Christian Wolff

Prose Pieces


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Christian Wolff born 1934
Screenprint on paper
Support: 598 × 499 mm
Purchased 2001


Prose Piece by Christian Wolff is one of the eight printed works in Tetrad Pamphlets Vol.II. Tetrad Pamphlets consists of eight fold-out paper pamphlets in a grey cardboard box. The pamphlets occupy the middle ground between artist's book and free-standing print work. They were printed in an edition of one hundred and twenty five and the Tate copy is unsigned and unnumbered. The box also included work by Ian Tyson (born 1933), Jerome Rothenberg (born 1931), Richard Johnny John (dates unknown), Ian Breakwell (born 1943), Tom Phillips (born 1937), Richard Pinkney (born 1938), Donato Cinicolo (dates unknown) and Valerie Large (dates unknown). They were published by the small London based Tetrad Press from which they took their name. Tetrad Press also published a number of artist's books and collaborations, as well as an earlier volume of Tetrad Pamphlets. Volume I (Tate P01688-P01697) appeared in 1971, featuring ten works in pamphlet format by Derrick Greaves (born 1927), Tom Phillips, Richard Pinkney and Ian Tyson.

Tetrad Press was founded in 1969 by the artist and publisher Ian Tyson for the purposes of developing a new relationship between contemporary art and literature. To begin with Tetrad concentrated on collaborations between visual artists and poets. The first work published was a five page folio, The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell X-X111 1969-70 (Tate P05258-P05261), a collaboration between Tyson and his close friend the American experimental poet Jerome Rothenberg. The press gradually broadened its scope to include musical scores, books, prose texts, and concrete poetry, as well as works by individual artists. The 1960s had seen a growing interest in the possibilities offered by printmaking techniques, and artists were keen to explore connections between word and image, literature and art. The artist's book offered another medium through which to explore these relationships. As Ian Tyson commented: 'it is partly the sequential nature of the book that interests me, the conception of the pages being each one a facet of the whole and that of the work being slowly revealed as one moves from one to the other.' (Quoted in unpublished Tate manuscript.)

Christian Wolff's Prose Piece consists of a sage green card inside which is an eight page booklet. The booklet contains instructions for the performance of actions and word games using the voice and simple instruments. The text is printed in black and red and participants are invited to bang sticks to a certain rhythm or choose arbitrary words to be repeated in a certain order. The rules set by Wolff are relatively rigid, but participants are free to interpret them as they wish. Wolff was a conceptual composer who studied with John Cage (1912-1992) in the 1950s and worked with the experimental composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). Like them, Wolff challenged musical convention. He rejected the rules of classical composition and explored new ways of thinking about sound and its relation to music. Discussing his work he said:

We imagined, though you never do it completely, that we were starting with a completely clean slate. We were trying to think about music as if it had never been done before and at least not being done the way it was currently being done, with structuring and all the basic parameters … The idea was to figure out some way to get to sound in a piece which was different and shook that all off … making melodic structure not by the usual procedures but resulting from making music some other way. (Quoted from an interview with Jason Gross, www.furious. com/perfect/christianwolff)

Further Reading:
Cathy Courtney, Speaking of Book Art: Interviews with British and American Book Artists, California 1999, pp.23-37
Some Enquiries and Observations: Ian Granger, Derrick Greaves, Tetrad Press, exhibition brochure, Sunderland Arts Centre, Sunderland 1974

Imogen Cornwall-Jones
January 2002

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