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The Scrappy Resourcefulness + Typographic Genius of Beat Generation Typewriter Artists

“Seduced by limitation.”

Ever since typewriters became widely available people have found ways to manipulate them. Enterprising amateur artists, perhaps bored at work, used the rigid keys to mold numbers and letters into intricate drawings of butterflies and airplanes—an impressive, if predictable, show of precision and patience. Yet the typewriter art we all know now—the abstract compositions, the Beat Generation-associations—didn’t fully emerge until the 1950s, several decades after the typewriter had hit the market. And for that, says Jen Inacio, curator at Pérez Art Museum Miami, we have the concrete poetry movement to thank.

Inacio and her colleague René Morales curated the show From the truer world of the other: Typewriter Art from PAMM’s Collection, opening next week at PAMM, which explores the works of 15 visual artists and poets who used the typewriter as an artistic medium. The museum culled the pieces from their own collection, recently acquired by the Miami-based Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, an enormous archive of works from the concrete poetry movement. As Marvin and Ruth Sackner told The Atlantic a few years ago, they started building the collection without knowing exactly what the text-based pieces were; it wasn’t until 1979 that they heard the term “concrete poetry” to describe works that use typographical elements to convey artistic meaning. When the movement flourished in the ’50s and ’60s, it gave new meaning to typewriters, too: the widely accessible machines provided a cheap, albeit painstaking way to express this new poetic form.

This is when typewriter art moved from kitschy representational images to a serious art form. It was an economically feasible medium for many artists; cheap to produce, it didn’t require a lot of space or supplies—just a typewriter. In the hands of artists and poets, the humble machine yielded works that are “so meticulous, systematic, almost mathematical—from these crazy geometric abstractions and optical illusions, to pieces that are highly experimental,” says Inacio.

This new art form was also incredibly labor-intensive. It takes an unusual level of obsession and patience to be able to make something graphically interesting solely using lines of type. But as any artist working today with code—or who is attracted to the limitations of computer programs, or even the vintage allure of the risograph printer—knows, constraints in artistic practice can be a boon.

“With the works we have in the exhibition, you’re able to see things you wouldn’t think could be done with a typewriter,” says Inacio. “You think, ‘they are really pushing the boundaries of the typewriter.’ But they can only push it so far, and these artists were seduced by that limitation. They were really pushing all the way to the edge, to ‘how far can this go?’”

We asked Inacio to show us the answer through the works of four artists in the show.

 

1
Dirk Krecker

Dirk Krecker is a Frankfurt-based artist working today. He uses old typewriters to create large-format drawings made of dense type. Despite being younger than most of the other artists in the show, his work is more akin to the representational typewriter works that preceded the concrete poetry movement. Rather than abstract forms, his keystrokes reveal realistic pictures of buildings or airplanes. The images appear woven in the type. The opacity nods to the over-saturation of the ‘information era’ thanks to the much faster, more high-tech machines that pervade our lives today.

 

2
Gustave Morin

The concrete poet Gustave Morin has for the past quarter century been manipulating the typewriter in very different ways to others in the movement—he often modifies the keys by hand to create his own symbols, before creating intricate patterns on paper. “Gustave Morin was not only manipulating the typewriter to create these really intricate patterns, but also going into the typewriter and physically changing the keys,” says Inacio. “He would change the shape of a letter into something else, creating his own glyph.”

His 2015 book Clean Sailspublished by New Star Books, consists of a half-decade of typewriter art, many of which were made from typewriters Morin modified by hand. The author calls the works poetry, though others have described his style as akin to “painting through a typewriter.”

3
Dom Sylvester Houédard

Dom Sylvester Houédard, a concrete poet in the ’50s and ’60s, has become better known only recently, after the publication of a 2013 book of essays called Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, and subsequent exhibitions of his work. Houédard, also known also as dsh, was an anomaly in the concrete poetry movement for the simple fact that he was also a Benedictine monk. But he was also incredibly prolific—not all of the fragile “typestracts” that he composed on his Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter have survived—and as Inacio points out, his modest lifestyle was indicative of one major reason the typewriter art movement flourished. “In the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, after the war, people were going back to work and these tools were accessible to everyone. Artists were drawn to the accessibility of this tool and the possibility of working fast,” she says. As a monk, Houédard had very few possessions, and not a lot of space, but he did have a typewriter, type ribbons, and paper—which was enough for him to make some really beautiful creations. 

Dom Sylvester Houédard, devozione private (dsh 101070) [private devotion (dsh 101070)], 1970. Typewriting on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches. Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, acquired from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Photo: Sid Hoeltzell

4
d.a. levy

The poet and artist d.a. levy was one of the more famous figures to emerge from the concrete poetry movement. In addition to his writing, he also dabbled in typewriter art—but he brought other tools and elements into the process as well. “He’s an artist who is going beyond just the typewriter and the paper and the ribbons,” says Inacio. “He goes beyond ink, even going as far as collaging on top of the typewritten pages. It’s so precise that you still do get an abstracted quality out of it.”

d. a. levy. When the Light Went On, from the series Zen Concrete, 1967. Ink, mimeograph, offset text, typewriting, and paper collage, 11 x 8 9/16 inches. Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, acquired from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Photo: Sid Hoeltzell

As Levy’s work shows, even when exploring ways of adding to typewriter art, these artists never strayed too far outside of the natural constraints of the typewriter. “It’s nice to see the artists questioning how far this tool can go, but ultimately they were attracted to that preciseness, that meticulous, methodological system.”

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