Emmett Williams

Emmet Williams was born April 4, 1925, in Greenville, South Carolina. He grew up in Newport News, Virginia. In the early 1940s, Williams came to Europe as a member of the U.S. army and, from 1949 to 1966, he lived and worked in France, Germany, and Switzerland. From 1966 to 1970, after his return to the U.S., he was chief editor of the legendary publishing company »Something Else Press,« founded in 1963 by Dick Higgins. Williams’ poems and anthologies of concrete poetry (Selected Shorter Poems, 1950 — 70; Sweethearts, 1966, with the cover done by Marcel Duchamp; Anthology of Concrete Poetry, 1967) are counted among the most important works in the field. Williams then taught as a professor at several North American institutions, for example at the California Institute of the Arts, School of Critical Studies, and at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. He returned to Germany in the early 1980s on a stipend of the Berlin Artists Program provided by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

As a member of the »Darmstädter Kreis« (»Darmstadt Circle«) that evolved around Claus Bremer and Daniel Spoerri, Williams’ initial interest was concrete poetry. With its publication series »material,« the group had created a first forum for concrete literature. Starting in 1958, first works emerged that were the beginning of a life-long, playful, subtly ironical engagement with letter, word, language, and text. Along with Robert Filiou with whom he also collaborated in some works, with Bernard Heidsieck, François Dufrêne, Ghérasim Luca, and Brion Gysin, Williams was among the founders of the »Domaine Poetique« in Paris. For a while, he also collaborated with Claes Oldenburg.

In the 1960s, Williams was a member of the international Fluxus movement: »This confused beginning began in Europe in 1962, when George Maciunas said ›Let there be Fluxus‹ and then there was Fluxus ever after. Amen. Yes, I Know that most histories of Fluxus begin further back in time than 1962, many with the reasonable premise that ›sans John Cage, Marcel Duchamp et Dada, Fluxus n‹existerait pas’. But isn’t that ›if‹ history, pedigree-hunting, ancestor worship, a ›Ready-made‹ for the art historian? (…) Anyway, we were not worried abaout those problems the September of 1962 when the first Fluxus fetival took place in Wiesbaden at the Städtisches Museum. Now don’t let the word ›museum‹ fool you. We were not a museum commodity then, and soon after the fourteen performances got under way, and word got out that we were chopping up a grand piano, we were persona non grata at the museum. (…) No, we had more basic problems than art history. Meeting one another for the first time, finding a common language, settling personal disputes and rivalries. And out-talking one another. The english artist Ann Nöel has painted a fairly accurate picture, I think, of what happens when Fluxus people get together. ›A conversation with George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, Ay-O, Robert Filliou, Nam June Paik, Daniel Spoerri or Wolf Vostell can take you into the world of walking sticks in Vienna before the first world war, psychedelic mushrooms, the comparative rainfall statistics of Japan and Great Britain, paleontology, the roots of Turkish music, the higher and lower gastronomy, political economy, so on and so on.‹ (E. Williams, in: Schemes and Variations, 1982)

Williams« notion of concrete poetry and of his Fluxus activities is based on an involvement with language, its defamiliarization and artistic staging. Language expresses itself »first as poetry in the artist book, later as its own work of art in the shape of a picture« or in »visual poetry« (Pahlke, in: Auss-Kat. Dortmund 2005). Williams’ works are situated between performance and object. With typographical arrangements, collages, objects, all the way to rhythmical lectures, language actions, or puns, they probe the limits of medial possibilities of expression. In this context, processes that transgress mediums are mirrored in the spectrum of artistic techniques as well as in the constant reference to and in the playfully arbitrary dealings with earlier works. Examples are the 70 illustrations whose emergence Williams calls Lichtskulpturen (Light Sculptures): »I took sheets of paper and slit them up with an X-acto knife – slit, slit, slit, a truly arbitrary procedure. Then I put them in a copy machine and pressed the start button. The light of the machine drew through the slits. Voilà: black-and-white line drawings with highly subtle shadows. Later, I made these sheets work again. I placed them on paper for art prints and sprayed color through the slits. The sheets were badly beaten up, but on the printing paper beautiful, colorful prints appeared« (cf. Williams, Deutsche Gedichte und Lichtskulpturen, 1988). The black-and-white picture seriesPointierte Punktogramme (Pointed Point-o-grams») – already marked by a pun in the title – again refers to earlier works. It refers to the illustrations for the book The Boy and the Bird. Done in the 1970s along with pictures made with rubber stamps and objects, the illustrations had not been used before.

Until his death in February 2007, Williams participated in a large number of Fluxus activities, lectures, and Actions. His works – including his more recent photo collages – have been shown in numerous international solo and group exhibitions, for example, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (both 1983), and at the Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund (2005). His autobiographical work »My Life in Flux – and Vice Versa,« published in 1992 (also read by the artist himself), provides insights into his work and the life-long shaping influence of Fluxus.

Selected Literature

Schulze, Holger: Das aleatorische Spiel. Erkundung und Anwendung der nichtintentionalen Werkgenese im 20. Jahrhundert, München 2000

Konkrete Poesie – Konzept-Kunst. Robert Barry, Heinz Gappmayr, Piette Garnier (…): Ausst.-Kat. Städt. Galerie Rosenheim, hg. v. H. Stegmayer, A. Hofmann, Rosenheim 1997

Williams, Emmett: My life in Flux, and vice versa, Stuttgart u.a. 1991

Block, René (Hg.): Wiesbaden Fluxus 1962 — 1982, Eine kleine Geschichte von Fluxus in drei Teilen, Harlekin Art, Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD, Wiesbaden / Berlin, 1983

Williams, Emmett: Schemes & Variations, Stuttgart u.a. 1981

Bildrechte: VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2014 Bildrechte: gemeinfrei, Foto: Peter Hinschläger Bildrechte: Calder Foundation New York / Foto Stiftung Lehmbruck Museum Foto: Tobias Roch, Hagen

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