“Estimated Center. Exact Center” — NYC, 1977

A Piece of Conceptual Art, NYC, 1977

In 1973 I almost moved to New York City. I spoke of my plan of living there primarily because I was more interested in theater than poetry, and NYC at that point offered the best chance for an aspiring playwright to get his work staged. (The decentralization of theater had commenced by that point, but was very much in its nascent state.) Even a brief trip to NYC, however, kept getting put off until October, 1977, when I got a table at the NYC Book Fair and gave a reading of Los Angeles poets at Bragr Times Bookstore. It was a peculiar time for a published poet and hopeful playwright to visit NYC; a fire had seriously damaged St. Mark’s Church a few months earlier and so all the activities of the Poetry Project were suspended. If alternative spaces were taking up the slack, they were not particularly visible: I spent most of my time gong to plays at night, visiting museums in the daytime, and wondering why a city that was supposed to be the center of American culture had so many unused wharfs and abandoned warehouses at its southeastern edge.

The three artists who made the biggest impression on me during my first visit to New York City in October, 1977, were Ynez Johnson, Paul Cezanne, and a conceptual artist whose name I have not been able to dig up. Let’s start with the anonymity of the last artist. I’m not sure of the exact title of the work, but it was a rectangular canvas, close enough to being square that for the purposes of this commentary, an imagined stage of 30 x 30 inches will do. There were two marks on the canvas. The card by the side of the canvas read: “Estimated center, exact center.”

I remember being rather skeptical about this particular work and saying to someone who happened to be standing near me, “I’d rather read a good novel than spend a couple hours thinking about this painting.” “Oh, I know this artist, and he reads a lot of novels.” It was an odd conversation, because I certainly wasn’t implying that I thought the artist was illiterate. I did think at the time, though, that there wasn’t a lot of depth of thought to this work of art.

Out of the several thousand paintings and works of sculpture I’ve seen since 1977, however, it is this particular piece that keeps coming to mind. It seemed to be about a spatial perception, and yet I now comprehend it to be equally about a temporal dimension. The order of the “description” of the painting suggests that the estimated center came first. How else would it be challenging to engage in this projection? The eventual question that emerged was: How long did the artist spend estimating the center? If you only get one try, and that was my understanding of this effort, then you might well spend weeks in front of the canvas, perhaps in increments of several uninterrupted meditations lasting for hours and hours. No break. No water, No grapes or almonds or berries or peanut butter on toast. Complete immersion, dedicated to eliminating any sense of periphery. And then to pick up the pencil and make one’s singular mark upon the canvas. No revision permitted. The ratio of that time to the time required to measure the “exact” center seems to be what this piece of art was trying to teach me about efforts to ascertain the center of any piece of choreography. Subjective freedom will absorb vast amounts of temporal commitment. So let every poem and act of the imagination flow from that basic premise.