Thought Laid Bare: Notebooks by Artists and Writers

Looking through the notebook of an artist or writer is a revelatory experience: To enter their laboratory, where they are free of the weight of expectation, is to witness the unpredictable process in which ideas, materials, forms are first conceived and tested, discarded or developed. Notebooks are mysteriously alive—thought laid bare. Notes, sketches, and collaged scraps reveal the strange and compelling metamorphoses that result when writers and artists experiment and play, opening the field of possibilities. What notebooks have—in comparison with more finely wrought, finished works—are imperfections and flaws that make for a different kind of complexity.

This syllabus offers a range of incarnations of the notebook—as sketchbook, scrapbook, album, diary, and repository. Some have been published in facsimile; others have been edited to some degree and typeset for publication. Cumulatively, they make an argument for work on a minor scale—no giant, blemish-free, stainless-steel balloon animals here. These works speak quietly, often of everyday things, and yet each leaves a deep impression that lingers long after the book has been put back on the shelf.

The Blue Notebook by Daniil Kharms

Daniil Kharms was a Russian writer who saw only two early poems (and some children’s stories) published during his lifetime. A founding member of the group of poets known as the Obeiru, Kharms wrote in private for the rest of his short life, before dying at age thirty-six, incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. The Blue Notebook is a collection of twenty-nine notes, translated by Matvei Yankelevich and published by Ugly Duckling Presse. The book is elegantly designed and misleadingly slim: Each short entry seems simple, yet they all share a labyrinthine scope that’s exasperatingly difficult to explain. Many appear nonsensical, yet Yankelevich, in his excellent introduction to another volume, Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, argues that it would be too easy to label Kharms an absurdist. Speaking about the entry titled “Blue Notebook No. 10,” Yankelevich writes: “Kharms gestures at something barely perceptible, a shadow of existence, a ghostly presence, almost invisible. His writing moves toward silence—toward the impossibility of writing, toward self-negation and oblivion, in which being is revealed.”

Saint Petersburg Notebook by Ann Lauterbach

Saint Petersburg Notebook gathers force, gyre-like, as it goes. It chronicles two weeks in June 2006, when Lauterbach was visiting Saint Petersburg and teaching in the Summer Literary Seminars Series. The intermittent entries she made while in the city are prefaced with a short, four-part introduction titled “The Untranslatable,” written several years later. In the first section of the introduction, Lauterbach writes about the way Herta Müller, in her novel The Hunger Angel, conjures “a near absolute void, caused by the body’s hunger and the spirit’s depletion.” This image hovers over the entire notebook, conveying how the scars of the Soviet Union still mark its citizens fifteen years after its demise. Lauterbach looks both outward—as she tries to reach some understanding of the inscrutable city, and is disoriented by the fabled white nights—and inward, scrutinizing herself and her alienation from both the place and the group of writers who are her traveling companions. Her gaze is sharp, almost photographic, in the vein of Robert Frank, who famously observed: “I’m always looking outside, trying to look inside. Trying to say something that’s true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is always changing.” Saint Petersburg Notebook is both essay and poem, an extraordinary meditation that keeps circling (no coincidence, perhaps, that Lauterbach is highly attuned to the presence of birds) around the quandary of how to write an experience that cannot be fully understood.

Artist's Portfolio by Louise Bourgeois

Bourgeois’s notebook, a loose-leaf collection of thirteen drawings, seems to provide a direct entry to her unconscious and, as such, to her practice. The only words in the book are its closing statement: “At first there is a terrific tension. Then slowly line, shape, space and color, like notes on a score, begin to form a rhythm. I begin to relax, slipping into the vibrations of the unconscious. You have to know your unconscious to be in sync.” To the casual observer, the drawings could almost be doodles, but like other works in this syllabus, they only appear simple. Using the most basic of materials, ballpoint pens and music-manuscript paper, Bourgeois fashions drawings that are both mind-maps and landscapes. They are at once instantly recognizable and completely unfathomable—like memories of something long forgotten.

Notebooks 1967-70 by Lee Lozano

This compilation of Lee Lozano’s notebooks charts, among other things, her transition from making paintings to more conceptual “Language Pieces,” such as Real Money Piece, Grass Piece, No Grass Piece, and Dialogue Piece. It’s a big shift in approach that one can clearly see coming in the written notes (all in capital letters) that accompany her sketches and sometimes stand alone. In November 1968, for instance, Lozano wrote “IDEA THAT CANNOT BE DRAWN,” in which she describes an impossible painting. It’s fascinating to see the intensity of Lozano’s conversation with herself, manifested in her critical annotations of things she had already written or drawn in the notebook. On a page containing four sketches, she has written “NO” next to each one. And on the following page, a trio of concentric arcs is labeled “MAYBE.” Later, another drawing is marked “TRITE!” and in August 1968, a page with two drawings of concentric circles has the following notes:



Since removing herself from the art world in 1982 (Dropout Piece has been called her final work), Lozano has acquired near mythic status. Of the many books of her work that have been published (I have four in my library) her notebooks are perhaps the most compelling, because they pull back the curtain, allowing us to see a restless, relentless artist, always probing and trying to move her work forward, who ultimately had the courage to tackle her questions about the art/life continuum head on.

Tablet: 1948-1973 by Ellsworth Kelly

Technically, Tablet is not a notebook. However, given its contents and the title’s etymology (the word tablet is first found circa 1300 as a “slab or flat surface for inscription,” and five hundred years later as “a pad of writing paper”), it certainly belongs among the others. Tablet consists of 217 sheets of board onto which Kelly mounted drawings and notes made on all manner of things, including newspaper and magazine cuttings, letters, menus, napkins, and photographs. In some cases, Kelly simply includes a found object with no modifications of his own. He began mounting the drawings in 1973, after he moved to the Hudson River Valley. His initial intention seems to have been to keep them as working drawings, but with time, they have been recognized as providing a vital insight into Kelly’s thinking and process, revealing his penchant for finding abstraction in the everyday. Unlike his paintings, which are spare, polished, and immaculately executed, the drawings in Tablet are quick and rough and the multiple pieces mounted on each board form new (and often surprising) relationships. Leafing through the pages, one revels in the access to a protean mind, to an artist’s process filled with curiosity, wit, wonder, and play.

A Picture Is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel

Robert Seydel lived a hermetic life, rarely showing his work in public, and deeply invested in the world of the imagination. In his small, book-filled apartment (just a few blocks away from the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts), he created hundreds of works, almost all using quasi-fictional constructs and alter egos. Like the poet Fernando Pessoa, Seydel understood that truth must sometimes be disguised in order to be made believable. At the heart of Seydel’s daily practice were his notebooks, which he playfully called “Knotbooks.” While they have yet to see publication (it’s a huge task, as he averaged four notebooks a year for almost thirty years), A Picture Is Always a Book brings together almost all of what Seydel called the “journal pages” of his primary alter ego, Ruth Greisman, a Sunday painter and bank clerk. Beginning as handwritten entries in Seydel’s notebooks, they were later typed and drawn on brown, brittle paper. These are small-scale works, yet their range is immense. They are dense poems—ecstatic and melancholic—rooted in the streets of Queens and in Ruth’s interpersonal relationships.

Living Locally by Erica Van Horn

Like Kharms’s Blue Notebook, Living Locally is wrapped in a blue cover. The type itself is also blue, and while Van Horn and Kharms may seem unlikely bedfellows, they both find meaning and transcendence in the most ordinary occurrences. Van Horn is an American who lives in Ireland. In addition to her work as an artist and writer, she runs (with her partner Simon Cutts) Coracle Press, a small independent publisher of artist’s books, chapbooks, broadsides, and ephemera. Coracle’s books refuse easy genre definitions—they are art and literature at once, and Living Locally, a selection of entries from a daily journal punctuated with drawings of objects collected on Van Horn's frequent walks in the fields around her home, is very much in this vein. Here, there’s none of the violence to be found in Kharms’s work (although there is certainly sadness and death, as well as humor), nor does the writing appear nonsensical or absurd. But like Kharms’s writing, Living Locally is very difficult to describe adequately. It is quiet, intimate, and meditative. The alchemy lies in Van Horn’s ability to observe the quotidian with wonder, and yet write about it with a complete lack of pretension. Here is Matvei Yankelevich again, writing of Kharms, although it could just as easily be a description of Van Horn: “When literature gets too self-important, he’s just outside . . . sometimes making it disappear altogether.”

Richard Kraft is an artist who was born in London and currently lives in Los Angeles. His artist’s book, Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera was published by Siglio in April 2015. Most recently Kraft coedited (with Joe Biel) John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World. (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) which was released by Siglio in October 2015.