this work and stare at it intently, and you will observe that the black rectangle starts to shimmer. (And the shimmering won’t stop!)

Coltrane, John

(23 September 1926–17 July 1967)

Working out of a jazz tradition, he assimilated an interest, more typical of modernist classical music, in alternative tonalities, beginning with his close study from the 1950s of NICOLAS SLONIMSKY’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947), which is a brilliant compendium of how else the notes within a scale might be played. As John Schott wrote, “Its exhaustive treatment of octave divisions and symmetrical interval patterns was also a goad in his quest for a tonal system that would supplant traditional tonality.”

Initially recognized as an accomplished saxophonist, Coltrane created long melodic lines that reflected the modernist “emancipation of dissonance,” in ARNOLD SCHOENBERG’s phrase. Coltrane was also interested in original aggregate relationships, which is to say chords, but again with a taste for atonality.

One recurring theme of his improvisations was symmetry. In his classic appreciation of Coltrane’s complexity, Schott reprints a rich diagram drawn by Coltrane in 1960 and explains:

The diagram juxtaposes the two whole-tone collections five times around the perimeters of a circle. Lines are drawn connecting each tone to its tritone across the circle, bisecting the circle thirty times. Every fifth tone is enclosed is a box to show the circle of fifths. Each member of the circle of fifths is also enclosed with its upper and lower neighbors in two ovals,

etc. While acknowledging the metaphysical implications of the diagram’s configuration, Schott’s theme is Coltrane’s ambition to realize within an improvisatory context the intensity of overlapping interconnections typical of serial composition. In the wake of too much heroin and alcohol, he died too young.



In general topology the concept of combinatoriality applies to the functional congruence of geometrical figures of the same order of continuity. Thus a square can be brought into topological congruence with a circle because all the points of the former are in an enumerable correspondence of the other. On the other hand, the geometry of Dick Higgins’ Intermedia chart cannot be made congruent with a square or a circle without cutting. The American composer and theorist M ILTON B ABBITT extended the term combinatoriality to serial techniques. The parameter of continuity in dodecaphonic writing is the order of succession of the twelve thematic notes in their four forms, basic, retrograde, inversion, and inverted retrograde, all of which are combinatorially congruent. Furthermore, the tone-row can be functionally divided into two potentially congruent groups of six notes each, or three groups of four notes each, or four groups of three notes each, with each such group becoming a generating serial nucleus possessing a degree of subsidiary combinatoriality. Extending the concept of combinatoriality to other parameters of SERIAL MUSIC, a state of total Serialism is attained, in which not only the actual notes of a series, but also meter, rhythm, intervallic configurations, dynamics, and instrumental timbres are organized in sets and subsets. The subsets in turn are organized as combinatorial derivations, possessing their own order of continuity and congruence. Of these, the most fruitful is the principle of rotation, in which each successive set is obtained by the transposition of the first note of the series to the end of a derived set. Thus the first set, 1, 2, 3, … 12, appears after rotation as subset 2, 3, 4, 5, … 12, 1, or as 3, 4, 5, 6, … 12, 1, 2, etc. Inversion, retrograde, and inverted retrograde can be subjected to a similar type of rotation. The additive Fibonacci series, in which each number equals the sum of the two preceding numbers, as in 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, is another fertile resource for the formation of sets, subsets, and other derivations. The Fibonacci numbers can be used for building non-dodecaphonic tone-rows, in which case the numbers will indicate the distance from the central tone in semitones, modulo 12, so that 13 becomes functionally identical with 1, 21 with 9, etc. The numerical field of combinatoriality is circumscribed by twelve different notes. But experiments have been conducted, notably by E RNST K RENEK, with artificial scales of thirteen equal degrees, obtained with the aid of electronic instruments. Potential uses of combinatoriality operating with sets of more than twelve notes in an octave are limitless.



ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG purportedly coined this nifty epithet to define painting enhanced with protrusive objects. The classic precursor was, of course, “a real bottle brush projecting at right angles from the painted surface” in MARCEL DUCHAMP’s TU’M (1918). Within his own painterly fields Rauschenberg in the 1950s incorporated pillows, clocks, and stuffed animals, among other sub-artistic objects. Other canvasmen did likewise after him, including JASPER JOHNS and Jim Dine (1935). Their obvious unacceptability notwithstanding, the best of these junk-filled combines ended on the walls not of private collectors but in museums that have often paid millions of dollars to own and display them.

Comedians’ Comedians


These are the comedians whom their colleagues respect enormously, simply because, as avant-garde in their own art, they’ve gone so far ahead. In his thick Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America (2008), Lawrence Maslon identifies three whom their colleagues identify as the greatest: Jack Benny (1894–1974), Jonathan Winters (1925–2013), and Richard Pryor (1940–2005). The first fielded a situation comedy so rich with unique comic characters (including a surrogate for himself) that he was able to produce several hundred different programs for radio and then television. The second was incomparably skilled at spontaneous invention. The third told stories that no one else could. (None of this trio simply recited jokes.)

To these three I would add MAE WEST for her memorable aphorisms, Groucho Marx (1890–1977) for his verbal dexterity, Lenny Bruce (1925–66) for his courage in mocking taboos, and the Anglo-Indian-Irishman SPIKE MILLIGAN, whose live performances were manic, much like the Americans Robin Williams (1951–2014) and Don Rickles (1926–17). Once investigating German comedians, whose legion is few, I could identify only one true master, Karl Valentin (1882–1948). With the high standard of this pantheon seriously in mind, others might select other comedians’ comedians.


This has become the preferred mode for avant-garde art, in contrast to its antipode Tragedy, which belongs to traditional art. If Tragedy portrays what should not happen, one theme of Comedy is possibility not only with the materials of art but in human existence. It follows that many major avant-garde artists were incidentally great comedians.

Need I add that some artists are oblivious to comedy. Likewise some arts critics. Likewise to irony that depends upon seeing through transparent façades. Those so oblivious usually oppose avant-garde arts.

Consider from George Lord Byron (1788–1824): “All tragedies are finished by a death, all comedies are ended by a marriage.” If so, I’ll take comedy any time. NORTHROP FRYE, accepting this dichotomy, famously classified the Book of Job as a comedy. I once heard JOHN CAGE say that comedy was “more profound” than tragedy; but since no one else heard that judgment from him, may I claim it as mine?


The great secret of professional arts is that their worlds are ferociously competitive. Of the many who aspire, only a few reach the top, if only briefly, and fewer for long; and what is true of art worlds in general is even more true of avant-garde turfs. This truth accounts for why even aspirants with the best preparations and/or the strongest backers don’t necessarily prosper, and why, by contrast, some major artists began with negligible connections. And then why as well anyone swimming high is liable not only to drowning sometime soon or attack from below. Good fortune can help now and then, as well as here and there; but nothing ultimately succeeds as much as strong work that lasts and then more strong work.


(c. 1945)

Information is entered, by one of many possible channels, into a machine that converts it into digital impulses that can then be manipulated in a variety of ways. Such information may be words, as many of us enter these on word processors; it may also be pictures or sounds. In music, computers enabled composers to create on their cathode-ray tubes (aka CRTs) works that could be transformed, thanks to digital-to-analog conversion, into a permanent storage format such as audiotape or computer file that could be played back through conveniently available transducers. In literary composition, computers had less influence until the 1980s, with the development first affordable “personal computer” that could sit on your desk next to, or in place of, the typewriter, and then of multipath HYPERTEXTS that are best “read” not sequentially in print but by clicking various options presented on a cathode-ray tube.

In visual art, the influence of the computer has been more problematic, in part because it works so much better with abstraction than representation. Look at the catalog of the first institutional computer art exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity, organized in 1968 by Jasia Reichardt for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and you’ll be struck by the lack of interesting art. This exhibition partially accounts for the anonymous author of the entry on computer art in The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Art (1981) declaring, partly out of ignorance, “By the mid 1970s no visual art of significant quality had been produced with the aid of computers.” By the 1980s, exhibitions were filled with computer graphics different in content but lacking individual style, all in contrast to the distinguished computer-assisted art of M ANFRED M OHR, who begins with algorithms.

My own opinion, evident occasionally in this book, is that computers have been most successful in film (particularly by S TAN V AN D ER B EEK) and then video animation (particularly by S TEPHEN B ECK), but then the latter happens to be the best artistic use to which I put them in my own work.

Computer Poetry


A term used so loosely that it has become almost useless, as computer poetry was any poetry that relied on the computer for its construction and presentation. The earliest examples consisted of “poems” devised of randomly generated or randomly ordered words. The output that spilled forth was nonsense made interesting by two facts: that it was generated without the direct intervention of a human mind and that it veered unexpectedly towards sense as the reader attempted to distill order from the chaos. These were programmer’s games: yards of scrolls furling forth from TRS-80 computers onto the floor of a Radio Shack, more a sideshow than a performance.

Occasionally, the term “computer poetry” was used to define visual poems written with the aid of the computer (just as the term “typewriter poem” described a type of poetry that depended on the typogrammar of the Olivetti, or the Selectric II, or the Smith-Corona for its particular presence). These poems might consist of visual collage, shaped text, overwriting, or a faux palimpsest for their visual and semiotic sense.

Other computer poetry included visual kinetic poems programmed for the computer screen. Poets have fashioned these poems using such varied tools as BASIC and HTML to produce everything from growing, twisting, and contracting words that shuffle across or huddle upon the screen to complex hyperhuman bursts of visual text, reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow’s music for the piano roll. With the advent of the Internet as a canvas and lingua franca for these poems, work of this type migrated to that space and became something more varied, more colorful, and more of an INTERMEDIA –combining movement, word, color, and even sound into mini-movies of cybertext, a new cinematic poetry for a new age.

Conceptual Architecture


This is my coinage for architectural proposals that were never realized, and were in some cases never intended to be realized, but have in a format other than a constructed building sufficient clarity and originality to be exhibited and then appreciated. The classic modernist example is V LADIMIR T ATLIN’s Monument to the Third International (1920), which had considerable influence on subsequent architecture, even though it was never more substantial than a sculpture. FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT once offered a drawing for a skinny skyscraper a full mile high (1956). A later example of Conceptual Architecture was B UCKMINSTER F ULLER’s proposal to put a geodesic dome over an entire city. In their book Unbuilt America (1977), the visual poet Alison Sky (1946) and Michelle Stone compiled a marvelous anthology of comparable plans drawn from American history. Around the same time, an ambitious architect, since more successful, Peter Eisenman (1932), organized an exhibition whose catalog became the book Idea as Model (1981). In the introduction, he suggested that an architectural model “could be something other than a narrative record of a project or a building [because models] could well have an artistic or conceptual existence of their own, one which was relatively independent of the project that they represented.” CLAES OLDENBURG’s books of his public art include drawings of proposals along with works actually realized.

The critical question posed by the publication or exhibition of such work is whether the proposal can have an esthetic status comparable to its realization, and thus whether a comprehensive critical appraisal of, say, an architect’s work should include those images that were never realized along with those that were. If, like myself, you affirm the former position, then you must consider extending the principle to other cultural areas, such as intellectual history

If only to raise the possibility of others doing likewise, I once self-published Unfinished Business (1991) and then What I Didn’t Do: An Essay in Conceptual Historiography (2013), collecting my grant applications, anthology outlines, and proposals for both full-length books and extended media compositions, all of which went unrealized for reasons beyond my control, implicitly raising the question whether such “unfinished business” belongs to my cultural record.

Conceptual Art

(c. 1960)

The radical idea is that the FRAMING of absence can generate esthetic experience, if properly interpreted. The classic forerunner, conceived nearly a decade before the epithet was coined, is J OHN C AGE’s oft-called “silent” piece, 433″ (1952), in which, in a concert situation, pianist D AVID T UDOR plays no notes for the required duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. By framing the performance situation of a concert with a prominent pianist, Cage suggested that all the miscellaneous noises heard in that space during that duration constitute “music.” It logically follows that any unintended noise, even apart from the enclosure of 4-minute 33 seconds, could provide esthetic experience (and thus that what has commonly been called Cage’s “silent piece” is really a noise piece).

Much depends upon a resonant context. The sometime economist HENRY FLYNT is commonly credited with originating the radical notion of statement-alone-art in his 1961 essay “Concept Art,” which he defined as “first of all an art of which the material is concepts, as the material of e.g. music is sound.”

Self-conscious conceptual art, which arrived in the late 1960s, customarily took such forms as written instructions, esthetically undistinguished photographs, scale models, maps, or documentary videotapes, all of which are theoretically intended to suggest esthetic experiences that could not be evoked in any other way. Y OKO O NO specialized in performance instructions that could not be realized, such as, simply, “Fly.” A later, charming example was C LAES O LDENBURG’s “inverted monument” for New York City, for which he hired professional grave diggers to excavate and then fill in a large rectangular hole behind New York’s Metropolitan Museum (rather than, say, at a garbage dump, which would be contextually less resonant).

Extending the radical principle, SOL LEWITT suggested, “In conceptual art, the idea, or concept, is the most important aspect of the work.” A mong the pioneering practitioners of such Idea Art, to recall another epithet, were Douglas Huebler (1924–97), J OSEPH K OSUTH, LAWRENCE WEINER, DAN GRAHAM, John Baldessari (1931), H ANS H AACKE, the German Hanne Darboven (1941–2009), and Frenchman Daniel Buren (1938). Some of these artists specialized in written texts that they insisted should not be considered Literature. Even as late as 1996, Darboven explored the nature of time in Kulturgeschichte 1880–1983, an exhibition of 1,589 panels uniform in size and format that document those years with photographs, numbers, texts, and historic postcards.

Conceptual Dance


This is my coinage for printed proposals, usually wholly of words but sometimes with pictures or drawings, for a physical performance that wasn’t realized and perhaps cannot be. Sometimes their instructions are impossible, such as NAM JUNE PAIK’s “Climb inside the vagina of a live whale.” Others are possible but problematic, such as my own “In Memorium John Cage” (2014): “Speak only his name at every midnight for seventy-nine years, eleven months, seven days, by such measure duplicating the span of his life in a manner he would have thought most appropriate.”

While some are short, mostly in the tradition of FLUXUS, other Conceptual Dance can be long and detailed: E. E. CUMMINGS’s “Tom: A Ballet,” EDMUND WILSON’s “Cronkhite’s Clocks,” WOODY ALLEN’s “A Guide to Some of the Lesser Ballets,” REMY CHARLIP’s “Bound for Stardom,” and “The Elephant and the Birds” (1942) by the British poet/ critic William Empson (1906–84). The earliest examples known to me were created by Italian FUTURISTS, as collected in MICHAEL and Victoria KIRBY’s anthology of Future Performance (1971). As long as these proposed ballets aren’t realized, their printed texts framing thus absence, they remain truly Conceptual.

Concrete Poetry


Concrete Poetry aims to reduce language to its concrete essentials, free not only of semantic but of syntactical necessities. It is often confused with SOUND POETRY and VISUAL POETRY (which are, respectively, the enhancement of language primarily in terms of acoustic qualities and the enhancement of language primarily through image), but is really something else. The true Concrete Poem is simply letters or disconnected words scattered abstractly across the page or a succession of aurally nonrepresentational (and linguistically incomprehensible) sounds. The rationale comes from K URT S CHWITTERS’s 1924 manifesto “Consistent Poetry”:

Not the word but the letter is the original material of poetry. Word is 1.) Composition of Letters. 2.) Sound. 3.) Denotation (Meaning). 4.) Carrier of associations of ideas.

In his or her use of language, the Concrete poet is generally reductive; the choice of methods for enhancing language could be expansive. Unfortunately, the earliest anthologies of Concrete Poetry did more to obscure than clarify the issue of its differences, particularly by including poems that were primarily visual or acoustic. Among the truest practitioners of Concrete Poetry were I AN H AMILTON F INLAY, D OM S YLVESTER H OUÉDARD, Haroldo and Augusto de Campos (1929–2003, 1931), Decio Pignatari (1927–2012), Max Bense (1910–90), Pierre Garnier (1928–2014), Paul de Vree (1909–84), and E UGEN G OMRINGER. What had at first seemed puzzling to readers, not to mention critics, has since inspired a growing scholarly literature.



Conduits, Dissemenators?


What might be the best elegant epithet for individuals, usually artists, not customarily of the first rank, who should be remembered for personally spreading a new style through intimate relations with major figures. The art critic HAROLD ROSENBERG once confided to me the painterly style later called ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM was passed by certain women in their relationships with various men.

Somewhat awed at the time, I didn’t ask the next questions. Later I discovered that one must have been the painter Elaine de Kooning (1918–89), who married WILLEM DE KOONING in 1943 and subsequently exhibited her own abstractive paintings mostly of landscapes and people, in addition to conducting intimate relations with other painters and a prominent reviewer. Another was Mercedes Matter (1913–2001; née Carles), whom Rosenberg loved, as did others.

‘Tis said that for a next generation of New York painters the poet FRANK O’HARA functioned similarly. Some of the writers making the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s loved Harold Jackman (1901–61), a legendarily handsome gay man, who connected his admirers to each other. Only in the 21st century perhaps, with higher (or lower) standards for historical truth-telling could such honorable and honorific facilitators be identified.


(c. late 1910s)

In the decade after World War I, this term was, like F UTURISM, adopted by two groups –one in Russia, the other in Western Europe –whose aims were sufficiently different to distinguish between them. Coming in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, most Soviet Constructivists were A BSTRACT artists participating in social change with applied projects that nonetheless reflected their esthetic program. Thus, the historical exhibition Art into Life (1990) included large-scale graphics, environments, photomontage, stage designs, and architectural proposals, along with paintings and sculptures. The key figure in this exhibition was A LEKSANDR R ODCHENKO, whose environmental The Workers Club (1925) included unusual chairs and reading tables. Also in this exhibition was V LADIMIR T ATLIN’s Letatlin (1932), which is the model for a flying machine; E L L ISSITZKY; and various works by G USTAV K LUCIS, a Latvian slighted in previous surveys. (This exhibition did not include Antoine Pevsner [1886–1962] and N AUM G ABO, brothers who objected to utilitarian art, or the mercurial K AZIMIR M ALEVICH, who was, strictly speaking, not a Constructivist.) Rejecting traditional artistic practice as reflecting bourgeois individualism, they explored factory production. Once cultural policy tightened in Russia, culminating in the terrible purges of the 1930s, Russian Constructivism disintegrated. Klucis died in a World War II concentration camp and Tatlin died a decade later of food poisoning, in relative obscurity.

European Constructivism, sometimes called International Constructivism, favored conscious and deliberate compositions that were supposedly reflective of recently discovered universal and purportedly objective esthetic principles. Thus, its artists made scrupulously nonrepresentational Abstract structures that differed from the other avant-gardes of the earlier 20th century in favoring simplicity, clarity, and precision. Among the principal participants at the beginning were T HEO VAN D OESBURG, P IET M ONDRIAN, and H ANS R ICHTER; the principal magazines were D E S TIJL and Richter’s G. Among the later International Constructivists were M ICHEL S EUPHOR, G EORGES V ANTONGERLOO, J OAQUIN T ORRES -G ARCIA, and M OHOLY -N AGY. The last of these artists introduced Constructivist ideas to the B AUHAUS, where he taught from 1923 to 1928; and as the publisher of the pioneering Bauhaus books, Moholy-Nagy issued a collection of Mondrian’s essays in 1925 and Malevich’s The Non-Objective World in 1927. When Naum Gabo moved to England, he collaborated with the painter Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) and the young architect J. L. Martin in editing Circle (1937), an impressive anthology subtitled International Survey of Constructive Art. Constructivism came to America with art-school teachers such as Moholy-Nagy and J OSEF A LBERS, the former in Chicago after 1938, the latter first at B LACK M OUNTAIN C OLLEGE from the middle 1930s to the late 1940s and then at Yale until he retired. Constructivism survives in certain kinds of Minimal geometric sculpture; in the mobiles of G EORGE R ICKEY, incidentally wrote an excellent history of the movement; in certain strains of COLOR-FIELD painting; in the Constructivist Fictions of R ICHARD K OSTELANETZ; and in the magazine The Structurist (1958), which the American-Canadian artist Eli Bornstein (1922) has edited out of the University of Saskatchewan.

Copland, Aaron

(14 November 1900–2 December 1990)

Very much a two-sided composer, he produced a few works that were moderately innovative and much music that wasn’t. These more avant-garde efforts appear, almost as surprises, at various times in his career. One is a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1927) that incorporated JAZZ elements into a score for the Boston Symphony. A second is Vitebsk: Study on a Jewish Theme (1928) for piano trio. A third is the Piano Variations (1930), which has in its dissonance a seven-note theme that is repeated in ways suggesting S ERIAL MUSIC, which appears fully formed in Cop-land’s Piano Quartet (1950). Another is his Piano Fantasy (1952–57). Those committed to strict Serial Music consider Copland’s Connotations (1962) for orchestra to signal his conversion, but he later strayed from that church. Perhaps a few other pieces belong in the select canon of his avant-garde works.

Otherwise, Copland produced many compositions that made his name familiar around the world, most of them sounding much like one another in the repeated use of certain strategies, such as open chords and modest syncopation. My own sense of his career is that Cop-land’s compositions became thinner whenever he got involved with theater or film, even though the results of these involvements include some of his more attractive scores –Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944), The Red Pony (1948), and the ever-popular Lincoln Portrait (1942), which has a narration so performer-proof that hot politicians and celebrities can declaim it without embarrassment. Nonetheless, Copland’s music for the film Our Town (1940) ranks among the most effective for that purpose, ever.

Copland was also a masterful arts politician particularly skilled at forging alliances and getting rewards for himself (including his name on a school of music founded at the City University of New York during his lifetime) but also, more significantly perhaps, at apportioning widely the spoils that came to and through him and especially in giving advice to potential sponsors.

Notwithstanding his homosexuality and sometime Communist sympathies, he could be an incomparably effective advocate for an American-American classical music. As early as 1928, he joined R OGER S ESSIONS, then a young composer slightly older and likewise Brooklyn-born, in sponsoring three years of presentations that were known and long remembered as the Copland-Sessions Concerts because of their influence. As a result, just as several younger composers acknowledged Sessions among their teachers, so many more American composers of this next generation readily identified “Aaron” as their “best friend” among the older titans. These last achievements of his extraordinary career shouldn’t be ignored.

Coplans, John

(24 June 1920–21 August 2003)

When I was writing criticism for magazines, particularly in the 1970s, I judged him, then editing the monthly Artforum, among the most hideous people I fortunately knew only by snail mail. (This was before email, while telephone I didn’t often do.) Quit (or fired) in the early 1980s, already in his sixties, Coplans, once a painter, was old enough to know that he had to do something unique. About his black & white photographs, IRVING SANDLER (not myself) wrote: “His subject was his own vulnerable and deteriorating naked body. He recorded the ravages of time –his sagging chest, fat belly, misshapen feet –with a classical eye to detail.” Especially enlarged beyond life-size, at once mocking both CHUCK CLOSE for size and ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE by acknowledging human imperfection, these photographs are so hideous that, unique though they are, I can’t imagine anyone displaying, let alone owning, them, though one truth about art collecting (as well as magazine editing) is, I suppose, different strokes for certain folks.

Copy Culture

(c. 1980s)

One important aspect of our culture is the numerous technological opportunities, chiefly XEROGRAPHIC ART, that allow individuals to produce and reproduce “publications” cheaply. Because xerography allows the quick and simple reproduction of images, it encourages distribution to others. The most important concept in copy culture is that an individual, without the prerequisite of massive amounts of capital, can copy and distribute art, literature, or political ranting without resorting to a “publisher” as an intermediary. The advantages of this system of personal dissemination are present not only in xerography, but also in audiotape, videotape, computer disks, and, to a lesser degree, microfiche. Precisely because such methods of reproduction are more accessible to the individual, they make possible the unfettered distribution of even the most avant-garde, or culturally unacceptable, arts and thoughts.

Cornell, Joseph

(24 December 1903–29 December 1972)

An American original, working without formal art education, lacking even rudimentary competence at artful drawing, Cornell made small boxes with cut-away fronts –a form closer to reliefs and theatrical proscenia than to sculpture proper in demanding to be viewed from the frontal perpendicular perspective. He meticulously filled these miniature stages with many objects not usually found together in either art or life. “Their imagery includes mementos of the theater and the dance, the world of nature and that of the heavens,” writes the arts historian Matthew Baigell (1933). “Cornell’s boxes also often contain 19th century memorabilia (especially those made during the 1940s, of ballerinas).” As intimate tableaus, these boxes combine the dreaminess of S URREALISM with the formal austerity of C ONSTRUCTIVISM, the free use of materials typical of D ADA, and the mellow vision of Christian Science, the American faith that Cornell practiced. Each enclosure seems, not unlike a JACKSON POLLOCK painting, to represent in objective form a particular state of mind in a moment of time, as well as an immense but circumscribed world of theatrical activity.

Though he never visited Europe, Cornell introduced 1930s Parisian ASSEMBLAGE to post-World War II New York. He often produced works in series, exploring themes through variations. Though others have made excellent tableaus, no one else ever did boxed sculpture so well. With help from others, as he never learned to use a motion-picture camera, Cornell also made memorable short films. Thanks to his regular visits to Manhattan junk shops, he amassed a rich collection of silent films that he generously shared with his artist colleagues.

As he lived to their deaths with his problematic mother and his invalid brother in lower-middle class Queens (NYC), few major artists ever overcame so brilliantly so many personal obstacles and insufficiencies.


From time to time book publishers issue volumes collecting the personal letters of the figures featured in this Dictionary. Much as I wish I could identify one or another of these collections as especially distinguished for writing style(s) or alternative forms, I can’t. For the former perhaps those by ROBERT LAX, T. E. LAWRENCE, THOMAS MERTON, EZRA POUND, GERTRUDE STEIN, and CARL VAN VECHTEN come closest. As the most literate of the MARX BROTHERS, Groucho published correspondence that is less constrained and thus far funnier than the books published under in own name (written perhaps with assistance from ghosts). By contrast, the letters between the American writers Thornton Wilder and Stein, say, portray both as carefully circumspect, perhaps out of fear of losing an important connection, to the detriment of possibly stronger writing. Some of these correspondence gatherings become more embarrassing when reprinted as well replies by a recipient, particularly if, say, a publisher is swimming over his or her head..

Corrigan, Donald

(4 November 1943)

One of the most audacious CONCEPTUAL ARTISTS, for professional courage the equal of E LAINE S TURTEVANT, Corrigan exhibited charts of power in the art world, particularly in his hometown. In his Tree of Modern Art in Washington, DC (1972), a detailed drawing measuring 23 by 18 inches, Corrigan graphs relationships and sympathies among the commercial galleries on one side and the nonprofit institutions on the other in a brilliant and accurate way, adding art critics, art schools, and constellations of avowedly independent individuals, by his documentation making the invisible visible, which is what visual art has always done. Rarely permitted to exhibit, Corrigan gave up visual art by the 1980s; he worked, like HERMAN MELVILLE and C LEMENT G REENBERG before him, for the US Customs Service. A later epithet for what he did was Context Art: “Criticizes the art business and its institutions. Power structures are disclosed; distribution mechanisms and exhibition structures are investigated for their political function.” Necessary and done it still is.

Cortázar, Julio

(26 August 1914–12 February 1984)

An Argentine who lived mostly in Paris, whose books were initially published everywhere besides his two home countries, Cortázar made formal alternatives a recurring subject. He prefaces Rayuela (1963; Hop-scotch, 1966) with the advice that it “consists of many books, but two books above all. The first can be read in a normal fashion, and it ends with Chapter 56.” He then suggests an alternative route, beginning with chapter 73 and continuing with “1-2-116-3-84-4-71-5-81-74 …” that not only includes certain chapters twice but directs the reader as far as chapter 155. The American edition sold surprisingly well, perhaps because the cover of its 1967 paperback edition promised “life/ love/sex.” Some admirers judge Cortázar’s 62: Modelo Para Amar (1968, A Model Kit) as formally more challenging. Although other Cortázar books were commercially credible, his more experimental short pieces, collected in La Vuelta al dia en ochenta mundos (1967) and Ultimo Round (1969), both of which were initially published in Mexico, are scarcely known.



This epithet identifies the social avant-garde that advocates unpredictable innovation(s) that, though commonly dismissed as unacceptable at its beginnings, necessarily overcomes resistances to achieve what’s not been done before, with the likelihood of greater influence. In authoritarian societies, the counterculture attacks government; in democratic societies, it focuses more on social customs, in recent decades advocating, say, the acceptance of divorce, recreational drugs, non-contractual cohabitation, and, most important, the emergence of underclasses whether defined by race, gender, or other derogatory discriminations. With certain commercial success came, especially in the popular arts, some bargain counterculture.

At influencing social change, the greatest countercultural surprise for me has been the widespread acceptance in Western countries of alternatives to traditional heterosexuality. Fifty years ago, I wouldn’t have predicted, let alone imagined, the gender options publicly available in the twenty-first century. As a general rule, consider that thriving countercultures are a measure of an open society; a closed society would suppress any semblance of one out of existence.

One theme for me is that the histories of avant-garde arts, which epitomize INTELLECTUAL HISTORY, should not be confused with avant-garde social history, though the two can be complementary, occasionally involving the same active individuals.


(c. 1960s)

When I was young in the 1960s, there were only two countertenors of note –the Englishman Alfred Deller (1912–79) and the American Russell Oberlin (1928–2016). Much as a great contralto such as Marian Anderson (1897–1993) could sing notes lower than those available to most female altos, so a countertenor could reach notes higher than most tenors. One difference between Deller and Oberlin was that the Englishman sang falsetto –with a sound false to his own speaking voice because it was produced in the throat, rather than in the chest, from where most concert singers gain their power. Indeed, especially when heard after Oberlin, Deller’s voice sounded thinner, needing microphones to be heard, especially in concert with others. Falsettos were also used by pop singers, likewise microphone-dependent, such as Gene Vincent (1935–71) in “Be-Bop-A-Lula” (1956).

A subsequent generation of male singers began to develop their throat voices, sometimes to sound like women, usually to sound like something neither male nor female but uniquely countertenored, to so speak. Among the most successful are Derek Lee Ragin (1958), an American working mostly in Europe, who became one of the two off-screen voices in a 1994 biographical feature-length film about the historic castrato Farinelli. Late in 2001, I heard the German countertenor Andreas Scholl (1967), also among the greatest, sing in duet with a French horn unamplified at Carnegie Hall, the impressive volume of his high voice the equal of an instrument normally played.

Years later I saw a singer named only Shequida (b. 1980, Gary Hall) do an awesome act that included a falsetto I could only characterize as “fat” with a heavy vibrato in the tradition of large-framed female opera singers whom he was at once honoring and parodying. If Scholl in a man’s suit resembled a broad shouldered American football player, Shequida was skinny in a dress that came down to his ankles; he had a blonde wig over his brown face and high heels. Only his great height, well over 6 feet tall, and the large size of his feet would have prompted questions.

Among the post-Deller & Oberlin countertenors I deem extraordinary are James Bowman (1941) and René Jacobs (1946) from the second generation; Jochen Kowalski (1954) and Ragin from a third; David Daniels (1966) and Scholl from a forth; and Max Emanuel Cenčić (1976) and Philippe Jaroussky (1978) from a fifth. Though I discover more new good countertenors every year, none of these falsetto singers, however, sound like Russell Oberlin whose unique voice is still instantly recognizable in recordings made before his retirement in the early 1960s. (For a masterpiece available on You-Tube, may I recommend his performing J. S. Bach’s Cantata #54 with GLENN GOULD at the CBC.)

To me the measure of a successful countertenor is realizing, much as Marian Anderson did in her lowest register, a vocal sound beyond or above gender, suggesting the voices of angels –yes, angels.



As an essential quality informing not only the creation of avant-garde art but also writing about it, courage can’t be faked; it can’t be bestowed or assigned to an underling. Development depends upon practice, as well as overcoming resistance, again and again.

Cowell, Henry

(11 March 1897–10 December 1965)

If A ARON C OPLAND was the great mainstream arts politician of his time, distributing patronage to a wide variety of otherwise neglected composers who would remain personally indebted to him, Cowell was the great radical mover and shaker, helping establish the reputations of many American radical composers, beginning with C HARLES I VES, in the course of his own productive compositional career.

As a teenager, Cowell wrote and performed piano pieces that incorporated what he called tone-clusters, which are produced by striking groups of adjoining notes simultaneously, customarily not with one’s fingers but with a fist, a palm, or even a whole forearm. Within the composition, the clusters become huge blocks of sound moving up and down the keyboard, sometimes becoming atonal clouds that complement the melodic lines. In the early 1920s, while still in his own mid-twenties, Cowell directly attacked the strings of a grand piano –plucking, striking, sweeping, and dampening them as though they were on a harp; sometimes stroking them with a china darning egg. His classic Aeolian Harp (1923) requires that one hand work the piano keyboard, holding down keys, while the other “plays” the strings until the sound of the depressed keys decays. In the 1930s, Cowell collaborated with L EON T HEREMIN in constructing a keyboard percussion instrument that he called the “rhythmicon,” a precursor of modern drum machines, to create music with overlapping rhythmic patterns.

As a prolific composer, Cowell worked with a variety of ideas, some of them more radical than others, beginning with, as noted already, alternative ways of striking the piano. Some pieces from the 1930s have parts of varying lengths that he instructed performers to assemble to their tastes, even excluding or repeating sections. Others permitted improvisation in certain sections. Later pieces drew upon Americana and modal folk tunes. Late in his career, Cowell discovered Asian musics and their instruments, less for quotations than for sonorities and rhythms unavailable in the West. Typical pieces from this period combine an Asian solo-ist with a Western orchestra. Some mellifluous works composed just before his death reflect Persian music.

As a musical theorist, Cowell wrote between 1916 and 1919 the manuscript later released as New Musical Resources (1930), whose theme was expanding the musical palette. He edited and partially authored American Composers on American Music: A Symposium (1933), which was the first survey of native achievement. In collaboration with his wife Sidney Robertson Cowell (1903–97), he published the first book on Charles Ives and His Music (1955), which remains a model of its introductory kind. Cowell was often the first to write extended articles on emerging American composers; so that nearly every advanced composer’s bibliography, from C ARL R UGGLES to J OHN C AGE, includes a reference to Cowell. As an advocate of American composition, he founded in 1927 New Music Quarterly, not only to publish their works but to record them. Among the composers issued under the New Music imprint were Ives, Ruggles, and V IRGIL T HOMSON; it even included distinguished Europeans such as A RNOLD S CHOENBERG and A NTON W EBERN.

As a generous teacher, Cowell directed musical activities intermittently at New York’s New School from 1928 to 1963 and taught at Columbia from 1951 to 1965; he gave private lessons to John Cage, Lou Harrison (1917), and GEORGE GERSHWIN. Sent to San Quentin prison on a trumped-up homosexual charge in 1937, he spent four years giving music lessons to his fellow inmates and organizing a band. Once released, he married Ms. Robertson and, as a devoted lover, incidentally composed 85 short pieces for her to celebrate various anniversaries.

As both a teacher and a publicist, Cowell anticipated current opinion in insisting that Americans pay greater attention to “music of the world’s peoples,” as he called it, directing the recording long-playing records of world music for the Folkways label in the early 1950s.

Cragg, Tony


Cragg emerged in the late 1970s as the most interesting of a group of young sculptors who sought to reorient British sculpture away from landscape and onto the urban environment, rejecting the influence of the Earth Artists who preceded them. Cragg’s earliest significant works are assemblies of found and used manufactured objects, distributed in carefully arranged patterns on gallery floors and walls. In New Stones, Newton’s Tones (1978), he laid on the floor such items as small shovels, combs, cigarette lighters, spoons, and broken plates. The items were arranged in a rectangle and painted in solid colors that made a rainbow running from one end of the pattern to the other. At the time, his works were viewed as attempts to flout traditional sculptural practices, particularly the conventions of direct carving and the welding of metals, but such titles as New Stones, Newton’s Tones indicated, or should have, that his concerns were more intellectually intriguing. Cragg in that period was something of an archeologist of contemporary culture, conveying the idea that the very science upon which our industrial civilization is based, and the simple geometric conceptions that underlie that science, have become obsolete and are already part of the past. Simple linear geometry is virtually useless in the post-Newtonian science that is now directing the development of technology. (Cragg worked as a scientist before he became an artist.)

More interesting, more direct, and more individual are Cragg’s later works, in which he attempts to employ directly more complex forms of geometry. In such works as Envelope (1998), a single molded shape overlays the forms of simple geometry upon more mathematically complex ones, such as toruses. (A torus is a smoothly curving shape whose surface folds in on itself to create a tube that runs through the entire form and emerges on the other side. One very simple example is a donut.) Cragg’s work shares with the recent work of Richard Serra this interest in advanced geometry.

Craig, Gordon

(16 January 1872–29 July 1966; b. Edward Godwin)

The illegitimate son of the prominent British actress Ellen Terry (1847–1928), purportedly by the architect Edward William Godwin (1833–86), Craig began as an actor. In addition to producing visual art, particularly wood-engraving, Craig worked in fringe English theaters at the beginning of the century, designing several productions that were regarded as challenges to the conventions of Victorian theater. Disappointed with his native country, he moved to the European continent where he developed a vision of an alternative theater less in actual productions than in books and articles, drawings, and woodcuts, models and engravings. Many of his essays appeared in a periodical he founded and edited intermittently between 1908 and 1929, The Mask, and in his book On the Art of Theatre (1911). A series of etchings, Scene (1923), advocates a great flexible performing area in which a great variety of things can happen. Craig imagined a PERFORMANCE that would engage spectators through movement alone, probably without a plot or verbal text, but through the programmed movement of sound, light, and people in motion.

Not unlike other theatrical visionaries later in the 20th century, he thought the actor to be the most recalcitrant link in a retrograde chain, and so proposed in his classic 1907 essay that “in his place comes the inanimate figure –the Uber-marionette we may call him.” Craig continued,

The Uber-marionette will not compete with life –rather will go beyond it. Its ideal will not be the flesh and blood but rather the body in trance –it will aim to clothe itself with a death-life beauty while exhaling a living spirit.

Raising the ante yet more, as any good polemicist should, Craig concluded:

I pray earnestly for the return of the image –the Uber-marionette to the theatre; and when he comes again and is but seen, he will be loved so well that once more will it be possible for the people to return to their ancient joy in ceremonies –once more will Creation be celebrated –homage rendered to existence –and divine and happy intercession made to Death.

Wow! Writing like this could be influential, even as it was resisted and dismissed. Craig lived another fifty years, producing books about his mother and other British theatricists, in addition to an autobiography, Index to the Story of My Days (1957); so that his evocative prose about theater remained more influential than any productions.

Cravan, Arthur

(22 May 1887–November 1918; b. Fabian Avenarius Lloyd)

By common consent, a legendary artistic non-artist, he lived an artistic life among artists involved with the vanguards of DADA and SURREALISM. Typically inventing various pseudonyms, he traveled widely, often with forged passports, in sum creating the unique fiction that was himself. As an aristocratically self-possessed con(show)man, Cravan pitched himself to the center of many spectacles, even challenging the heavyweight champion Jack Johnson (1878–1946) to a boxing match in Barcelona. (The veteran boxer later noted casually that his voluntary opponent, knocked out, didn’t train sufficiently.) Living outside the ART WORLD, Johnson couldn’t appreciate the artist Cravan’s doing what no other artist did (or dare do). ‘Tis said that his negative review of APOLLINAIRE’s partner’s self-portrait prompted the French writer to propose a duel with Cravan.

From 1911 to 1915 Cravan also published a Dada magazine, Maintenant! (Now!), whose five issues were worth reprinting as a single book in 1971. The Parisian critic MARC DACHY reminds us that one issue he wrote entirely by himself:

W. Cooper for articles on Oscar Wilde, Eduard Archinard (almost a phonetic anagram of anarchie) for a poem in classical alexandrines, Marie Lowitska for aphorisms, Robert Miradique for literary criticism. The boxer-poet signed his own name to his apocryphal encounters with Andre Gide and to his detailed, mordant comments upon the artists exhibiting at the Salon des Independants.

Coming to New York in 1914, initially to dodge conscription into World War I, Cravan loved the prominent poet Mina Loy (1882–1966). They agreed to travel to South America separately, she by steamer, he by sailboat. However, as he never arrived, his disappearance became another mythic GESTURE for his colleagues. In short, the Cravan persona gained sufficient weight to bestow artistic value on vanishing. Many poseurs since have tried to redo his act, never as successfully, perhaps most of them lived too long. One hypothesis not incredible, given two reputations, claims that Cravan survived to become the famous but publicly invisible German-Mexican novelist B. Traven whose nom de plume, do note, incidentally differs by only one letter from Fabian Avenarius Lloyd’s adopted surname.

Creshevsky, Noah

(31 January 1945)

Trained in music composition at the Eastman School of Music and Juilliard, Creshevsky became by the 1980s an audiotape artist using familiar devices of processing and editing in distinguished ways. In Other Words (1976) enhances the distinctive speaking voice of J OHN C AGE. His Highway (1978), which is MUSIQUE CONCRÈTE of and about familiar Americana, becomes an acoustic trip through the aural equivalent of P OP A RT. His ten-minute Strategic Defense Initiative (1986), its title alluding to President Reagan’s “Star Wars” proposal, draws upon the soundtrack of Bruce Lee movies to satirize sadism. Another Creshevsky departure involves giving instrumentalists a score composed not of traditional musical notes but only of words. Later he used electronic sampling to incorporate fragments of classical music into his own work.

Critic X


Perhaps the most productive European arts writer of his generation that’s also mine, he interests me less for critical insights, which haven’t taught me much, than for his American enthusiasms that so often overlap with mine that he implicitly gains value for me. Simply, anyone exploring unfamiliar territory is always gratified to find someone else’s footprints nearby.

Critic X has produced a whole book about MERCE CUNNINGHAM, as have I. In his 2008 book collecting his visual arts journalism are extended appreciations of DONALD JUDD, ROBERT MORRIS, ROBERT RYMAN, DAN FLAVIN, DAN GRAHAM, SIAH ARMAJANI, LUCAS SAMARAS, AGNES MARTIN, and SOL LEWITT, among others I’ve written about as well. No doubt unintentionally, Critic X certifies my sense of who, among the many fish in the spacious sea, is most worth appreciating in recent American art. Thanks, mate, whom I may (or not) have met once. May others agree with our selection(s).

Critical Imagination

As a key quality prerequisite to understanding and, later, supporting avant-garde art, this is possessed by not only the critics but the greatest CULTURAL LEADERS. The measures are, simply, identifying originality that hadn’t been understood before and making connections not recognized before. Anyone who ever looked at, say, JACKSON POLLOCK’s paintings in the early 1950s knew they were strong and different, but CLEMENT GREENBERG and HAROLD ROSENBERG identified why and how, if differently. DICK HIGGINS clarified a new direction in many avant-garde arts by coining INTERMEDIA. LINCOLN KIRSTEIN imagined that classical ballet could thrive in America. And so on. Much of this book honors superior Critical Imagination, which surely exists, much like higher artistic imagination.

Crockwell, Douglass

(29 April 1904–30 November 1968; b. Spencer D. C.)

A highly successful American commercial illustrator, working very much in the wake of Norman Rockwell (1894–1978), whose surname rhymed with his, Crock-well also produced pioneering abstract films that are now better remembered than his work once thought more prominent. Animating like no other, he worked with panes of glass, shooting paint and wax between them; the result was kinetic abstractions. His highly original short films must be seen, if possible, to be believed. So under-known is Crockwell’s work that not until 2017 did Wikipedia’s voluntary minions begin a sketchy entry on him. Even on such repositories as YouTube his films are hard to find. Perhaps I made them up. Though certain other entries in this Dictionary might be intentionally fictitious, this isn’t meant to be.

Crotti, Jean

(24 April 1878–30 January 1958)

This Swiss-French painter participated in various avant-garde movements without leading them. Not until his thirties, in Paris, was his work recognized, initially as CUBISM. Escaping from World War I, he immigrated to NEW YORK where he shared a studio with MARCEL DUCHAMP around Broadway and 65th Street and so participated in New York DADA. Here he executed in 1916 his closest semblance of a masterpiece –Les Forces mécaniques de l’amour en movement (Forces of Mechanical Love in Movement), which has oil painted on glass with wood, newsprint, tin, and metal wire. Beginning a lifelong relationship with Suzanne Duchamp (1889–1963), Marcel’s sister, Crotti divorced his wife (who soon afterwards traveled to South America with brother-in-law-to-be Marcel).

The Crottis returned to Paris, where Jean continued to paint in various abstract ways, producing admirable art without establishing a SIGNATURE style. His reputation was revived in America by the gallerist Francis M. Naumann (1948), who, as a major Duchamp scholar, has devoted his eponymous midtown Manhattan gallery mostly to honoring Duh Champ and his associations.

Crumb, R.

(30 August 1943; b. Robert C.)

Certainly the most famous of the underground comics artists of the 1960s, Crumb was one of the artists instrumental in expanding the possibilities for the comic book form. Before him and his compatriots, comic books were stories of superheros and furry animals, but little else. What Crumb added to comic books was graphic sex (sometimes undertaken by furry animals) and freedom of expression but also a disdain for narrative flow. Crumb was more willing than anyone else in the field to experiment with narrative: to tell the modern disjointed story. Some of his stories had neither protagonists nor stable settings, and although such tricks might have been common in the nouveau roman, they were never common in American comic book-art. Crumb is best remembered for his character Fritz the Cat and his slogan (in its familiar big-footed incarnation) “Keep on Truckin.’” Remarkably, Crumb lost two lawsuits: one where he tried to receive compensation for the use of Fritz the Cat in the eponymous X-rated cartoon and a similar suit concerning the once-ubiquitous “Keep on Truckin’” logo. A quirky and powerful portrait of Crumb and his family emerges from Terry Zwigoff’s documentary film Crumb (1994).

Cruyff, Johan

(25 April 1947–24 March 2016; b. Hendrik Johannes Cruijff)

Commonly considered among the five dominant figures in late-20th-century soccer, he began as a teenage star for the Ajax team in his native Amsterdam. In the course of retiring and unretiring, he played around the world and was thus, though he never completed high school, able fluently to answer journalists’ questions not only in his native Dutch, which he spoke with a shamelessly declassé accent, but also, unique among star athletes, in German, Spanish, French, and English. Assertively independent, thanks to his celebrity, Cruyff also coined such memorable aphorisms, as: “You can’t win without the ball.” “Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you; that is the greatest gift.” This last nugget is likewise true in art, among other domains.

As a soccer intellectual, Cruyff espoused the choreography of Total Football (totaalvoetbal, in Dutch), where individual field players learned to exceed the limitations of their assigned positions by assuming others’ roles, say with midfielders becoming strikers, especially in the course of attacking the opponents’ goal, resulting in a more fluid, improvisational game whose higher theatricality appealed to fans. ’Tis said that before he concentrated on soccer, Cruyff as a young teenager starred on the Ajax baseball team. May we wonder if he ever met, or simply just appreciated from afar, the American baseballer YOGI BERRA with whom he shared so much as a famous player, a successful coach, and ingenious wordsmith?

Though English-speakers tend to pronounce “Croif,” his surname sounds slightly different in Dutch, just like “Van Go” to me is “Von Hoch” to them. From PETER FRANK, an American fluent in Dutch, comes this guidance:

The Dutch “uy” is one of the great impossible diphthongs –nay, triphthongs –of the world. It is a combination of “ui” and “ij” (= “y”). both mezzo-multi-vowels, if you would. “Ij” begins as the English long “i,” but modifies halfway to a long “a” –something along the lines of “aey.” As for “ui,” think of it as every vowel at once. “Ow” is probably the closest sound we have in English; if you can keep your mouth agape but taut, as if you were making a flat “e” sound or a schwa, and say “ow,” you might approximate it. It has an etymological relationship to our “ow,” as it appears in “huis,” “uit,” and other English-related words. Okay, now combine “ui” and “ij” and your tongue is going one way while your mouth goes another. I think you could get away with a simply “oy,” appropriately enough. And don’t forget to gargle the “r” ever so slightly. It’ll ease you into “uy.” Got it?


(c. 1907–21)

Cubism was the creation of the painters Georges Braque (1882–1963) and P ABLO P ICASSO, working separately in Paris around 1907. Art historians customarily divide its subsequent development into two periods: Analytic Cubism (1907–12) and Synthetic Cubism (1912–21). The SIGNATURE of Cubism is the rendering of solid objects –whether they be musical instruments, household objects, or human forms –as overlapping “cubes” or planes, giving the illusion of portraying simultaneously several different perspectives and, by extension, different moments in time. Regarding the radical implications of such reinterpretation of pictorial representations, the American art historian Robert Rosenblum (1927–2006) wrote:

For the traditional distinction between solid form and the space around it, Cubism substituted a radically new fusion of mass and void. In place of earlier perspective systems that determined the precise location of discrete objects in illusory depth, Cubism offered an unstable structure of dismembered planes in indeterminate spatial positions. Instead of assuming that the work of art was an illusion of a reality that lay behind it, Cubism proposed that the work of art was itself a reality that represented the very process by which nature is transformed into art.

The rigorous analytic phase epitomized a more austere Cubism, as painters eschewed traditional subject matter and a full palette in the course of dissecting light, line, and plane, incidentally draining much earlier emotional content from painting. Thus, a typical Cubist still life from this period might consist of several intersecting planes portrayed in various neutral, nearly monochromatic tones.

Synthetic Cubism, by contrast, introduced objects found in the real world, such as newspaper clippings, wall-paper, ticket stubs, or matchbooks, which were attached to the canvas. Rosenblum comments on an example, “Perhaps the greatest heresy introduced in this collage concerns Western painting’s convention that the artist achieve his illusion of reality with paint or pencil alone.” Cubist painters introduced an additional visual irony by simulating these objects, thus introducing trompe I’oeil effects by creating false woodgrains or wallpaper patterns, making it appear as if fragments of these objects were part of the canvas. A fuller palette and more sensuous texture were other hallmarks of Synthetic Cubism.

The Cubist movement was perhaps as important as a critical revolt against “pretty” art as for its actual products. Many Cubist paintings inspired heated debate not only among art critics but among the general public as well. Perhaps the most famous single example was M ARCEL D UCHAMP’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), which was the star of the A RMORY S HOW N EW Y ORK, although it could be said that Duchamp departed from Cubism as quickly as he entered it. Though both Duchamp and Picasso began with Cubism, it wasn’t visible in their later work, and they had little influence upon each other. Instead, the strength of Cubism is evident not only in such immediate successors as FUTURISM (ITALIAN) and V ORTICISM, especially in W YNDHAM L EWIS’s illustrations for SHAKESPEARE’s Timon of Athens (1913 or 1914), but also in the careers of such older artists as P IET M ONDRIAN and K AZIMIR M ALEVICH, and then, more than a generation later, in the best work of W ILLEM DE KOONING, among other major post-World War II painters.


(c. 1909)

This term arose in Russia to distinguish native work from E UROPEAN C UBISM. Whereas the work of Natalia Goncharova (1882–1962) and Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964) favored a POST -P ICASSO modernist primitivism based upon Russian peasant art, the brothers BURLIUK (Vladimir [1886–1917] and DAVID [1882–1967]) preferred more urban subjects. The innately mercurial K AZIMIR M ALEVICH used this epithet for works that he submitted for exhibitions in 1912 and 1913. Vladimir Markov’s pioneering Russian Futurism (1968) devotes an entire chapter to Cubo-Futurism in poetry.

Cuddon, J. A.

(2 June 1928–12 March 1996; b. John Anthony Bowden C.)

Just below NICOLAS SLONIMSKY, Cuddon ranks among the most prodigious and original cultural lexicographers, producing thick alphabetical books about subjects scarcely documented before. The first was his A Dictionary of Literary Terms, expanded through three editions under his own name (1977, 1982, 1991) before being posthumously amended by others (2000, 2015); the second and more surprising, marking his superiority at the alphabetical genre, was his Dictionary of Sports and Games (1980), which covers everything –yes, everything –worth remembering in two million words. While Terms beats its competition, mostly with more elaborate entries, Cuddon’s Sports has no competitors and probably never will, at least not in print. Stylishly written, both books can be read from start to finish. In addition to teaching English, rugby, and cricket at the Emanuel School in southwest London, the prodigious Cuddon wrote five novels and edited several book anthologies.

Cultural Leaders

The measure is that while working within institutions these individuals supported imaginative art that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, usually by funding advanced artists to produce excellence that they wouldn’t have otherwise done –more specifically, what they wouldn’t have done before but what needed to be done. Personally I’ve known Klaus Schöning (1936), who established a different kind and quality of acoustic Hörspiel radio art during three decades on the staff at Westdeutscher Rundfunk; BRIAN O’DOHERTY, who introduced several innovative programs during his many years at the NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS, first in visual arts department, then in media arts; DICK HIGGINS whose SOMETHING ELSE PRESS educated my generation about the most avant-garde arts during the 1960s into the early 1970s; and JONAS MEKAS, who championed alternative American filmmaking from the 1950s into the 21st century, not only as a writer and the co-publisher of the indispensable magazine Film Culture (1955–96) but as cofounder in Manhattan of both the Filmmakers Cooperative (1960) and the Anthology Film Archives (1970), both which survive decades later. Again, all of men (yes, men) did what wasn’t imagined before, what no one else was doing, and what needed to be done.

Among those avant-garde cultural leaders preceding me were EUGÈNE JOLAS as the founding editor of the most progressive literary arts magazine of the 1920s and 1930s, TRANSITION; GERTRUDE VANDERBILT WHITNEY for her progressive philanthropy in more than one art and founding an eponymous museum; ALFRED STIEGLITZ, who established photography as a significant art through his gallery and his magazine Camera Work; LINCOLN KIRSTEIN, as much through supporting American ballet and ballet pedagogy as through founding the second (after THE DIAL) major American modernist literary magazine, The Hound and the Horn (1927–34); LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI for commissioning and then performing more new American classical music than anyone else; John Roberts (1930), who governed music programming at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; Henry Allen Moe (1894–1975) as the founding principal administrator at the GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION, which merited early a reputation as the most discriminating and thus prestigious of its kind precisely by rewarding avant-garde figures early in their careers; Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (1902–81), on behalf of advanced visual art not only as an executive at the MUSEUM OF MODERN ART but as a strong writer; Dorothy C. Miller (1904–2003), his long-time associate for American art at MoMA; Holger Cahill (1887–1960) as national director of the Federal Arts Project from 1935 to 1943: Michel Guy (1927–90), who founded the annual Festival d’automne de Paris, directing it except for a spell as France’s most progressive Minister of Culture; and John Andrew Rice (1888–68), the initial director (to 1940) of the legendary BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE. (I suspect that comparably consequential officials existed elsewhere in the world, but they are unknown to me.)

To my pantheon of cultural leaders may I add, even though they bore no institutional titles, GEORGE MACIUNAS, who led the transformation of an industrial slum into ARTISTS’sOHO that incidentally became a de facto educational institution; and JOHN CAGE, who influenced so many arts and artists in various ways. As any fool with a purse can bankroll what’s been done before and or what others would support, one measure of cultural leadership is imagination comparable in quality to high artistic vision.

“Culture Wars”


This term arose in America to characterize the challenges posed by artists belonging to minorities previously slighted initially because of race, sometimes geography, later of gender (but never religion or age). Legitimate though the outsiders’ protests and claims were socially, they distracted from the more profound, more historic, more continuing conflicts between the commercial and the noncommercial, between mediocrity and excellence, and between establishments and the avant-gardes. In all three pairs, the latter are initially disadvantaged only to overcome eventually, as nearly all critical histories of modern arts –the ultimate arbiters –invariably favor not economically needy people but, crucially, certain work that was not just avant-garde and excellent, but usually noncommercial at its beginnings.

Cummings, E. E.

(14 October 1894–3 September 1962)

The avant-garde Cummings is not the author of charming lyrics reprinted in nearly every anthology of American verse or of a name entirely printed in lowercase letters, but of several more inventive, less familiar poems. Appreciation of this alternative Cummings should begin with such poetic wit as “Gay-Pay-Oo” for the Soviet secret police (G.P.U.); his use of prefixes and suffixes to modify a root word in various subtle ways (so that “unalive” is not synonymous with dead); his evocative typography (as in a familiar poem about grasshoppers, or “t,a,p,s,” or “SpRiN,K,LiNG”); and his integration of the erotic with the experimental. He wrote poems that cohere more in terms of sound than syntax or semantics: “bingbongwhom chewchoo/ laugh dingle nails personally/bin loamhome picpac / obviously scratches tomorrowlobs.” He wrote abstract poetry long before everyone else, the opening poem of 1 X 1 (1944) beginning: “nonsum blob a /cold to / skylessness /sticking fire Amy are you /are birds our all/and one gone/away the they.”

As an extraordinary exercise in radical formalism, “No Thanks” (1935), beginning with “bright,” contains only eleven discrete words, all six letters or less in length. Successfully broken apart and nonsyntactically combined, they form fifteen lines of forty-four words with all three-letter words appearing thrice, all four-letter words four times, etc. With such rigorous structures Cummings presaged several major developments in later avant-garde poetry. Though some of these innovations were not included in earlier selections and collections of Cummings’s poetry, thankfully they all appear in his Complete Poems (1991, 2016), which incidentally demonstrates that these more experimental poems were written throughout his career, rather than, say, being bunched within a short period. They are featured in AnOther E. E. Cummings (1998), which also includes examples of his highly experimental plays, perhaps the first film scenario written in America by a noted poet (1926), elliptical narratives, theater criticism that emphasizes PERFORMANCE over drama, and the opening chapter of a text known only as [No Title] (1930), whose prose broaches abstraction. Consider these concluding lines from its opening chapter:

while generating a heat so terrific as to evaporate the largest river of the kingdom –which, completely disappearing in less than eleven seconds, revealed a gilt-edged submarine of the UR type, containing(among other things)the entire royal family(including the king, who still held his hat in his hand) in the act of escaping, disguised as cheeses.

(A reviewer of AnOther E.E.C noted that the book places Cummings “not among Pound and Eliot, with whom he has little in common, but rather with Russian Futurists and Dadaists; with Latin American and German concrete poets; [etc.],” all of which I wish I had said before him, because this reassignment is true.) No appreciation of the avant-garde Cummings would be complete without acknowledging his Eimi (1933), a prose memoir of his disillusioning 1931 trip to the Soviet Union, as audacious in style as it is in content, along with the brilliant retrospective summary of this book that he prepared especially for a reprint in the late 1950s.

Cummings also produced a considerable amount of visual art, which has never been fully exhibited (even though his oeuvre reportedly includes over two thousand paintings and over ten thousand sheets of drawings). In short, don’t forget the avant-garde Cummings behind the familiar versifier.

Cunningham, Merce

(16 April 1919–26 July 2009; b. Mercier Philip C.)

After years off the edge of American dance, Cunningham became, beginning in the late 1960s, the principal figure in advanced American choreography, remaining for decades after its most influential individual, as much by example as by becoming a monument whose activity long intimidated his successors. Originally part of M ARTHA G RAHAM’s dance company, he presented in 1944, in collaboration with J OHN C AGE, his first New York recital of self-composed solos. Rejected by dance aficionados who were devoted to prior masters, Cunningham earned his initial following among professionals in other arts.

The initial reason for the dance world’s neglect was that Cunningham had drastically reworked many dimensions of dance-making: not only the articulation of performance time, but the use of theatrical space; not only the movements of dancers’ bodies, but their relationship to one another on the stage. For instance, if most ballet and even modern dance had a front and a back, Cunningham’s works are designed to be seen from all sides; and though theatrical custom forced him to mount most of his performances on a proscenium stage (one that has a front and thus a back), his pieces have also been successfully performed in gymnasiums and museums.

Time in Cunningham’s work is nonclimactic, which means that a piece begins not with a fanfare but a movement, and it ends not with a flourish but simply when the performers stop. Because he eschews the traditional structure of theme and variation, the dominant events within a work seem to proceed at an irregular, unpredictable pace; their temporal form is, metaphorically, lumpy. “It’s human time,” he explains, “which can’t be too slow or too fast, but includes various time possibilities. I like to change tempos.”

Cunningham’s dances generally lack a specific subject or story, even though interpretation-hungry spectators sometimes identify particular subjects and/ or semblances of narrative (and more than one Cunningham dancer has suspected the existence of secret stories). It follows that his dancers eschew dramatic characterizations for nonparticularized roles, which is to say that Cunningham dancers always play themselves and no one else. Just as he defied tradition by allowing parts of a dancer’s body to function disjunctively and nonsynchronously, so the distribution of Cunningham’s performers customarily lacks a center –important events occur all over the performing area, even in the corners. The result is organized disorganization, so to speak, that initially seems chaotic only if stricter forms of ordering are expected.

The titles of Cunningham’s works tend to be abstract (Aeon [1961], Winterbranch [1964]), or situational (Rain-Forest [1968], Summerspace [1958], Place [1966]), or formally descriptive (Story [1963], Scramble [1967], Walkaround Time [1968]). As his dancers’ gestures have been ends in themselves, rather than vehicles of emotional representation or narrative progression, Cunningham freed himself to explore the possibilities of human movement. In this respect, he was incomparably inventive and remarkably prolific. To put it differently, once he decided that traditional rules need not be followed, he was free to produce many dances filled with unfamiliar moves and innovative choreographic relationships.

Cunningham also developed, especially for dancing in nontheatrical spaces, a genre he called Events, which incorporated selections from earlier works into a continuous stream with nothing to announce their sources, their theme thus becoming the characteristics and integrity of his SIGNATURE choreography.

During the 1980s, Cunningham produced a series of distinguished videotapes, often in collaboration with Charles Atlas (1949), of dances made only for the medium, with the camera sometimes appearing as a participating dancer, all in contrast to the taping of pre-existing performances. Biped (1999) cleverly exploited new animation technology of capturing movements that are projected on a front scrim not as dancers’ bodies but as movements in outline. As walking became problematic for him by the 1990s, he produced for the Identities exhibition (2001) at the MIT Media Lab a dance for his hands. Thanks to its videographer Paul Kaiser (1956), Loops, to quote a press release, offers:

A definitive recording of Cunningham performing the work in a motion capture studio. This recording preserved the intricate performance as 3D data, which portrayed not Cunningham’s appearance, but rather his motion. Cunningham’s joints become nodes in a network that sets them into fluctuating relationships with one another, at times suggesting the hands underlying them, but more often depicting complex cat’s-cradle variations.

Because Cunningham’s activities are not symbolic of human activities or emotions, they are meant to be appreciated as ends in themselves. His dance thus demands not empathy from the spectator but, as Cage once explained, “your faculty of kinesthetic sympathy. It is this faculty we employ when, seeing the flight of birds, we ourselves, by identification, fly up, glide and soar.” What seems at first inscrutable about Cunningham’s choreography is quite comprehensible, providing one does not strive too hard to find underlying “significances.” What you see is most of what there is.

Another departure came with his use of music. Whereas most choreographers draw their inspirations from particular scores, Cunningham composed all but a few of his pieces without music; his dancers count to themselves for their cues. What music is heard in his work is customarily composed apart from the dance, as are the decor and costumes, and thus not mixed with the dance until the final rehearsals. The music tends to be harshly atonal and rhythmically irrelevant, as Cunningham for his accompaniments long favored John Cage and those composers gathered around him.

Cunningham’s choreographies are generally many-sided, nonlinear, nonexpressionistic, spatially noncentered, temporally nonclimactic, and compositionally assembled. The decor and sound are supplementary, rather than complementary; and the dancers are highly individualized. Though Cunningham’s art was avant-garde, his sensibility was classical, which is to say precise, C ONSTRUCTIVIST, and severe. He revealed the scope of his choreographic intelligence through his profound knowledge of dance and dancers, coupled with his seemingly limitless capacity for invention.

Though Cunnngham’s will stipulated that his company be dissolved, as he perhaps feared the disasters following other choreographers’ deaths, certain sometime Cunningham dancers have continued his tradition –particularly Robert Swinston (1950), long his company’s assistant director, as an American working mostly in France.

Curry, Jw

(c. 1959)

The avant-garde Canadian poet, publisher, and bookseller jwcurry (né John Curry) began reading the polypoet BPNICHOL’s small magazine GrOnk when he was about 15, and that experience deeply influenced both his writing and publishing. Even curry’s chosen form for his name echoes the outré capitalization practices of Nichol and other early CONCRETE poets. Curry began publishing in 1979 under a variety of imprints, but most of his micropublications form part of his Curved H&z imprint, relatively well known for its 1cent series consisting of small publications costing only a cent. His publishing focuses on extravagantly ambitious and impeccably produced micropublications. He prints most of these with small rubberstamp kits, forcing himself to focus primarily on tiny poems, but he also has used many other means of printing.

Curry’s literary output includes visual poetry, sound poetry, and minimalist textual poetry with a definite avant-garde bent. His visual poetry takes on many different styles: COLLAGE poems, hand-drawn poems, typewriter poems, and serigraphed poems. One of his most productive, but little recognized, literary forms has been the personal letter. For many years, curry was a prolific letter writer who corresponded with dozens of poets across the globe. In these letters, he shared his demanding criteria for good poetry and his views on the endeavor of micropublishing.

One form for curry’s artmaking is an invented alter ego named Wharton Hood, putatively a Canadian poet who lived near curry when he himself lived in Toronto. Hood had his own set of correspondents, used completely different handwriting than curry, and appeared in curry’s own letters as a local character whom curry could not quite control. (When I had arrived once at his apartment in Toronto, he told me I had just missed Hood.) This alter ego was the supposed editor of Utopic Furnace Press –a press that published only found work –even though, of course, curry served as the publisher of the venture as well.


(c. 1945)

This word was coined by Norbert Wiener (1894–1964), an MIT professor, for self-steering mechanisms, which is to say those entities that, like human beings, consider intelligently their results of their own output. For example, if you step (output) on a hot coal (input), you’ll probably pull back your foot and won’t step on hot coals again. The initial idea was to make robots capable of this human trait. Necessarily incorporating the new disciplines of information theory, control systems, automatons, artificial intelligence, computer-simulated activities, and information processing, the ideal of cybernetics had great influence, particularly in the 1960s.

A good example of cybernetic art would be the responsive mechanism, such as James Seawright’s Scanner (1966), which is a large, plastic-ribbed, ball-shaped cage some 6 feet in diameter that is suspended from the ceiling. From the ball’s lowest point extends a thin metal arm that contains photocells. A STROBE LIGHT is projected upwards out of the piece’s vertical core and then reflected by mirrors at its top, both down the plastic ribs and into the field around the sculpture. The photocells respond to decided changes in the room’s lighting (natural as well as artificial, depending upon the hour) by halting the arm, which then swings in either direction (depending upon whether the alternating current is positive or negative at the precise moment of contact). The turning of the arm inevitably gives the photocells a different perspective on the field, causing another decisive change in the light that prompts the system to halt again and electronically reconsider the direction of its movement. In sum, then, this self-considering activity makes Scanner a genuine example of a cybernetic machine whose output (the movement of the arm) causes it to reconsider its input (the field of light) and to continually adjust itself. Within its normal operations are the cybernetic processes of response, information processing, selection, and self-control.

The critic/curator Cynthia Goodman describes N ICOLAS S CHÖFFER’s earlier “Cysp” series (the term being an abbreviation of cybernetics and spatio-dynamics), which were C ONSTRUCTIVIST structures that performed like robots:

They were mounted on four rollers that gave them the capability to move. Photoelectric cells, microphones, and rotating blades powered by small motors were connected to their scaffold-like structures. Controlled by an electronic brain developed by Philips [the Dutch electronics business], a Cysp responded to variations in color intensity, light, and sound.

Goodman, who has been the principal American critic/ curator of this underacknowledged turf, praises a robot (1984–87) modeled after A NDY W ARHOL that was constructed by a former Walt Disney animator to be a surrogate for Warhol on lecture tours. “An appropriate tribute to a man who so often claimed he wanted to be a machine, the computer-controlled robot is endowed with preprogrammed speech and fifty-four separate body movements that supposedly will be barely distinguishable from Warhol’s.”



The most common name for a brand of visual poetry that expresses itself over the Internet, rather than on the page, on film, or across the air, cyberpoetry has come into its own only as of the mid-1990s. Examples existed before that time, but without the development of HTML, the regularization of the Internet, and the mass ingress of people to the Internet, little occurred. These new kinetic poems have more potential than their decades of predecessors beginning with the kinetic semiobjects of the 1960s. Today’s cyberpoet can work with color and movement just as easily as earlier poets worked with shapes and words. Some of the current crop of cyberpoetry stuns the viewer with its naturalness, its ease of presentation. These cyber-poems seem less forced than the crude beginnings of visual computer poetry in the mid-1980s. No real master of the form has yet appeared, but soon that should occur.

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