Robert Brennan on William Anastasi

One can’t help but try to read a series of words on white paper as a text. In the case of William Anastasi’s Word Drawing Over Shorthand Practice Page works from 1962, however, this effort is inevitably frustrated. Errant words and intrusive gaps repeatedly force the eye from its habitual left-to-right, top-to-bottom path until it finally wanders free, released from any predetermined direction. That is, the eye begins moving across the page as it would through a text, but ends by moving more as it would across the surface of a drawing.

The title of the work indicates that the composition began with a shorthand practice page: the series of printed loops, squiggles, and circles that intersperse the text throughout. On the one hand, the term shorthand suggests that these apparently illegible marks might be read as words, as communication, if one only knew how to decode them. On the other hand, referring to the sheet as a practice page implies that the order and repetition of the marks are intended to enable the user to improve his or her penmanship rather than to communicate. In the end, each side of the opposition here seems to resonate with one of the two words found in the first half of the title: whereas a drawing was traditionally conceived as a kind of practice page for the composition of a painting, here the negative spaces between the mute shorthand marks act as the compositional frame in which real live words have been placed.

William Anastasi, <em>Word Drawing Over Short Hand Practice Page</em>, 1962

William Anastasi, Word Drawing Over Short Hand Practice Page, 1962, graphite on found paper, 4 3/8 x 3 1/8 inches (11.1 x 7.9 cm). © William Anastasi / Photo: Ellen McDermott

William Anastasi, <em>Word Drawing Over Short Hand Practice Page</em>, 1962

William Anastasi, Word Drawing Over Short Hand Practice Page, 1962, graphite on found paper, 5 7/8 x 4 3/8 inches (14.9 x 11.1 cm). © William Anastasi / Photo: Laura Mitchell

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What can one make out of the meanings of these words? Take for example the array of words in the smaller of the two drawings. While some of the words that appear close to one another on the page do appear to be related in terms of meaning – swill and trough, for example, or seesaw and oscillation – no overall patterns emerge in terms of composition. In general, it is hard to see the group of words as sharing underlying commonalities in terms of source or subject matter: that is, they do not seem to form a distinct lexicon, in spite of the presence of that word in the upper center of the drawing.

Perhaps then we ought to look for meaning in more unexpected places. Conspicuous are those moments where the relationship between the meaning of the words and the manner in which they are rendered appears to collapse. The word droopy droops, for example: the loop crowning the letter p appears to sag down, the tail of the letter bowing under its weight. In cases like squrt and tatts, the chains of letters do not in fact add up to words at all. Even so, they manage to read as misspellings – or perhaps shorthand – for the words squirt and tattoos. Some of the more obscure words in the drawing might strike the viewer in a similar way: the word ballon, for example, which means “lightness of step” in ballet, could easily be mistaken as another case of misspelling or shorthand vis-à-vis the word balloon. Indeed, ballon does mean balloon in French; its English meaning is just a conventionally agreed upon instance of metonymy, a “short-handing” not only of spelling but also, as it were, of the word’s reference itself. In such cases, the practice of shorthand – and indeed the drawing itself – come to appear less as a mere means of saving (or in the case of the drawing, wasting) time, and more as one of the principle means by which words come to be born, grow old, and die.

William Anastasi, <em>Untitled (READING A LINE ON A WALL)</em>, 1967/1977

William Anastasi, Untitled (READING A LINE ON A WALL), 1967/1977, graphite on paper, 6 3/8 x 11 inches (16.2 x 27.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky in honor of Maja Oeri. © William Anastasi / Photo: John Wronn

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READING A LINE ON A WALL. One thinks of the proverbial half-empty, half-full glass, the difference being that a phrase such as this can in fact be regarded as both completely full and completely empty: empty in the sense of being devoid of all content aside from the facts of its own legibility; full in the sense that during the moment when the reader reads of reading, all distinctions between the content of the work and the activity of the beholder dissolve into a state of self-awareness, immediacy, or, for lack of a better word, truth.

It was just this sort of experience that many leading members of the New York art world sought from abstract works of art in the decades following the Second World War. Similar to the way Anastasi’s drawing positions the viewer to reflect on the implications of reading the word reading, the most highly regarded paintings and sculptures of the day were those that most thoroughly manifested the essence of their own means of expression through various modes of self-reference. However, like many of the most aesthetically rigorous works from the mid- and late 1960s, Anastasi’s drawing meets the criteria of that aesthetic paradigm in a way meant to demonstrate its blind spots rather than to manifest its virtues.

The sparse white wall in the drawing recalls the prototypical appearance of walls in post-World War II art galleries and museums: indeed, the arrangement of air vents, electrical sockets, and molding corresponds quite precisely with their arrangement on one particular wall of the Virginia Dwan Gallery in New York, where Anastasi exhibited during the 1960s. The details of the drawing are composed so that neither the ceiling, the floor, nor any other walls appear, but rather so that the edges of the wall on all four sides correspond closely with the edges of the piece of paper. Purged of any sense of spatial recession other than the shallow, almost trompe l’oeil depiction of the vents and electrical sockets, the physical flatness of the sheet of paper itself participates fully in the imitation of the wall that the drawing depicts – potentially, the very wall on which it would hang.

In one respect, the use of the word line in the text refers to one of the most longstanding cornerstones of the drawing medium. In another, it refers to one of the most basic components of literature, a “line of text.” (Perhaps ironically, the line of text is the only element of the drawing rendered in solid shades rather than lines.) While on one reading the word can be regarded as purely self-referential, on another it refers to a series of physical anchors on which that self-referential status depends: most literally and immediately, to the drawn lines within the drawing that secure the phrase’s legibility even after it has been taken off the wall; on a more figurative level, to the whole institution of the art gallery, whose walls are capable of validating a scrap of paper such as this as a work of fine art.

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William Anastasi

William Anastasi (b. 1933, Philadelphia, PA) is a self-taught artist. He is the 2010 recipient of the biennial John Cage Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. His book The Cage Dialogues: A Memoir was published by Slought Foundation, Philadelphia, in 2011. In 2009 an important monograph on Anastasi was published by Galleria Mazzoli with text by Richard Milazzo. Anastasi’s four most notable early exhibitions were held at the Dwan Gallery between 1966 and 1970. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at Michael Benevento/Orange Group, Los Angeles (2007); Peter Blum Gallery, New York (2008); and Galleria Mazzoli, Modena, Italy (2009). Anastasi has had retrospectives at Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia (1995); Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, Denmark (2001); The Drawing Center, New York (2007); Peter Blum Gallery, New York (2008); the Esbjerg Kunstmuseum, Denmark (2009); Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris (2013); and The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College, New York (2013). His work has been included in numerous group exhibitions, including shows at White Box, New York (2007); Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg (2008); the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia, Spain (2009); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2009); the Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York (2010); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde, Denmark (2011); Hunter College/Times Square Gallery, New York (2012); The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Saratoga Springs, New York (2012); the Henry Moore Foundation, London (2012); Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris and LABOR, Mexico City (2013); and Yvon Lambert, Paris (2013). In 2012 Anastasi presented a lecture at the Sorbonne on John Cage, entitled “The Cage Dialogues.” Anastasi lives and works in New York City. More information about his work can be found at

Robert Brennan

Robert Brennan (b. 1983, Olympia, WA) is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where he focuses on twentieth-century art. His research interests range from artistic responses to the Industrial Revolution to German and American art during the Cold War. Robert received a BA in Studio Art and Religious Studies from Seattle University in 2007. He has since lived in China and Germany.