The movable type
Kay Rosen – Now And Then
Weserburg, Bremen
by Robin Waart

Kay Rosen’s solo show at the Weserburg in Bremen, her first major institutional exhibition in Europe, opened on 17 November 2023 and closed on 31 March 2024. Occasioned by the artist’s 80th birthday, “NOW AND THEN” was a survey and a celebration of what words can do when Rosen does  — supplemented with billboards around the city, postcards for visitors to take home and a new artist book-catalogue.

Kay Rosen, NOW AND THEN. DCV – Dr. Cantz’sche Verlagsgesellschaft, Berlin 2023.

Some words can run you over like a truck, while others might pass by almost unnoticed. They come in the shower, when you wake up in the middle of the night, disappearing if you don’t have a pen or screen to write them down immediately. Whether signs or signals, symbols or sentences, it’s not the words alone that make a difference, but also the way they look at us. Big and small. Bold, thin, low, high; their place and placing, the distance (and absence thereof) between them, full-colour or black and white. When Kay Rosen has her way with words, language starts to materialise: they are words, but also something else.

Kay Rosen, Leak, 1997/2023, NOW AND THEN, installation view, Weserburg Museum für moderne Kunst. Photo: Tobias Hübel

Y, by example, is a 10 by 8 inch canvas divided in three unequal painted parts, a red, yellow and blue triangle, that works in a way similar to the famous rabbit-duck illusion. When you look at it one way it is almost mathematical, constructivist and abstract, a painting about painting. When you look longer, at the crossroads of the three identical shapes, you will see the outline of a capital Y appear. And as soon as you do, you cannot look it away that easily.

Pronouncing the small 2009 work’s title has other consequences, moving the viewer-reader from primary colours to primary questions. Why, Why! or Why? Without a clue to its intonation, the interpunction in Y remaining unmarked, the English speaker is basically confronted with a single letter that questions the totality of existence, of the things we do right and the things we do wrong. Rosen’s work begins with this kind of camouflage and the momentum gained when things turn out not to be as they seem.

Kay Rosen, Y, 2009. Courtesy of Krakow Witkin Gallery, Boston and Klosterfelde Edition, Berlin

That might be the reason why Y functions so well as an introduction to her practice, and that it now also is the cover image of the catalogue for her show at the Weserburg, an edition that can circulate long after the exhibition is over. This decision to remake the piece in the form of an artist book printed on canvas, a little less fat than the original stretcher frame, but otherwise with exactly the same dimensions is speaking. As an object in itself, NOW AND THEN sits well next to NAU SEA SEA SICK, an artist book that Rosen made with designer John Morgan in 2009. Containing six stories about the sea selected by Rosen and anagrammatic word drawings imitating woodblock prints, this book’s outside is like the hull of a ship, even a shipwreck: made to look like wood. [1]

Kay Rosen, NOW AND THEN. DCV – Dr. Cantz’sche Verlagsgesellschaft, Berlin 2023.

The screenprint AIDS (1994) uses a different strategy, summing up definitions of the word aid(s) in an open-ended, unfinished lineup of synonyms, red letters on a pink background, the one most obvious to us missing. As if taken from a dictionary from before the 80s, it is a work that was originally commissioned as a series of tailgate posters for Art Against AIDS on the Road in Chicago in 1990, the year after Reagan’s presidency, who famously increased “defence” spending by 35%, while altogether ignoring the epidemic. [2]

When they aren’t mirrors copying the content, titles like AIDS, Love Letter or Pain are meant to stand you still, confuse at least a little, but also sometimes explicitly to help nudge the reader-viewer along at deciphering, deciding between what is legible and not, hiding in plain sight. What the works have in common is how they begin with reading, before stepping beside or outside of it, and into reading again and again — something they say only children or scientists do.

Kay Rosen, AIDS, 1994. Courtesy of Krakow Witkin Gallery, Boston and Klosterfelde Edition, Berlin

In this sense Y is both an exception to and confirmation of the rule. Modest in size, not a stand-out work by scale, it is at the same time the most visual proposal in the exhibition: a letter and a sound, a sound or a letter. What the painting suggests is a new category of neither-both, pointing to the fact that standards in language are agreements that can be renegotiated. We cannot will meaning — nor change — into being, but we can propose and hold out a repeated, continuous invitation to change the ways we read, pronounce, see and do things. To choose Y as an emblem of the exhibition and for the cover of the book, along with postcard works of Go Do Good (2011/2023), This Means War… (2015/2013) and Missing (2011/2023) for visitors to Take One and Spread the Word reinforces the message, even without the question mark that it implies.

Kay Rosen, NOW AND THEN. DCV – Dr. Cantz’sche Verlagsgesellschaft, Berlin 2023.

These text pieces, small in size but printed in large editions, are portable versions of mural and billboard size works Rosen exhibited previously and elsewhere, like those filling most of the Weserburg’s high ceiling walls. Rosen’s conceptual, site-specific practice makes a claim: that the words are not actually blown up to say what they have to say more loudly, but, instead, fitted to their environment. Leak (1997), painted onto the wall right next to Y, is constructed from the letters for ‘roof’ and ‘floor’, positioned as high up and low down as possible, in such a way that it seems the letter L fell out of the roo(l)f, onto and into the other word. In this way Leak inhabits its own destruction. It is, as Rosen said at the exhibition opening, “a verbal structure made out of letters but with a leaking roof.” Zooming out: even as Leak deals with lack and neglect differently than AIDS, both Leak and AIDS make use of omission to make their point. The housing problem and health crisis aren’t that separated.

Kay Rosen, Go Do Good, 2011-2016, State Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Photo James Prinz

There is (we might infer) no system to the verbal swordplay, except that each of the works breaks some kind of rule. The walls in an exhibition and the pages in a book by Rosen do something they are not usually asked to do, saying what it says in a whisper, hitting you on the head nonetheless. Exhibited on the street they interrupt sites of advertising, marketing a message that is not for purchase. Inside the white cube they come out best when presented in isolation, on the wall with almost nothing around them, like in the book: one page with an empty page next to it. Surprisingly, in NOW AND THEN, Rosen’s text pieces seem most readable at the moments they are put in some kind of order, reflecting both organisation and (in)completeness.

An acknowledgement that Y is both different and the same, might be inferred from the fact that at the Weserburg it was placed at a distance from the line of works alphabetically arranged by title, at the end of a list of prints and paintings beginning with a-, yet without -z. What Y’s apartness from the others seems to say, less simply than it seems, is that we still need a standard or a norm in order to go against it — that the works are a response to one thing while being a call for another. Sometimes the rules aren’t clear until they are broken.

Kay Rosen, Still Life, 1993. Courtesy of Krakow Witkin Gallery, Boston and Klosterfelde Edition, Berlin

Made of the words ‘fruit’ and ‘dish’ placed under each other, Still Life from 1993 is set in all-caps, yet with the dots still on the I, awkwardly and queerly sitting on top of them like small red fruits against a yellow curtain. [3] Painting a classical still life with just two four letter words, what the fruits — slang for homosexuals — themselves do not know is their place in a debate around gender and gendering happening right now, predating current solutions (or fixes) such as the asterisk, colon, or capital I inserted in German inclusive spellings, and the median period · interrupting the flow of words and concepts in contemporary French. [4] Rosen does not fight the system aggressively, but gently confronts it with itself. The clichés that everything is text, that everything is political, are both true: it is the polemic at the heart of Kay Rosen’s poetics.

Kay Rosen, Leak, 1997/2023, NOW AND THEN, installation view, Weserburg Museum für moderne Kunst. Photo: Tobias Hübel

NOW AND THEN, like the expression time and time again, is a phrase that moves, unstuck, not fully one nor the other, oscillating between past and future, activating the double tense in then. (Back then, see you then.) Here, Rosen makes use of the instability of language. The exhibition title does not form a conclusion or retrospective statement [5], but presents itself as an announcement, both looking back and ahead. This is an approach that comes through in the way Rosen dates her works, mentioning both the year of its conception and that of the iteration or version beside it when it is scaled, adjusted to place or reprinted, she proposes a type of dating that upsets linearity, a-or-b binaries, that can be continued indefinitely.

The work is never done, and for Rosen having the last word seems unthinkable. Adapting to the situation, changing times, trying again, making mistakes, there is something liberating about them. Here, one work in Kay Rosen’s oeuvre might be key: Sisyphus (1991/2011) exists doubly as a purple ribbon with golden lettering and as a digital video work, each misspelling the punished mythical king’s name 71 times, under or after each other, from cicifus, cycyphus and syssyfus to sissyfuss, never once getting it ‘right’. And that is the point. Perhaps, the work asks, we must not just imagine Sisyphus happy (“Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.”), an anti-hero, as Camus put it in the last line of his famous essay — but also, for instance, gay.

Kay Rosen, Sisyphus, 1991/2011 (video, 7'30"), NOW AND THEN, Weserburg Museum für moderne Kunst. Photo Tobias Hübel

[1] NAU SEA SEA SICK. Six short stories by Isabella Bird, Stephen Crane, Katherine Mansfield, John Moore, Eileen Myles and John Aaron Rosen, selected and illustrated by Kay Rosen, book design by John Morgan. Four Corners Books (Four Corners Familiars #4), London 2009

[2] The White House’s summary of Reagan’s presidency still does not mention it:

[3] Cf. Kay Rosen’s note from Textual Operations (2001), reprinted in KAY ROSEN AKAK (Regency Arts Press, New York 2009, p. 222): “...If you consider this painting whose cherry-red text on a lemon yellow ground reads FRUIT DISH, you see that something as small as a dot over an I can disturb reading and self-consciously draw attention to the anomaly of a lower case letter amid a sequence of capital letters. Actually, on closer inspection of the painting you will notice that the I’s are full size, making the dots surplus signs instead of parts of the letter. Relieved of its function as a letter part, the dot, in the context of FRUIT DISH, is freed up to become a small red fruit, partially turning a linguistic fruit dish into a pictorial one. Positioned on top of DISH or piled up on top of FRUIT, and having generic fruit qualities, like roundness, redness, and shininess, the dots or circles attempt to emulate their real-life counterparts.”

[4] Cf. and

Kay Rosen
18/11/2023 – 31/03/2024

Kuratiert von Ingo Clauß

Weserburg Museum für moderne Kunst
Teerhof 20
28199 Bremen