Rodney Lockwood, (Photographer) Kemp holding an etching plate, George Baldessin’s studio, Winfield Building, Melbourne, c.1972
Roger Kemp (1908-1987) was never a great self-promoter, nor was he an artist in a hurry. He was thirty-seven years old before he held his first solo exhibition (by then he had been painting for sixteen years); he did not travel abroad until he was fifty-eight; he was nearly seventy when he first tasted economic success in exhibitions at the Realities Gallery in Melbourne and when he turned seventy, only then he was recognised by the National Gallery of Victoria with a retrospective exhibition.
Typically, he provides intelligence unavailable anywhere else, no less in print than online, about a wealth of subjects and individuals. Focused upon what is truly innovative and excellent, Kostelanetz also ranges widely with insight and surprise, including appreciations of artistic athletes such as Muhammad Ali and the Harlem Globetrotters, and such collective creations as Las Vegas and his native New York City. Continuing the traditions of cheeky high-style Dictionarysts, honoring Ambrose Bierce and Nicolas Slonimsky (both with individual entries), Kostelanetz offers a “reference book” to be treasured not only in bits and chunks, but continuously as one of the ten books someone would take if they planned to be stranded on a desert isle.
I never thought i’d ever read a dictionary from A to Z but this one is witty, original and wonderfully opinionated. Plus it’s the abridged version and far easier to digest than a wikipedia entry.
The first edition of this unconventional dictionary was published in 1993 and there’s a good reason why it is still being printed today. Kostelanetz follows his own criteria when it comes to identifying practices and ideas that break rules and pass the test of time. Which means that he often takes you places that you were not expecting.
First of all, the timeframe covered by the book is impressive: one moment you read about DJ Spooky. Pages later, you encounter Eadweard Muybridge.
I was also (pleasantly) surprised by the wide array of people he gathers around his understanding of what constitutes the avant-gardes.
There’s Isadora Duncan, Eduardo Kac, Ornette Coleman, Tex Avery and people developing technologies for art at Bell Labs. There’s Erich von Stroheim, Vito Acconci, Rube Goldberg and the Guerrilla Girls. He also sees innovation in the work of art forger Mark Hofmann, the choreography of Muhammad Ali and in Michel Joyce’s pioneering use of hypertext in his literary work. Richard Kostelanetz even contributed an entry about himself.
The author pays homage to artists but also to the works, laws, patrons, agencies and innovations that inspired the avant-gardes and/or created the conditions for its development. The Brooklyn Bridge, the unemployment insurance (1935), the Freedom of Information Act, National Endowment for the Arts (1965) and individuals like Alanna Heiss or Louise and Walter Arensberg. What struck me when i read the dictionary is how many among the actors of the avant-gardes were immigrants. People born abroad who moved to the USA and shaped its art scene.
Karen Canova is a dedicated Luce Foundation Center volunteer and art history enthusiast
The Luce Foundation Center currently has 22 paintings on view by William H. Johnson (1901-1970), one of America’s foremost African American artists and a major figure in 20th century art. Luce visitors may notice that Johnson’s paintings appear to be done in two very different styles.