ArtWeekend

The Poet-Magus of the Lower East Side

Installation view, "Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates" at Maccarone (courtesy Carol Bove and Maccarone, New York, photo by Jeffrey Sturges)
Installation view, “Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates” at Maccarone (courtesy Carol Bove and Maccarone, New York, photo by Jeffrey Sturges)

1.

Imagine the following scenario: You and your wife live on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. You start a greeting card company, Ink Weed Arts, in 1951, just after the two of you get married. You are a poet and she is a dancer who works as a hand and foot model in advertising. The two of you want to offer an alternative to the insipid messages of Hallmark Cards.

You write up a prospectus and send it out to potential investors, fully expecting them to believe in a business plan based on “imagination, bits of black magic and shoe strings, which all too few people accept in lieu of cold, hard cash.”

After Ink Weed Arts fails, largely due to high production costs and bad accounting on your part, you and your wife start two other companies: The Haunted Inkbottle and the Qor Corporation (1958–1962), which was intended to use Mylar to adhere designs imbued with mystical symbols and patterns to tiles.

It should be added that you are not only a poet, but also the grandson of Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, who was a living storehouse of Jewish liturgical music dating back centuries. The name Abulafia itself has a long and rich history stretching to 13th-century Spain and Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia, one of the earliest Kabbalists. Abraham ben Samuel also wrote books instructing the reader on the practice of becoming receptive to divine forces. He was a serious practitioner of gematria, the study of letters as numerals, a form of divining messages within messages.

Here is one of your poems, which some consider a self-portrait:

I have never been arrested. I
have never been institutionalized.
I have four children. I am in
receipt of social security benefits.
I am not an artist. I am not an
outsider. I am a citizen of the
republic and I have remained
anonymous all the time by choice.

These lines call to mind Charles Baudelaire’s criticism in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life”:

That rather than being an artist wedded to his palette the way a serf is wedded to the soil, one should be a “man of the world.”

(Perhaps it is time to make an addendum to Baudelaire’s definition: that in addition to being a flaneur and man of the world, the poet-artist should also be not of this world. By which I mean the poet-artist should avoid an active participation in a postmodern society where the goal is to make friends only with those who will prove useful — friendship as a form of networking and social climbing, rather than as a form of conversation and rebellion.)

A drawing by Lionel Ziprin (photo by Eve Aschheim) (click to enlarge)
A drawing by Lionel Ziprin (photo by Eve Aschheim) (click to enlarge)

Your only book, Almost All Lies Are Pocket Size, was published by the legendary Flockaphobic Press, which was started by Alexander S. C. Rower, a grandson of the sculptor Alexander Calder, which is only fitting. The name Flockaphobic means “fear of the flock,” a loathing of all that is mainstream and institutional (both in art and poetry). During the twenty-plus years of its existence, Flockaphobic Press published poetry and prose by writers Rower felt had been neglected. The publications were in unbook-like forms, which, in your case, meant a hand carved box that contained a pamphlet, a scroll, a recording and some loose sheets. Perhaps twenty copies were made, certainly less than one hundred.

Among the people who work for your greeting card company are three men — Harry Smith, Bruce Conner, and Jordan Belson — who, in addition to being innovative filmmakers, were uncategorizable artists who incorporated the mandala into their paintings and drawings. All of them would singlehandedly redefine film.

But that is not all. Smith, whose parents were Theosophists interested in the work of Madame Blavatsky, compiled an extensive selection of folk songs and blues from his collection of rare ‘78s issued between 1926 and ’32. Released by Folkways as The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, three sets of double LPs had a profound influence on Bob Dylan and others. Smith not only collected music but also recorded it, which is how he came to meet your grandfather, Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, and record his liturgical chants in Hebrew, Arabic and Yiddish.

Conner, who worked in a wide variety of mediums, including film, met the Ziprins when he was a teenager, and stayed in touch with them. When Conner reached the age of sixty-five he claimed that he had retired and would no longer make new art, choosing to work on film projects that he hadn’t finished. Afterwards, he recruited various alter egos — Emily Feather, Anonymouse and Anonymous — to make and sign drawings. He also made collages that he first exhibited in the late 1960s, a show that he titled, THE DENNIS HOPPER ONE MAN SHOW. Conner liked to pull off disappearing acts in which he was unseen, but still present, like a ghost.

After seeing the “Art in Cinema” screenings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, which began in 1946, both Belson and Smith were inspired to begin making abstract films. In order to support his filmmaking, Belson would design sets for Hollywood movies, including the ones for Demon Seed (1977), a science-fiction-horror film written by Dean Koontz and starring Julie Christie and Fritz Weaver, who designs a computer that isolates and impregnates Christie. Belson also created the special effects for The Right Stuff (1983).

2.

Installation view, "Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates" at Maccarone (courtesy Carol Bove and Maccarone, New York, photo by
Installation view, “Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates” at Maccarone (courtesy Carol Bove and Maccarone, New York, photo by Jeffrey Sturges)

As the saying goes: You cannot make this stuff up. The poet and Kabbalist was Lionel Ziprin (1924 – 2009), who, like the poet Louis Zukofsky, grew up in a Manhattan’s Lower East Side household that spoke Yiddish. English was most likely Ziprin’s second language. In 1950 he married Joanna Eashe, who died in 1994. Many believe that she — along with Allen Ginsberg’s poetry — was the inspiration for Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.” As Ziprin’s poem tells us, they had four children, two boys and two girls. During the early 1950s, Smith, Conner and Belson — who I would say were both of and not of this world — worked for Ziprin at Ink Weed Arts, as well as learned from him. From my conversations with Conner it was clear that Ziprin occupied a special place in his heart, and that they were friends until Conner’s death, less than a year before Ziprin’s.

Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates is an exhibition curated by the artist and connoisseur Carol Bove and the rare book dealer Philip Smith, whose job is to be a tastemaker. While Qor Corporation is meant to be an appendage to Bove’s exhibition, RA, or Why is an orange like a bell, at Maccarone (September 7–October 19, 2013), it stands on its own. Bove is partaking in a recent tendency among artists to call attention to figures that embody authenticity as a way of hitching their wagon to the real deal. These self-serving acts, however, often bring an artist deserving of attention into the public arena, which is a good thing.

While the exhibition title lists Ziprin before Smith, the focus is on Smith. It contains artwork by Smith as well as drawings and designs he made for the Qor Corporation’s tiles. There are also some models, pages of plans, and pages of unsigned drawings, which are stored in plastic sleeves and pinned to the wall. These drawings were most likely done by Ziprin, with others making additions. They were not meant as art, which is perhaps why the curators did an upscale presentation of Smith’s work

There is also a thick three-ring binder containing book-length manuscripts of Ziprin’s poems, which I discovered by accident. I wish there had been at least one poem displayed on the wall of the gallery’s cavernous space, with a note alerting viewers of the binder on the table, but perhaps Bove and Smith are more interested in the visual material than in the poems, which are of no monetary value. They certainly privileged Smith over Ziprin, which is not unexpected given the nature of his production, but this was nevertheless disappointing.

As much as I liked the examples of Smith’s art, which included an intricate silkscreen print based on The Heavenly Tree (the central symbol of the Kabbalah) along with drawings and plans for the tiles as well as the tiles themselves, which were displayed in vitrines, I was more drawn to the unsigned pages of unruly drawings, which, as I suggested earlier, were probably done (or largely done) by Ziprin himself.

In the end, I differ with Bove and Philip Smith, who made Harry Smith the focus of the show. Smith was the child of Theosophists, while Ziprin came from a long line of mystics and rabbis, for whom the Kabbalah was a household text. As a young man, he went almost nightly to Birdland and listened to Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and many others. He sent friends countless postcards filled with a combination of his calligraphy and drawing. By all accounts, Ziprin was a generous man willing to share his knowledge.

Shortly after Lionel and Joanne were married, Smith began showing up every night for dinner. It seems to me that Smith recognized that Ziprin possessed a body of arcane knowledge that he wanted to learn. Always destitute and known for being a freeloader, he came for a home cooked meal and a free lesson about the Kabbalah from a master. What is clear is that Ziprin was both a magnet and catalyst, and that all sorts of people, from the pianist Thelonius Monk to the illustrator William Mohr, were drawn to him.

My sense that the curators had focused most of their attention on Smith (and on themselves) was corroborated when I asked the gallery for images for this article. I got installations shots and views of the vitrines, but nothing of the wall drawings. When I asked for images of the drawings, I was told there weren’t any. It seems that Ziprin was simply a stepping-stone, another dead poet to use.

3.

A Lionel Ziprin drawing of the Heavenly Tree (photo by Eve Aschheim)
A Lionel Ziprin drawing of the Heavenly Tree (photo by Eve Aschheim)

The Kabbalistic drawings were done for the most part in ballpoint pen on plain sheets of paper. I imagine many of them were done after dinner, started by Lionel and then passed around the table. They are mystical equivalents of the Surrealist exquisite corpse in which, as one might expect with a magician involved, you can’t quite tell where one person’s contribution ends and another begins. I felt that in each drawing something important and mysterious was being worked out before my eyes, a formula which might lead to some sort of discovery.

While they are the most modest and homely of the works in the exhibition, they are also the meat of the show. In them, the viewer senses that the author of the drawing is trying to present something about the Kabbalah, which in Hebrew means “to receive.” They are “how to” drawings that will aid the student in becoming receptive to the occult, that which is hidden. They are meant to open up your thinking, help you shed your perceptual habits.

This is why a number of the drawings are diagrams of The Tree of Life (The Heavenly Tree), with its ten or eleven Sephiroth (or circles, the eleventh of which is made with dotted lines) connected by twenty-two pathways, the sum of which describes how the universe works. Each circle (or Sefira) contains an aspect of God, such as compassion, wisdom, beauty, discernment and understanding. The vertical alignment of the diagram, which begins and ends in a single circle, maps the paths that lead from the physical to the divine.

A Lionel Ziprin drawing alluding to the magic square (photo by Eve Aschheim) (click to enlarge)
A Lionel Ziprin drawing alluding to the magic square (photo by Eve Aschheim) (click to enlarge)

In other drawings, we see columns of letters, each paired with its numerical equivalent. If two sentences, phrases or words contain the same numerical equivalent, it means they are linked. The occultist attempts to divine the messages hidden within these two disparate sentences, phrases or words. The drawings also include references to magic squares and other occult devices for divination. Ziprin was always looking for what was hidden in plain sight, for the invisible within the visible.

4.

This exhibition reveals there is still an enormous amount to do to get Lionel Ziprin’s poetry and drawings out into the world, as well as to fulfill his lifelong wish to release the many recordings Harry Smith made of his grandfather’s chants. An anthology of Ziprin’s many activities should be put together, along with a timeline. It also seems to me that Smith should be the subject of a museum exhibition and monograph. Perhaps the Lannan Foundation could step in, for these are certainly worthy projects for them to support.

5. A Last Word

According to the poet Janine Vega, Ziprin “combined Old World mysticism and New World craziness. He really was one of the great white magicians of the era.”  \His longtime friend, the poet Ira Cohen said, “He was larger than life and so far beyond a certain kind of description that I am bamboozled. He was much larger than a poet, though that’s hard for me to say, as a poet. He was one of the big secret heroes of the time.” Well, the secret is out, part of it at least. And that’s great because somehow you know Ziprin’s work will survive, even if a connoisseur promotes it.

Shortly after leaving the exhibition, I heard Jacques Derrida’s flawless imitation of Antonin Artaud’s unmistakable, high-pitched voice in my head. You can hear this voice on the Pacifica Radio Archives. He is reading the last thing he wrote, TO HAVE DONE WITH THE JUDGEMENT OF GOD, which was first broadcast by KPFA on October 15, 1968, some twenty years after it was recorded in Paris radio station. In this radiophonic piece, which is full of grunts, shrieks and glossolalia, in which word-like sounds cleave meaning from language, Antonin, channeled through Derrida, denounces America as a baby factory and warmongering machine, with which Derrida surely concurred

During the exhibition, Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, which was curated by Margit Rowell for the Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 3, 1996–January 7, 1997), Derrida gave a talk at the museum to a packed auditorium. There was a thick stack of papers on the lectern in front of him. Occasionally he would reach for one and began to read from it. He said that it didn’t matter in which order he read them, as they all had to do with Artaud.

At one point, near the end of the evening, pandemonium ensued as someone from the museum stood up and told Derrida that the museum had to close, and another began blinking the lights, reinforcing the message that it was time to go. People began streaming out, as they had in dribs and drabs throughout the lecture, but Derrida kept talking. The only decent thing to do, of course, was to stay until Derrida left the stage, but this lecture was his homage to Artaud, and the restless audience had played into his hands. Repeatedly throughout the talk, Derrida took pains to point out that Artaud, who called himself “le momo,” could never be contained in the belly of MoMA (or “Mommy”), that the museum could never give birth to him, and that it was never where his works were destined to go.

(In Greek mythology Momus or Momos is the personification of mockery, a god of poets and writers.)

A drawing by Lionel Ziprin (photo by Eve Aschheim)
A drawing by Lionel Ziprin (photo by Eve Aschheim)

Like Artaud, but for very different reasons, Ziprin cannot be integrated into society’s institutions. He is the outsider who never considered himself one. Society, as you might expect, disagreed. This is something innovative poets — ones who change the face of language — understand. Mainstream literary institutions can give some poets prizes, but they can never domesticate their work. This is why John Ashbery, Susan Howe, and Harryette Mullen are closer in spirit to poets such as Will Alexander, Robert Kelly, Frank Kuenstler, and Cathy Park Hong than to their so-called peers, Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Robert Pinsky, and Charles Simic.

Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates ran at Maccarone (98 Morton Street, West Village, Manhattan) from September 7 through October 19.

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