WHEN YOU CROSS the “T” in your signature with a decorative flourish you likely don’t brood on having crossed the boundary separating writing from drawing. That slender gap between visual and linguistic meaning is one explored by poet, essayist, and novelist Renee Gladman. In Prose Architectures, a volume published three years ago, she offered a series of ink drawings that resembled handwriting, architectural blueprints, anatomical illustration, maps, and scribbling while not quite resting within any one of those categories. Her drawings moved energetically between figurative and abstract elements, between the legible and the inscrutable. One Long Black Sentence extends and deepens her investigation of that liminal zone by virtue of its overall design. The jet-black cover embossed with lustrous white fabric, black pages, almost exclusively white ink, and evocative title all denote the more-unified whole associated with an artist’s book. While Gladman continues to suggest—and dismantle—recognizable forms, the relationship between the drawings can be understood as continuous, organically developing, and aimed at sense-making, much like the grammatical unit she names in the book’s title. In many images, elliptical, looping lines dance through stacked rectangular shapes, suggesting an intimate connection between the biological and the built that recalls Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine. Such tensions not only animate each drawing but operate between them. Turn a page and the intricately fused boxes that conjure a cityscape mutate into a burst of lines that might be synapses or muscle fiber. Another paired sequence shows (possibly) a globe, a planet, the earth’s curve, and some indecipherable notation, perhaps some rocketeer’s telemetry; in the next image, a pincer-like ladder rises beneath another planet.

Renee Gladman "paragraph drawing" for One Long Black Sentence, 2020.
Renee Gladman "paragraph drawing" for One Long Black Sentence, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Image Text Ithaca Press

Gladman’s white line—which reads more as a lack of color than as any specific hue—generates emotional presence via its varying degrees of intensity. It moves in and out of wordless expression that whispers (a delicate arc that dangles an airy triangle), murmurs (a string of minute squares that snakes toward a green disc), and declaims (a brutalist construction so densely packed with scribble that it is nearly all white). The voice, if not the entire body, is articulated by dynamic, anti-literate forms that require a fresh way of reading.

“This sentence comes in the form of an open tangle,” writes Fred Moten in an accompanying essay, “Anindex.” The paradox Moten notes—a tangle that is nonetheless open—is threaded through Gladman’s project. Not only is her sentence one that doesn’t employ language, but its blackness is found not in its inscription but in its background. Indeed, many pages are devoid of any marking. Is the “long black sentence” the motionless container, the space around the restless, declaratively white line? The question arises from drawings that assert both presence and absence, stillness and action. Gladman’s sentence is unspeakable even as it defines the essence of speech.