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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 also 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, generally speaking, 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

1950s-3d-movies

not to mention

Korean War Headlines

while again this was happening:

Bomb Drill

And eventually this:

civil-rights-march

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.

Everything changed in the 20th century. Cubists Picasso, Braque and Gris first incorporated text into painting and collage, both gigantic leaps forward in how materials were used in art – but more importantly the jarring juxtaposition of text mixed with traditional painting. Text didn’t yet have a message, it was simply incorporated as part of a material that contained newsprint – so modern as to be up-to-the-day contemporary, a feat without precedent. It might have terrified the classicists, born in the mid-1800’s, art that simply couldn’t be placed.

Pablo Picasso. Guitar. 1913                      Juan Gris. The Sunblind. 1914

Dada incorporated text into their work as a rule of thumb. Brash and dexterous, Dadaist manifestos are hilariously brilliant reminders of a time when art was taken seriously and had a cultural relevance, which of course the Dadist’s tried to smash. Anti-war, anti-art culture and anti-bourgeois, the Dadists were also the first movement to incorporate their name into their work, something these days that’s akin to our own DNA.

Hannah Höch. Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. 1919

Francis Picabia runs through both Cubism and Dada straight into Surrealism. But before that, in same year he denounced Dada, Picabia crafted The Cacodylic Eye (1921), perhaps the most consistently modern text-art ever created. The canvas (58 x 46″) is nothing more than an eye, a few collaged photographs and the signatures of writers, artists and musicians who visited Picabia’s studio or went to his parties. Meant as a parody, it incorporates Dada’s profound sense of self-identity…

… and also it’s complete sense of the absurd. Better yet, in terms of text art, it IS text art, the first major piece I know of where image (or general lack of) is in service of the text and not, as is still generally the rule, the other way around. It’s also the first work to acknowledge the signature of the artist (in any genre) as being unique it its own right. The contemporary equivalent is graffiti, both the traditional tag and the modern, well, Banksy.

Better yet: Basquiat.

Lastly, for this era, there’s Magritte:

Magritte. This is Not a Pipe. 1928

Well it’s not text-art either, but it’s pretty damn smart, probably the most famous text piece of the period. Too bad Duchamp made the whole damn painting thing irrelevant 11 years earlier when he exhibited Fountain (signed by R. Mutt) in 1917. Still, it sells a lot of postcards.

After the 4th c text experiments by Simmias of Rhodes and before the form took root as actual art in the 20th century, not much happened by way of artistic development.

The most notable exceptions are of course Illuminated Manuscripts and the art of William Blake.

The manuscript is completely beautiful. The craft is outrageous and the presentation beyond reproach. However, per my 8 Rules of Text-based Art, this ain’t text-based art. However gorgeous, the text is in service of the art, or decoration. The text is the purpose of the piece, of the book, but it’s not text-based art in the way it will come to be understood in our lifetime.

William Blake, ok, let’s not kid ourselves, the man was savant-genius. I got to see his original work at a show at the Public Library in New York about 15 years ago. It was like being in the presence of the immortal.

However, per the Illuminated Manuscript above, it’s not text-based art. It’s art that features narrative in the service of both image and God. Beautiful, chilling, but it’s primary function (in the history of text-based art) is to illuminate the idea of a handwritten artform as Blake’s text is less gothic, less biblical and more so the writing of a man simply trying to write clearly in his art. Revolutionary? It probably was.

Of which, Blake’s modern equivalent is probably the Reverend Howard Finster who also told stories of Heaven and Hell, mixing both text and art.

Howard Finster Heaven and Hell

Howard spread the Word of God in many forms: as preacher, crafter of clocks, oil on canvas, screenprints, covering cars, bottles, anything that would take paint. He also invented Paradise Garden which the state of Georgia has finally given $ to restore and maintain. If you’re ever in Summerville it’s worth checking out. I saw it before the money arrived and it nearly broke my heart.

The first acknowledged text-based art was crafted by Simmias of Rhodes, a 4th century scholar and poet. Simmias was also known for inventing the choriambic hexameter. Big deal.

Here’s one of his pieces, Hacha, a poem about a double-headed broadaxe in the shape of a double-headed broadaxe.

2400 years later Concrete Poetry would become a fad. Here’s the poem Swan and Shadow by John Hollander.

Again, big deal.

Ok y’all, what follows will be the History of Text-based Art, as I see it, with digressions. I’ll break out each section by era, or artist, depending on influence. Once the timeline is per se complete, I’ll dig back in, go over areas of particular interest and add artists that were unavoidably missed when fleshing out the larger picture.

Let me know if I’m missing something obvious. 

Have fun!

My other site: davidnielsenart.com

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