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Category Archives: Text-based art

So ok, history in real time. I just went to Mass MOCA to see Jenny Holzer’s Redaction Paintings. Big ol’ museum with a wing dedicated to Anselm Kiefer. Modernist, huge with a happy lefty following for a Western Mass culture spot that attracts big bands like Wilco to play in-house. The town it’s located in, North Adams, is a small oasis inside a somewhat depressed rural region, offering stipends to artists to move to town and set up shop. I have no idea who you are that’s reading this, but I expect you’d like it.

Inside Mass MOCA, after a mesmerizing installation piece by Nick Cave that’s like 7 miles long, you’ll find Holzer’s exhibit, perhaps a solid 100 paintings of materials lifted from the Pentagon’s Iraq war files. They’re harrowing. Holzer took these files – first-hand accounts of being tortured, detained, traded and murdered – then printed them as-is on oversized canvasses. The paintings also include letters from parents begging on behalf of their missing children, and tables of human bones. If you were writing the letters, or the censors who redacted them, you were still alive. If you were the subject of the letters then you were most certainly dead.


Me, I’d waited years to see the work in person. I love Jenny Holzer through to my DNA and have a good half dozen books of hers including a few show catalogs. Along with Glenn Ligon she’s my favorite living text-artist, fuck it, both of them are my favorite living artists. I know her work from early days in NYC and nearly lost my mind when I first saw the Redaction Paintings online. The lighbulb nails of understanding it took to reach out for those files, then the audacity to scrape them onto canvasses for the world to see as art and indictment of a mercenary action of sustained brutality made me think of The Third of May, 1808 by Franciso de Goya (1814). The painting is stark and unrelenting. How could anyone see The Third of May, 1808 and not want to turn your head – yet find yourself unable to do so?


That’s what I experienced with the Redaction Paintings. They’re mesmerizing. But at a certain point that began to change and the longer I looked at the work the more depressed I became. It wasn’t the content that got me, but the fact that unlike Picasso’s Guernica, for example, Holzer’s work doesn’t seem to have made a damn bit of difference. “Wow, you say, someone got tortured in Iraq? That’s what they get for bombing the Twin Towers!” Or if you’re not that dumb then “Wow, someone got tortured in Iraq? Hmph. Did you see the Nick Cave exhibit? It’s wild!” Or if you’re clearly smarter than that, which I assume you are, then what do you go but gasp a moment, marvel at the ingenuity of the work then check your watch because you’ve got a 2 hour drive home and the kids are getting antsy? 100 paintings taken from 10,000 stories of death and none of it matters. At all.

If it did, I said to myself, then we wouldn’t have a grifter as President. Or his kids. But that’s another story altogether.

What finally struck me was that the art wasn’t the problem, Holzer did a hero’s job in bringing all of this together, but that the work was simply being shown in the wrong venue, and I say this with full understanding that Holzer has a looong and deep dedication to showing work in public spaces including her first work which was anonymous and tacked to walls throughout NYC.

Inflammatory Essay by Jenny Holzer

Interestingly, my friend Maria saw Holzer’s work in the Bilbao in Spain the same day I was at Mass MOCA, which only furthered my initial thought that showing political art in the world’s most comfortable museums is like watching Donald Trump preach to his base: lots of applause, lots of backslapping and ‘I knew it!’ being yodeled from the audience, but nothing ever comes of it because noone’s mind is ever changed and the basic numbers of Us vs. Them remain the same.

So what, you say, is the point of political art? Well, I say, I’m not entirely sure, but if I had to guess I’d say there are 3 major points:

  1. Affirmation of the crowd. Good to know other folks share your sentiment so you feel less alone.
  2. Shaking your fist at the Man. The larger your numbers, the better! Plus it lets him know you’re not going down without a fight.
  3. Plea to the undecided masses to pay attention to your cause. And this, brother, is where the placement of Holzer’s work really bothers me.

Let’s recap: A wildly successful artist whose genuine sensibility of fairness and fierceness is unimpeachable creates a politically-charged series whose text is drawn directly from the files of world’s most powerful military then shown in the planet’s cushiest museums, the openings of which are black tie affairs years in the making, invitation only.

Take that in for a moment.

Just so you know that I’m not a complete bastard, I sent copies of the first draft up to this point to a few comrades. My friend Natania pointed out, well, here’s her exact phrasing:

I think her work goes beyond “protest art” in terms of only communicating protest. I mean, it’s a protest of course, and testament and artifact. But the art part is in the secret/unsecreting of the written document. The documents themselves exist in a mechanism that has a code or language for torture which validates it, and taken out of that context exposes the whole machine and culture, and examines the concept of a written secret as fundamentally oxymoronic. This text/secret/ context tension is where I found profundity b/c it is relevant globally / historically.

Fair enough. Except insofar as I don’t believe Holzer set this up as a word game or Gotcha! piece. Language yes, machine and culture yes, but my reply to this is that Holzer sought out the Pentagon files through the Freedom of Information Act, then posted those transmissions verbatim (with a little bit of art-styling added). To say that the work is primarily an act of unsecreting of written documents –  a crafty exercise in etymology, as if the documents had no other real world value – to my way of thinking invalidates the entire point of the piece, which is to illustrate the systemic butchery of an entire nation through the hands of, and decisions of, our own elected officials, many of which you or I might actually personally know. Are you ok knowing the guy down the street just tore the finger nails out of a 12 yr old Iraqi boy but had time to send home nesting dolls to his loving wife? Are you ok knowing that the narrative our elected officials jams into our completely bewildered minds has literally NOTHING to do with what actually happens, nor why?

Iraqi Civilian Torture by Iraqi Troops Under U.S. Supervision

Here’s what I think Holzer was trying to accomplish: Artist as whistleblower. Except that nobody really gives a shit. To many Americans the narrative basically boils down to ‘Well, ya’ shouldn’t have been born in Iraq. That’s what you fucking get, terrorist.’ Even if, as we all well know, that the jumper cables attached to the balls of the ‘courier’ were indiscriminately placed because that’s just what you do, or that the courier might have just been a kid running eggs home to his starving family and so long as ‘collateral damage’ happens to someone else somewhere else then it just doesn’t matter. At all. I said that before, but it bears repeating.

All of this however still doesn’t get to the primary conundrum: Are museums the proper venue for Political art? If I were Jenny Holzer and I wanted to affect actual change through my work, would I put the Redaction Paintings in the Bilbao, Tate, Getty, Guggenheim, MOMA or in literally ANY avenue that wasn’t in a certified GOP stronghold? If this was my work and I wanted to rabbit punch the current political climate, I’d look to show the work in the reddest parts of the reddest states in literally any venue that would have me. I’d place my work as follows:

  1. Museums for validation
  2. Galleries to get it to the street level
  3. Busses
  4. Billboards
  5. Schools
  6. Universities
  7. Newspapers
  8. Taxicabs
  9. Radio stations
  10. Your mailbox

Anywhere that forces folks to see the work who might otherwise want to smack you in the gob for speaking up against the dominant paradigm, in this case Ike’s industrial military complex and what looks to be a smoochy flirtation with the end of the world.

Which generally is where this all leads.

So if you have the stature of Jenny Holzer and you’ve produced the most extraordinary of work, what exactly is the value in showing it at the Bilbao? One could argue that you’re supporting an infrastructure that needs your work to remain relevant, in the SAME WAY one could argue that militaries need war in order to remain relevant. You show in museums because that’s what you do. They bomb the shit out of Syria because that’s what they do. It’s not a fair equivalency, but it’s there because that’s how things work.

Point being, if you’re a political artist wanting to be heard, do you place your work in sanctified spaces that folks have to pay to access? Or do you kick open the doors of an otherwise closed universe and literally force the other side to see your point of view? With exceptions, museums don’t really need any specific artist’s work. Militaries are incredibly well funded and certainly don’t want our opinions. God, god can take care of him/her/itself without any of y’all needing to suffocate the life out of an entire village by jamming them into a single boxcar. However, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette could use a Redact insert! Tuscon’s KXCI could use an amazing interview and literal reading of the pieces live on air! The Dallas, TX public bus system could use some new advertising material pasted to its walls!

KXCI Tuscon, AZ

Or maybe I’m just being myopic. If I had my way I’d post the text to my own series, Le Morte de Gaia, on billboards across America in a multitude of languages. For those of y’all that don’t know, Le Morte is a series dedicated to what happens when the first nuclear bomb drops and everything that goes away. As in EVERYTHING. So when I see the magnificence of Holzer’s work I just can’t help but feel it’s incomplete, that the missing aspect has everything to do with where it’s shown and the conversations it would damn well bring about.

Finally, a few memories that have some kinda relevance here. Growing up in Cincinnati I had the distinct opportunity to not only get to enjoy Larry Flynt’s War protest insert, but also Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum of Art and the furor that arose from Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ some years later. Talk about Blue art in a Red state. The best part about all 3 of these masterpieces of experience is that folks still talk about them, nevermind the embarrassment they caused Cincinnati, and still do.

Andres Serrano. Piss Christ. 1987

But, again, probably just myopic and my solutions aren’t Holzer’s solutions, or anyone’s. Still, wouldn’t it be something to bring her beautifully brutal work deep inside the home turf of the American right-wing? I’m open to helping out on the idea – all I’ve got is the rest of my life to bring it together! Which I suppose is the MAIN POINT of this entire article: There’s not an obvious gun to our heads, so we’re incredibly lucky to be able debate these issues and take our time before we’ve made a decision that suits our perspective. But don’t kid yourself, soon we won’t have that time, soon the decision will be made for us and at that point it’s every man woman and god for themselves.

In the interim? Art! If I didn’t believe in the power of art to affect change then I wouldn’t have written this essay, and you wouldn’t have read it. I know the idea is antiquated, especially in 2017, but again I’m fairly certain Larry Flynt had it right: Bring your ideas directly to the people and let them decide what to make of it. I can’t say in retrospect that I agree with what he did because of the nature of the work presented, but like Flynt I also believe in the power of absolute certainty. So if the good Jenny Holzer is absolutely certain her work needs to be seen by the masses, then I’d like her to take that same certainty to the proverbial enemy and see what they make of it. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “A mind, once expanded by a new idea, never returns to it’s original dimensions.” He %@#% nailed it!


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.

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!

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