What is Concrete poetry? Concrete poems are objects composed of words, letters, colors, and typefaces, in which graphic space plays a central role in both design and meaning. Concrete poets experimented boldly with language, incorporating visual, verbal, kinetic, and sonic elements.
While it is important to note that there is no single definition of concrete poetry, the concrete poems that emerged from the international movement that began in the 1950s in Europe and South America do share important defining characteristics. These are highlighted in Concrete Poetry: Words and Sounds in Graphic Space, a new exhibition at the Getty Research Institute (March 28–July 30, 2017). Through more than 100 works including prints, artists’ books, and journals—drawn primarily from the Getty Research Institute’s collections—the exhibition presents the innovative poems of the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay and the Brazilian poet Augusto de Campos, as well as those by European and American contemporaries. Created in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the works still resonate in our own era of streamlined communication, in which messages can be conveyed via texts using single words, acronyms, and even emoji.
The artists represented in the exhibition each developed his or her own unique approach to concrete poetry, and in some cases, these approaches evolved over time. The diversity of their works is highlighted in exhibition sections focusing on wordplay, the role of sound, three-dimensionality, and shifting media.