Roberta Allen, "Thinking About Thoughts," installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Roberta Allen, “Thinking About Thoughts,” installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SAN DIEGO — Thinking About Thought, an exhibition of books and original drawings by writer and conceptual artist Roberta Allen, came about through a series of happenstances. The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla, which is presenting Allen’s show, has owned all seven of the conceptually oriented books she published in the 1970s since they arrived as part of donation in the 1990s, but they weren’t on the radar of Atheneum’s Executive Director Erika Torri. That changed in 2013 when artist Matt Hebert used an excerpt of one of Allen’s books in a piece of his own, copying onto a white piece of wood in cut-out black letters:

The Gap in this Sentence Reveals Where          There Is a Break in the Invisible

Line of Limitation

Hebert’s use of Allen’s text intrigued Torri, who searched for Allen online, but she only found a short story writer by the same name. Then, after Allen’s work appeared in a group exhibition at Minus Space in Brooklyn, Torri was able to locate her and ask her if she would consider doing a “booklet” — this would end up being a thoroughly researched and comprehensive catalogue raisonné of Allen’s multiple-edition 1970s artist books. Her brochure will be the sixth in a series, joining others documenting artists’ books by Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman, Ida Applebroog, Allen Ruppersberg, and John Baldessari.

The artist and the curator struck up a correspondence, and after a December 2014 in-person meeting, planning for Allen’s La Jolla show began. So it was that the renewed interest in her conceptual work led directly to this current series of thought drawings — 48 of which are now on view at the Athenaeum — and to several new unique thought books.

In an email interview, Allen offered this background:

I’ve been making image/text works since 1971: 45 years! But I hadn’t really made drawings since the mid-’70s. So it felt very new to be drawing, though I was told as a child I started drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. Psychology, consciousness, and lately neuroscience have inspired this series. I have always been interested in how language informs or changes our perception of images. What attracted me about thought is how much we don’t know. This freed me to create my own context. I’m also making sculpture now, which is what I did before I used text in my work.

Thinking About Thought is presented in a very simple, direct fashion. The individual thought drawings, grouped in rows or clusters, are pinned to the wall via transparent hinges, without any framing or matting. Scattered in and around the Athenaeum’s rotunda and reading room, the pieces are bathed in natural light, situated in a space where study and reading are the expected pursuits. When Allen saw the installation, she was “absolutely delighted” by how well the setting worked. “It seems to me that my work really belongs there,” she wrote. “You could spend your life looking through all the collections. The Athenaeum is a very special place and I can only admire Erika’s commitment, especially to the 2,000 or more artist’s books in the collection.”


Roberta Allen, “Thinking About Thoughts,” installation view in the rotunda

Allen’s drawings tend to consist of formations — dense clouds of thin lines, repeated loose geometries, intersections and dots — that present energetic, meditative responses to her chosen conceptual texts. They use color sparingly and are abstract in the sense that they don’t conjure up any particularities of space or form. It’s a quiet and engaging way to work and think, and viewing the show is a calm, intimate experience. Her gentleness and sweet humor keep the exhibition free of the high seriousness that can make some conceptual art so dry and off-putting. A selection of Allen’s books are also on display under glass in the cabinets of a nearby reading room, where comfy chairs, a Persian rug, and a covered piano provide an atmosphere of tasteful gentility.

It’s only an eight-minute walk from the Athenaeum to the Museum of Contemporary Art. For someone seeking a quiet day — and the chance to both think about thought and collect their own thoughts — a visit to La Jolla is well worth the drive.

Roberta Allen, "Thinking About Thoughts," installation view

Roberta Allen, “Thinking About Thoughts,” installation view

Thinking About Thought was on view at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library (1008 Wall Street, La Jolla, CA) from September 24 to November 5.

John Seed is a professor emeritus of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California. He is also the author of Disrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World (2019) and More...