Words and Pictures


The  Destruction of a Conception, 1986. Screenptint

In the 1980’s ,  I was working on my graduate thesis and had recently began to do a series of drawings that featured “house” forms. The drawings led to a sculptural Installation that was sited at Ward’s island as part of the Sculpture Park.

This  was a time  between my work that used photographs exclusively  and now drawings, construction and installation and then eventually painting. 

In those olden days, Computers were not generally available as graphic devices and “cutting and pasting” had to be done by hand. I sent my model, Geraldine who at the time was acting in plays to a Photo Booth (It may have been the one in the Chinatown Arcade) and hand -cut the edited photos from the rolls and used an IBM Selectric typewriter to type the characters on paper and then glued the whole thing down using a nine square grid, which I had employed in the Sculpture at Ward’s Island and several drawings and constructions I had made at the time, then inked on paper. Of course, this would be very easy today but in 1986 it was time consuming and tedious.It was photographed and made into a silkscreen.

It  was a period when I was interested in Gestural Behavior and one day in the Barnes and Nobel Annex on Fifth Avenue , I found a copy of Beaux Gestes by Harvard French Scholar, Philip Wylie and Photographer Rick Stafford for $1.49. Wylie devotes a chapter to Le Jemenfoutisme which he defines as Indifference raised to a “national lifestyle”in France and describes under the heading WHO CARES, a more dramatic gesture which includes a stream of air and a final “Bof” sound! I understood at the time that the less dramatic Siciilian gesture forged behind the backs of invading armies and foreign occupiers was more discrete , a shared secret language —but no less a “lifestyle”. I started to experiment with formats and combining words with pictures. I was influenced, of course by Conceptual art and Pop which employed words and pictures. 

I was interested in the intersection between visual ,discursive non-verbal language and words. In my research at the time I became fascinated with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and its central idea that a proposition is a “picture”. The Philosopher had come upon this idea during World War I when he saw in a newspaper a diagram of a automobile accident. It occurred to him that the map was a proposition, and therein lied the essential nature of any proposition, to picture reality. As part of my research, I came upon Norman Malcolm’s memoir of Wittgenstein. It was only 100 pages but Malcolm, an American was a friend of Wittgenstein and had attended his early lectures at Cambridge in 1939 and remained friends throughout his life. I wanted to understand why Wittgenstein had abandoned his thesis in Tractatus and had never completed a book again. Instead his lectures were published as the Blue and Brown Book and show him confronting the simple notion in his later thinking.

On page 69 ,Malcolm describes the moment when Wittgenstein  that led to as he called it “the destruction of the conception”. One day Wittgenstein was riding on a train (or it may have been another conveyance) with Pierro Sraffa a lecturer on economics at Cambridge. They often argued over the ideas in his book and Wittgenstein was insisting that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same “logical form” and same “logical multiplicity”. 

Writes Malcolm: Sraffa made a gesture familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of the chin with an outward sweep of the fingers of one had. And he asked: “What is the logical form of that?”

Malcolm writes, “This broke the hold on him of the conception that a proposition must literally be a picture of the reality it describes.”

This paragraph profoundly moved me. I thought I understood how pictures became “games” in Wittgenstein’s later writing. But also how non-verbal communication in the form of an Italian gesture changed one of the founders of “Language Philosophy”.

Then when in looking up the gesture that Malcolm describes as being Neapolitan and I had understood from my experience was also Sicilian, I found two other instances where he gesture figures in. History:

In Luigi Barzini’s The Italians , Barzini talks about being in a library alone in Naples and finding a book by an Italian monk who compiled a book of Gestures; He knew he would never find another copy , so he stole it; a remarkable confession by any author!

In reading about Garabaldi’s campaign to unite Italy into a republic I came upon a description of the hero on his horse going into a southern Italian village to recruit fighters where he came upon a young man sleeping in a field; “Paison, Join us in fight for the Homeland”. shouted Garabaldi. The young man brushed his chin.

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