Sometime back in the early ’90s I owned a baseball cap featuring one of Jenny Holzer’s signature sayings, “Protect Me From What I Want.” I thought it was hip, but was eventually persuaded to donate it to a yard sale. A month or so later, I noticed an elderly resident of Great Cranberry Island sporting the cap on the mail boat to Mount Desert Island. Holzer’s pronouncement had, in a manner of speaking, jumped the cultural shark.
Which is a somewhat roundabout way of beginning an appreciation of a master of word art, Bern Porter (1911–2004), although it could be argued that Holzer’s appropriation of advertising language/modes owes something to this Maine-born, physicist-engineer-turned-poet’s brilliant anti-establishment send-ups of the admonitions of ad men.
Some proof of this provenance can be found in Waterville, Maine: Listen to this page: Works by Bern Porter from Colby College Special Collections, on view at the Colby College Museum of Art (through May 10). The exhibition offers 16 of the original collages — what Porter referred to as “Founds” — from The Book of Do’s (1982), and 47 from Here Comes Everybody’s Don’t Book (1984). Both books were published in black and white, so the exhibition offers an opportunity to view the original versions, many in color, and to admire Porter’s skill with the scissors.
The two sets of collages utilize a variety of found materials that, respectively, encourage you to take action and the opposite. It’s kind of a case of mind your Ps and Qs — or, better, “do this, don’t do that,” as the Five Man Electrical Band put it so memorably in their 1971 hit song “Signs.”
“Get something for nothing” suggests one of the do’s (a relative of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book); “Never finish” is a don’t recommendation. The messages are aspirational in a twisted way and often elicit a grin (“Don’t buy a douche without smelling it first”).
Porter’s collages range from the more or less completely found to the cleverly cut. Removed from their original context, the words take on a new resonance, as in the four-line exhortation: “Go ahead. Push it around. Jam it into a corner. Put it in orbit.” Are we talking vacuums here? Luggage? Toothbrush? Riddle us this, Madison Avenue.
Many collages invite one to fill in the blank. “OWN YOUR OWN,” rendered in a stylized shadowed font, begs the question, your own what? Without dates, one cannot confirm that this ad copy was inspired by the famous “roll your own” of the peak pot era. Whatever its origin, this simple invitation to ownership has that Holzerian je ne sais quoi.
When not recycling the message verbatim, Porter turned to strategic additions to transform the given word or text. In one piece, a cut-out apostrophe turns “Dos” into “Do’s.” He would have made a great kidnapper: the collages often have the brevity and hand-made appeal of a ransom note. He also practiced calculated redactions.
There is a bit of Joseph Cornell here, in particular the vintage diagrams and images that sometimes appear in Porter’s work. The attitude, however, is very different. Cornell seems almost quaint by comparison; while his multi-layered compositions often play off elegiac or evocative correspondences, Porter prefers his appropriations minimal and direct.
Yet Porter also had an eye and ear for the poetic phrase, inadvertent as it might be. In one piece he juxtaposes “Outfox the Fellow in the Bright Nightgown” with “Put the Smut Merchants Out of Business.” A Google search reveals their genesis. The first phrase, from the purpose statement for the Chicago Tribune’s Audience section launch in 1971, borrows from W. C. Fields, who referred to death as the fellow in the bright nightgown. The second is something Postmaster General Winton Blount declared in 1970 as an emissary for Nixon’s war on porn. Death and sex timely twinned.
Some of the don’ts are well known, but presented in new contexts. “Do not go gentle,” the famous Dylan Thomas line, is attached to a rug sampler; and the American Red Cross’s “Don’t just stand there knocking the world” (sans its call to action, “Join us, and change it”) is pasted on an abstract design of interlocking machine shapes.
As an ex-physicist (he worked on the Manhattan Project), Porter envisioned the unification of science and art, calling it Sciart (one suspects he might have favored the current push for STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art, and math — in K–12 schools). The incorporation of various charts and diagrams in the collages reflect this background, although a text fragment may undercut the data (such as “Do not breathe gas yourself” affixed to a wavelength graph).
The show includes four “artist’s books”: Scandinavian Summer and two editions of Aphasia, from 1961, and Travel Scrapbook (1981–82). Displayed in cases, each offers a single spread for viewing. By the looks of it, Porter cut to a certain size pages from newspapers and bound them somewhat randomly — like sample books, but for the culture of the time. Scandinavian Summer, which appears to be taken from publications from that part of Europe, and Travel Scrapbook, which features souvenirs from Canada, the West Coast, Mexico and South America, highlight Porter’s many travels abroad (he frequently went by cruise ship).
The exhibition benefitted from the contributions of poet and artist Mark Melnicove, who became Porter’s collaborator and sidekick after they met at the Maine Poets Festival in Bar Harbor in 1978. Melnicove, who was 40 years Porter’s junior, published a number of his books, including Here Comes Everybody’s Don’t Book, and frequently performed with him as part of the Eternal Poetry Festival. He served as literary director of Porter’s estate.
Some of their collaborative pieces can be viewed on YouTube. The set-up is often the same: the short Porter standing at a podium or microphone reading from a text while the taller Melnicove hovers around him, sometimes doing a boogie in the background, echoing or riffing on the older poet’s words. The pieces bring to mind those Fred Armisen-Kristen Wiig “Garth and Kath” improv pieces on SNL, although the material tends to be more rarefied.
For those not familiar with Porter’s bona fides, he was born Bernard Harden Porter in Porter Settlement, a remote area of northern Maine near Houlton (the Maine Gazetteer refers to the settlement as “a cultural feature (locale) in Aroostook County”). He attended Colby College, class of 1932, then Brown where he earned a master’s degree in physics in 1934.
Moving to New York City the following year, Porter landed a job with the Acheson Colloids Corporation. When not working on the development of the cathode-ray tube for use in television sets, he visited galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art where he viewed the landmark 1936–37 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (and would have seen work by Joseph Cornell).
With an impressive skill set in physics and engineering, Porter was drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. His assignment proved to be, well, earth-shattering: the Manhattan Project, that cohort of scientists involved in the production of the atomic bomb. He was sent to Princeton to work on the separation of uranium. He later worked on NASA’s Saturn V Rocket while living in Huntsville, Alabama.
A transfer from the project’s headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to the University of California, Berkeley, exposed Porter to the Bay Area literary world. He became involved in publishing various contemporary writers, including Kenneth Patchen, Robert Duncan, and Antonin Artaud (he also produced the first bibliography of the work of his friend Henry Miller).
Porter ended up leaving the Manhattan Project in 1945, distraught by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1946 he advertised himself as a “commentator of contemporary culture.” He moved to Guam in 1950 partly to find himself. He also visited Japan, part of a pattern of travel that he would maintain throughout his life.
Porter returned to his home state in 1968, eventually making Belfast his base of operations (he was named that city’s first poet laureate in 2001). Over the years, he became a major figure in various off-Academy endeavors: mail art (with Charles Stanley, aka Carlo Pittore, and a host of others around the world), performance art, found poetry (my favorite Porter title: The Last Acts of Saint Fuck You).
Called “the Charles Ives of American letters” by publisher and writer Dick Higgins, Porter sought to represent the world through its least impressive communications — the supermarket circular, the instruction manual, the sweepstakes mailer. As one of the wall texts in the exhibition explains, “For Porter, the more forlorn, obsolete, or pandering the print specimen, the greater its potential for redemptive transformation.”
In some ways, Porter’s work was a way to deal with the information age, good and bad, and maybe also to pay back the powers-that-be that were selling war (Melnicove recently posted this 1978 citation from his friend on Facebook: “War is a mental disorder of the highest order, a public manifestation: all who arrange, direct, and participate in it are madly deranged. The insanity touches us all, and we have nowhere to go”). At the same time, as the late J. Fred Woell had done in jewelry, he managed to transform the materials of a throwaway culture into something meaningful.
Listen to this page was mounted as a complement to the Colby College Museum of Art’s exhibition Terry Winters: Printed Matters (the museum is the sole repository of the New York artist’s complete print editions). Winters included Porter’s work in Roving Signs, a show he organized for the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York in 2013 that explored “abstract Americana.” A selection of his own “notebook” collages from 2003-2013 are included in Terry Winters: Printed Matters to further make the connection between the two artists.
As it does with many of its shows, the Colby Museum offers a “Discovery Area” where visitors can emulate the artists featured in the neighboring rooms. The invitation to “Try your hand at making your own visual poem by putting together words and images the way Bern Porter did” aligns nicely with the exhortative collages nearby.
Listen to this page: Works by Bern Porter from Colby College Special Collections continues at the Colby College Museum of Art (5600 Mayflower Hill Drive, Waterville, Maine) through May 10.