Ok, not all of the work of the 60’s were massive highlights and iconic development of the form. In hindsight that may be true, to a greater or lesser degree, but remember that in the mid-60’s most of these folks knew each other or were probably aware of each other’s art, so what seems like development today might have just been something eccentric back then. The epicenter of this particular evolution of text-based art was still NYC, the one thing all these artists had in common (with one exception), but that was changing.
With that in mind, here’s a few dynamic permutations, all of which are interesting and some of which blow my mind:
Ray Johnson. Ray founded the New York Correspondence School with the first mailings being sent as far back as 1958. Ray was the center and primary proponent of the ‘school,’ mailing mimeographed letters, drawings (often of bunnies), instructions and collage. Text-wise, the work offered 4 primary challenges to the traditional studio/gallery/viewer formulation:
- Subverted the notion of high or low brow by simply ignoring the world in which those notions held sway.
- Changed the traditional artist-viewer relationship, offering original work to be viewed expressly in the home in what amounted to a 1:1 setting.
- Moved past the question as to whether or not language could be trusted. Johnson rendered it moot by mailing the work. If the Post Office could be trusted to deliver the work to the address on the envelope, how could you not ‘trust’ the work inside to be faithful to the same basic notions of language?
- It could not be reviewed…
…at least until the Whitney held a retrospective in 1970. I know we think the internet renders everything instantaneous, but that’s still pretty darn quick for something so relatively obscure back in 1970. Or presumably in 1969 when the show was first organized. Johnson’s work is currently undergoing a revival with a slew of new publications.
Brion Gyson/William S. Burroughs. Gyson developed the cut-up technique in 1958, which was soon after made famous by his dear friend William S. Burroughs, though pioneered by Tristan Tzara in To Make a Dadaist Poem in 1920. Cut-up involves pasting random words or sentences rearranged to form new meanings. Yep, it’s a literary technique, but crazy influential as certain folks began to reconsider (again) how we understand the basics of our written language, looking instead to break down structural assumptions in order to find hidden meaning or, according to Burroughs, with potential for divining the future.
In retrospect it seems rather bourgeois and a bit of a parlor game as the artist also gets to decide what words are in play to be ‘cut-up’. A kind of wink-wink nod to Madam Blavatsky, but also a deep bow to P.T. Barnum. That said, language has no real allegiance, so it’s entirely possible that each individual gets to decide what attributes language actually possesses.
In short, deciding language’s potential for good or evil. Or, you know, for just having a good time. Still, the technique has some potential once you ditch all the hooey. Kurt Cobain used it to tape together lyrics for a few songs and that turned out rather well, eh?
Carl Andre is in another category altogether: Minimalism. I have to confess that I’ve never been a fan of Minimalism which to my way of thinking are just a bunch of obsessive ideas, a kind of artsy mathematics brought to life for the sake of demonstration. Slander, probably, but I can’t relate to the placement of boxes on the floor or Sol LeWitt’s geometrical exhibitions because, in part, I’m not a robot. When robots get cancer, pay taxes or develop the common cold give me a call.
All that said, Andre, a sometimes brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad, began his career as a sculptor, ditched it for a number of years in the early 60’s, beginning a second career as a conceptual poet. Not very promising, granted, and career choices not certain to win your parent’s approval, but interesting in that time spent working out spatial issues on typed pages (ostensibly poetry) later informed his revolutionary sculptural decisions. For example:
Untitled, 1960. Basic grid pattern of numbers reminiscent of Jasper Johns’ Gray Numbers (1957) but without all the paint. Conceptually I like it, but then again it just seems like so much exercise when, once more, the basic 1-9 grid would have been so much simpler. It reminds me of the joke about Thoreau who’s famous for having said “simplify, simplify” when all he needed to say was “simplify.” Of which, here’s Lead Square (1969), the physical representation of Untitled developed 9 years earlier:
What’s interesting is art that’s apparently so similar can represent such nuance in fields that have no apparent relationship to each other. Andre’s poetry wasn’t poetry per se, but sketches for sculptural minimalism using the basic tools of text to develop an idea. That said, and speaking of bridges between divergent fields of art, Yves Klein got it right with his monochromatic paintings of the 50’s and 60’s, having stripped painting to the bone, eliminating the historic need for subject and Abstract-Expressionism’s interior monologue. Art = 1 aesthetic choice. Pretty damn interesting and clear cousin to the divestment of language that had been happening in the conceptual scene of the 1960’s.
Hanne Darboven bypassed language altogether, using a highly complex, hand-written numerical system to develop a ‘neutral’ language representing time, the passage of time and what happens inbetween. Later, she used these same mathematical progressions to document history, New York City, World Wars One and Two, pop culture and kitsch, as well as appropriating texts from Heinrich Heine and Jean-Paul Sartre, works she found beautifully existential. In the 80’s she transferred these numerical systems into methods for writing chamber music, string quartets and harpsichord. Darboven is also known for her massive installation pieces.
All of which, beside feeling completely humbled by her absolute genius, leads to this very fundamental question: Can strictly numerical works be considered text-art? Numbers, as with Carl Andre and On Kawara, fall into the field of conceptual art which covers a pretty wide stretch, yet when we think of language there’s no getting around the interrelationship between numbers and text. Each is representational, but numbers are representative of a concept whereas language, minus numbers, encompasses most everything else.
For the sake of argument I’d say that strictly number-based works, so long as the numerics are the standard 0-9 or mathematical variations thereof, are absolutely text-based art. Granted, they fall somewhere between the most basic tenants of written language and complete oblivion, but they are forms of text, however conceptual, and we’d be monkeys without them.
Lastly, Tom Phillips. A Humument. This is about as landmark a work as it gets with Humument likely in print forever, nevermind having already gone into a 5th edition. Oddly, although pretty, along with Darboven there’s the great initial question as to whether it’s text-based art or something else altogether. Here’s the scoop:
Phillips, UK art professor and young dad, bought a copy of W H Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document and began drawing all over it, page by page. The art is pleasing, crafty and of its time, but what’s innovative text-wise is that Philips did a kind of controlled cut-up or 1-person Exquisite Corpse to create an entirely new novel by doing the nifty following:
- Philips (like Franz Kline in the early 50’s) worked with mass-produced, pre-existing text
- Obliterated most of it
- Retained certain words to form new sentences which in turn
- Formed a novel within a novel
Thus, appropriation and manipulation of someone else’s text is central or else there is no project. Text dependent text. Not quite cut-up, but, hmn, if Jenny Holzer had done this she would have simply redacted 95% of the text so instead of sweet little colorful drawings informing the selected wordage, we would have had page upon page of black bars eliminating all but the most essential meaning – whatever Holzer decided was, you know, most essential. Would it have been so popular without the graphic art? Probably not as the whimsically inventive overlay makes it approachable to all age levels. It’s text-based art (or text-dependent art), but the line between text as the central focus or text in support of a dominant image is now severely tested – and about to go completely out the window as a new wave of artists in the 1970’s go in a whole other direction.
Next up: 1970’s! The rise of women text-artists, computers and a different kind of politics.
Addendum: Fluxus deserves something between a mention and an entire book. I’m ambivalent about adding Fluxus as while it incorporates text in most of its projects, it’s not a text-specific movement. Props for producing small-scale saleable items incorporating text in a 0-100% range, but Fluxus was primarily about itself, in fact it was mostly about making money not long after inception. Not unlike a TV show that has a full range of licensed products available for purchase the same day the first episode is released on Netflix. Conversely, Art-Language, which I love (do you hear me Joseph Kosuth!), was about documenting/discussing the nascent conceptual art movement. Again, dense with text, but not necessarily a text-based collective. Both movements deserve a lot more attention, though perhaps not in this particular timeline.
Addendum #2: Bruce Nauman! I totally left out Bruce! Neon text! Give me a few days to deal with the blizzard and I’ll add Nauman and his work right after Hanne Darboven. There’s a massive legacy of text-based work done up in bright neon including Nauman, Jenny Holzer and Glenn Ligon, plus a ton of others. I have traditionally been ambivalent about neon, but once I saw Ligon’s AMERICA I began to reconsider the form. So, sit back, settle in and we’ll get to it soon enough.