Both an inaugural event in the foundation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and as an early marker of its experimental ethos, the MCA’s first formal gallery exhibition, Pictures to be Read/Poetry to be Seen, brought together artists who probed the permeable spaces between pictorial images, linguistic representation, artistic practice and lived experience. As a guiding, yet loose, theme for the exhibition, founding director Jan van der Marck chose works that attempted to break down the medium-specificity of traditional artistic categories. In many instances, this was achieved through a conflation of various codes and signifiers from different modes of linguistic and visual production (like poetics, graphic design, and performance) and the modes of perception they supposedly required (such as reading, seeing and participation).
In his introduction for the exhibition's catalogue, Van der Marck cited Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915–23), saying that by experiencing the show, the viewer could “find the same attitude of combined attachment and detachment on the part of the artist, the same irreverent attitude toward the idea of art as precious and unique, the same delight in destroying conventional meanings and substituting new or counter meanings for them, and the same attack on our intellectual and perceptual faculties.” This interdisciplinary blending of various forms of artistic production and modalities of perception, reception and participation were best exemplified by Alison Knowles's (American, b. 1933) installation The Big Book (1967), Allan Kaprow’s (American, 1927–2006) multimedia environment Words (1961), and 10 "pages" from George Brecht’s (American, 1926–2008) series The Book of the Tumbler on Fire (1966). Through their multifaceted permutations of visual imagery, utilitarian objects, written language and interactive spaces, each of these pieces realized pictorial and written language as forms of signification, asking audiences to question and dismantle the supposedly fixed relationship between the spatial aspects of seeing and the temporal aspects of reading.
While the title of this show seems to imply a simple shift in viewer’s perceptions, Van der Marck states in the show’s catalogue essay, “The title ‘Pictures to be Read/Poetry to be Seen’ attempts to paraphrase but by no means defines the subject of this exhibition. The inversion of Read and Seen is a mere allusion to the breakdown of traditional categories in all the arts.” The usage of imagery and language in much of this graphic work, such as George Brecht’s multimedia works of seemingly random found objects and printed ephemera in glass vitrines, or the diagrammatic paintings of Shusaku Arakawa (Japanese, 1936–2010) and Giafranco Baruchello (Italian, b. 1924), pose questions about the coding, legibility, and opacity of different forms of literary and artistic production, rather than in answering them, or providing a single fixed method of interpretation.
Pictures to be Read/Poetry to be Seen featured 71 works created between 1961–67 by artists, including Shusaku Arakawa, Giafranco Baruchello, Mary Bauermeister, George Brecht, Oyvind Fahlström, Ray Johnson, Allan Kaprow, R. B. Kitaj, Alison Knowles, Jim Nutt, Gianni-Emilio Simonetti, and Wolf Vostell.