Kenneth Goldsmith's Life in 600 Pages: No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96
Desereè M. Martinez
Senior Thesis, Department of English
Princeton University, 2001
“Words, words, words.” Little did Shakespeare know that Hamlet’s melancholy musings would come to have so much meaning in the modern world. Or do they? What importance can we put on something that has little more physical substance than a fragile page and a splash of ink? What makes Hamlet so great? In substance it is merely a thin folio of typeset, its author only an English gentleman. Shakespeare was assuredly a great guy, smart, witty, and a favorite of the ladies, but these things do not a writer make. Only words can make an author. Without Shakespeare the English language would be poor indeed since the Bard is credited with thousands of new additions, many of which he created for the sole purpose of perpetuating his rhyme scheme. It is this flippant handling of pen and paper that puts Shakespeare at the top of his field, for words are the medium of every writer, be they traditional or avant-garde. Words are the material, the challenge and sometimes the bane of writerly existence. The ability to take language and actively control it requires a certain amount of skill. To drive the words past traditional boundaries and into new literary territory takes a touch of insanity. When it comes to words, Kenneth Goldsmith displays both talent and madness in amazing proportion.
Goldsmith’s epic novel/poem/encyclopedia No.111 2.7.93-10.20.96 displays at least the amazing proportion if not the talent and madness as well. No.111 consists of phrases collected and compiled between February 7, 1993 and October 20, 1996. The book is what many would consider “unreadable,” a hyper-syllabic jumble of unfinished sentences, inside jokes, and everyday nonsense. All phrases in No.111 end with some form of the schwa sound, [ah, ar, etc.]. With No.111, Goldsmith plays the part of “avant-humanist,” a rare breed of experimental writer who unwittingly stumbles into projects that capture the ever-elusive human condition. Compiling quotes in a gleeful attempt to create a work based on nothing, Goldsmith spent three years of his life editing a six hundred page dissertation on the human phenomenon. No.111 displays with an edge of malice, a cynical humor, and a boundless joy the beauty and unpredictability of the English language. The words of No.111 do not belong to Goldsmith, for he is merely a collector, in reality they belong to the reader, the man next door, to everyone. Through the words we rediscover elements of ourselves.
From street signs and websites, strip clubs and classics Goldsmith gathered the language around him. Intently listening to the stirring undercurrents of life on the streets of New York City, he forged into uncharted territory determined to record language as it happened. What he ended up with is a work of poetic non-fiction based on the mainstream of American culture in the 20th century, a testimony to the blizzard of words that threatens to engulf our lives. Goldsmith condensed into one volume a “great collection of ephemera,” a seemingly paradoxical example of the history of “today” as it is being lived. His work reflects a complete immersion into the grit and grime of life, a foray into the endless depths of the mind, and the inner jungle of thought. No.111 documents Goldsmith’s “Conrad-esque” journey in striking detail, revealing the vibrant, primal, and sometimes darkly twisted nature of language.
Born in 1961, Kenneth Goldsmith grew up in an upper-middle class suburb of Long Island—hardly the setting to spawn careers in sculpture and experimental writing. In a haze of drug use and perpetual art class, Goldsmith graduated from Port Washington’s Paul D. Schreiber High School in 1979, set free to explore the world at the dawning of the “Computer Age.” It took five years and three schools for Goldsmith to earn a degree. He moved from New York University to Parsons School of Design in 1980, leaving New York altogether a year later for the Rhode Island School of Design.
Goldsmith entered the Ceramics department at RISD, following a favorite teacher who also transferred from Parsons, but soon decided “using one material (clay) was too limiting.” When he started fabricating his work from other sources he was promptly booted from the Ceramics department straight into Sculpture, and a fervent attachment was formed. Goldsmith’s passion for “piles” developed during his time at RISD, he took to randomly stacking together hundreds of cast objects, each installation of the same objects being extremely different from the last. The affinity for large amounts of random material piled on top of each other stuck with Goldsmith, carrying over into his later works and into his writing. As an artist Goldsmith was concerned with the perception of information in space, and with aleatoric sculpture he found that he could make the “philosophical qualities of the work [mesh] with the physical presentation.” This sentiment would prove extremely important in Goldsmith’s later experiments with writing.
Completing his BFA in Sculpture in 1984, Goldsmith once again found himself adrift in the world with a diploma, but still no clue as to the direction his life, job, or art would take. His list of jobs reads like one of his works,
Garbage man, chicken delivery man, ski shop attendant, floor sweeper, cocaine dealer, short order cook, bartender, dishwasher, waiter, carpenter, cabinet maker, plaster caster, artists assistant, autoCAD operator, layout editor, web designer, creative director, consultant, lecturer, music critic, radio personality, writer, artist.
During the early days of his sculptural career, Goldsmith pursued the same experimental designs he had in college, which soon proved to be too time consuming and ineffective. He sought a way to “distill the energy of the piles,” while at the same time creating more marketable works. Under the guidance of Bill Arning, curator of the White Columns gallery, Goldsmith produced his first stack of wooden books. The books would prove to be the jumping-off point for the artist’s success in the gallery system. He began to carve individual books, realizing that the single form could harness all the kinetic energy of the pile. Goldsmith’s books created quite an explosion in the gallery scene; suddenly he was in the spotlight as an up-and-coming artist. In 1989, Goldsmith got his “break,” a showing of his “Anxiety” series at White Columns. The visible force of the books was astonishing, as the elegantly carved pages and provocative titles had a seemingly mesmerizing effect on collectors and critics alike.
Why books? In terms of shapeliness they are fairly forgettable, being squat and rectangular. Compared to other sculpture-worthy forms like the human body, book forms have very little variation among the types. So, why did Goldsmith get a break with books? Anyone who has ever been inside a library knows the feeling of wandering the stacks looking at all the spines facing out from the shelves. Millions and millions of pages of information, just waiting to be discovered, are hidden from view between hardbound covers. Through his sculptures, Goldsmith tapped that intrigue, and library-lovers disguised as gallery-goers bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Interestingly enough, collectors were buying only a representation, for books have a funny way of existing on two planes at once. Each carved book was titled; giving it a theme and a subject, but content was non-existent. The real beauty of a book is not the shape it takes at the binders; the real attraction lies in the story it tells, whatever that may be. It would be some years and several exhibits later, before Goldsmith realized that his job description was changing.
Whether he knew it or not Kenneth Goldsmith was always a writer. He exhibited the “symptoms” from the earliest stages of his documented artistic career; all of his truly memorable works contain some form of text. While at the height of his sculptural maturity Goldsmith was producing books, large carved volumes with intriguing and perplexing subjects. “Expectancy” eerily projects the length of Goldsmith’s life--1962-2028-- though his days in the art world did not last quite so long. He created two volumes dedicated to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, both aptly titled “Steal This Book,” and neither of which could be stolen because of their abnormally large size. Political, pop culture and literary icons like Abbie Hoffman, Bob Dylan, James Joyce, and John Cage influenced Goldsmith’s early artwork.
When Goldsmith stumbled upon an old copy of Random House’s Rhyming Dictionary he began a series of works using the basic premise of rhymed final syllables. The first piece was entitled “Influence of Anxiety,” based on literary theorist Harold Bloom’s book called The Anxiety of Influence. Carved down the center of the book are words ending in –ence; impotence, innocence, etc. Bloom’s book is an analysis of Romantic era poetry through the lens of social, religious and political influence. In the introduction, Bloom quotes Oscar Wilde, “Influence is simply a transference of personality, a mode of giving away what is most precious to one’s self, and its exercise produces a sense, and it may be, a reality of loss.” This statement rings true in Goldsmith’s career as well; he molded his sculpture to the words of other writers, testing the waters before taking the leap. His artistic influence came from works of literature, and with each work Goldsmith set down the words that influenced him most. As Wilde points out, Goldsmith lost another part of himself with each creation, he stagnated groups of ideas by putting them into three-dimensional works, and it killed him. “Influence of Anxiety” looms as an eerie foreshadowing of Goldsmith’s complete break with the gallery circuit.
Goldsmith created extraordinary works of art, but they were frustrating to the man struggling to find his own mode of expression. They simply took too long to make, and the words were coming faster than the books could be carved. His pieces began to reflect his irritation with the artistic process, and with the commercial value that the gallery community placed on tediously “crafted” works. The longer a work took to complete, the better the buyers liked it, a strange kind of conceit that kept Goldsmith from increasing the volume of his work. He was slowly drowning in the artistic shallows. An intricately carved book with a bright light shining through the word “Truth,” was beautiful to look at indeed, though nothing but air lay between its hollow pages. In short “The Blinding Truth” was a signal for Goldsmith to drop everything and take a hard look at the real content of his work.
Inspired by Joseph Kosuth’s “dictionary” pieces, Goldsmith abandoned carved books in favor of paper and canvas. Kosuth observed the disparity of using words to describe and define other words. In his “Art as Idea as Idea” series Kosuth lifted the definition of “art” from the dictionary and printed it in white ink on black paper. (Figure 1.) By inversing the color scheme he illuminates the structure of the definition, while at the same time turning the entry into the very thing it defines. “Art as Idea as Idea” also shows the beauty of arranged words, uncovering the intricate patterns of a dictionary entry where once only reference stood. Goldsmith tried his hand at two-dimensional work, by exactly recreating Kosuth’s dictionary layout, but using entries from the rhyming dictionary. To Kosuth, language functions as both “formless” and “colorless,” two extremely important factors in the creation of his later installations. Words are contrary to art, because they cannot be interpreted in a purely visual context, but must resonate within both the environment and the viewer in order to obtain meaning. One of Kosuth’s first text pieces were three glass boxes filled with crushed, ground and stacked glass, each was labeled “Glass.” By giving each unique cube the same abstraction, the artist removes “concrete formal properties” leaving only the “device.”
Examining Kosuth is an excellent way to understand the content and context of Goldsmith’s work prior to writing No.111. Goldsmith says, “Kosuth’s definition pieces were very important to me in order to open up a vocabulary in the gallery that
included linguistic presentation of ideas.” Determining this vocabulary was an important part in Goldsmith’s coming to age as an author. He needed a way to distance himself from the concrete visual reality of the gallery circuit while at the same time exploring the function of language as poetry and art. Goldsmith broke from the three-dimensional completely with his following projects, taking Kosuth’s lead. Using words to structure and define his artistic endeavors, Goldsmith sought an art form somewhere between sculpture and poetry. Kosuth used panels of clear glass leaning against the wall in his work to “avoid composition:” works that were “not sculpture (on the floor) nor a painting (on the wall.)” Goldsmith took this idea and ran with it, his future projects consisting of large panels of framed text leaning against gallery walls, nicely skewing the line between writing and art. However, Goldsmith made a pit stop, of sorts, on the road to revelation in the form of a pencil series titled 73 Poems.
Goldsmith collaborated with singer Joan La Barbara on 73 Poems. Named for an e.e. cummings book of poems, the work actually contains seventy-nine panels of shaded text. Words in charcoal and graphite fill large sheets of parchment-colored rag paper. Each panel has two different rhyme schemes, one drawn in light gray graphite, the other overwriting it in thick, dark charcoal producing the mesmerizing special effect of words floating on top of one another. The poems are written in such a way that the darker text of the first becomes the lighter background text for the next and so on, until the series wraps up with the initial background becoming the foreground of the last sheet. (Figure 2.) This layering effect gives a sense of passing time within
the pieces; the barely visible past lingers in the background yielding power to the brighter future, though still resonating through the space. When hanging, the large, framed pieces command the eye, drawing the viewer into the hazy depths of the charcoal drawings. The poems are striking enough to stand alone, however the circularity of the pieces draws them all together into an elaborate whole. The circular nature of the poems is on par with the idea of a printed book being a cohesive unit, though in exaggerated terms.
When La Barbara decided to record the poems the images were printed as a compliment/supplement to the CD version. Seen as printed text, the subtle variations in texture and shading vanish creating seventy-nine uniform pieces. The words of the poems come more sharply into focus and the viewer of a lovely piece of art suddenly becomes a reader as well. Goldsmith put another notch in his writer’s belt with the printing of 73 Poems, proving that poetry does not have to make sense to be beautiful, nor does it have to come bound in a Bible-paper anthology to be readable.
By the time he released 73 Poems Goldsmith had started on a collection of short poems that he tentatively entitled “Raps.” Fascinated with rhyme, he wanted to create lyric, not unlike beat box rappers of the mid-eighties. Goldsmith worked extensively with the rhyming dictionary, forming quirky, tantalizing, and sometimes, according to the author, just plain bad poetic texts. Using his sculpture background, he toyed with formatting, the look and feel of the words on the page. The results were often discarded, kept in the back of a cabinet in a file folder, though the collection continued to grow. The “Raps” became larger, consecutively numbered until they were no longer tiny pops of rhyme, but long rumbles of poetry. Goldsmith dropped the title of “Raps” as his writing progressed down the number line into the hundreds, and he started to use them as working ideas for his next series of work.
Intent on maximizing his text pieces, Goldsmith produced for the public the first of his “numbered” works, three over-sized panels with columns of words and phrases silk screened onto the canvas. He called them, collectively, No.105 5.23.92-6.21.92, titled by where they fell in the number line, and the dates that the phrases were recorded The words were justified in two columns each corresponding to the width of an average human body, representational of the information that makes up the mind, body and soul. No.105 was a “reading” experience rather than a “viewing” experience, because Goldsmith put more emphasis on the writing than the on visual representation of the phrases. Unfortunately, a gallery setting is made up of viewers not readers, and the text of No.105 was probably written off in the way that a young child writes off chapter books; too many words, not enough pictures.
Goldsmith employed the same formula used in the rhyming dictionary, each phrase increasing in syllable length down the page in alphabetical order, all with a unifying ending rhyme. In the case of No.105, all the words ended with the “ee” sound, “beauty, bitchy; complicity...” The eight-foot panels were a bold move on the part of the artist, pushing the limits and the tolerance of the art community. To counter the response of the gallery crowd, Goldsmith decided to publish No.105 in chapbook form, taking the text and reformatting it for the page. When reduced to letter size paper, No.105 suddenly became a work of literature and was often reviewed as such. In the art world a distinction is made between art and literature, art should be bold and often impressively large, literature on the other hand should not; in the art world the two realms do not intersect.
No.109 2.7.93-12.15.93 would prove the death knell for Goldsmith’s career as an artist. The work was a series of nine eight-foot tall panels that dominated an entire wall of the John Post Lee Gallery in New York. (The work was later released in a chapbook as well.) No.109 starts with a massive scream, and ends on the final panel with disembodied laughter and a tiny sigh. The text is extremely performative, with parenthetical stage directions throughout the laughing sequence, which end with “(all is quiet).” In chapbook form the text is mystifying, like watching a cartoon movie through your own viewer, which starts all distorted until you get the crank going, sails through “snap-crackle-pop” action sequences, and then slowly, quietly winds to a close. However, silk-screened and framed, the text proved too overwhelming for the average gallery patron, but more on this later. Amidst an alarmingly negative reaction only one panel sold. Frustrated and angry, Goldsmith stormed out of the gallery limelight, taking his conceptual “writing” elsewhere—overseas.
When asked to participate in a group show called “Construction in Process” in Lodz, Poland, Goldsmith decided to push his language theory to the brink, in order to prove to himself that the system and not the pieces were at fault. He decided to work “solely in Polish, a language [he has never] spoken nor written.” Imagine trying to write a meaningful piece in a language you do not understand, but Goldsmith had a formula that worked brilliantly on No.105 and No.109, so he employed it in Poland as well. Goldsmith’s “method of writing” allows him to rely completely on audio, visual, or phonetic clues to link together words and phrases; therefore it makes no difference if he understands them at all. Titled No.110 10.4.93-10.7.93, because it followed in the “Raps” sequence, the piece was a 1500 word mural that was twelve feet tall and spanned the length of a fifteen-foot wall. Camped out in a corner of the gallery, Goldsmith clipped words and phrases from “Polish newspapers, magazines, and pornography.” Intrigued, local art students helping at the gallery began leaving clippings of their own, or writing anonymous notes, which Goldsmith gleefully included. The end result was, according to Goldsmith, “a collaboration in the truest sense.”
No.110 is an important link between the highly “visual” texts of previous works and the published work of No.111. With the Polish collaboration, Goldsmith demonstrated that poetic work is universally cooperative, that the feelings and meanings words evoke do not rely on comprehending the language, or on authorial intent, but simply on a well-executed design. The author himself did not even understand what he wrote, but he did recognize that the work meant something unique to every person who viewed it. Language is a powerful tool, for both writer and artist. One thing all people have in common is the capacity to understand, appreciate, and create systems of expression. The inherent ability of all people to comprehend language in its various forms is essential to Goldsmith’s work, because he shoves literature out of its everyday associations and into new realms of existence.
The conception of No.111 2.7.93-10.20.96 looks like something out of the Big-Bang theory, a fantastic and perfectly timed gathering of all the right elements, ending in a mind-staggering, and universe-altering explosion. It proved to be Goldsmith’s “clean slate” as it were, his first official act under the title of author. Using No.111 as a guidebook a portrait of the artist becomes strikingly clear, and through it one can learn the secrets of Goldsmith’s language. No.111 certainly caused some cosmic disruption in the world of literature, inciting old questions of meaning and intent, raising new ones like appropriation in the age of the Internet, and ultimately leading Goldsmith to fidget with language on a regular basis, not as a gallery artist, but as a writer.
Notes: Part One
 Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Act 2: Scene 2, Line 194. Signet Classic Edition.
 Goldsmith, Kenneth . E-mail Interview. 23 Mar. 2001. Kenny and I corresponded regularly throughout the writing process. All quotes in this section and Kenny’s personal information are taken from his e-mail responses, unless otherwise noted.
 Kosuth, Joseph. Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings 1966-1990. Ed. Gabriele Guercio. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. pg. 50.
 Goldsmith, Kenneth. 73 Poems. NewYork, NY. Permanent Press 1993. Images see Figure 2.
 Goldsmith. No.109. See Appendix.
 Goldsmith, Kenneth. Introduction. No.110 10.4.93-10.7.93. New York, NY. Beans Dear? Press 1993. pg. 1.