A N N H O L Y O K E . O R G | A M E T H O D O L O G I C A L C A T A L O G U E O F W O R K S
22 | S I G N S
Twelve-piece wall sculpture, 1992
Equilateral triangles of painted wood
Each ca. 73 x 84 cm [side = 84 cm ].
In July of 1992, it was a truth universally acknowledged that a Western European automobile left unattended anywhere in Eastern Europe was fairly asking to be cannibalized, or even stolen. As a result, nary a car rental agency in Berlin would permit its vehicles to cross the Czech or Polish borders, and Eberhard Blum and I were forced to drive our parlously temperamental Fiat—whose left front blinker had been pilfered not far from our apartment one late-Fall night, two years before, and was, in all likelihood, itself seeing service in parts East—to the High Tatra Mountains of southern Poland, where Blum was to perform at the annual “Karol Szymanowski Festival” in Zakopane.
We duly bought and filled a good-sized cooler; packed our bags; loaded the car; and—rolling its windows down as far as the incrreasing rush of hot air would allow—headed off into that summer’s record-breaking heat. Travelling southeastward from Berlin through the towns and fields of Brandenburg and Silesia, we spent a less than restful night at an Opolski inn and, early the next morning, continued on to Kraków, where we were to connect with the main road leading south into the highlands. In theory the antithesis of convoluted, our route, or rather our want of familiarity with it, in practice brooked little deviation, and less adjustment, so that—in those days before reliable maps of the East had become readily available, to say nothing of GPS-navigation systems—an unanticipated detour played havoc with our plans and self-possession.
In the thick of Cracovian noonday traffic, we were unceremoniously diverted onto an ad hoc byway and hounded—up hummock, down hollow—over a one-lane crazy quilt of blacktop, gravel, soil, and plank quite innocent of signage. However, as we were hard upon what looked to be a particularly provoking, four- or five-pronged fork in this alarming free-for-all, a single, solitary sign did at last appear. Triangular in shape and bordered in red, it displayed a large black exclamation point on a white field.
More often accompanied by advisories apropos the threat, or threats, at hand, this pan-European herald of the untoward here simply threw up its hands at the hydra-headed divergence before us—which clearly was a caution—and then, just as simply, washed them of it, thus adding insult to injury and fuel to the flames of our confusion. Left entirely to our own, severely limited, devices, we pulled onto an entirely hypothetical shoulder to regroup and, the urgency of our predicament notwithstanding, debate the issue of whether a semicolon might not have shed as much light on the present state of affairs as that priggish exclamation mark now did.
The question of what driving behavior a semicolon does or does not suggest continued to occupy my thoughts, off and on, in Zakopane—which we did, of course, eventually find, albeit only after some, on my part ill-natured, squabbling in the Carpathian foothills, to the tune of: since I had to do the driving, couldn’t he just this once overcome his constitutional incapacity to give utterance to anything he did not wholeheartedly believe, and, preferably with the ring of true conviction in his voice, at least claim to know which way we had to go to get where we were going?—and later, too, during our doubtless less fraught drive back to Berlin.
Once home, I set about designing a series of twelve road-hazard triangles, each bearing a different mark of punctuation: signs to be employed in more finely tuning the management of vehicular traffic, perhaps, or else be applied towards an emphatic orchestration of the universal verbal flow. (Strange, that Victor Borge’s phonetic punctuation only now, so many years later, occurs to me in this context.) To the perfectly legitimate exclamation point, I added a period (not to say a full-stop); a comma; a semicolon; a colon; beginning and ending single-stroke guillemets (or “duck feet” quotation marks); opening and closing brackets; a dash; three ellipsis dots; and a question mark.
From the beginning, I was determined that on no account was SIGNS, as I called the piece, to be an artistic stunt or a practical joke—to feign authenticity, that is, by appearing to consist of a dozen standardized, mechanically produced traffic signs—nor was it to be an “artist’s impression” of traffic signs: a painterly painting, or series of paintings, whose subject, so to speak, was really me, painting traffic signs.
I chose instead what I hoped to be a path lying between these two extremes, fashioning my rhetorical road signs one-to-one in shape, scale, and layout with the official German street variety (minus their narrow white edging), but completely out of painted, three-ply wood rather than the screen-printed metal of the originals. SIGNS, though anything but humorless, was to seem poised between dramatic irony and the tongue-in-cheek: it was to appear to assume itself taken seriously and, more importantly, to seem to take itself so (and its striking good looks straight from its roadside models’ clean-cut functionality).
To begin to make the piece, I ordered a sheet of raw plywood from a lumberyard, where I had it cut into equilateral triangular panels and delivered to Fasanenstraße. There, I sawed, filed, and sanded off the wooden triangles’ sharp corners to give them their customary rounded form; primed and covered their surfaces with white, high gloss enamel paint; masked those surfaces, using low tack, self-adhesive film, to outline the contours of each sign’s borders and symbols; and then, again applied high gloss enamel, this time in red (for the borders) and black (for the symbols).
These last steps I performed not once, but twice, and sometimes three times, in order to lend the signs’ visually persuasive features the additional, haptic quality of wafer- or, strictly speaking, paper-thin relief. This meant that, for each coating of each feature on each panel, I had to trim the masking-film to size; position it with great precision, making sure that all its edges adhered tightly to the background; brush on the mid-viscosity enamel, without having the slightest bit seep underneath the film; and then, before the paint had had a chance to set, quickly remove the limp, paint-laden film without leaving any telltale drips or smears behind. Each time, brushwork and film removal had to be carried out as one uninterrupted action, which made the operation as a whole especially challenging (even calling for the extraordinary measure of shutting my studio door against the frequent, and ordinarily so very welcome, visits from the other room).
Fortunately, however, ticklish tasks like these well suit my all but obsessive interest in accuracy and detail, since they’re not to be avoided when my work’s graphic definition is at stake. Such graphic definition is itself essential, ensuring, as it does, a piece’s legibility—which in turn substantially improves the chances of that piece’s being read as it was written.
Evidence that I did in fact “write” signs is provided by faint traces of brush stroke in its glossy surfaces: apparent flaws, which I prefer to think of as my handwriting or, if you will, my signature. These minor imperfections in the piece’s manufacture, though not deliberate per se, are welcome all the same; they serve to draw attention to its handmade character, and leave no doubt that, whereas the hands that carried out the work are reasonably adept at what they do, they can and do not pretend to have mastered any trade. (The homespun joinery solutions I’ve come up with for various other pieces, while neat and effective, likewise have little in common with the techniques of a proper artisan.) Echoes of the brush in SIGNS—and I don’t mean unintended drips or runs or bleeds, which would merely point to sloppy painting—indicate that, in spite of the construction-market origins of its parts, the work belongs, not to the knockabout world of practical purpose and everyday use, but to that of metaphor.
In a seminar he gave, in February 1984, at the Theater am Turm in Frankfurt, the composer Morton Feldman, by way of underscoring the overriding concern he felt with “making things clear,” quoted first Kierkegaard and then Stendhal, repeating each man’s words in his, Feldman’s, own voice.* The former, he said, had written in Either/Or that he believed the only question he would be asked when he had died was, “Did you make things clear?” Did you make things clear? The latter, he claimed, had hung a sign above his desk that read, “To be clear at all costs.”** To be clear at all costs.
Indeed, the truly telling mysteries of art, and life, are those that linger when one has spared no effort to achieve lucidity. They’re to be met with in the shadows that unaccountably persist when everything is bathed in light; perceived despite, yet, then again, because of, an exactness of expression that indicates just where one’s work begins and ends. They are the riddle of that work’s singularity, best recognized, oddly enough, in the “magic moment” when a piece is in perfect concert with the place and time in which it’s seen or heard. Something inhabiting both piece and place moves and speaks there with an ineluctable appeal: that of the beauty, and the mystery, of order.
* Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, (Cambridge: Exact Change, 2000), pp.194–195. Ed. B.H. Friedman.
** Cf. « Je ne vois qu’une règle : être clair. Si je ne suis pas clair, tout mon monde est anéanti. » Stendhal, in a letter to Balzac, 30 October 1840.
Exhibition views of SIGNS at the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, 2000. (Seating by Marcel Breuer, above.)
Invitation to the opening of SIGNS at the Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin, 2000.