To be presented as a graveside oration at the Yale University Art Gallery, 17 April, 2007.
Paul Forte’s Headstone is installed in the Sculpture Garden of the Yale University Art Gallery, and it is through this placement, together with its material – slate – that it is naturally read as a piece of sculpture in the form of a simple grave-marker: a slate tablet with a semi-circular top, which, together with the font of its inscription, evokes a Puritan aesthetic and an eighteenth century vintage. In this respect, it is consistent with the overall spirit of Forte’s work, according to a kind of manifesto he wrote in December, 2006, which goes some distance in explaining my own interest, as author of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, in his art:
The transformation of common objects in visually poetic ways has been a focus of my work since the early 1990’s. As a general rule, I prefer ordinary things that have some history about them; a connection to the past that lends the object an otherness even before working with it. In a way, the otherness of these things is partly the result of their lack of cultural currency; their dated quality or cast off status.As such, many of these things can be perceived as possessing a poetic element, an aspect that can be drawn out or amplified.”
Headstone is fraught with ambiguities, situated where and as it is, which would not arise were it in fact placed in a cemetery. It is placed just in front of, and at a slight angle to a free-stone wall that considerably pre-dates Louis Kahn’s museum. So it looks not merely like a headstone, but seems in fact to mark a grave, leaving the viewer to wonder whether it is a sculpture or in fact marks a burial site. It is possible to suppose, for example, that there was a grave on this site, and that the original architects respected an injunction against disturbing a grave – one often, for example, sees little cemeteries in fields otherwise cultivated in rural America. And one may remember the warning on Shakespeare’s headstone:
“Good friends, for Jesus’ sake forebear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blest be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
So it could be a grave that by circumstance has a second life in a precinct otherwise given over to art. What counts against this is the evident newness of the stone, and the sharpness of the inscribed characters, though this is temporary – it will in time, exposed to the elements, weather and age. If so, it would be curious that there is, so far as one can tell, neither date nor name, though the latter absence may be illusory, when we came to interpret the epitaph, which consists of three monosyllabic homophones, each with different grammatical identities. “Here….lies” usually identifies the occupant of the grave, with “here” as an indexical: but “hear” is an injunction, which takes “lies” as accusative object, instead of the verb we would take it as meaning in the conventional hic jacet context.. If it does mean that, then “NO” – two capitals – is transformed into a noun and hence, perhaps, a name, that of the inhumed body – “NO” – as in James Bond’s nemesis, Dr, No. So we have at least to make a judgment whether the author or the carver was literate or not. Punning epitaphs are by no means uncommon. The poet John Donne had written on his headstone:
John Donne Undone.
And the New Yorker wit, Dorothy Parker, has Excuse my Dust, which dates from the early days of the automobile, and the laughable velocities people of that era mistook for speed.
Before turning to the matter of disambiguation, and ultimately to the relationship between the headstone and art, let me mention another artist who has used an almost identical slate headstone in her ongoing The Epitaph Project, Joyce Burstein. I like such examples of nearly identical objects in doing critical, let alone philosophical analysis, because of the impulse to say the artists are doing the same thing when in truth the differences reveal deep differences in meaning and identity. Joyce, for example, does not write epitaphs. She leaves it to passersby to write them – in chalk. She places her headstones in actual graveyards, in which she has in some cases purchased cemetery plots – the Forever Hollywood cemetery in Los Angeles and Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. But she has also installed a gravestone in Socrates Sculpture Park, New York, and in other artworld venues, such as the Fields Sculpture Park in upstate New York. Burstein actually visits the grave in Los Angeles each Dia de los Muertos.She always leaves pieces of chalk in metal container, with which visitors are encouraged to write their own epitaphs, which she pays the caretakers to photograph for her. When I visited her installation in Cleveland, I wrote “Here lies one whose name was writ in chalk,” alluding to John Keats’s deeply moving epitaph in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” By contrast, the viewer of Forte’s headstone is restricted to resolving the meaning intended by the deeply ambiguous epitaph he had composed. Here is a note he wrote on March 7, 2006:
“Is something of our spirit buried beneath this headstone?A spirit of resistance summed up in a two letter word?If we have lost something of our spirit, involving our ability to hear no lies, does this marker nonetheless symbolize the possibility of a transformation of that loss?The dead hear nothing, but what of the living?Like any headstone, this one addresses the living.It can be seen to admonish us to hear no lies.Not for the sake of the dead, but in the name of the living. “
For me, this carries a political meaning, and indeed that is conceded in a note he wrote a few days later as a possible, though not the initial meaning of the epitaph:
“The best artworks have a life and will of their own.And while they often transcend the artist’s intention, something of the vitality of this work can be traced back to the original aim of the artist.Artworks that begin as personal expressions can in time take on or come to reflect something of the hopes and fears of the society in which they arise.For example, consider the possible meanings of “Headstone” in light of a needless and unpopular war.One possible interpretation of the piece is that the dead (the soldiers that have fallen in this war) are imploring us to hear no lies with regard to the “reasons” for waging the war as well as its continued prosecution.Most of us now know that this conflict was begun in a climate of fear and orchestrated through a series of lies. [But] what of our resistance to this war, not just our refusal to accept the lies that brought it about, but that spirit of resistance summed up in a two-letter word?If we have lost something of this spirit of resistance, can it ever be fully restored?We will surely need such élan in the future.It remains to be seen if this artwork can make a small contribution to the reawakening of something essential to our humanity or whether it will remain little more than an obscure, dark marker from a troubled period.”
Oddly, I would, knowing the artist from many email exchanges, have supposed this the original intention. It would belong with a great work by Jeff Wall, now on view at MoMA, in which dead soldiers converse with one another on the battlefield. But in that same note. Forte tells us what the original intention was, connecting it with another theme that has played a deep role in his thought and feelings:
“ ‘Headstone’ was initially meant as a response to the rejection of the artist’s work by the art world.It therefore symbolized the rejection of a particular kind of negative judgment.More importantly, it was a poetic way of confronting the possibility of internalizing this rejection, something that has spelled the end of many an artist.The negative judgment(s) about one’s art by those with the power to make or break an artist’s career are to be understood as lies (of a sort), and thus NO, which signifies a refusal to validate the work, is effectively laid to rest.Such was my initial intention in making this work.”
On the original intention, the epitaph must read: “Here NO lies,” with “here” serving as an indexical, and “lies” serving as a verb. NO lies safely in its grave. “NO,”admittedly, through the parenthetical “of a sort,” is the NO of rejection of art, now laid to rest. On the second, more political reading, the sound (hîr) conveyed by the indexical is transformed into the imperative “hear,” viz, “pay attention” and “lies” becomes a straightforward falsehood, intended to mislead. So the epitaph is (at least) doubly ambiguous.
I tend to favor the first reading, mainly because it is a response to the fact that the work has been acquired by a major museum as part of its permanent collection. It is, through that acquisition, been validated by art world criteria. It marks the end of a quest – a deep deep reassurance that Paul Forte is the artist that he and his supporters have always believed he is. A negation is not a mere nothing. Philosophers have wondered, in a way, what kind of something nothing is. It is, I think, the most painful of somethings. Think of Molly Bloom’s reply to a proposal put to her by Leopold, at the conclusion of Ulysses – “yes I said yes I will Yes” – and imagine that it were NO instead. A whole world would have collapsed. Or when John Lennon first encountered Yoko Ono, at the Indica Gallery in London, in 1966, through a work titled YES Painting, which consists in a very tiny inscription of the single word Yes, written in ndia ink on primed canvas, hung horizontally just beneath the gallery’s ceiling. The viewer was required to mount a stepladder, painted white, and to look at the painting through a magnifying lens, suspended from the frame. Lennon climbed the ladder and read the word, which made a great impression on him.“ So it was positive,” he later said. “I felt relieved… It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say no or fuck you; it says YES” A gravestone engraved with: