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A Note on Text Art of the 1970’s and 1980’s:

The 1970’s began, to my way of thinking, the Modern Era of text-based art. The Modern Era’s predominant text work emphasizes (generally speaking) some or all of the following aspects:

  1. Appropriation of content
  2. Appropriation of form
  3. Reclamation of gender, racial and social identity
  4. Use of non-traditional media
  5. Greater artist control over message
  6. An overt political ferocity

I might also add, more so observationally than anything else:

  1. Lots and lots of books
  2. A different kind of career path for many of the artists

I’ve decided to blend the 70’s and 80’s into the proverbial Big Tent because of the depth of overlap between the decades. The closest parallel prior to this was the work of text-based art of the late 50’s going into the early 60’s, which by the way is also my favorite period for Bop. That said, while those late 50’s and early 60’s innovations broke new ground, they didn’t necessarily become the foundation of what would later become the dominant culture of the format. Iconic images, sure, but the early foundational work of the Modern Era became the basis for entire bodies of work emphasizing content above all, with the form (often the true innovations of earlier eras) being integral, but not the end in itself.


An beautiful later example of classic Modern Era text art would be Glenn Ligon’s Runwaways series (1993). These pieces use the format of Confederate-era runaway slave posters, incorporating oft-hand, informal descriptions of the African-American Ligon that, per above, appropriate form, reclaim racial/social identity, uses non-traditional media, is overtly political and directs critical response to the work via the use of the slave poster format, thus giving Ligon greater control over the message.

Robert Indiana, Mississippi

Text art of the Modern Era is fundamentally revolutionary with themes that we still debate, at times violently, and which interestingly enough are central to our current Presidential race. However, as with the text art developments of the early 60’s, none of work of the Modern Era happened in a vacuum. I’ll do my best to highlight influences when relevant, and return to the work of some of the prior generation’s artists that wasn’t initially discussed, including some profoundly moving work by Robert Indiana. I savaged his LOVE pieces, admittedly, but like so many artists in any number of fields (ask Andy Griffith if he’d rather be remembered for A Face in the Crowd or the inert Mayberry sheriff that made him famous), the highlights drown out their more serious (and often better) work. Indiana wasn’t an exception, and too bad for all of us.

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 Rimbaud

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:

  1. Subverted the notion of high or low brow by simply ignoring the world in which those notions held sway.
  2. Changed the traditional artist-viewer relationship, offering original work to be viewed expressly in the home in what amounted to a 1:1 setting.
  3. 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?
  4. It could not be reviewed…

Ray Johnson School of Correspondence

…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.

Minutes to Go

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:

Carl Andre, Untitled 1960

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:

Carl Andre, Aluminum Square

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.

Yves Klein, IKB 191

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.

Hanne Darboven

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.

Hanne Darboven Installation

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.

Tom Philips, A Humument

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:

  1. Philips (like Franz Kline in the early 50’s) worked with mass-produced, pre-existing text
  2. Obliterated most of it
  3. Retained certain words to form new sentences which in turn
  4. Formed a novel within a novel

Tom Phillips, A Humument open pages

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.

In 1966, 21 yr. old artist Joseph Kosuth completed the world’s first Conceptual Art Cycle which began with Plato approximately 2,346 years earlier. Think about that. Noone had heard of Jesus, King Arthur was still a molecule waiting to happen and the atrocities that would later visit the world, the plague, Hitler, nuclear weapons and any other joke that comes to mind were inconceivable when Plato first postulated the following:

Forms (ideas) and not the material world known to us through stimulation, possesses the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. These Forms are the only true objects of study that can provide us with genuine knowledge.


Brother, that’s some badass conceptual art! It’s philosophy, granted, but when the guts of an art movement seek to refine itself to the it’s own essential DNA, like Pollock and Rothko finding the furthest reaches of Abstract Expressionism, then you’re a lucky little fellow to have a clear progenitor and not just some whimsical bit of hooey meant to lend credence to what you later hope is an ever-expanding bank account. In this case, Plato kicked the tires on subjective reality, said it was bullshit, did the math and invented the Forms. Later, Marcel Duchamp got crazy drunk on Absinthe, hallucinated Plato’s ghost and invented the Readymade – a physical extension of Plato’s original thinking.


Ok, most of that isn’t true, but you get the point. Later in the century future art master Kosuth melded Duchamp and Plato to produce One and Three Chairs (1965). Kosuth presented a chair, a photo of the chair and a text definition of “Chair,” presenting all 3 in a single piece.

One and Three Chairs

Idea, object and 2D representation of object. Kosuth was getting at the idea of an idea, but hadn’t quite nailed it. The work was famously artsy and a revelation in the artworld, but still a damn artsy thing to do and it didn’t quite satisfy Kosuth. So in 1966, unlike Jasper Johns’ inability to follow through on his numerical ideations, Kosuth went all the way, stripped art of ‘art content’ and banged out a piece called Idea.

Kosuth Idea

Thus, Kosuth took the Platonic idea of Ideas and created a work called Idea that was the execution of an idea about the nature of Idea. That folks is about as smart as it gets, and a bridge that loops back on itself from which, lovely stroll that it is, there’s nowhere else to go, which oddly enough isn’t any kind of problem. Plato started this, Duchamp gave it form and Kosuth stripped the form to make it whole. Having completed Plato’s conceptual journey into modern art, Kosuth like any other artist was free to move forward in reclaiming language as a personal or political means of artistic exploration. Not that anyone needed to be aware of the execution of the work at the time, but it was done and life could move on.

Kosuth spent his entire career exploring the nature of art, language and meaning. In fact, in 1969 he became the American editor of Art & Language (which I’ll get to soon enough) and in 2011 did a major series celebrating the work of Charles Darwin. Once you’re rolling dice with Plato, taking on Darwin seems a fairly natural progression, hey?

Kosuth Nothing

Next up: Ray Johnson, Tom Phillips, Byron Gyson, William S. Burroughs, Hanne Darboven and Carl Andre.

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 3 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. However, the truth behind the work is that “Eat” was the last word Indiana’s mother said before she died. Indiana also reflects on how the happiest moments of his childhood involved food-centric family reunions. So all the artsy associations above might very well be accurate, but the simpler story behind it is what resonates. 


(Indiana was also a radical fellow with a beautifully evolved political sense of social justice and racial equality. I’ll get back to Indiana’s work of the mid-60’s once the conversation turns to art of the 70’s and 80’s, artists that in craft and spirit were closer to his point of view than his contemporaries Warhol and Lichtenstein.) 

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 his back 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 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.