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Collage of H. Darboven's work


hanne darboven: she is very busy writing





Hanne Darboven’s work when she arrived in New York in 1965 began with what Lucy Lippard called ‘permutational drawings’ on graph paper.  Soon after, in 1968, she decided she needed a system to “see more concentratedly, find some interest, continue at all.”[Darboven, 62] So she came up with one based on calculations of the calendar dates that would motivate her, ‘intellectually and emotionally’, up to the present.  Next she began copying texts — encyclopedia entries, literature, scholarly texts — and devised a form of writing which inscribed rather than described.  More recently she has transcribed her calculations into musical notes to be performed.  Her work today uses the same process of permutation as her early work.  For this reason, Lucy Lippard characterizes Hanne Darboven’s art as, “in a way...‘all one piece’.”  With any artist we can focus on a specific piece or we can look at the oeuvre.  But the interesting aspect of Lippard’s characterization, and ultimately Darboven’s work, is not so much the “all one piece” but the uncertainty expressed by “in a way.”

There are many angles from which to interpret Hanne Darboven’s work, but the interpreter can go too far, as Sibylle Omlin does, when she says, “… far-flung freedom of interpretation characterizes Hanne Darboven’s visual works…” [Omlin, 129]  Far-flung interpretations are always possible, but they often fling far from the work.  Darboven’s work prohibits any one entrance point from providing ‘information’ toward understanding the whole.  The viewer studying the minute details feels the massive piece hovering above, and the viewer looking at the whole piece for its formal/aesthetic qualities feels something is missed by ignoring the details.  To follow the lead of the work, the viewer must operate on the switch from micro to macro (at the snap of the snap-to-grid) toggling between the two always frustrated by never having grasped it all.

Joachim Kaak singles out Lippard as one of the critics who “perpetuated a lasting misunderstanding [of Darboven’s work] by emphasizing its formal similarity to Minimalism.” [Kaak, 25]1  Kaak sees Darboven’s work as occupying an art-theoretical paradox —“the association of serial principles with the uniqueness of the subjective statement,” — and argues that Lippard’s early interpretations emphasized too strongly the serial and conceptual qualities but couldn’t reconcile with the fact that Darboven’s structures were, for example, created by hand with the handwriting confessing to the subjectivity of the author.[Kaak, 26]  When we recognize the arbitrary choices Darboven has made to create her system, and see the personal objects in her later work — dairy accounts, biography expressed in dates, photographs of herself, postcards — the paradox of ‘conceptual/subjective’ plays an even stronger role.

By 1973 in Deep in Numbers Lucy Lippard sees that the beauty of Darboven’s work lies in its “potentially infinite, expansion and contraction.”[Lippard, 35]  In this essay, although she discusses the system of calculation and includes anecdotal personal information about Darboven, her overemphasis on the obsessive/compulsive formal aspects of the work goes to the other extreme bordering on a psychoanalytic reading.2  In this regard, though, Lippard’s interpretation is more balanced than that of Annelie Pohlen who not only overstresses Darboven’s subjectivity through the work, — “For it is the subject, the human being, Darboven herself, experienced physically, psychically, and spiritually in the moment of writing, who appropriates time and is affected by time.  Darboven’s writing is the act of her subjectivity in contact with time.”[Pohlen, 52] — but she also places too much importance on the metaphor of Time.

While Lippard is in ‘awe’ of Darboven’s obsession and compulsion; and Pohlen is ‘aroused’ by the ‘obsessional’ and ‘ascetic’ nature of her work; Isabelle Graw, who, like Joachim Kaak, tries to temper the overinterpretations of Darboven’s work, acknowledges Darboven’s subjectivity through the personal details but sees these as “brutally foreshortened and given a neutral form” such that they become “indecipherable to the public.”[Graw, 69]  In order to dispel the formal, aesthetic reading of the work as a whole based on authorial obsession, Graw points to a specific detail in the piece Jean-Paul Sartre, a piece bracketed by Sartre’s birth and death dates:

“One cannot construct an unambiguous relationship between the artistic product and the consciousness of its producer.  Neither Darboven’s pages, nor the method that led to their making, may be seen as ‘mirrors of the soul.’ ‘That would make me very depressed.’ This sentence, copied from the Sartre interview, can be found on each page of the Sartre series.  It suggests that the work must go ahead for reasons other than those already stated...”[Graw, 71]

These ‘other reasons’ direct the reader to another overinterpretation that Lippard and Pohlen explore.  Graw continues, “It is not a question of displaying time, imposing a form upon time or ‘writing time’, even if this seems to be a catalogue-essay certainty.”[Graw, 71] ‘Writing time’ seems a specific reference to Pohlen who calls Darboven’s writing “her method of transcribing time,” and her art a “wall-sized ‘picture’ of the passage of time,” and her music “Darboven’s conceptual view of time as the expression of life.”[Pohlen, 52-3]  But Pohlen is not alone.  Lynne Cooke, too, writes, “Over time, time has become the focus of her art”[Cooke, 1]; and Coosje van Bruggen says Darboven’s constructions are “about...the inevitable passage of time”; “Darboven has set up constructs of time in writing”; and “Darboven uses the calendar to personify time.”[van Bruggen, 1,2]

Although Graw ‘crosses out’ this obsession for displaying time, she doesn’t elaborate.  Darboven’s choice of a specifically Christian time keeping system defines it as arbitrary. Her primary attraction to the calendar as a “ready-made temporal system”[Cooke, 1] may not be its temporal aspect but, more, that it is a ready-made, regulated, numerical system.  Another system, like the fluctuation in the stock market, may work just as well.  The fact that metaphors of time or currency would follow these systems is not insignificant, but to base an interpretation primarily on the metaphors is to look too far beyond the work itself.3

Darboven’s work is less a documentation or ‘transcription’ of time than a documentation of labor.  Although labor takes time, we can only see the products of her labor and not a manifestation of Time.  Her marks were made according the additions of the numbers which represent dates which in turn represent Time.  “I inscribe, but I describe nothing.”[Burgbacher-Krupka, 9]  She is interested in the numbers and not their representations, descriptions, or personifications.

Time is not the only thing the numbers have nothing to do with.  “I only use numbers because it is a way of writing without describing.  It has nothing to do with mathematics.”[Lippard, 35-6]  This is reinforced by Sol LeWitt’s Sentence 16 on Conceptual Art, which was possibly inspired by, and certainly made an impression on, Darboven, “If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.” [Lippard, 39]  Despite the speedy ‘logic’ in LeWitt’s sentence, one point of contact is that numbers are not Mathematics.  But numbers are the alphabet of Mathematics.  And despite her statement, Darboven uses them with the grammar of Mathematics, addition and multiplication.  Although her purpose may be art, it’s the progressions and conjugations as a result of Mathematics which interest her more than the numbers.  Darboven values the process by which things change over the changed objects.  This is what we see in her artworks as well.  More so than the end product of a final ‘work of art’ we see instead the ‘work’ of art.

To say that Darboven values the process by which things change does not mean that the viewer is obliged to decode and understand her systems of calculation and writing.  Although it is challenging for the viewer to ‘think along’ with Darboven, it is less important that s/he reproduce these operations since it is “not about problem solving but about process and polarities.”[Lippard, 39]  “The numbers allow her... to convey no meaning other than that inherent in the signs themselves.  In this sense, texts [copied literature, scholarly texts, interviews, dictionary entries], too can be treated and processed ‘concretely’.” [Burgbacher-Krupka, 40]  If what Darboven is writing or calculating doesn’t seek to communicate or describe “anything other than itself” then, as Graw says, “it yields no objective purpose” to decode her scripts.  It is only important for the viewer to know that Darboven ‘works’ according to a selected, finite, and rigorous, yet arbitrary, system, and that “She is very busy writing.”[Lippard, 37]  On a practical level, considering Darboven’s recent floor-to-ceiling installation style, if the ‘content’ of each page were crucial to comprehension, the viewer would have to spend days reading, deciphering the handwriting, calculating, must be multilingual, and museums would have to provide ladders.

Isabelle Graw begins her article by connecting factory and art workers: “Darboven’s writing and calculating work has more in common with work on the conveyor belt than with artistic work,”[Graw, 69], but again, she doesn’t elaborate.  Although Darboven’s labor is ultimately on display, her relationship to it lacks the Marxist flavor that Carl Andre’s had.4  But we don’t need to go to the factory to see Darboven’s art as ‘work’.  With academics, mathematicians, writers, and artists, the viewer, in most cases, looks at a finished product and is denied access to the work that went into its making.  Just as Michael Asher shifts the viewer’s focus to the museum walls — paint and plaster, air conditioning, (and ultimately the labor that produces them) — Darboven too displays that which is meant to be invisible.  This does not mean she hangs rough drafts, preliminary sketches, and research notes on the wall.  Her final product is the work she performs, and this is what she exhibits.

When critics dwell on her ‘obsession’ and ‘compulsion’, we only need to imagine an exhibition of Andrew Wiles’ work product that went toward his proof of Fermat’s last theorum; or imagine the linear wall feet James Joyce’s twenty years of work on Finnegans Wake would cover.  In the grand(er) scheme, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983, 1980-1983, took only three years to bring to exhibition standards.  Most books take far longer and more work before they are actually published.  And since Darboven’s work consists of calculations, notations, ‘scribbling’, copying, transcribing, rewriting, and collecting cultural information and artifacts, the commute is shorter to this field of production than to that of the conveyor belt.

Although I have concluded that Darboven’s art is an exhibition of labor, specifically hers, this too may be an overinterpretation (a portion of the equation; an excerpt of the text; a few framed pages).  The complexity of her work requires that we shift our lens between macro and micro never feeling satisfied we are seeing it in focus.


1Kaak refers to Lippard and John Chandler’s 1968 essay, The Dematerialization of Art.

2She quotes herself from The Dematerialization of Art and groups Darboven with LeWitt, Andre, and Hesse “as artists who ‘saturate their outwardly sane and didactic premises with a poetic and condensatory intensity that almost amounts to insanity’.”[Lippard, 39]

3“It is not Darboven’s prime objective to ‘describe’ and ‘represent’ time; and yet the ‘transposition of her number system into chronology inevitably sets in train ‘Information:Time’”[Burgbacher-Krupka, 40]

4“I think it was Carl Andre, our resident Marxist, who insisted on the term ‘workers’, bringing a sector of the art world into the proletariat in one eloquent swoop and including critics, curators, and other art types in the labor force.” [Lippard, Biting the Hand, 84]

  • Darboven, Hanne.  “Statement to Lucy Lippard.” Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson.  Cambridge, Mass.:  MIT Press (1999), 62-3.
  • Burgbacher-Krupka, Ingrid.  Hanne Darboven, Konstruiert Literarisch Musicalisch/Constructed Literary Musical, The Sculpting of Time.  Ostifildern, Stuttgart: Reihe Cantz, 1994.
  • Cooke, Lynne.  “Hanne Darboven: Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983, 1980-83.” Exhibition brochure, NY:  Dia Center for the Arts (March 28, 1996-June 1, 1997), 1-3.
  • Graw, Isabelle.  “Marking Time: Time and Writing in the Work of Hanne Darboven.” Artscribe International (Jan.-Feb.  1990), 68-71.
  • Kaak, Joachim and Corinna Thierolf.  Hanne Darboven/John Cage: A Dialogue of Artworks. Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2000.
  • Lippard, Lucy R..  “Deep in Numbers.” Artforum 12, no.  2 (October 1973), 35-9.
  • ———.  “Biting the Hand: Artists and Museums in New York since 1969.” Alternative Art New York 1965-1985.  Ed.  Julie Ault.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press (2002), 79-114.
  • Omlin, Sibylle.  “My Work Ends in Music: Hanne Darboven’s Notations as Musical Works.” Parkett 67, (2003), 126-9.
  • Pohlen, Annelie.  “Hanne Darboven’s Time: The Content of Consciousness.” Artforum 21, no. 8 (April 1983), 52-3.
  • Van Bruggen, Coosje.  “Today Crossed Out, an Introduction by Coosje van Bruggen to Today, a Project by Hanne Darboven.” Art Forum 26, no. 5 (January 1988):, 1-3.

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