Confounding the Eye: ‘Visual Literatures’ of the 1960s and 1970s

Natalie Ferris

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


In the opening lines of his introduction to the 1972 exhibition, ‘Book as Artwork’, Germano Celant observed a division that had prevailed over European and American visual media, between informale caldo art and informale freddo art. ‘Caldo’ art was ‘hot’ – ‘emotionally charged’ and freer in expression, typified by ‘colour, collage, dripping and action painting’ – whereas as ‘freddo’ art was ‘cold’ – characterised by ‘small visual content [...] a high degree of participation [...] precision and essence’.4 A similar discussion had asserted itself in the literary activities of the period, expressing a parallel bifurcation between the ‘dirty’ and the ‘clean’.5 This antithesis had crystallised in discussions of concrete poetry, used by poets such as Steve McCaffery, whereby the ‘dirty’ implied overlay, chance, imprecision, tactility, defacement, and the ‘clean’ implied clarity, precision, flatness, cohesion, architecture.6 As Jasia Reichardt would have it, the one approach ‘involves the transformation of type material into abstract composition, where the actual literal meaning (if any) is subsidiary to the pure impact of shape and colour’, and in the other, ‘visual arrangement or transformation exist to stress and emphasise the message of the text’.7 This conflict in register sent out crossing signals – words could disintegrate, to the extent that phrases, words, letters become indecipherable, at the same time as they could conform to an expectation of absolute integrity – but both methodologies were in answer to the same question: what is the power of association between the word and its printed image?
This paper will consider the relevance of these categories to small press activities in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, comparing the approaches of ‘dirty’ presses, such as Bob Cobbing’s Writers’ Forum and the Beau Geste Press, and the works of John Latham, to the ‘clean’ aesthetic of the Tarasque Press, the Tetrad Press and the Moschatel Press. It will argue that the entrenchment of these registers gave rise to a new visual literature that sought to undermine this dichotomy, by paying particular attention to the work of J. G. Ballard, Eduardo Paolozzi and Tom Phillips. The paper will culminate in a reading of the lesser-known sequence of ‘apocalyptic texts’ The Invisible Years created by J.G. Ballard for Ambit in collaboration with Martin Bax and the drawings of Ronald Sandford. These texts, characterised by their illusory patterning, interminable vistas, and impossible architecture, demonstrate Ballard and Paolozzi’s collaborative attempts to create an ‘invisible’ literature, to create a new work of fiction that would confound the eye, devising a radical, hybridized vision of the modern condition.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jun 2019
EventModernist Art Writing / Writing Modernist Art International Conference - University of Nottingham , Nottingham , United Kingdom
Duration: 24 Jun 201925 Jun 2019


ConferenceModernist Art Writing / Writing Modernist Art International Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • visuality
  • literary theory
  • artists books
  • history of the book
  • graphic design
  • concrete poetry
  • avant garde
  • british literature
  • modern art
  • abstraction
  • abstract art


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