April 03, 2020

Getty Research Institute Acquires Archive of Poet and Visual Artist Emmett Williams



Emmett Williams, in collaboration with Rosanna Chiessi and Francesco Conz, Dance Fragments, from the suite Dance Fragments, 1980, silkscreen print, Verona: Edizioni Francesco Conz and Reggio Emilia: Pari&Dispari, edition 48/60. © The Estate of Emmett Williams, Courtesy Archivio Conz, Berlin, Courtesy Rosanna Chiessi / Pari&Dispari


LOS ANGELES – The Getty Research Institute has acquired the archive of poet and visual artist Emmett Williams (American, 1925-2007), who played a central role in Fluxus and in the concrete poetry movement.

            The Emmett Williams collection, referred to here as the Berlin archive, covers Williams’ entire career, including his early 1950s arts features for the U.S. Army daily newspaper The Stars and Stripes, his signature concrete poems Alphabet Poem and Sweethearts in the 1960s, his collaborations with Fluxus artists and concrete poets from the late 1950s into the 2000s, and the graphics and multiples he received from fellow poets and visual artists.

          “Emmett Williams played a significant role in the practice and dissemination of interdisciplinary art forms in the latter half of the 20th century, and his archive intersects deeply with our superb holdings of both concrete poetry and Fluxus multiples.  There are also exciting overlaps with the GRI’s recent acquisition of the papers of Claes Oldenburg, who collaborated with Williams on a book of photographs and documents called Store Days (1967), and the papers of Simone Forti, who taught with Williams at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and worked with him on her book at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design between 1972 and 1974,” said Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute. “Williams’s vibrant, creative work and extensive archive are thus a tremendous addition to our special collections.”

              Long acknowledged as a leading representative of the postwar arts, Williams made key contributions through his varied production of poems, prints, scores, and performances. He published many works of concrete poetry, as well as three books and numerous essays and interviews on Fluxus.  In addition, he served as editor of Something Else Press from 1966-1970.

          “Despite Williams’ role as an enthusiastic promoter of concrete poetry through his Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967) and as a leading figure within Fluxus, there are currently few scholarly articles and no monographs – except for those he wrote himself -- analyzing his long artistic career and collaborations,” said Nancy Perloff, curator, modern & contemporary collections at the Getty Research Institute. “His archive will provide curators and art and literary historians with a unique opportunity to assess his influential contributions to post-World War II European and American art.”

          Key components of the Emmett Williams Archive include artwork, scores and performance instructions, posters, prints, ephemera (announcements, invitations, brochures, clippings), correspondence, project files, photographs, catalogues, and art books, ranging in date from the beginnings of Fluxus in the late 1950s to 2007, the year Williams died.

          Williams was a keen and active collaborator. In tracing his collaborations with Fluxus artists and with concrete poets, the archive also offers a path to the study of many important members of the postwar avant-garde, including Ay-O, George Brecht, Robert Filliou, Benjamin Patterson, Dieter Roth, Gerhard Rühm, and Daniel Spoerri (the last two of whom were members with Williams of the Darmstadt Circle of Concrete Poetry).

          A cache of about 100 letters from Williams to his first wife, Laura, provides important biographical information from his initial Fluxus years.  Williams wrote half of these letters from the Chateau of Ravenel, an artists’ commune north of Paris where impoverished residents lived together and performed. Williams writes principally about his artist, poet, and composer friends. For instance, he praises the composer Earle Brown; alludes to a “sort of happening” that he and poet Spoerri performed in Vienna; writes reverently of his “dear letter-friend whom I’ve never met, Ian Hamilton Finlay” and deems him “one of the most important people in the world” who has “broken the concrete thing” (referring to Finlay’s early concrete poetry); expresses his interest in new music through references to John Cage, Luciano Berio, and other American and European experimental composers whom he met for the first time while living in Darmstadt. He also writes about his major projects, namely, his book-length concrete poem, Sweethearts (1967), and his Anthology of Concrete Poetry (1967).

          A collection of Fluxus scrolls in the archive provides an opportunity to study and admire this distinctively postwar medium, which poets used in performance.  Printed on joined strips of buff-colored paper stock and rolled, these scrolls consist of visually striking typographic scores such as Williams’s An Opera (1958), which uses ellipses to indicate rhythmic beats.  A very long, narrow scroll is devoted to Williams’s Alphabet Poem (1963), one of his key concrete sound poems comprising arrangements of the 26 letters of the alphabet in rows and long columns resembling numbers printed on adding-machine tape. Other scrolls include a journal entitled Review featuring elaborate typography by Lithuanian American artist George Maciunas and a German Kalender that reproduces sound scores by the German Dadaist Raoul Hausmann and French sound poet François Dufrêne.  

          Performance scores in the archive sometimes take the form of instruction cards, such as those Williams made for An Alphabet Symphony, in which a letter from the alphabet is handwritten on one side and an action to be performed (or an object) is written on the reverse. Williams produced a set of these cards in German, as well as English, calling them “score cards” and inventing such actions as “er: ich komme ja schon!”  His friend Filliou created a set of cards which he and Williams used in a Paris performance of Filliou’s Poéme collectif (1963). Each card contains the title of the piece, with answers written by members of the audience on the reverse.

          In addition to scores and instruction cards, the Emmett Williams archive is rich in original works of art by Williams and his colleagues,  Most of these, representing both Fluxus and concrete poetry, take the form of drawings, silkscreens, posters, and paintings by Roth, Brecht, Dorothy Iannone, Spoerri, Seiichi Niikuni, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Charlotte Moorman, Wolf Vostell, and Robert Watts. Paper boxes with graphic designs by the Japanese artist Takako Saito, sculptures by Iannone, Polish invitation cards to events at the gallery of Jaroslaw Kozlowski, an artist’s proof of The Sun by Ay-O, and silkscreens with fanciful titles, invitations designed as works of art, and acrylic paintings on photographic canvas from the series Berlin Berlin by Williams are among the highlights.

          The Berlin archive also offers an important collection of ephemera spanning the 1940s to the present.  Housed in chronological binders compiled by William’s widow, the visual artist Ann Noël, the contents comprise programs, invitations, brochures, and clippings documenting a history of Williams’ and Noël’s careers.

          During the 1970s, Williams sold a portion of his archive and single works to the American collector Jean Brown, and these became part of the Jean Brown Archive acquired by the Getty Research Institute in 1985.  Brown’s original archive from Williams included correspondence from such luminaries as George Brecht, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Claes Oldenburg, and La Monte Young, scores by Williams, and letters and prints by colleagues.  The Research Institute’s acquisition of the Berlin archive brings it together with the Jean Brown material, establishing the complete Emmett Williams Archive in one location.  Such commitment to the integrity of an archive is emblematic of the GRI’s mission.

            The Emmett Williams Berlin archive will be accessible for researchers once the material is processed and cataloged. An update will be posted online as the archive becomes available.



Amy Hood

(818) 469-7223

Getty Communications


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