White Walls

Notes on “an experiment in synthesizing word-related interests of artists and poets”

The idea for the journal which became White Walls arose in a conversation with Reagan Upshaw in January 1977. This was midway through my first year in the M.F.A. program at the University of Chicago. A few days earlier one of my studio mates, Robert Gottlieb, had told me about an art history grad student who was also a poet, and I’d called Upshaw to introduce myself. He invited me to meet him in the lobby of the University’s art museum, the David and Alfred Smart Gallery, where he worked as registrar. Since I wrote poetry as well as making art, I was happy to hear about someone else on campus who shared these two interests.

We sat in the empty lobby (the Smart was then a great place to be alone with art) and dropped the names of poets we admired—he liked Auden, Philip Larkin, Ted Berrigan (a good sign); I liked Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, the concrete poets (“But imagine a reading,” Upshaw responded, and made funny clicking noises in oral approximation of that poetic style’s repetitive letters and nonsense words) —and onto our favorite artists—Richard Diebenkorn’s cool abstractions for him (after our obligatory citing of various old masters); Brice Marden’s even cooler monochromes for me, and Robert Ryman, whose white paintings I had in mind as I made the large black graphite drawings of my graduate school days—until we began talking about various little magazines and journals in which we’d published (or hoped to publish) our writing.

A few years before I’d briefly done freelance keyline and paste-up work for Laurence Levy, a graphic designer in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. Levy earned his living doing design work for various corporate and institutional clients, but his favorite role was as the art editor for TriQuarterly, Northwestern University’s literary magazine. In the summer of 1974 Levy gave me the paste-up assignment for a special issue of TriQuarterly, guest-edited by art critic John Perreault, which was titled “Anti-Object Art.” The contributions were conceptual and language art of a sort I was then not much acquainted with, including submissions by Joseph Beuys, Christo, Les Levine, Adrian Piper, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, and Eleanor Antin, among others. Perreault’s introduction made a case for art in which “the idea [was] more important than, or as important as, the physical or visible expression of that idea.” He confessed that he used to think conceptual art was a kind of “art and literature hybrid,” but then decided it had only narrative rather than literary value. I decided Perreault was wrong about this, and had begun writing a kind of minimal poetry engaged with laconic phrasing similar to what I’d seen in some of the writing in “Anti-Object Art.” I told Upshaw about my work on TriQuarterly, and he in turn told me about various anthologies of experimental poetry he’d read that seemed similar in intent to what I’d described.

A week later I rang the bell at the Drexel Avenue apartment where Reagan and his wife Roberta lived. They’d converted their second bedroom into an office/library, and browsing through their books I found many of the same titles as those sitting on my own shelves. This overlapping taste in reading cemented our friendship. It might have been during that first after-dinner conversation that our hazy notions of publishing poetry and language art coalesced into a magazine of writings by artists, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1977 that we set to work. Over another dinner at the Upshaw apartment we wrote out a list of names. Big Shoulders, taken from the Carl Sandburg homage to Chicago, was the early favorite, but White Walls, alluding both to tires and gallery spaces, was more to the point of the discipline-merging we had in mind. With a name, we could order a rubber stamp, which we used to make the “letterhead” on which we invited some forty or so artists and poets to contribute to a premier issue. We casually mentioned that we were starting our magazine “at” the University of Chicago (leaving out our grad student status), in hopes that institutional prestige might sway one or another of our potential contributors. On those letters we listed my apartment on Ingleside Avenue as the magazine’s office but by the time the first issue saw print we’d rented the P.O. Box that served as the White Walls mailing address for the next thirty years.

What we were inviting people to contribute to evolved out of many, sometimes heated, discussions of how our publication would represent the disparate branches of writing by “writers” about art and “artists’” writings. We all saw relationships between the kind of poetry being written by such figures as Ian Hamilton Finlay or Jean-Francois Bory and the texts accompanying (or as) work by Richard Long or Hamish Fulton or Agnes Martin. We were also aware of the cross-disciplinary activities of Fluxus and of such among its predecessors as the Lettrists. To be sure, there was also a substantial history of poets and artists writing art criticism—Frank O’Hara and Fairfield Porter were favorites of ours—and of writers trying their hands at art making, but our shared editorial interest was in the zone where art as idea and creative writing seemed most to overlap rather than in more conventional texts about art by identifiable artists or writers. We were unable to agree on a single set of parameters for the magazine and the first issue went out with separate editorial comments by myself and Reagan; me calling WW “an experiment in synthesizing art-related interests of artists and poets,” and Upshaw pointing out that “the use of words in the work of visual and conceptual artists may provide some interesting suggestions for poets.” Upshaw went on to note that “if we can provide some useful ideas for artists and writers to steal from each other, White Walls will have served its purpose.”

From our list of solicitations we received ten responses, including text/image works from Agnes Denes and Mike Crane, both of whom had contributed to “Anti-Object Art,” and from John Perreault himself, who contributed an extraordinary short fiction, “The Missing Letter,” written without using the letter “a.” The projects of visual artists appeared alongside poetry by such figures as Ron Padgett, Barbara Guest, Lewis Warsh, and Dick Higgins, a major figure in Fluxus and coiner of the term “intermedia,” which characterized much of the work we would subsequently publish. The peripatetic writer/editor, Richard Kostelanetz, sent us a suite of concrete poems, while Ken Friedman, another Fluxus figure (he would later guest edit WW #16, the Fluxus issue) submitted his “Notes from a continuing Existential Western,” and Peter Hunt Thompson gave us an excerpt from “The Book of Signatures.” We added an eleventh contribution after seeing Jim Melchert’s series of exquisite graphite drawings at a local gallery. These were outlined rubbings of envelopes, photographs, or scraps of paper, beneath which the artist had penciled in narratives of the artifacts and images from which he’d made those ghostly outlines. Our first cover, a wraparound photo reproduction of a white wall, was a gift from Conrad Gleber, an artist/printer who used offset lithography to make art and who ran the offset printing presses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I had a key to the New Art Examiner offices, having recently served as guest editor for their January 1978 issue, and we were thus able to “borrow” the Examiner’s typesetting equipment (from midnight on) to compose our own pages. Such late night typography was a contributing factor to some unfortunate errata over the years (apologies again to Rosemary Mayer and Adrian Piper), but we were error-free our first time in print. While our magazine lacked anything like office space, my kitchen table worked well enough for layout and paste-up. Paying the printer was a matter of redirecting scholarship and student loan monies, although this financial strategy left me several months behind in my rent. Fortunately I was living in student housing at the time and so wasn’t evicted. The University would eventually withhold my degree until I paid those bills, which I was able to do by taking a job editing publications for the Graduate School of Business in order that the housing office could garnish my wages.

In the first issue only Reagan Upshaw and I are listed as editors, even though Roberta Upshaw had worked alongside us, but she joined the White Walls masthead for WW #2. Reagan and Roberta left the magazine in 1981, after we’d produced six issues, when Reagan took a job in New York. I was not ready to give up publishing the magazine at that point and invited Timothy Porges, another friend who was also both an artist and a writer (he’d contributed the cover drawing to WW #6) to join me as co-editor. Timothy and I co-edited White Walls for another eleven issues, until I resigned from the masthead in 1987, preparing for a move from Chicago to Los Angeles. My departure ended the first chapter of a publication that ultimately produced 45 numbered issues plus many artists’ books, thematic anthologies, exhibition catalogues, a CD and a vinyl record. Frankly, none of the founding editors imagined at the time that our little venture would last more than a few issues, so it with a certain awe that I offer this reminiscence.

Buzz Spector
August 2012

Note: portions of this essay are taken from the text of remarks from a 2004 lecture at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, in conjunction with the exhibit “Fine Words Butter No Cabbage: 26 years of White Walls.”

© 2012 by Buzz Spector

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