The artist Guy de Cointet (French, 1934–1983) was fascinated with language, which he explored primarily through performance and drawing. His practice involved collecting random phrases, words, and even single letters from popular culture and literary sources—he often cited Raymond Roussel’s Surrealist novel Impressions of Africa as influential—and working these elements into non-linear narratives, which were presented as plays to his audience. Paintings and works on paper would then figure prominently within these performances. In his play At Sunrise . . . A Cry Was Heard (1976), a large painting depicting letters bisected by a white sash served as a main subject and prop, with the lead actress continuously referring to it and reading its jumble of letters as if it were an ordinary script. His drawings likewise are almost readable but just beyond comprehension.
Acquired for MoMA’s collection in May, these two drawings are strong examples of de Cointet’s scriptive compositions, which, alongside abstract forms, are reduced to algorithmic visual codes rather than narrative sentences. In these two particular works the artist meticulously reversed the direction of the inscriptions, a technique more commonly known as “mirror writing.” One must hold the drawing up to a mirror in order to read it—a performative act that was not lost on de Cointet. Building upon this mirroring technique, he further obscured the texts in these two works by altering their orientation as well: I can’t wait… has to be rotated once to the left for the text to be legible, and to read the text in We must not think that cold… one must turn the drawing upside down. Once deciphered, the texts read as snippets of mundane conversations, such as “I can’t wait! But first I’ve to wash my hands.” In other instances sentences are cut off mid-word, as in “work of their dis-,” only to have a new line of text begin below, leaving it up to the viewer to complete the sentence.
De Cointet is now recognized as one of the major figures in the Conceptual art movement that emerged in Los Angeles in the 1970s, having strongly influenced a number of prominent artists working in southern California today, including Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, for whom both drawing and performance figure significantly in their artistic practices.