Raphael Rubinstein on Jackson Mac Low


As part of the Annual Guide to Galleries, Museums and Artists (A.i.A.s August issue), we preview the 2016-17 season of museum exhibitions worldwide. In addition to offering their own top picks, our editors asked select artists, curators and collectors to identify the shows they are looking forward to. Here, Raphael Rubinstein talks about Jackson Mac Low.

“Jackson Mac Low’s creative activities touched on so many different fields that it’s hard to attach a label to him. He was a major force in innovative American poetry from the 1950s to his death in 2004, as well as a significant experimental composer, performer, filmmaker, and visual artist. All of these aspects of his life and work are explored in the Drawing Center’s show. 

“I never met Mac Low, but I’ve heard about him over the years from his poet friends Charles Bernstein and Kenneth Goldsmith, as well as from publisher Steve Clay, whose Granary Books produced the so-far definitive book of his work, Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces 1955–2002. After studies with John Cage and Zen Buddhist expert Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Mac Low became deeply involved with Fluxus and the Judson Church dance scene. The show includes a screening of his early Fluxus film Tree Movie (1961/1971), but what I’m most looking forward to is the presentation of the drawings that served as scores for his performance pieces.

“Those works can be appreciated as marvelous examples of concrete poetry, with words distributed across the page in every way you can imagine, but they also served as incredibly precise scores for musical performances. My favorites, the ‘Vocabularies,’ are labyrinthine word compositions that Mac Low created in tribute to selected friends. A lover of difficult tasks, he would allow himself to use only the letters in the names of his dedicatees (for instance, Peter Innisfree Moore).

“To me, the ‘Vocabularies’ (as drawings and sound performances) are the brilliant next step beyond the subversive word games of the Lettrists, but they are only one small part of Mac Low’s grand oeuvre. I suspect that even after this show, Mac Low will remain hard to label, which is probably just how he would have wanted it.” 

“Jackson Mac Low,” Drawing Center, New York, Jan. 20–Mar. 19, 2017.


Raphael Rubinstein is a New York–based art critic and poet who teaches critical studies at the University of Houston.