Emmett Williams

1925 - 2007

Born in Greenville, South Carolina (US), died in Berlin (DE).

American poet and artist Emmett Williams grew up in Virginia but, from 1949 on, spent much of his time in Europe. He initially studied poetry at Kenyon College under the tutelage of John Crowe Ransom, later going on to study anthropology at the University of Paris. As a performance artist and co-founder of the Fluxus movement, he collaborated with Robert Filliou, Daniel Spoerri, Joseph Beuys, and Claus Oldenburg. His iconic poetry collection, Sweethearts, was published in 1966. Using an 11-letter by 11-letter grid (i.e. the number of letters in the word itself), he explores the potential and limitations of the word ‘sweethearts’, projecting the word horizontally, vertically, as a rebus, or in a cross, etc. He had the book printed backwards to have it read left to right. To read it, you can turn one page after another, or it can function as a flip book. Marcel Duchamp designed the cover.

Williams was the European coordinator of Fluxus during the 1960s. He summarised Fluxus as follows:

‘Life is a work of art, and a work of art is life. Fluxus perceived the entirety of life as a piece of music, as a musical process. I think the origin of the whole scandal was [sic] not the different Fluxus actions but, in fact, the philosophy behind it. The idea that everything can be music is the most convincing and simultaneously characteristic feature and renders Fluxus an entity in its own right.’

He founded Domaine Poetique in Paris and pioneered concrete poetry, where thoughts and feelings are expressed through sound and graphic form rather than the content or merely linguistic verse.

Williams describes concrete poetry as a return to the poem as image. Repetition and variation of words and shapes manifest a structural element that was, in fact, already present in the poem. The resultant image transcends the merely textual to create new, more liberated possibilities.

Right from the outset, Williams saw the Fluxus movement as a free forum with which to liberate himself from the straitjacket of established art. As a movement, it maintained a casual, open relationship with life itself, eager to rid itself of the aesthetic categories of the past. Consequently, its happenings were mainly international, organic manifestations. Fluxus didn’t have an aesthetic canon or dogma intended to unite diverse artists and art forms under a common goal. Instead, they favoured highlighting human thought and the spirit of the times, bringing it to life openly, creatively, and with a sense of humour.

It was from this mindset that Williams maintained his unique artistic relationships and friendships with artists in Europe. And that resulted in a proliferation of wildly eclectic publications, editions, and performances. In 1965, he and Robert Filliou did the Pink Spaghetti Handshake; during a performance, each artist took a handful of spaghetti and shook hands. They published a print of this handshake as an edition. A second collaboration took place in 1971 with Spaghetti Sandwich, in which Daniel Spoerri was also brought in as publisher. Williams also had close ties with Paul De Vree in Belgium. De Vree published the Flemish visual and concrete poetry magazine De Tafelronde. De Vree’s work has been included in Williams’ Anthology of Concrete Poetry, and both artists were also represented in the 1965 International Concrete Poetry graphic art portfolio.

However, Fluxus didn’t just focus on publications and artistic collaborations. The spirit of performance and action were paramount. That said, public performances were collective acts framed by ritual. Fluxus artists were constantly looking for ways to violate established norms and values. And ideally, it should never happen the same way twice. Without being overtly politically active, the movement chiefly aimed for its experiments to have a ‘disruptive’ effect. Humour and the absurd lurked behind every corner. The artistic value resided in the context and not so much the so-called work of art.

In the full spirit of Duchamp – and long before Banksy’s self-destructing work – Fluxus explored whether it could print all its publications in disappearing ink on paper that would rapidly disintegrate.

Williams remained president of the International Künstler Museum in Łódź (Poland) until he died in Berlin in 2007.


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