Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein published only two books during his lifetime. One was Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), his first major treatise on the relationship between words, images, and meaning. The other was a dictionary that he wrote for his pupils in rural Austria during a stint as an elementary school teacher from 1920 to 1926. The dictionary anticipated a dramatic shift in the philosopher’s thinking as he began to see words’ meanings as culturally specific rather than universal.
Badlands Unlimited, the press founded by artist Paul Chan in 2010, recently released the first-ever English translation of Wittgenstein’s dictionary. The cartoonish brush and ink drawings that Chan made to illustrate the terms — using his non-dominant hand, a learning exercise — are now on view at Greene Naftali. The childlike drawings are characterized by a sense of receptiveness, as if Chan, guided by the dictionary, allowed associative images to rise to the surface in an experiential exploration of how meaning is made. For the word “culture”, Chan playfully drew admirers snapping pictures of his own inflatable “breathers”, exhibited by the gallery last year; for “lawyer”, he depicted the beloved late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Seen today in the midst of a global health crisis, and perhaps particularly in hard-hit New York City, many of the word-pictures are colored by the coronavirus pandemic: “mask,” “flu,” “epidemic.” Chan’s sweeping history painting-style rendering of “epidemic” depicts corpses in body bags, emulating Matisse’s “La danse” amid crying medical workers, hospital patients, a city literally turned upside down, and a rat grasping a slice of pizza. What will these things mean in some other place, in some other time?
Editor’s note: This review has been updated to reflect the materials used by the artist. The drawings were made with brush and ink.
Paul Chan: Drawings for Word Book by Ludwig Wittgenstein continues through December 19 at Greene Naftali (508 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).