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Monthly Archives: September 2015

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.

fonzie_henry_winkler_happy_days

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.

Roy_Lichtenstein_Drowning_Girl

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.

RuschaBrewsWB

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:

robert-indiana-nyc-via-nycjpg

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.

robert-indiana-eatdie-1962_promo1

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. 

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(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 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!

09_On-Kawara_TODAY-Series-No.-217_NOV.-26,-1966

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.

on-kawara-install

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.

mark_rothko3

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.

James_Ward_-_John_Levett_Hunting_at_Wychnor,_Staffordshire_-_Google_Art_Project

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.

Grapefruit-Ono

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.

pablo-picasso-girl-reading-7135

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.

hillco_chicken_girl2

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.  

Thus:

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

 

 

 

 

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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.