blackbird spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


RICHARD CARLYON  |  Selected Work

Drawing (and Dancing) with Richard Carlyon: A Chat with Ashley Kistler

Richard Carlyon conceived of drawing as a form of “graphic notation,” an especially apt description of his ink-on-parchment Talksheets (1999-2001), in which the artist derived flurries of script-like marks from the notes for a lecture he once gave on the topic of drawing. This flexible, open-ended definition allowed Carlyon to resume drawing in the mid-1990s after abandoning it for a decade and to adopt as artistic fodder virtually any kind of mark or marking system—marginal notations from books, idle doodles on faculty-meeting agendas, newspaper headlines, or cartoon balloons, even the patterns formed by pastel dust or bits of conté crayon on a workbench. Attentive in singular ways, he made elegant and pithy use out of what the rest of us would readily discard or overlook.

In the spirit of composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, Carlyon typically transformed his source material by subjecting it to a predetermined structure shaped by both chance and choice. “I have tried to find ways to draw upon the knowledge and experience I have and put it in a situation where I’m not sure what’s going to come out,” he noted. To create a model for each of his Talksheets, the artist divided his original 24 pages of notes into eight stacks, photocopied the superimposed pages onto transparent film, and then meticulously cut away any mark that could be read as a letter or a word. With characteristic humor and playfulness, he imagined using the completed drawings as the score or script for a future performance.

Situating the ingredients and various other aspects of his drawings on a level playing field, Carlyon implicitly underscored a principle that the Zen Buddhists espoused centuries ago: “Everything is already related,” as he described it, “there’s nothing missing.” The conversation his work consequently engenders poses richer questions. For starters: What is vital? Where does this carry the imagination? What kind of commentary is made on drawing, on art, on movement, light, space, color, and gesture, on human marking systems and perception?

The following conversation with Richard Carlyon took place on February 18, 2003, in preparation for the exhibition Making a Mark at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, which featured his Talksheet drawings.

—Ashley Kistler

Ashley Kistler: In an earlier conversation, you described your drawings as “graphic notations” and mentioned how thinking about drawing in this way enabled you to do these pieces.

Richard Carlyon: When I retired in 1996, I hadn’t made drawings for about ten years because, when I thought of drawing, all these things came forward that sort of fixed it. I was putting together a lecture on the art of drawing, and the first sentence I wrote was, “Drawing can be thought of as a form of graphic notation.” Then I elaborated and developed that sentence. That’s what freed me up. When I started to actually make drawings again, it expanded. They could be calligraphic, marginal notations from my books, virtually any kind of mark or marking system that asserted itself first and foremost as a graphic notation and, secondly, as a drawing or a picture and so forth.

As I’ve gotten older, I like definitions that aren’t fixed but expand things. It’s like John Cage saying he’s interested in sound, which could include everything from noise to silence to musical sounds to the sounds of nature, etc. Or a definition of the theater as something for the eye and something for the ear, which leaves it wide open. It’s that sort of flexibility.

So I became really interested in the idea of graphic notation and started to act on that over a period of five years. This idea had a lot to do, too, with my selection of parchment as a material on which to draw because it’s used for documents—like marriage licenses, the Constitution, the Magna Carta. And it just seemed like such a wonderful material. Since it is translucent instead of opaque, you have a little more flexibility with its tonality as a color, depending on what ground you put underneath it. Years ago I read about Japanese sumi ink, pigmented with bone black to make it really opaque and absolutely flat. I discovered that if it is handled with some deftness, it doesn’t make any difference whether you have a tiny point or a whole area that you build up; the black is of equal value throughout. So I thought that the matte surface of the ink with the translucent paper, in which there is some play with tonality, would allow for exploration.

Initially, I started to find things in my stuff here—I collect lots of stuff—that might be thought of as graphic notations. I expanded that to include notes that I wrote years ago when I taught and also a portfolio filled with hundreds of sheets listing agendas for years of faculty meetings. You could tell I was bored out of my gourd because I did all this stuff in the margins—just idle stuff filling time, rhythmic marks and so forth. When I was cleaning out my office and throwing away 40 years of all this stuff, I came across these sheets. I cut out the agenda on each sheet and kept everything around it, which I began to feed into my work.

AK: So the margins became the important part?

RC: Yes, ironically. I like the humor. It’s worked well and carried me into a terrain, or a topology, I guess you could say, that has been very exciting.

Sometimes scale is a stumbling block because some of these marks are interesting, but what will happen when they become enlarged? What systems and strategies are available for enlargement? Changes do occur, but I try to develop a strategy so the changes are minimal. I try not to distort or improvise upon something that was done spontaneously, with a kind of immediacy years ago in one context, but that is now being re-contextualized. I have found a few ways to do this and still remain faithful to what I call the “original model.”

AK: It seems as though that process of translation partakes of such opposing operations.

RC: Yes, it does. I get real excited about it. I can’t pre-visualize or imagine what it is going to look like. Once I have the model and all the constructs in place, they’re set. Then it’s piece by piece by piece. Literally not until the very last notation is made, can I see what it is about, and then I have to decide whether or not I want to keep it. Whatever the model is, I will not change it. But I have to have some sort of attachment to it, whether it’s visual or conceptual or something to do with humor or its rhythms. It has to hold my interest as something that will potentially lend itself to the making of a graphic notation.

AK: As you have already suggested, your choice of materials is determined by considering not only their formal qualities but also their potential to refer to extra-aesthetic realms of human experience.

RC: It’s not singular. The idea of graphic notation is also related in a general way to an experience that occurred many years ago, when I used to choreograph dances. I choreographed a group work for five dancers. Only when I was invited to present the dance in a concert did I recognize the graphic element that exists in choreography. It didn’t occur to me until I arrived at this new performance space where the proportions were entirely different from the space in which I had set the piece and the dancers over a period of nine months. I had three days to make the piece fit. After measuring the new space, I started to make signs and little symbols on tracing paper for the individual dancers and the ways they moved within the space. All of a sudden it became a drawing exercise, a graphic exercise. When I started these drawings five years ago, that experience came back. It’s almost like choreographing.

AK: Did you save any of those dance images from years ago?

RC: No, that was in the 1950s. But for a grant application several years ago, my proposal involved going to the Martha Graham Foundation in New York to view her rehearsal films from the 1930s to the ’50s. My idea was to study these films very carefully and graphically plot the paths that the dancers created on the space of the floor as they performed Graham’s dances. I call them Dance Maps. It took eight days of uninterrupted viewing.

AK: You’re still developing the drawings?

RC: Yes, I have these small versions. I studied Graham technique; her dance language is very demanding. Graham’s genius was a fine graphic sense, which is revealed here. There are nineteen drawings, and each will ultimately measure 27 by 36 inches. They look abstract, but they’re not. Look at the different patterns.

AK: These images certainly bear out your thesis.

RC: I plotted the path of each dancer on plastic and then superimposed the results. It’s amazing how the stage space is used. One of the things you respond to in dance is how the space is being animated—taking possession of that rectangle. So you can see how this series relates to some of the things I’ve been talking about.

You don’t have to worry about connecting things or relating them. Each mark really finds its own space. It’s almost medieval in that sense. Instead of sending things into a visual space with a fixed hierarchy, with recessions and so forth, you don’t have to do that with the way I’m working now.

AK: The idea of graphic notation comes across loud and clear in the drawings making up the Talksheets series.

RC: Definitely.

AK: You mentioned that in developing the imagery for these particular pieces, you took actual writing and began erasing portions of it?

RC: Yes. The Talksheets evolved from a lecture that I gave on drawing to the Hermitage Society in Norfolk. In the notes that I wrote for the presentation, my handwriting is half cursive and half printed. When I wrote out these notes, I wasn’t thinking about anything except what the hell can I say to these people about drawing!

When I came across these notes years after I had given the lecture, I was going to throw them out. In the meantime, I had started all this drawing activity. I wondered how I could take these notes on drawing and convert them into a form of graphic notation. I had twenty-four sheets on which I had scribbled, written, and scratched out. I didn’t want to just make a picture of a page of notes, so I decided to stack them. I took the first three pages and xeroxed each on a piece of transparent film, and put the films on top of one another. Then I xeroxed that, which gave me a master. I started to cut away any mark or indication that could be read as a letter or a word. I initially multiplied and then I started to subtract, to pick away on this model until it was just a graphic notation. Rhythms emerged on the paper, pulsing streams of graphic information cascading down the sheet. I had twenty-four pages, stacked in groups of three, so I got eight Talksheets out of this material.

I liked that the subject initially concerned the art of drawing. This way, there’s no garbage in my life, no trash anymore!

It’s what I used to do with freshmen, when I taught art-foundation classes. I always thought: Everything on the floor, that’s you. If we were working with collage or drawing, the things the students tore off and threw on the floor were much more interesting than the stuff they kept. Amazing juxtapositions occurred.

AK: You’ve come full circle with your lecture notes, since you envision the resulting drawings as another kind of script to another kind of performance.

RC: I’d still like to do that. I would love to have the opportunity to have all of the Talksheets up and engage eight different people. They would develop intonations with their voices, working that out individually. Then I’d bring them together for a concert.  

Ashley Kistler has been Curator of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond (formerly the Hand Workshop Art Center) in Richmond, Virginia, since 1999. From 1984-1999, she served as Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Since joining the Hand Workshop, she has organized more than fifty exhibitions and a wide array of special programs, from symposia and artists' residencies to numerous film/video programs and performing arts events. Her exhibitions, some of which have traveled nationally, have featured the work of regional, national, and international artists in solo and thematic presentations. Kistler received a BA in Art History from Dickinson College and an MA in Art History and Museum Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University.