Unpublished, and not edited; written May 1978 for Arts Magazine
by Wade Saunders —
Upon receiving my unsolicited texts, Richard Martin, the editor of Arts Magazine, invited me to his office in April 1978 and asked if there was a current exhibition I wished to review. I proposed that of Guy de Cointet. Martin accepted my choice and asked me to write no more than 1,000 words since that was the layout’s allowance. I mailed in my copy and returned to San Diego for the summer.
When the review did not appear I wanted to know “Why?” Calling was difficult and several times I came home to phone Martin at the hours his secretary said he would be available. But he did not take my calls, and he never answered my letter asking what had been the problem? As editor he linked coverage to advertising; perhaps de Cointet’s gallery had not paid up? Whatever the reason, Richard Martin behaved like a creep.
De Cointet died, too soon, in 1983. His work is now justly esteemed. The drawings I describe below remain sublime.
Guy de Cointet lives and works in Los Angeles. He does drawings, writes and directs performances, and has put out six books, one in collaboration with Larry Bell. He recently exhibited a group of his drawings in New York and directed Oh, A Bear!, a pastiche of previous pieces. It was acted by Mary Ann Duganne and Jane Zingale of Los Angeles and Lucinda Ziesing of New York. De Cointet elicits narratives from abstract drawings, paintings and props.
His drawings—ink on paper, most recently monochromatic—are subtle, elegant arrangements of thin, straight lines of varying lengths stopping at unmarked but regular boundaries set well in from the paper’s edge. Occasionally, he indents all the lines at the upper left or stops them shy of the lower right, like a paragraph. The drawings are spatially ambiguous. They suggest transparent, three-dimensional structures collapsed onto the page. Foreground and background are not distinct. Horizontal registers generally underlie his patterns. A phrase or sentence is penciled at the bottom of each drawing.
To make the drawings, De Cointet first sketches lines within identical small rectangles. The trial rectangles have a familial resemblance and matching external ends, like conceptualized building blocks. After sketching ten, fifteen or more different but related blocks, he takes a phrase and assigns each of its letters to a block. He then commutes the phrase into the chosen blocks, using a grid to locate the rectangles left to right, top to bottom.
The blocks are not drawn sequentially. To establish the rhythm of a drawing he first makes the longer connections continuing through many rectangles. Then he draws the individual, non-connecting lines within each block. De Cointet has little idea how a drawing will look until it exists complete. Once the code is set, the drawing creates itself. It comes into being everywhere at once, the way a photographic print develops. This simultaneity—for maker and viewer—robs language of the dimensionality that characterizes its normal state. Our language is made foreign to us. The time we spend deciphering the code is equal to the time we would spend considering the subject matter of a more traditional drawing.
A drawing sometimes suggests the phrase it renders and so establishes a visual onomatopoeia. “Alfred Nobel cut his finger and daubing it with collodion” is full of criss-crossing lines, flying toward the edges, summoning an explosion. “Mohammed Shah was lying on his face” renders mountains and minarets. These correspondences hark back to an earlier but insistent mythology of language: a mystical bond exists between an object and the sign that designates it. The drawings remind us what a technological endeavor writing has become. They relate back to the idea of a fine hand, where form is as important as sentiment. Ironically, it is in advertising that the look of a letter or a word is now connected to its intimate meaning, that visual appearance is again motivated. A typeface must suggest the product that it sells.
The drawings gain resonance from the often mysterious or exotic messages encoded. De Cointet wrote some phrases, but he extracted the majority from a collection of readings for children. Phrases that would be passed over without a thought, phrases that make up the bulk of prose, are transformed. We are startled to find a drawing doing this for us. “No man should be left alone in the arctic.” “After a last look at the patient camels.” But despite their play on referential levels, the drawings rely more on cryptography that semiology. Cryptography, though capable of great complexity, is trivial in that in produces only carriers—sealed vessels—for messages. The drawings solved, we are somehow disappointed.
De Cointet’s books are coherent, if not necessarily apprehensible, narratives. In A Captain From Portugal and Animated Discourses, he established a sign for each letter and then encoded a story. De Cointet moved away form such literal coding in the later books. In Espahor ledel ko uluner we can recognize names, “Gizella,” places “South Dakota,” and watch words repeat in grammatically consistent places, but we cannot establish a definite story. In TSNX C24VA7ME and A Few Drawings numbers take over. We scan the pages for series, for recognizable quantities, for dates. We know all the signs, but can make no sense of them. De Cointet is as interested in the look of the single pages, as in the book they combine to make.
In his performance scripts, de Cointet invests props with qualities counter to our sense experience and contrary to those we would naturally ascribe to them: a painting is said to have made sounds, something opaque to us is transparent to his characters. From the performances we infer that our apprehension of the world is limited, at best partial. We expect too little of our sense and too much of our reason. Three examples suffice: a painting with a green bottom and a white top becomes a window looking onto a field, across which a bear, we are told is moving. The characters are frightened. A large, thin oddly shaped book filled with simple shapes is a diary. A woman learns of her father’s life by explicating it page by page. The diary also records her progress through a war-ravaged countryside. Fire, blood, and bullets alter some pages. A shaped painting with registers of numbers and letters keys the story of Adul and Roz. Names, dates, and incidents are extracted from its lines of print. The green of the frame refers to a forest through which Adul drives, the blue to a river in which Roz falls.
De Cointet’s work is both sensible and magical, as it slides from realm to realm. Like a magician he can only seem to defy common-sense perception. Like an itinerant he shows us simple things brought from afar. Their journey to us makes them mysterious.