Stephen Vincent

What about the McDonalds at Times Square?

Three years or so ago, Steven Wolf, the director of Steven Wolf Fine Arts, a then gallery in San Francisco, challenged me to engage a drawing site with no prominence as a place to make art. "Instead of famous landscapes or well-known City sites, why not draw inside a Burger King?" Modifying his advice somewhat, in the winter of 2011 I found a McDonald's on Times Square in New York City. After working outside on the street for the initial panels, I took up my residence for several days at a table on the mezzanine overlooking Broadway! The pens with which I work and a thin blank accordion fold of 50 panels – were taken over and pushed into play by a sound system full of aspirational songs of becoming a Broadway stage star; simultaneously through big picture windows I was given a continuous flow of colorful flash and undulations of LED screens featuring new movie previews and upcoming summer teenage fashion. Every afternoon at 3 o'clock, seated two tables over I was held captive by the gestures and chatter of the same group of mixed-race-and-sex high school students, among other tables of exhausted tourist families. At that period in my work I was only using black ink; the pens varied in kind from ‘hard point’ to ‘brush’ to ‘chisel point’. With each one my work was to to absorb and redistribute the cumulative choreography of pop music, advertising media, waiters cleaning floors and tables, and the flow of folks and human voices among the tables. The marks became the calligraphy of weaving in and out of combinations of disassembling gestures and moments. In retrospect the intention was to use the mark making as a way to create a language of presence.

I entitled the one-of-a-kind bound and completed volume: Haptics: Times Square, New York City, March 17 – 23, 2011.

a partial selection of panels

Sadly, and that in a major way, the book got either lost or stolen in November 2014. I had been in England to lecture about my work at Warwick University. I returned by way of New York. When I went to take my United Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco, the flight attendants at the Gate insisted my “carry-on” suitcase had to go “under.” There was no room left in the overhead bins. The suitcase contained the book and a kind gift of six catalogs from the Henri Michaux Foundation. The case never arrived in San Francisco. I was heartbroken and angry. How could they have lost it on a non-stopflight??

Two months after this loss I decided to return to the McDonalds confident could create another version of the project. I will let the following little excerpts from my journal tell the tale:

January 10, 2015

Michelle Chun, my binder, has made me a new accordion fold on a special handmade Japanese paper. This new work will be in color.

January 12, 2015

2:30. Mezzanine, McDonalds: Rain. Flashing multiple color LED advertisements:
American Eagle Outfitters
A Gentleman’s Guide
Motown: The Smash Hits
The One and Only Chicago


Panel #1 finished at 3:43. Don’t know if I am fully satisfied with it. Maybe its shape should be seen as a Stele that points the way into the book [?]

In the middle of the work a Security-identified man came over to ask if I was eating. It’s understood that you have to be eating something to stay seated in McDonalds. I point to the small bag of half eaten French Fries. That satisfied him. I went on drawing.

Panel #2, 4:07 – 5:15

Went with “blue metallic” ink initially, then evolved into several layers of black, limited touches of pink, then calligraphic rotations of white. In the middle of the work I find myself first ruminating on memories of the haptics drawings in the lost book, then shifted my attention to making an upward “singing” white calligraphic column. While the pens move the earlier rumination into making a conversation, then a song for an “infinite mother.” I resist this conversation. The pens now move in a constant dialect between erasure and revelation; the pen strokes constantly cancel each other out.


Electronic billboards: the bright colors periodically flood the mezzanine, washing the whole space with their odd ghostly light.

“Want your Face up here? 15 Seconds of Fame.”

A video of a small group of folks is projected on the side of one of the Broadway buildings.

Signs sequel signs:
Want to Warm up?

The Best Destroyed Jeans
To Break in the New Year

We hover
We pain

Surrender to Color [LED]

Panel #5

Seems Religious: My muse, the goddess. My whole drawing process these days appears dedicated to her revelation! Not by intention, but the more layers as they build –particularly in this panel (#5) – seem to lead to an emerging figure: this benevolent goddess that appears to carry the sorrows of the world. Who, by the way, cannot look at this world without sorrow?

                Sorrow in Paris
                Sorrow in Nigeria

Times Square?
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To Be Arranged with Light
To Let The Light Arrange

The Wilderness of the Absent

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Shut Up
Kiss Me


The accordion fold handmade Japanese paper is grainy; it resists any fast pen motion. Sometimes I call my work “A Conversation With Paper.” My hands have to work hard. Typically with the paper folds I make work on every other panel. Part of the idea is to keep the ink from bleeding into a facing drawing. Today I broke that rule to draw on adjacent panels. The thought crosses my mind that I am overworking the panels. I begin to hate the McDonald’s circumstance. Then like it. The stolen book hovers. Today I realize so much of the music here whether Country or Black or Van Morrison is about loss. Fundamental to most of the songs is how to repair oneself after losing in love. How to be upbeat. Indeed I realize that is part of my intent in making this new book. The new volume, especially if it’s good, will erase the loss of the original. The new book will be a new love.


Nico Vassilikis, friend, poet and artist, will come here tomorrow before lunch. We will work on a fresh panel.


Final thought for the day. I cannot break away from some sense of my work that on some level that the drawing – panel by panel – is some sort of religious pilgrimage. Particularly with this woman figure who in this book and in other drawings keeps reappearing, either as a ghost or solid. I begin to assume that she is the Mother both within and beyond. The act of the drawing is to unveil her: to be invaded by her luminosity and compassion.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Letters = The Wild Inhabitants


Have struggled with book and context.
Woke up this morning hating McDonalds.


Out the window, across Broadway, high up on the electronic billboard, all the American Eagle Outfitter models look like they want to be played with, i.e., American Eagle Outfitters will make you look sexier, etc.

From 9:30 until 11 I work to refine the new “double panel”, 3/4, where I have let the drawing work through the middle folded gutter. I have never done this before with any of the book where the drawings have insisted on maintaining margins through out. This book has now crossed a boundary! It’s an odd new form of freedom. I am not entirely sure of it.


Sitting all day at my table overlooking Times Square while I seem to make an infinite number of marks in my book that may or may not configure any meaning; for some reason I think of Melville’s Barnaby the Scrivener. Barnaby the scribe who writes constantly in an office over Wall Street and never goes home while no one knows what he copies. I would like to think I really know what I am doing!!


Nico Vassilakis arrives about 11:15. He is a dark, tall substantially built Greek-American. We jawbone awhile about Alphabets and some of the folks in the Vispo world: Geof Huth, mIEKAL aND, & David Chirot. I go and get him a hamburger and cokes for both of us. I show him the work I have done on the panels. I also say I am not fully satisfied; I am not sure I really have anything yet, and, unlike during the making of the first book, I have really begun to hate the place! Fortunately management has turned the music down so it’s quiet enough to think and talk. Complain, complain, I do! Even my old New York artist and poet friends, when I take time off to visit them, they are bitter about this or that and no fun to be with. Is it just January in New York? Fortunately, before I get fully into this depression, Nico reminds me that I had invited him to bring one of his own poems to read aloud during which I will work on a fresh new panel in the book.

Nico takes out “X”, a 12 page printout of a work he composed while listening to a six-hour performance of a piece by Morton Feldman. So with my pens out, we begin! McDonalds on Times Square at this lunch hour is a busy place with folks teeter-tottering their full trays to find chairs and tables to sit. Parents are commanding their children to sit or get up. There is the clatter of plates, conversations, and the constant background of the piped-in music over everyone’s heads. That is no problem for Nico, nor my own ears which are open to everything, including Nico, in this multi-phonic space. The reading of “X” is full of multiple tonal variations that rhythmically build on Nico’s pronunciation of the letter “X”. Occasionally there is an interlude of actual text the substance of which I have no memory. The pens, however, are propelled by Nico’s voice performing the poem in and among the inter-weave of the sounds and colors of McDonalds. My job is to listen closely and make quick decisions on ways to proceed. Much, if not all of this process is intuitive. The hands variously switch from pen to pen, from steel to brush and chiselpoint, then, one way or other back or not again; simultaneously the eye and hands are plucking out pens to employ different colors: a black, a plum, a blue and a pink. Gradually something takes form to become solid.

As Nico winds into the poem’s end, I am pleased, if not surprised by what has emerged: a delicate work with a shape and feel and so ironically at odds with the brutal immediacy of conditions at McDonalds. What is this drawing? A signature or sign, or is it a new Letter on its own. Unlike most Times Square signage, the piece carries no obvious agenda. Nothing to push or sell. One can only take the art for what it is. Or what it is not!

Which brings one to the point of asking why any artist and/or poet would want to make art and/or read poetry at McDonalds on Times Square. Indeed, as I continue to discover, the site puts one squarely into the “jaws” of American life: consumer driven, powered by pop music, the monstrously large electronic billboards sing “the body electric” while pouring down their gigantic demands that one must acquire garments, goods and services. If you accept yourself as a kind of capitalist subject, you can even buy 15 seconds of time and have your face and body projected on a wall where you can join the the company of American Fitter models. As an artist/writer at McDonalds on Time’s Square you risk absorption into the ultimate American consuming host. It is the opposite of the embrace of a good church. It is quite scary; it’s a bit like certain death.

Against this immersion in an America as constructed by Times Square, I discover the ritual is to immerse oneself in it materials, then push against it. The work is both an act of resistance and acceptance. The strength and energy of the visual combinations emerges from an embrace of the materials and the challenge of their rejection. The emergence of letters, gestures and forms join to perform and create a visual vocabulary, indeed a language. In my case it is one that owes just as much to poetry as it does to dance, music and painting. It is also an act of community. I remember an early poem by Robert Creeley where he realizes that he cannot “do it alone.” Nico Vassilakis’ collaborative presence at the table in McDonald’s got me through a very dark space and back into this work for which I am much grateful.

Stephen Vincent is a poet, writer, artist & publisher

His most recent poetry books include After Language: Letters to Jack Spicer (BlazeVox, 2012), Walking (Junction Press, 1996), Walking Theory (Junction Press, 2006), and the ebooks Sleeping with Sappho (faux ebooks, 2003) and Triggers (Shearsman, 2004). From 1972 to 1981, he was the publisher of Momo’s Press books, which first introduced the work of such poets and writers as Ntozake Shange, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Hilton Obenzinger, Beverly Dahlen, and Jessica Hagedorn. In the eighties, he was the director of Bedford Arts, Publishers, which became internationally recognized for the publication of books featuring the works of Masahisa Fukase, David Park, Roy DeForest, Miriam Schapiro, Mark Klett, and Christo, among others.

Since 2007, he has also worked as an artist with a strong focus on making artist books. His drawings and books have been featured in gallery shows at Braunstein Quay (San Francisco), 2009; Steven Wolf Gallery (San Francisco), 2009; and Jack Hanley Gallery (New York), 2011. The work has been subject to two books, The First 100 Days of Obama (Steven Wolf Fine Arts, 2009) and Haptics: The Novel (XEXOXIAL Editions, 2013). Stephen Vincent resides in San Francisco.

The Obama Project: From 0ctober 13 through January 20, 2016 Vincent will work on a drawing, journal and blog project: The Last 100 Days of the Presidency of Barack Obama. The work will be a sequel to his project, The First 100 Days of Obama: January 20 – April 29, 2008. More details will be found when his website goes live: https://stephen-vincent-9rb0.squarespace.com/config/

An essay, "On Making Haptic Drawings & Accordion Fold Books," can be found at Women & Performance.
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