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Words as art

Last updated on 17.05.2020

Words as Art

This essay is a chronological account of the proliferation of text within artworks from the post war period. Analysing the trend of text art from social realism, through New York artists in the 1950s, to British artists in the modern day, I observe how text has been reciprocated in a fine art context and see its progress through the push and pull of what’s fashionable in theory, and what the public decides is ‘real’ or ‘relatable’. Through artists like Cy Twombly, Christopher Wool, Sam Durant and Scott King I attempt to address the power and permanence of words in art, whether fuelled by sincerity, irony, solemnity, humour, beauty, or other motive.

Since the 1950s American artists have used words for their impact and punch/ Developments made in post-war social realism has meant that artists used text to talk directly to the viewer. British artists since the new millennium have also used this approach.

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The origin of Text in artwork can be seen since the surrealists, such as Picabia and Man Ray, and in cubists such as Georges Bracque in Pichet et Journal (1923), where lettering is used as part of other elements of the composition. Dancer Danger (1917-1920) by Man Ray is a literary play on words, visually represented where the C overlaps an industrial cog- it was “inspired by the gyrations of a Spanish Dance that [he] had seen in a magazine musical”. [1]

Man Ray incorporates the title of the work into the composition, possibly because he wanted to fuse two elements together.

It seems that Ray is exploring the use of printed text in his artwork and bringing it to the foreground in a light-hearted, absurd way. The imagery of dancing so strongly contradicts industrial forms, yet they are also deeply similar, which makes the piece interesting.

This piece, which predates the second world war, highlights an ability of text within art: it can guide the viewer on what to think. By eliciting this kind of control, an artwork passively offers up information, and it is up to the viewer to discern what’s going on. Rather than telling the viewer what to think, or trying to teach them something, it remains vague. This ambiguity is important for certain text-based works but not for all.

The use of text in art was re-conceptualised during the time of social realism, an art form that was easily distributed, understood, and respected by the public. Fine art once again became lost in its “Bohemian Dance” [2] as Tom Wolfe describes it in his book The Painted Word, and meant more than just what was ‘fashionable’ to the upper class. The public could relate to the artworks of their time, to ‘read’ it and understand it’s value to them. It no longer had to be in le monde to be seen, as it was in their newspapers. Art grew its literary backbone at this time and new criticisms were beginning to be made.

When viewed now, the pieces of this period are documentation of socio-political turmoil and immortalised in the history of art for this value. The artist was a godhead, a champion of the people, a unifier or diplomat. This paved the way for the artist to become the “genius”, [2] as he was one of very few who could physically express the discourse of the time.

This was often done in Illustrations in newspapers, and Ben Shahn became a household name that has since been forgotten. Other artists such as Edward Hopper came to terms with the best ways they could depict wartime ‘Gothic’ America. Wolfe also explains that the legacy of social realist artists “evaporated with the political atmosphere that generated it”, in favour of an art that was “more truly literary than anything ever roared against in the wildest angers of the fauvists and cubists.” [3]

Art became more literal after the reciprocation of social realism into the ‘vogue’, and art practice was never really the same. Painters stopped focusing on their whimsy, their lines and effects, or their inward-facing fundamental theory. For a piece to have a meaning beyond its painted strokes meant that the piece had more impact and could communicate to anyone who was (at the very least) clued up on worldly events.

“It is still dark, it is raining, all is silent when I look at my worktable. I look at Herodiade and I have really nothing to say about it except the same platitude: that I like it.” – Roland Barthes [4]

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Twombly moved away from America to Rome, first visiting the city with Robert Rauschenberg. He began depicting mythological stories, which would be layered flatly on top of antiquated beige, or other finely aged white tones that look to be the surface of marble statues or the walls of a mausoleum. His mark making was almost childlike, echoing that of Hockney but in a much vaster landscape. He brought an American text-art practice to a contextual place that was new to him and produced ambiguous canvases that celebrate one’s personal experience with the unknown.

In some of his untitled works he chiefly deals with the materiality of paint, and the calligraphic beauty of repetitive brushstrokes, but it is in paintings such as Herodiade (1960) and Apollo and the Artist (1975) where we can garner a kind of environmental storytelling that all the constituent parts help to construct. The script is immersed in its context, gaining power rapidly, but is always a benefactor to the greater work in play- like handwritten field notes. This sentiment is also characterised in a portfolio of 8 collotype and lithographs from 1975-1976, titled Natural History Part II: Some Trees of Italy.

Figure 4. “Natural History Part II: Some Trees of Italy”, Cy Twombly, 1975-1976

These pieces are diluted with information of all kinds, from words, textural smears, shapes, patterns, or iconographic elements. Visually and conceptually, they are messy. (Perhaps he was inspired by the graffiti samples uncovered in Pompeii.) Still, they present themselves as epic in scope, timelessly historic. The artworks fit beautifully into his home as backdrops or alongside marble busts and antique furniture, the likes of which are still fondly reciprocated on sites like Pinterest and Tumblr. His work has enough elegance to be beautiful beyond the wrinkles of time.

Twombly moved away from America and he was not influenced by the politics of the country, and it didn’t factor into his artwork when he was working in Rome. It presented itself differently to his contemporaries, and thus he created work that was so distinct from them it could only be his. There were no American politics, no statements-of-the-nation, just a man exploring an ancient culture. It is through this ambiguity that his work achieves an unknowable permanence. It documents his journey and aspires to something greater, more mysterious, and gains the ability to relate to anyone regardless of the specifics. Barthes “platitude” doesn’t need to be explained, or justified, it simply is.

While Twombly was away, Rauschenberg was utilising text, often in the form of illegible / torn Newspaper. Other artists continued to develop American culture with a new focus on industry and identity: mass media and the metaphysics of work.

In New York, the county seat of the fine art world at the time, graffiti became much more popular as part of the hip hop movement. $1 began marking territory through graffiti, and it was used as expression by political activists. These artists acknowledged the power of the Mexican muralists and the mobile advertising opportunities of above-ground trains and boxcars, their predominant subject being their writing or signage. Their Personal information: signatures, phrases, addresses would be used.

By the mid-Eighties graffiti had moved into the fine art world, from the UGA to ‘SAMO’ or Jean-Michel Basquiat. This publicized the painted word in dramatically new ways, and there was a surge of a new method of expression for artists. Words became expressions of identity on the streets people walked every day. It was only natural, for a youth seeking identity to want to put their mark on the world and do so in a way that made them look good in the process. Something about it became elusively cool, perhaps because of its anarchism while still being marketable. With words on walls you could have your voice and make it heard.

These two pieces allow us to see an insight into the journey of the artist as part of a rapidly developing culture. Cadillac moon (1981) has an oil-smeared, scribble quality that is evocative of Twombly or Pollock, albeit in the context of a New York garage. The piece is chiefly concerned with liquid identity, through driving licenses on the right, to the re-identification of his own name that takes place at the bottom of the composition. The presence of cars also reinforces a narrative of travel.

To then compare this piece to Riding with Death (1988), produced at the end of the artists life, it is easy to see that a lack of text in his work produces a desolate silence. The piece feels less like a story and more like a tapestry and highlights an inherent difference between literary / visual narrative.

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From this we can judge that using words gives the artist a voice with which to talk directly to the viewer. They can emote, express, and explain to anyone who finds the time to read what they have written. Of course, they can do this without words and often words aren’t always necessary.

Christopher Wools art is also concerned with a sense of place and identity. Wool has two sides of his practice, one of pure text and one of pure line.

Christopher Wool created his text art by using rollers instead of brushes to remove its painterly quality. Apocalypse Now is the first three lines of a letter home by the character Captain Kurtz who is played by Marlon Brando, in the film Apocalypse Now (1988). In the press release, Jeremy Saltz describes reading the work as “cognitive, linguistic rather than stylistic” [5]. This is a flattering way of describing the work as non-aesthetic or visually empty. Of course, the main focus is the meaning of the words, influenced by its typography and the dystopian narrative it produces, but the “overallness” [sic] Saltz describes is due to its literary presentation within a highly simplified painting environment. The work sits neatly on the blurred line between paint and print, making use of the impact of words on a background of minimal abstraction, meaning that you really sense the desolation of the words. This work, in its irony, feels incredibly uninspiring. The stunted feeling that is experienced when trying to read the entire sentence feels like the work physically pushing against being understood.

Saltz goes on to explain Apocalypse Now:

“The quote is like some joke gone monstrously bad. This is the last communication from a soul whose world has been turned inside out; a message to the living from the dead.”

It was through the humour in morbidity that Christopher Wool was able to take a risk by changing his style of work from abstraction to something with a direct message. By opening himself up to new methods and new criticism, he grovels at the futility of it all, and the world grovels back in shared emphatic weeping. But this was a different kind of ‘artist suffering’ than what history had seen before. It was deeply ironic, so ironic it was detached from its subject. The words weren’t his own but were presented as such.

Joan Waltemath in a roundtable on Christopher Wool explains:

“when money started to pour into the art world, that people would set up a kind of historical raison d’être for their work. By carving out a niche for oneself in relation to the grand art historical narrative, you set up something to bank on.” [6]

The “historical raison d’être” is a key point here. The artist puts themselves in the picture of art history and makes a push for what they believe should be everlasting. Artists always have agency over this choice as they are the sole creators of a work, the object or motive that lives on when they pass away. To carve out a niche is to transcend from bohemia into something much more grand.

His abstract work can be critically analysed against his text-based works, as their methodologies are opposites. You have a literary or visual use of line, both styles of paintings embodying these two definitions in different ways, and a metaphysical sensibility, where the text-based pieces seem to be ‘above’ yet ‘part of’ the art world. Whereas previously, his paintings were just one of many exploring/capitalising on the abstract use of line, they now behave differently in their environment because of this style of text-based works. They are not the lines of a man suffering through the process of self-expression, but rather seem to have an inherently mocking tone to the customs of the day.

“The tall paintings that resulted […] have just about everything you could want of an all-over abstraction, plus the humour of their absurd efficiency. Can painting be so simple? It can for an artist who has despaired of every alternative.” [7]

Christopher Wools work is dotted with “haste-marks” that fulfil the American need for the abstract, but in such a way that is bare-bones and efficient. Schjeldahl affectionately remarks that Wool made word art “new”, and compares his work to Twombly, Warhol and Philip Guston. His review of the retrospective celebrates the visual simplicity as a beautiful result of Postmodernism.

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The Postmodern era is steeped in an ironic sensibility, which is often expressed in the sentiment that even success comes with its downfalls. By detaching from the beauty and glamour of success, Wool makes something that isn’t artists art, or even art for art’s sake. Apocalypse Now presents a truly vapid, desolate identity. Perhaps history will remember this monumental expression of failure, but a copycat would have no permanence.

Schjeldhall recounts that in the retrospective, some pieces were mounted on struts and appeared to float, which he describes as a “magic trick that delights once”. It is hard not to compare this metaphor to Wools entire body of work. His pieces, when robbed of a backdrop, felt “lost”, possibly eluding to the fact that his words enact the same power-play as graffiti practice.

The power of graffiti in America was capitalised on around the same time as everything else in the hip hop movement, and it was appropriated in every conceivable form of visual expression. The anti-establishment, anti-government message the action naturally held seemed to imbue people with the ability to have their voice and make it heard. Everyone could be a word artist, if you got away with it. Artists such as Lawrence Weiner and Jenny Holzer found innovative ways to retrofit graffiti into a dignified, high-art practice, and always used the streets as an opportunity to express- and talk directly to- the people.

And this is perhaps a good way to measure the power of someone’s words in their paintings or sculpture. If they have a large reach and a universally agreeable, empathetic, or moving message, it is hard to imagine an unsuccessful outcome.

Sam Durant is an American artist whose work depicts the socio-political discourse of the united states of America. In his exhibition ½ a world, he presented lightboxes with slogans adapted from screenshots of protest footage.

In a press release for the exhibition, Sadie Coles describes his use of text appropriated from protest signs:

“the statements achieve new urgency and power from their dispassionate conveyance.” [8]

Someone had to construct these lightboxes to hold Durant’s appropriated script. Conceptually, it does look like an illuminated sign, one you might see in your Everyday or your Everynight. But it’s still uncannily painting shaped, or canvas-shaped; The lightboxes are not ‘illuminated signs’ and are simply imitations.

It’s hard to see where to place pieces of art like this on a scale of sincere-ironic, or earnest-humorous. There is equal representation across the board: the piece can criticise protest slogans while relaying/endorsing their message, and can address limitations of the gallery space while wallowing in it deeply. Unlike Christopher Wool, Durant hyper-specialises on specific political events in such a dispassionate way, which brings him equal amounts of fame and infamy.

In 2017 Durant’s work Scaffold was protested by native Americans as it assumedly eluded to the death of 38 Dakota Indians in Minnesota. Tribal Historian Cheyenne St. John explains the reasoning behind the protest: this was a serious topic and conversation that he was not inherently a part of and explains that placing “Scaffold” in the Sculpture Garden would be offensive.

“These were acts of genocide, not something to be portrayed between a giant rooster and a cherry”. [9]

by conceptualising history and placing it in an unflattering context, he angered a minority group and his artwork was torn down and buried (or burned) as a result. The artist now claims for the work to have been a “learning space” [10].

Durant had placed history into art in an ‘incorrect’ way, and his response was to re-explain his work as something that was political on a personal level to him, a place that he is making personal progress with. And, by submitting to the outcry, he negotiates the burning of his piece. This piece gains value vapidly- as if this whole ordeal was planned from the start: as if the artist, decision makers at The Walker, and the Native Tribe have all come together to make a socio-political statement about the power and place of art.

Durant knows, or should have known, that he could have avoided this issue by simply changing his artwork visually to remove the sentiment that upset the protestors or take

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