Making Art Out of Words Print
Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
March 2014

A local couple share their love -- and collection -- of visual poetry

IArtFeature_1t was a gorgeous February Sunday in Miami, and everyone lucky enough to be here should have been basking in the outdoors. But by midday there was already a steady flow of visitors to the Pérez Museum of Art Miami, a testimony to the strength of our latest cultural addition.

In one gallery, a mix of students, art professionals, and art aficionados was taking in a guided tour of the exhibit “A Human Document: Selections from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry,” and they were spellbound -- not just by the works on view, but by their docents, none other than Ruth and Marvin Sackner, owners of said archive.

Welcome to their world of concrete and visual poetry, where the spatial arrangements of words, and the uses of typographical elements, and even collage and paints, combine to form visual art. The designs can evoke or even depict the meanings of the words that comprise the artwork; or they can be abstract word compositions whose shapes have little to do with the words employed. Among the works on view are those that incorporate text; art made from books that have been manipulated; and art created by the pictorial arrangements of words and letters.


The exhibit includes works reflective of early European modernist movements, such as Italian Futurismo, Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus, and French Lettrisme. It includes typewriter art, rubberstamping, and experimental calligraphy. An 1897 poem by the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé is among the hundreds of works on view from the Sackner Archive.

The entire archive, which includes more than 75,000 pieces, is the largest in the world. And it is based in Miami, two reasons why this exhibit, among the inaugural ones chosen to open the museum, is so exciting.

The works, from various countries and eras, are arrayed in a way that is fascinating, fun, and revelatory, with words, in various fonts and forms, at times accompanied with design elements, painting, or collage.

On this Sunday, the Sackners were both wearing custom-made sweaters woven with visual poetry imagery. From the start, it was clear that they have an intense relationship with their archive.

Marvin Sackner has a story to tell about every grouping in the exhibit, from the early Russian and Italian pieces to the works of the beat poets and Andy Warhol, and explains the political, musical, philosophical, and pop influences that inform certain works. Do we, for example, truly grasp how labor-intensive it was to use a manual typewriter to design a page of words? Listening to him, we do.

His curiosity and wonderment about the archived works form the backbone of the Sackner collection. Sitting in the penthouse condo off Biscayne Boulevard where the entire archive is housed, the Sackners explain how their vast archive came into being. And it is vast.


Although catalogued and meticulously organized, the archive fills almost every nook and cranny, and includes books, periodicals, correspondence, and more. They’ve always been their own curators, and the intimacy they have with the collection is intense.

Originally from Philadelphia, the couple moved to Miami Beach in 1964, when Marvin was pursuing his medical career at Mount Sinai, and then as a professor of medicine at University of Miami. By the early 1970s, he’d invented a suction catheter and eventually acquired 34 more medical patents, which financially allowed him and Ruth to act on their passion of collecting.

His applied his research skills to collecting, always wanting to know the story behind the story. Hence the eventual idea of an archive rather than an art collection. “We have retained copies of the correspondence to and from dealers, curators, artists, poets, and critics since the collection was formed,” they write on their website. “We chose to call our collection an ‘archive’ because an archive includes correspondence, documentation, and ephemeral material, as well as core items of the collection.”

While Marvin is the scientist, Ruth is more the aesthetic valuator. They seem to know each work as though it was a child of theirs, recalling the development of a particular artist or piece of art.

They didn’t intend to develop a collection of concrete poetry; their first interests included the Venezuelan geometric kinetic and op artists Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto. But in 1974 in Switzerland, they met English artist/collagist Tom Phillips, whose privately printed A Humument is described on the artist’s own website as “a radical ‘treatment’ of a forgotten Victorian novel by means of collage, cut-up, ornament, and other techniques.”


The actual title of the 1892 book was A Human Document, by W. H. Mallock, and the result in Phillips’s hands was an entirely new narrative, with even an entirely new protagonist, though some of the original text pokes through and helps further the narrative. The couple fell hard for it and decided to pursue similar word-art artworks.

Pages from A Humument are featured in the museum (reworking the entire book is still a work in progress, even after more than 40 years) and the homage to its spirit resides in the very name of the PAMM exhibit itself, “A Human Document.” This is personal.

Another Phillips piece, the Complete Text of First Draft of Dante’s Inferno Translation (Typewriter Backing Paper) dates from 1994. Dante’s work also inspired a trio of large paintings along one wall, some of the most colorful pieces in the room. These works are from U.S. artist Paul Laffoley, made in the 1970s, and resemble a combination of alchemy charts and mandalas as viewed through a sci-fi lens. They are based on Dante’s Divine Comedy and composed of acrylic, oil paint, and digital cut letters.

Many of the works beg for explanation about their intricate composition -- like the 2008 piece from another U.S. artist, Brian Dettmer, which is actually a sculpture. The book cover we see is a portal, and we peer into layers of cut pages that make one image; he has cut each individual page of this book to make a collage-looking artwork.

It all adds up to an intellectually stimulating and engaging artistic journey, and from a collection that has been painstakingly built right here in Miami. A nod must be given to PAMM and to curator René Morales, who spent a year picking out pieces that would reflect this archive, and for putting a spotlight on “A Human Document.”


“A Human Document: Selections from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry” runs through May 25 at the Pérez Museum of Art Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; open Tuesday through Sunday;


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