ECSTATIC ALPHABETS/HEAPS OF LANGUAGE, MoMA
“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Noam Chomsky composed this sentence in 1957 in an attempt to show the world that language could be grammatically accurate yet semantically bankrupt. Since then, linguistics students have devoted inexhaustible hours trying to attach meaning to the cryptic phrase. “Green” might refer to immaturity or youth, some say; others insist that to “sleep furiously” is to experience a nightmare.
But that’s not Chomsky’s point. “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is about the existence of grammar, even when language’s supposed function—communication—is absent. This is language gone haywire, severed from its primary aim of conveying meaning but maintaining an underlying, inherent structure.
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language, on view at the Museum of Modern Art through August 27, is a big fat Chomskyan exercise. In the paintings, works on paper, sculptures, videos, and sound pieces on view (or blaring from speakers), language’s form is privileged over its goal of communication. Often eschewing language’s ability to convey meaning altogether, the artists featured take linguistic structures, such as syntax and writing systems, and stretch them to their limits. Language is now the proverbial oil on canvas, a material for artists to scramble, scrawl, and erase.
Ferdinand Kriwet’s 1969 floor piece delineates what curator Laura Hoptman dubs the “historical” artery of the exhibition. The white-on-black words “walk talk” instruct viewers on how to traverse the length of a corridor teeming with works on paper, publications, and other language-based ephemera of the twentieth century. In Guillaume Apollinaire and Giorgio de Chirico’s Calligrammes poem, the words precipitate diagonally down the page to reflect the text’s meteorological theme, decades before the Concrete poets (several of which are on view in the galleries as well) would similarly play with typographic arrangement. A 1998 Lawrence Weiner wall piece hovers above several works, with red and silver words reading “rocks upon the beach sand upon the rocks.” The object label rather cheekily reveals how language serves as the building blocks for his conceptual work, describing the medium of the work as “language + the materials referred to.”
After funneling through the narrow historical gallery, viewers are spat out into a room of contemporary works. If the previous gallery was a hallway, this is the Great Hall; if the previous works were mainly limited to works on paper and archival ephemera, these are primarily sculptural monoliths. The works by contemporary giants such as Sharon Hayes, Adam Pendleton, and Shannon Ebner don’t lend themselves to the kind of close reading that the cases of archival ephemera provided.
But this may very well be Hoptman’s intention. In the introductory wall text, she claims that the contemporary works “do away with” those pesky “two-dimensional parameters of the page” to which the historical works ostensibly adhered. Some works find language—or more specifically, letters—in the world around them. In Paulina Olowska’s lackluster collages, human bodies form letters (an activity sorority girls and elementary schoolers with a camera are wont to engage in). The array of objects in Paul Elliman’s Found Fount series, displayed on tables like wares at a garage sale, was more impressive. In 1989, Elliman set about creating a font in which no character form is used more than once—in other words, an infinite alphabet. Since then, he has been collecting small objects resembling typographical characters in an effort to reach the impossible goal.
Other contemporary works do away with letters and words entirely. In addition to prints in which she organizes the Latin alphabet according to various rules, Tauba Auerbach exhibits several volumes of her breathtaking RGB Colorspace Atlas. The artist begins with the premise that it is possible to depict all colors by plotting the primary colors of light—red, blue, and green—along three axes in a Cartesian coordinate system, creating a three-dimensional cube of color. She translates the three-dimensional cube of color into a book, allowing a person to view cross sections of the shifting colors as he or she flips through the 3,632 pages. Auerbach is no longer dealing with language directly, but with a tool of language dissemination.
Auerbach’s atlas is brilliant, no doubt, but this far into the exhibition, you start to forget why you’re here in the first place. I loved that Hoptman’s object selection often encroached on the territories of poetry (Apollinaire, above) and design (Experimental Jetset’s Zang Tumb Tumb (If You Want It)  comes to mind), but it’s difficult to understand what the limits of the exhibition are. After all, language is everywhere in art, from medieval illuminated manuscripts to Glenn Ligon’s stenciled canvases (which, woefully, did not make an appearance in this exhibition).
And this is when we return to Chomsky. The naysayers who tried to decipher “Colorless green ideas” were correct in thinking that the sentence means something, but efforts to parse the individual words for significance were misguided. “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” contains meaning as a whole in its relation to the world. Chomsky’s absurd phrase has now become a mantra for language lovers; it is a symbol for the entire field. Cars display bumper stickers with the phrase. Artist and illustrator Noah Lyon makes buttons with the sentence emblazoned on them, now sold at museum stores across the nation. The sentence has meaning because it symbolizes more than what the sentence tells us: it stands for linguistic theory; it stands for Chomsky lovers and haters; it stands for language’s ability to be utterly perplexing even though it pervades every second of our lives.
Which is perhaps why I find Dadaist Raoul Hausmann’s selection from the Poésie de mots inconnus much more compelling than the work of any Concrete poet. Instead of arranging text to reflect its content, he fills in a template of a poem with gibberish. We’re no longer looking at the individual phrases for meaning, but considering the absurdity of the entire poem. Hausmann wants us to question why we even consider it poetry—because it consists of letters grouped in clusters to resemble words? Because of its structure of uneven indents and haphazard enjambments?
There’s something very Dada about “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” even though the latter was first written over thirty years after the former’s heyday. Like Hausmann and his contemporaries who rejected logic after it led Europe to the terrors of World War I, Chomsky rejects any meaning in the sentence, stripping it down to its bare-bones structure. “Colorless green ideas” asks us, if language is able to function without communication, what is language anyway? The best works in Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language do the same: they don’t just play with letters and words, but abolish what we hold to be the very core of language.
1. Installation view of Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language at The Museum of Modern Art, May 6, 2012 – August 27, 2012. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Thomas Grischkowsky. Ferdinand Kriwet. Walk Talk. 1969. Silkscreen on PVC, 39 3/8 x 35′ 5 13/16″ (100 x 1081.5 cm). Courtesy BQ, Berlin. © 2012 Ferdinand Kriwet.
2. Experimental Jetset. Zang Tum Tum. If You Want It. 2003. Digital print. Collection the artists. © 2011 Experimental Jetset
3. Installation view of Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language at The Museum of Modern Art, May 6, 2012 – August 27, 2012. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Thomas Grischkowsky. Paul Elliman. Detail of Found Fount. 1989 – ongoing. Dimensions and materials variable. Courtesy of the artist. © 2012 Paul Elliman.