Part 13. Gaskets, Thumbtacks,
Toilet Paper Rolls . . .
Robert Zend dissolved boundaries, or perhaps more accurately, ignored them. The preceding eight installments demonstrated two ways in which he did so: his international outlook and his exploration of humanity’s place within the cosmos.
In this last substantive installment, I’d like to show a third way. To create his visual art, Zend used technologies that were available to him, including the typewriter and computer. He also used whatever materials were at hand, including automotive gaskets, thumbtacks, and toilet paper rolls. Zend was also a prolific doodler, drawing his casual sketches (some quite intricate) on everything from Post-It notes to cocktail napkins.
I hope that you enjoy this visual feast of works by an extraordinary Canadian writer and artist. I think it’s fair to say that many of these have not been seen publicly for a very long time, possibly not since his death almost thirty years ago. The time is overdue for these visual works to reach a broader audience.
The display of works here is made possible by the kind permission of Janine Zend, who generously allowed me to view, photograph, and (in the case of the toiletters) video them.
The first time I was invited to the Zend home, in October 2013, Janine led me to the dining room table, where there was a box full of cardboard toilet paper rolls on which Robert Zend had drawn poems and designs. In his usual punning humour, he called these found objects “toiletters.” He created scores of these, also drawing on tape rolls, paper towel rolls, and mailing tubes. If it was cardboard and tubular, he drew on it. I knew that he was aesthetically versatile, but these took the notion to a new level. I immediately loved them.
After the arrival that afternoon of Janine and Robert’s daughter, Natalie, the two showed me upstairs, where they searched around for more such objets trouvés. In a closet they found a long mailing tube on which Zend had written a poem spiraling from bottom to top.
Spontaneously, Natalie began reading the poem while she and I slowly rotated the tube. It was a poignant moment, and I was mesmerized. I can only describe the poem as a spiritual crescendo, and as Natalie reached the top of the tube, it seemed all but inevitable that the poem would end on the word “god” or some such epiphany. Suddenly her voice halted, for the cardboard where the last word should have been had been roughly torn off. It looked as though the word had been gnawed off by a rodent. Then it hit me that the tear wasn’t caused by a mouse; it was classic Zend humour, building up anticipation and then thwarting it, in this case with silence at the height of an expected revelation.
His choice of found object, the humble cardboard tube, rings true in the context of his writing and other visual works. The toiletters bespeak an absurdist (and scatalogical) sense of humour and a love of doodling. And he was drawn to the circularity of the tubes as he was drawn to themes involving cyclical processes of creation and destruction as well as images of the uroboros. On reflection, the ultimate household throwaway seems a natural canvas for Zend.
I selected a few toiletters to give an idea of their variety and filmed them on a turntable (Fig. 1).
In a series of collages, Zend traced shapes with automotive gaskets, or “gasquettes” as he dubbed them in tongue-in-cheek eloquent French. More mundanely, he describes the objects as “automatic transmission valve-body separator gaskets . . . courtesy of Gabriel Nagy of Low Cost Automatic Transmissions, Ltd., Toronto.”1 Using these little machine parts as templates, he created highly stylized works such as the following two works in the Gasquette series (figs. 2 and 3):
The Humble Thumbtack
Zend found inspiration in quotidian objects like thumbtacks, pushpins, and string to create multi-media works such as Windmill (fig. 4), which manages to be simultaneously playful and haunting:
The three paper collages below (figs. 5, 6, and 7) show a range of Zend’s stylistic approaches in this medium. The lively motion and rhythm in these works have a musical effect, perhaps owing something to his background as a pianist:
Typewriter and Computer Art:
Typescapes and the Polinear Series
Scattered throughout this essay you’ve seen examples of Zend’s remarkable “typescapes,” such as “Stormelancholix” from Arbormundi (fig. 8):
In this installment I’d also like to present examples of different approaches he took to typewriter art. Oāb is full of playful experimentation with typed characters to illustrate the two-dimensional characters Oāb and Ïrdu exploring the possibilities of their world of paper and ink, as in “ÏRDU IMITATES THE SNAKE, OĀB THE PREY” (fig. 9):
and the following representation of the four creature-creators of Zend’s generational fantasy:
Zend was fortunate to live at a time when computer programs were being developed that allowed artists to take advantage of the possibilities of digital technology. Using such software, he created delicate works of parallel lines and concentric patterns, as in Polinear No. 3 (fig. 11):
An overview of Zend’s visual works would not be complete without a gallery of his doodles. I knew that Zend was a compulsive and prolific doodler, but it was not until I began researching his fonds that I began to understand the sheer number and scope of these off-the-cuff scribblings. His restless creative energy spilled over onto any paper product in sight, be it party napkin, doctor’s tablet, Post-It note, manila folder, or toilet paper roll — all were an invitation to play. If he ran out of paper, he would doodle on the back of a drawing he just made. Thirty-five years later, I was finding these little drawings scattered throughout the scores of boxes in the Zend fonds. Who says research has to be dull?
The doodles are by turns humorous, beautiful, erotic, abstract, and punning, and often a hybrid such as comic-erotic. He took especial delight in caricatures and intricate monograms. Sometimes his sketches turned into ideas for typescapes or other works, and sometimes they seem to be outlines for longer visual sequences. In the punning category, he created a collection of visual/verbal puns entitled How Do Yoo Doodle?, which he produced as coloured slides.
Zend was a paper hoarder – the wastebasket was his enemy. Janine points out that this may have been a reaction to having lost everything, including all of his poetry, during his escape from Hungary in 1956. How fortunate that after that loss he saved every scrap, and that after his death Janine took great care in archiving all of his papers, from the gorgeous and labour-intensive typescapes to the humblest scratchings on an envelope.
The following gallery contains a sampling that I gleaned from the Zend fonds as well as a selection from How Do Yoo Doodle?
Behold Zend’s doodles, like sparks flying from a creative mind that never seemed to rest.
You can hover your cursor over the image for pause, reverse, and forward buttons.
Next Installment —
Afterword: Citizen of the Macrocosm