In grade school, cursive and print were treated like indicators of who we are. As I remember, girls’ writing was meant to be neat; boys’ was generally unruly. Sometimes more was read into our penmanship as well — whether we’d be artists or doctors (doctors having awful handwriting). The idea seemed to be that how we write reveals something about the way we think and relate to the world.
An exhibition at the Drawing Center, Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches, starts from that premise and extend it further, arguing that handwritten texts by Swiss modernist author Robert Walser and American poet Emily Dickinson may not just be early drafts or sketches, but art. The Drawing Center and curator Claire Gilman venture half-boldly to call the 80 pieces in the exhibition “visual works by two writers.”
Born in different eras and on different continents, Walser and Dickinson both led intensely private lives and shared an inimitable approach to notes. Dickinson seldom left her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, shrinking back over the years to the point where she rarely left her house. Walser also retreated into solitude, though less by choice. After stints as a butler and an inventor’s assistant, he began to gain recognition as a writer in the early 1900s. But his vocation was stilled into silence when his family institutionalized him in a mental asylum in 1933. (“I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,” he is said to have told a visitor inquiring about his writing.)
For Dickinson and Walser, correspondence was their contact with the world, and it is upon envelopes, bits of stationery, candy wrappers, telegrams, business cards, and other ephemeral debris from the outside world that most of the Drawing Center sketches appear — almost as if by writing upon these surfaces, they acknowledged the pieces’ lingering intimacy and continued utility, a reminder of friends and contacts as well as reusable writing material.
Dickinson, slightly more than Walser, was fond of envelopes. Contrary to the elementary-school stereotype, her handwriting was hurried and dashed. On torn envelope pieces she traced drafts of poetry, as if struck by a thought but with nowhere to record it besides an envelope at her desk: Dickinson thoughtfully, but in a jolt, jotting down these lines like the morning after a dream, trying to capture its clarity before it fades. There’s a rooted spontaneity to her inspirations. In one case, the line “Clogged only with Music, like the Wheels of Birds” appears on two pieces of envelope folded and pinned together in what scholar Marta Werner calls a “sudden collage,” one fold perhaps evoking the open wings of the bird in the poem. The exhibition even contains Dickinson’s only known drawing, a small pencil sketch of a headstone in a patch of grass.
Whereas Dickinson’s handwriting is loose, Walser’s is cramped, tiny, indomitable. For many years, his notes and microscripts were indiscernible, written in shorthand in an archaic German alphabet. It is from his “pencil system,” his highly personal manner of writing, that the exhibition appears to take its name and focus. Writing in the New York Review of Books, J.M. Coetzee noted that:
In a piece entitled “Pencil Sketch” dating from 1926-1927, he mentions the “unique bliss” that the pencil method allowed him. “It calms me down and cheers me up,” he said elsewhere. Walser’s texts are driven neither by logic nor by narrative but by moods, fancies, and associations: in temperament he is less a thinker or storyteller than an essayist. The pencil and the self-invented stenographic script allowed the purposeful, uninterrupted, yet dreamy hand movement that had become indispensable to his creative mood.
Walser’s “pencil system” was a linguistic and psychological process that shaped his manner of thinking and writing, his choice of words and meaning — which means the very experience of reading Walser is also the result of his procedure. That it was cryptic and visually powerful was tangential. Walser’s “pencil system” was a language system.
For such a small exhibition — only one room — Dickinson/Walser Pencil Sketches is remarkably thought-provoking. While Walser may be the more convincing case of the two, together they set in motion the show’s blurring of the lines between art, language, and society. Can art create language? Is text art? Is art text? The answer may not be “yes” to all three, but neither does it seem to be just one.
Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches continues at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through Jan 12.