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Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Ever heard of them? That’s what I thought. Let’s get right into it:

Text in art till the mid-late 50’s had at best been an element in a larger composition, never quite the central aspect of the work. Duchamp fiddled about with the use of text for the occasional goof, but these goofs took some explaining. Ono, Ruscha, On Kawara and a host of others changed all that, using text as the literal medium/object of the work such that the idea of what art might become was forever changed. Not bad, eh?

But even with this revolution underway there remained an inherent mistrust of the use of images and language in tandem. Art had accepted single words (Ruscha), brief sentences (Ono) and the occasional amalgamation falling somewhere inbetween (Indiana), but what about work that pointed to something a bit more complex, yet harkening back to something far more sinister?

Before we dive into all that, let’s look again at those crazy images kids of the 40’s and 50’s had been hammered with:

AtomicWar0101More-doctors-smoke-Camels-than-any-other-cigaretteGay novel 1960's   Booby trap

War, domesticity, cultural correctness and fear. Do this and you’ll survive. Do that and you’ll die. There’s no room for ambiguity in this equation, no nuance and certainly no %&#@ questioning of the Almighty Authority lest you be labeled a pervert, communist, intellectual, snob, square, Beat or Red. Happy Days was bullshit.


So now instead of rebelling against those messages, Warhol appropriated the most banal example he could find (Campbell’s Soup Can) and Lichtenstein picked up the escapist imagery of comic books that kids of multiple generations turned to as an entertaining alternative to the pressures of growing up, aka: the constant bombardment of cultural propaganda (Whaam!). Freaking radical, sure, but a radical use of text in art? More so a necessary requirement, which is the real innovation here.

Here’s how it works:

Warhol’s use of text in the Campbell’s Soup Can is an essential identifying aspect of the art, but it isn’t the fundamental point of the art, though granted there’s no Campbell’s without Campbell’s. Warhol painted a mass-produced can of soup. The can requires text. Thus text is used to faithfully represent the can. Further, Warhol’s use of text doesn’t really signify the use of text in the same way Ono, Ruscha or Kawara used it. It’s akin to how Picasso or Schwitters used it, as a collage element (written by someone else) essential to the piece they were creating. The central aspect and end result, to my way of thinking, is that it’s a modern day still life, a winking reflection of the times. Or, better yet, a portrait. 

Warhol Campbell's Soup Can 1964

Lichtenstein’s use of text is essentially identical. That it has an aesthetically pleasing Pop form is a real bonus, making is more commercially accessible than, say, Lawrence Weiner. More importantly, both text and image are appropriated, turning the artist, via the use of low brow imagery, into a high brow critic of culture. The use of text + image has been sterilized, offering something harmlessly fluffy in return. That’s a smart bit of work, actually, allowing text to crawl back into bed with image without the child it bears telling you that you’re doomed. I imagine it had to be a massive relief, really, for all those former kids trudging home from their endless 9-5’s with briefcase and Fedoras, wives prepping TV dinners in their suburban homes with 2.5 kids begging for attention, seeing Drowning Girl in Leo Castelli and laughing hysterically all the way home.


Which perhaps at some point leads to Christopher Wool’s Apocalypse Now (or Tom Waits’ Franks Wild Years), but we’ll get to that soon enough. In the meantime a preview!

Christopher Wool Apocalypse Now

In the early 60’s an art-centric revolutionary zeitgeist was in the air. Whereas folks once needed massive canvasses and the culture of philosophical communities to craft their art, the cult of movements began to fade as nobody could agree on anything and the rise of the individual artist began. Again, this is wildly over-simplistic as it’s true some artists over the next few decades were still tied to certain art movements (Warhol and Lichtenstein, for example), but once art was stripped of its classic academic and economic requirements then all hell broke loose. Ideas became the currency of the time and how to express those ideas, the basic mathematics of art, separated the men/women from the boys/girls.

Ed Ruscha

Ed banged out his first word paintings while visiting Paris as a young art student in 1961. Like Ono (whose work he most likely had never seen), Ruscha helped radicalize the larger world of art. He ditched the massive scale, removed classic imagery and also did a snappy little trick: He used text as an object. Ruscha took a single word and used the word’s accepted meaning to suggest how to paint it. Here’s 2 examples:

Ed Ruscha Scream

Ed Ruscha OOF      edward-ruschas-ripe

The use of word as interpretive object is mesmerizing. 1. It has inherent meaning 2. It’s meaning isn’t modified by the use of other words or sentences 3. It’s treated like a highly stylized still life. And per Ono, you have to read it in order to fully engage with it, plus it also has some groovy aesthetic qualities because, duh, it’s a painting.


And because it’s a painting that means we’re moving back into the realm of traditional fine art, though the concept of IDEA as primary inspiration seems to have trumped the greater reverence for paint, which by the way has been reduced to a kind of co-conspirator used to illuminate the artist’s thought process. 

Robert Indiana

Of which, here’s a few examples of Art as Idea gone to hell. For starters, Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture:


Complete bastard, aren’t I? In truth I love most of Indiana’s work. It’s bold, evocative, determined and rendered in what still seems to be a fiercely modern sensibility. Kudos! But the LOVE sculpture? Indiana first used LO/VE in a poem back in 1958. One thing led to another then suddenly it’s Picasso’s dove all over again, which meant fine art somehow had Universal Meaning that everyone could enjoy. I always thought it was insipid. Why not WU/VU?

I don’t know where I’m going with this digression, so let’s get back to Indiana’s groovy single work paintings and ditch the LO/VE schtick, which by the way also became an official US Postage stamp in 1973. Like, you know, Norman Rockwell.


So here we go: Indiana built single word paintings done in a smart graphic style, then juxtaposed them against another. This in turn creates a fairly dynamic dialogue. Indiana could have put the words – meant to be side by side – on the same painting, but he separated the two changing their relationship and the viewer’s perception, in turn leading to a hell of a lot of questions re: word choice all caps, 3 letters each, the relationship between what you eat and what kills you, colors and a whole list of things I’m probably not smart enough to identify. They’re are among the first of an infinite number of text-centric permutations, with Pop Art sensibilities and beautifully executed.


Lawrence Weiner

Speaking of permutations, oh my gosh let’s talk about Lawrence Weiner. Larry, if you will, began his art career using explosives to blow giant craters into the fields of California. A kind of de-installation event that I wish I’d thought of, wait, I did; I used to blow up plastic green army soliders while recreating the titanic battles of World War Two in my backyard as a kid back in the 70’s. Not the same thing, but guys and fire, you know? AWESOME.

That said, Weiner got famous for his text art, constructing a set of rules in 1968 called “Declaration of Intent”:

The artist may construct the piece.
The piece may be fabricated.
The piece need not be built.

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

What happened to the pyromaniac? Weiner basically ripped off an entire conceptual movement, set it on a sun porch, torched all the love, wit and wild invention out of it, then sold it back to the consumer as an academic husk of frozen death. Remember, it was still the 1960’s and like Elvis ripping off Negro music in the 50’s, Weiner got onboard with what has already been established and codified it as if he’d just discovered the color blue. Weiner followed it up with a book called Statements back in 68′ that ‘described projects’. Again, Ono beat him to it by 13 years, nevermind Claes Oldenburg’s own brilliant drawings of sculptures that could never be built.

This folks marks the end of my interest in Lawrence Weiner. Honestly, beyond blowing shit up as a 19 yr old demolitions artist, I just can’t say that he added anything to the form other than an academic exploration of text, sigh, as art. Like eating Soylent Green all your life when everyone else around you has just discovered Asian fusion.

On Kawara

However, of SUPREME INTEREST is the amazing On Kawara!


Kawara, a young Japanese rake, began a series of Date Paintings beginning in 1966 that ened with his death in 2014. The paintings were profoundly simple as they consisted entirely of the date they were constructed. No stencils, just meticulous work documenting the day, sometimes collected with the NY Times to reflect the real world events of the moment. Like any artist, Kawara went through his phases in terms of size, font, quantity and color, but this in essence became the entirety of his oeuvre – documenting time and consciousness in the simplest terms possible.


In some respects Kawara, like Jackson Pollock, took a genre to its furthest extreme. Pollock’s work was the antithesis of Kawara, wild v. concise, imagination v. reality, yet both were beautifully meditative in their own quiet ways.

So back in 1957 Jasper Johns failed to do the obvious: quit painting and become a conceptual artist. At root his work was truly conceptual: reimagined flags, targets and maps, but he covered it up in layers of impasto. He wanted to be a painter, an artiste, and good for him. However, even before he’d dabbled in the radical world of conceptual art another artist had already lapped him, in fact packed him in a torpedo and sent him hurtling off to his own lonely explosion somewhere off Atlantis. He didn’t know it, noone really knew it, but Yoko Ono had set anchor in an entirely new world of art, one that would take flower and become an integral part of the entire world’s culture. Johns on the other hand would spend the next 5 decades protecting his legacy and getting awards from Presidents. Sue me for slander, but history has a way of resolving itself and the critic’s darling of the late 50’s and early 60’s, also 70’s, 80’s ad infinitum, never had the stones to do what Ono did, which was to reinvent the entire medium.

YOKO 1950's

Here’s the deal: By 1955, a 22 yr old female Japanese artist named Yoko Ono, whose family had survived the atomic bomb, starvation and other atrocities of war, had begun a simple project: Event Scores. Absent a decent photograph, here it is:

Lighting Piece:
Light a match and watch till it goes out.

Simple, no? Spare text on paper. That’s it. Ono’s original pieces were in Japanese, so here’s an original titled Painting for the Wind:

Ono Painting for the Wind

Now then, you ask, what’s the big deal? An instruction manual for peyote-eating hippies gone to find God, and later a pint of ice cream? Close! If by close you mean in fact the complete opposite. Here’s what Yoko actually did:

     1. Remove all classic fine art materials
     2. Remove the need for imagery
     3. Reduce the scale of the work
     4. Require audience participation
     5. Reinvestied in language

Understand that Ono didn’t create her work in a vacuum. She was later surrounded by heavyweights such as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim and others, but at this point she was still basically just a Sarah Lawrence dropout looking to find her place among the New York avant-garde. That said, let’s look closely at each of these innovations to better understand how it all works:

Remove all classic fine art materials. The mid-50’s was the height of American painting with the Abstract-Expressionist movement having overtaken their European counterparts as the leading edge in the development of the form. Ono dispensed with the need for paint (historically the highest regarded medium in fine art), instead offering a simply written single sentence on a piece of paper as the finished work.

Jasper Johns Savarin Can

Remove the need for imagery. The Ab-Ex movement was in some respects a spiritual movement where the artists, having been brutalized by their experience with the 2nd World War and a profound distrust of the messages of American culture, turned inward looking for inspiration for their own abstract masterpieces.


Popular as it was, Ono ignored the entire movement as well as a few thousand years of portraits of Kings, Queens and peasants, nevermind foxes, rivers, mountains and the baby Jesus.


Reduce the scale of the work. Painting had become MASSIVE in the 50’s with the main propagator of Huge and Impressive being Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock MOMA

Painting For The Wind is about 3 x 4”. In terms of scale, recall that Dali’s originals were actually quite small; it’s just that they’ve morphed into obligatory college dorm posters seconds after the paint dried with the scale being completely out of proportion to the original. Not so in this case, especially with the publication of Grapefruit in 1964, a series of instructions typed on index cards.


Require audience participation. Traditionally, art has been observational. The painter painted it, you looked at it. That’s pretty much it. Here, in order to engage with the piece you have to read it. Observe v. Absorb. It’s a simple change of viewership principle, but an essential one as it requires the viewer to actively engage with the work in order to ‘understand’ what it is trying to get across. No more passive emotional responses with a cup of Riunite in hand! It also required you to be literate, ah ha, something we most certainly take for granted. In all honesty, I think this was the most radical of the 5 rules as it changed the relationship between the artist, art and viewer, something DADA tried but never quite figured out how to bridge. Unless they were trying to slug you, which as an artform had its place.


Reinvested in language. Whether to trust in language is a recurring theme throughout the history of text-based art. Sometimes the question is whether to trust in the language of the art, or the language the art purports to illuminate. Ono didn’t necessarily trust or distrust language, it was simply a tool she used, in fact you could argue it was her medium. The idea of language as medium akin to paint, stone or even, say, paper mache, is completely radical if not overtly subversive. After all, artists painted pretty pictures, but the act of cultural messages was reserved for the ruling upper classes, no? It was, at heart, a civil rights issue, nevermind that it came from a smoking hot 22 yr old Japanese artist noone outside of lower Manhattan had ever heard of.

Yoko Ono 1960's

And this being the 1950’s, which at the time the following things were popular among certain segments of the population: lobotomizing unruly housewives, keeping negroes in their place, gearing up for a war with the Soviet Union, a massive expansion of an increasingly docile suburban population and the ever popular McCarthyism.

American housewife in the 1950s

All of which leads to +1, which is this: Ono’s early text pieces were genderless. It wasn’t that Ono was fighting for women’s rights or gender equality through her work, it’s that she’d already gotten over to the other side on the issue and unapologetically made work that did away with the sweeping machismo of Abstract Expressionism. She didn’t include tasteful nudes, pheasants or bowls of fruit, but instead laid the foundation (as a true heir of Marcel Duchamp, as was John Cage) for work predicated on the quality of one’s thoughts, period, which is by and large the great leveler of society. Do you think Phyllis Schlafly, George Wallace or yer basic American xenophobe would have approved? Probably not. It was radical thinking for work of such sly and gentle provocations, light years ahead of its time.

Let’s say you like to eat fried chicken. You spend a lifetime eating fried chicken. At some point you decide that there’s got to be more to chicken than eating it fried, so you experiment. You try it baked, broiled, sautéed and barbequed. But that’s still not enough, so you put it over rice, linguini, quinoa and mashed potatoes but you remain unsatisfied. Suddenly you find yourself searching the world for the perfect pairing and try it with most every conceivable fruit, vegetable, spice, condiment, bread and bun combination until, at last, you decide that chicken fried steak is the way to go, but somehow, in the little corner of your brain that constantly wonders “What if?” you realize that the quest will never end and you’ll never have enough to satisfy your endless, curious, completely insane craving for all that is chicken. Nor, you realize, will you live long enough to ever be absolutely certain you’ve seen, tried and tasted it all.

This is exactly how it is when describing text art of the 1960’s.


In light of this, and aware that any real attempt at a comprehensive overview of the 60’s text art scene falls seriously into the academic, I’m going to focus on the following group of folks who were the most forward thinking in terms of the role of text in art – including the use of materials which was almost as revolutionary. All this in turn set up some real tension between the ‘art for art’s sake’ crowd (aka: “anti-art”) and those out to make a quick buck, or later a massive fortune.  


Fluxus, Yoko Ono, Ray Johnson, On Kawara, Ed Ruscha, Art & Language, William S. Burroughs, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth and perhaps a few essential others, especially as the fields of fine art being to overlap with each genre borrowing liberally from their counterparts.  

Yoko+Ono   Roy-Lichtenstein   Robert-Indiana-at-home





ANDY_WARHOL_young-artreportScreen Shot 2015-09-06 at 3.01.10 PM10














The main issue here is that if the 50’s were a transitional period that saw both the apex of Ab-Ex painting as well as the beginnings of the demystification and dismantling of the need for classic academic painting, then the 60’s were an unprecedented explosion toward the opposite side of the spectrum where paint became an afterthought and text, as both medium and material, became predominant – and remains to this day. It’s also been so completely absorbed into our culture via art, advertising, TV, movies, coffeemugs and kitsch, that it’s nearly overwhelming to wade through in order to get to the landscape-shifting essentials. Speaking of which:

Total Art Match Box 1968

Also, for what it’s worth, I recently received a question about text art and women artists. It’s a great question. I’ve found, at least in terms of influence and my own general awareness of text in art, that women artists become predominant in the 1970’s, especially Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Again this site is my own particular look at text in art, but if you have any truly non-ephemeral suggestions of artists that should not be overlooked, by all means drop me a line.

Conceptual art, at its best, is the simplest visual representation of an idea as possible. This isn’t good or bad, and it isn’t necessarily central to text-based art, but it is the as yet undefined ‘goal’ of transitional work of the 1950’s we’ve been discussing. With that in mind, specifically the marriage of Conceptual Art and text-based work still to come, let’s look at Jasper Johns.

gray numbers 1957

Jasper Johns, Gray Numbers, 1957

In its most basic terms, Johns painted a series of random numbers in gray. The big deal here is that Johns chose to ignore both the hidden interior landscape of Ab-Ex painting and chose as subject matter something as clinically abstract as numbers tho he also worked with targets, maps and flags, yer basic mass-manufactured informational products. Thus, post Ab-Ex, distrust language, distrust image, open your eyes to a new nature and… paint it? If Johns had ditched painting altogether and done this instead on cardboard

Numbered Grid

then he might not have become so darn famous. This first cautious step, incautious as it may have seemed at the time, freaked people out as he was using the tools of the past to suggest the direction of the future. Again, I wonder why he didn’t just ditch paint altogether to get to the root of the concept, but Johns’ idea of being an artist meant classic tools like canvas, paint and brush, something that was already in process of being dismantled.

Of which, and before we get to the dismantling via Fluxus, Yoko Ono and a whole new direction in literature, here’s a few innovations from Franz Kline in 1952 (!) that again suggest a new direction though still rooted in painting:

Kline Study for Hight Street 1952

Study for High Street, 1952

Kline Untitled 1952

Untitled 1952

Though both Willem DeKooning and Rauschenberg incorporated newspaper into their work at times, here Kline uses a New York City phone book as the primary surface for gestural painting. The idea is that Kline “cancelled the tedium” of the printed surface, erasing its function. Eh. I find the fact that he’s chosen a phone book, a comprehensive directory of everyone who owns a phone in New York to be far more interesting than what he was theoretically looking to achieve. In other words, negation of an alphabetical, mass-produced, printed, columned sheet of paper freely available to anyone – THAT’S Conceptual Art! And it required a text-based directory to function successfully. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Of which, negation, and to digress a moment, Rauschenberg in the 50’s was a wellspring of ideas that were way ahead of his time. Check out this piece of work:

Erased Drawing Rauschenberg

Rauschenberg’s erasure of a DeKooning drawing. Genius, no? Even more genius to get DeKooning to agree to the collaboration, though not necessarily a collaboration as DeKooning had no idea that the young Rauschenberg, a relative nobody in the art world at that time, would have the audacity to ask for 1. a free drawing and 2. absolutely negate it through erasure. The drawing was a mixture of pencil, charcoal, ink and crayon and took a full 2 months to erase. Another collaboration that took art in a whole new direction was Automobile Tire Print

Automobile Tire Print Rauschenberg John Cage

with John Cage driving his Model A Ford over paper creating the print. Rauschenberg in the 50’s was looking to expand the traditional media of the classic artist. He crushed it repeatedly, and if video had been around back then no doubt he would have dabbled in that too. Warhol later dove into film, doing single-shot sequences that doubled as feature-length films, but by then you could easily fold that into Duchamp’s idea of the Readymade. It was, as with Automobile Tire Print, simply a logical expansion of an idea that will continue to bear fruit long past our lifetime.

All that said, we’re laying the groundwork for the elimination of painting, per se, and the birth of Conceptual Art. In truth Conceptual Art had been around for a long time, but it hadn’t yet had an organized form nevermind manifestos, declarations, collectives and later the all-important retrospectives.

What’s interesting here, going back to the top of the post, is that the simplest visual representation of an idea is often words, ie: a description of the idea itself. Once you learn to abandon paint and most traditional artistic methods, yet still desire to create original art, what’s left to work with? Well, a few new inventions had just come about, much like Desktop Publishing of 90’s, that made the creation of a new cheapo mass-market artform all that much more egalitarian.

IBM Selectric

  1. 1959 – Plain Paper Photocopier (Mimeograph)
  2. Early 60’s – dry transfer lettering (Signs, posters and art)
  3. 1961 – IBM Selectric Typewriter with ‘golf ball’ type element that allowed for variable fonts (Mimeograph, extension of graphic design)
  4. Screen printing – not a new process, but popularized in 1962 by Warhol and yet another method of mass production, but this time with the added benefit of color (All of the above + image/non-image)

All of these methods, compared to painting and sculpture, are inexpensive, thus affordable to the proletarian masses, or any dork with time enough to try his hand at fine art. Key here is FINE ART. Soon you’ll see how even the definition of fine art, as under attack as it was by ideas, was also materially under attack as both critics and an uncertain public had to come to grips with the fact that art could be made on the cheap – and thus cheaply sell. So instead of knockoff prints you could buy originals, which oddly enough were also most likely prints. And maybe even small enough to fit in your pocket. What, had the world gone crazy? The answer to that, apparently, was YES.

I was gutting a trench for a retaining wall yesterday and a thought occurred to me. It was this:

The History of Nature in 20th Century Western Art

  1. Pre-WWII: Nature as primary source material for art
  2. Post-WWII: Abstract-Expressionism disregards nature and looks inward
  3. Post Ab-Ex: Product replaces nature as primary source material for art


Another way to look at this:

  1. Pre-WWII: Eyes wide open, see nature
  2. Post-WWII: Eyes shut, avoids nature
  3. Post Ab-Ex: Eyes wide open, nature has been replaced


And by “nature” I mean both the natural world and depictions of human experience. True too that this is also a great over-simplification, granted, but I’m working big picture here.

With that in mind, art thru the Ab-Ex period involved a lot of big canvasses and tons of paint (no distinction between types), generally speaking. With that in mind, the transition from Paint to No Paint, as happened with Conceptual Art, was gradual.

But before we get to that, here’s a quick question: Which came first – the removal of paint, or the removal of nature? This is interesting because I’ve often looked at a lot of major artist’s work and wondered why it took them 20 years to get to where they were ‘obviously going’, ie: Why did it take Rothko so long to get to the basics of his genius color field paintings? The answer is that everything is a process, and as a painter over the length of a lifetime, each painting is simply part of that process, ie: there is no goal except to continue what you started yesterday. So the idea that a series of individual and collective steps was required in moving from Ab-Ex to Concrete Art as the new Avant-Garde, well it’s not surprising given paintings’ multi-century professional and cultural dominance.

So, to answer the question above: Nature.

In 1951 Robert Rauschenberg began a series of monochromatic (white or black) paintings that were shown in 1953.

Rauschenberg, White Painting 1951

Rauschenberg’s idea was to reduce the painting to it’s most fundamental nature, bringing about the possibility of pure experience. Which is exactly what a 26 year old New York painter might say when trying on something new. He also dug their reflective qualities. So, in part hippy-dippy, what kind of highly subjective difficult-to-achieve pure experience is he talking about, but also, more importantly, part of a long tradition of blank (not true, simply void of subject matter unless paint and method is also considered subject matter, which is all about intent) or monochromatic paintings that trace as far back as 1882. This format was revived by the Russian Suprematist and Constructivist movements, then later in Color Field and Minimalist paintings.

What’s interesting here is that after the initial Incoherents (pre-Dada – check them out) showing in 1882, the true foundational monochromatic works by Malevich (Suprematist) and Rodchenko (Constructivist), take place either during or immediately after WW1. Perhaps during the 20th Century it takes the gravity of a World War to reduce painting to its simplest form? Because after these examples, monochromatic painting, before a post-WW2 revival, was pretty darn scarce.

Here’s a few Russian examples:


Black Square, Malevich, 1915

Malevich, Black Square, 1915, and


Rodchenko 1921

Rodchenko, Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue color, 1921

What’s also interesting is how these fellows considered their work. In fact, the intellectual foundation they laid is foundational to Western painting, period. Malevich thought of this work as contemplative, a “pure essence” argument like Rauschenberg’s “pure experience” above. Rodchenko countered that his monochromatic painting represented the end of painting with painting as object, thus in reference only to itself. Blows yer mind, right?

So long before a bunch of New York artists decided to reinvent painting, Malevich turned his brain inward for an emotional, instinctual bit of painting, while Rodchenko blew the lid off the whole idea of painting by intentionally removing subject matter, declaring the piece an expression of an idea and therefore bypassing traditional critic-centric channels to craft the content of discussion around his art. That’s modern folks, wildly ahead of his time modern and I’m in awe. Plus he killed painting, ah ha, he merely invented Conceptual Art by placing the intellectual framework of Idea As Art front and center. Ah ha, that’s not true either, Duchamp beat him by a few years, but as far as painting is concerned both Malevich and Rodchenko were generations ahead of their time.

The link here, beside the nature of the art, is what draws painting to a standstill, ie: blank canvasses? Rauschenberg, as well as Ad Reinhardt, Yves Klein and a few others, retreated from traditional subject matter to contemplate monochromatic canvasses. Did it take the gravity of a World War for artists to step back from what they had otherwise been doing and get back to basics, ie: paint + canvas + intellectual artsy reinvention? Or was it the omnipresence of Clement Greenberg and the Ab-Ex movement that needed shaking off?


Ad Reinhardt, Black Paintings

Ad Reinhardt’s black canvasses

Here I return to the distrust of language. America had turned into a message machine (Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” was in process of becoming an uncomfortable truth. McLuhan also said that advertising was the greatest art form of the 20th Century. I think he and Rodchenko would have gotten happily drunk together) and the distrust of language, ie: the distrust of the Old Boys network and their non-stop cultural, financial and political messages. Revolutions were fermenting or in full bloom all over America (Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, the rights of the Middle Class, music, literature, etc) and the need to detach yourself from everything that came before in order to find an authentic post-war voice that also wasn’t Ab-Ex was daunting. Thus, remove all subject matter, eliminate all language and essentially start from scratch.

But you can’t call it scratch. You have to call it blank or monochromatic or later Minimalist. And, oddly enough, you just keep using paint. It seems a bit odd in retrospect that in trying to discover a new voice, that one kept using the materials of the past. Like trying not to imitate your dad, but still wearing his clothing. Paint, at the heart of it all, was central in American high art, but that was about to change.


Next up: Jasper Johns, Franz Kline and still more Rauschenberg. Plus a few surprises!

60’s text art didn’t just happen overnight. Noone woke up and said ‘Lo and Behold! A mathematical equation – on canvas!” Nope, there were steps involved, like any new movement, and while things happened relatively quickly, they did have antecedents and a fairly clear transitional phase.

As with the Abstract-Expressionists looking to carve their own identity in the 40’s and 50’s against the omnipresent influence and greatness of their European predecessors, text-based artists, or more properly Conceptual Artists, needed to forge their own identity and so pushed back against their older Ab-Ex brethren. One thing the Ab-Ex movement had going for it, beside its own revolutionary greatness, was a kind of subconscious, spiritual aspect that had been attached to their work. Jackson Pollock famously visited a psychoanalyst, Mark Rothko built a chapel, and everyone’s work was hailed as a collective liberation of painting and Americanism. The only aspect that Conceptual Artists wanted any part of was the liberation of painting, in fact the complete elimination of it altogether, which ha ha got me to thinking:

Wouldn’t it be nice if two competing art movements really, honestly loved and respected each other? Usually, a movement comes out with a manifesto trashing whatever happens to be the dominant paradigm, and Conceptual Artists certainly released their own manifestos which were a bit Dadaist in nature, which again makes sense given the intensity of the culture around them. Here though, imagine this scene:

On Kawara: “Damn Jackson, that whole splashy thing is really amazing! Seriously, I’m impressed!”

Pollock: “Hey thanks! And I really dig your Date/Time thing. How’d you come up with that?”

On Kawara: “Oh you know, I was messing around in the kitchen, one of those really bright ones down in Mexico, and, heck, does it really matter? How’s Lee?”

Pollock: “She’s great, just fantastic! And her painting, wow, who knew? What’s with that little filly I saw you with at Kaprow’s wing-ding?”

On Kawara: “I don’t know man, I think she’s some kind of heiress. I’m trying to get her to buy one of my mimeographs, but she kept taking about DeKooning. You know how it is.”

Pollock: (Laughing) “Oh yeah, I know exactly how it is!”

End scene, arm-in-arm as they go to tear another door off the Cedar Tavern.

Point being, nothing like this could have every remotely happened. Nevermind the historical inaccuracies, ie: I don’t think On Kawara ever attended a Happening, ah ha, that’s another little joke – who the hell knows? Plus Pollock would have been long dead. You see the problem.

So what comes next will be the stages inbetween classic painting as represented by the Ab-Ex movement, and the blossoming of Conceptual Art in the 1960’s. Want a little sneak peak?

raRauschenberg white painting

Yep, blank canvasses. And a very young Robert Rauschenberg before he got to screenprinting BMW’s in the 90’s. That said, blank canvasses still used paint, thus had ties to a much older tradition that itself was in danger of crumbling. True too that nothing ever really dies, art-wise, it just becomes a more crowded landscape. Of course painting will never die, but from this moment forward neither will Conceptual Art.

So, big picture, text-art wise, from the end of WWII thru the 1950’s it was generally pretty quiet, no? In terms of iconic high text-art imagery, that’s basically true (we’ll get to Johns, Rauschenberg and Fluxus soon enough). However, that got me to thinking. The 1960’s produced an unparalleled explosion of text-based work that continues unabated. In fact there’s an argument to be made that it’s now impossible to tell the difference between text art, advertising and modern kitsch, but that comes later. Here, the question is: What fueled that explosion? I’m not a historian, and I haven’t read the psychoanalytic breakdown’s of each artist’s personal narrative, but a few things occur to me as I look at imagery of the 1950’s:

  1. World War II was just yesterday
  2. There was no time to mentally decompress before
  3. Being told exactly what to look like, what to be excited about, how to live your life
  4. You’re about to die horribly
  5. Go buy something

And don’t get me started on Jazz, literature, integration, expansion of the middle class or the revolutionary youth-centric Rock and Roll. Everything we took for granted prior to WW2 had flipped and much of it for the better. We were an entire nation of Old Boys’ Networks and what the Old Boys took for granted, women as property, elections to rig, Negros to keep down and all decent white fellows wore hats to work and smoked pipes on the weekend, well, images of guard dogs defending segregation, Emmit Till, women’s rights, a burgeoning nuclear nightmare and youth exposed to television and constant, ever more insidious war began to seriously challenge the Old Boys’ grip on things.

Which is where art comes in. I gotta hand it to the Abstract Expressionists, they really made a name for themselves and created some insanely great art, but they were younger versions of more traditional Old Guard artists looking for acclaim, like the many ‘ists’ that came before them. Here’s a nice pic:

abstract expressionists

And yet, as American culture began to freak out and express itself in a bazillion new ways, one small New York-based art club wasn’t nearly enough, nevermind how exceptionally well-dressed they might have been. Something else had to happen, and duh of course it did.

Which is where I started to think about 1960’s text art and what came before it. Specifically, the deluge of text-based propaganda, advertising and comics that young 60’s artists would have absorbed as kids. And whoa wow hello – what schizophrenic messages they were receiving!

As very young kids, having lived thru World War 2, they got this:

Food is a Weapon

Wanted for Murder

Happy Jap

Venereal Disease Covers The Earth

Then as adolescents they got this:

Atomic War Comic

Teenage Dope Slaves

Captain America

Comic America Under Communism

And as they grew into young adulthood, these were their social models:

Lucky Strike Do You Inhale

Ad Coffee Spanking

Ad Campbells Pea Soup

Ad Televison Benefits Children

And somehow managed to balance this:

Nuc Attack Home Split Image

and this


not to mention

Korean War Headlines

while again this was happening:

Bomb Drill

And eventually this:


Which is how it totally makes sense that they ended up producing art that not only reflected the absurdist culture they grew up in, but also used those same images and messages as ground for their work. And some felt the freedom to dispense with imagery altogether and go straight for the message, and permanent hats off to them because once that happened there was no going back. Plus it also got very, very flat, which was very, very interesting.

1960’s next!

Kurt Schwitters kicked your ass before you were born.

Untitled (D’Cily). 1942                         Man soll nicht asen mit Phrasen. 1930

Schwitters, influenced by Ferdinand de Saussurre (d. 1913) whose work focused on the relationship of sound to written language and tension between name and object (as illustrated by Magritte in 1928), worked in a multitude of genres including typography (see Merz, below), collage and painting. He also worked with performance pieces and poems that took the form of graphic scores. I don’t mean to imply I understand the entirely of his work, I’m stealing part of this while I better learn the larger picture of what he created. However, I do know this: Kurt Schwitters was the first to give equal weight to both artist material and text then exploring what this implied.

The Cubists were the first to use text in their work, but it was text as decoration briefly used. Schwitters saw it as a material to shape, nurture and blossom. Schwitters spanned the gap between the end of Surrealism and the explosion of a multitude of American art movements that took root in the 1960’s. He influenced sound exploration, poetry, music and design (all 4 wrapped up into John Cage).

Plus he created Merzbau, a freakish construct attempted 3 times, the first of which was in his apartment in Hannover, began in 1923.

It was destroyed by an Allied air raid, so he tried again in Norway in 1937 then again in London in 1947, a year before his death. Schwitters said Merzbau contained everything of importance to him, with the initial Merzbau containing grottoes for Hans Arp, Theo van Doesburg, caves for Hannah Hoch, El Lissitzky and Mies Van der Rohe, plus grottoes dedicated to abstract concepts such as a ‘murderers cave’ or ‘love grotto.’ It doesn’t get any better than that!

Just because I can, and while I’m working on a post about Kurt Schwitters, here’s something that’s been gnawing at me.

Raoul  Hausmann postcard to IK Bonset. 1921.

Stefan Sagmeister. Lou Reed album cover 1996. (Found this combo on Dublog, an excellent design site out of Ipswich, UK.)

Now then, direct reference or direct rip-off? Sagmeister has made a living writing over people’s faces. Good, bad, I don’t know. Seems boring to me, but that doesn’t matter.

Reminds me of a class I took in my MFA program. Lit class, studying Gertrude Stein. My prof, Robert Polito (who also wrote a great bio of pulp master Jim Thompson) was astounded that Gertrude Stein would comment on what she was seeing immediately around her as she wrote letters to friends. ‘Who’d think to do that?’ he said.

Me. And probably you. Seemed an odd question from a writer.

But me, I’ve always written about the immediate here and now. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to write about in a letter, perhaps we’re supposed to write pre-letters, drafts of letters before we sit down to do the real thing. My point being this: I didn’t need to know Gertrude Stein’s letters to write my own. Sagmesiter didn’t need to know Bonset to start writing on people’s faces and Basquiat didn’t need to study Francis Picabia to know the value of a signature on canvas. There’s only so many ideas and they blossom throughout time as variants of what has come before.

Which reminds me of another story, from my psychology teacher in high school. This is the ol’ ‘immortal monkey’ story, the Infinite Monkey Theorem. In this case is you put a monkey in a room with a typewriter with an endless spool of ribbon and paper, that it’s inevitable that at some point over an infinite span of time that the money would write out, in perfect order, the complete works of Shakespeare, and presumably Mickey Spillane.

He presented it as fact, ie, again there’s nothing new under the sun because everything is inevitable and has happened before, which coincidentally is the theme of Battlestar Galactica, thus the theme too is being recycled so long as it has resonance.

Therefore, I suppose that it’s entirely possible that in my sleep I’ll craft a miniature version of Guernica, or rewrite War and Peace in an obscure Indian dialect devoid of vowels. Not likely, but ideas recycle. Remember the last great idea you had that someone else is already making millions off of? It’s kind of like that. Just ask Hausmann. Or any of the ‘Basquiat-inspired’ abominations on eBay. And if Cubism could have been copyrighted back in the day, then the heirs of Picasso and Braque might very well own a small European nation by now.


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