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So, big picture, text-art wise, from the end of WWII thru the 1950’s it was generally pretty quiet, no? In terms of iconic high text-art imagery, that’s basically true (we’ll get to Johns, Rauschenberg and Fluxus soon enough). However, that got me to thinking. The 1960’s produced an unparalleled explosion of text-based work that continues unabated. In fact there’s an argument to be made that it’s now impossible to tell the difference between text art, advertising and modern kitsch, but that comes later. Here, the question is: What fueled that explosion? I’m not a historian, and I haven’t read the psychoanalytic breakdown’s of each artist’s personal narrative, but a few things occur to me as I look at imagery of the 1950’s:

  1. World War II was just yesterday
  2. There was no time to mentally decompress before
  3. Being told exactly what to look like, what to be excited about, how to live your life
  4. You’re about to die horribly
  5. Go buy something

And don’t get me started on Jazz, literature, integration, expansion of the middle class or the revolutionary youth-centric Rock and Roll. Everything we took for granted prior to WW2 had flipped and much of it for the better. We were an entire nation of Old Boys’ Networks and what the Old Boys took for granted, women as property, elections to rig, Negros to keep down and all decent white fellows wore hats to work and smoked pipes on the weekend, well, images of guard dogs defending segregation, Emmit Till, women’s rights, a burgeoning nuclear nightmare and youth exposed to television and constant, ever more insidious war began to seriously challenge the Old Boys’ grip on things.

Which is where art comes in. I gotta hand it to the Abstract Expressionists, they really made a name for themselves and created some insanely great art, but they were younger versions of more traditional Old Guard artists looking for acclaim, like the many ‘ists’ that came before them. Here’s a nice pic:

abstract expressionists

And yet, as American culture began to freak out and express itself in a bazillion new ways, one small New York-based art club wasn’t nearly enough, nevermind how exceptionally well-dressed they might have been. Something else had to happen, and duh of course it did.

Which is where I started to think about 1960’s text art and what came before it. Specifically, the deluge of text-based propaganda, advertising and comics that young 60’s artists would have absorbed as kids. And whoa wow hello – what schizophrenic messages they were receiving!

As very young kids, having lived thru World War 2, they got this:

Food is a Weapon

Wanted for Murder

Happy Jap

Venereal Disease Covers The Earth

Then as adolescents they got this:

Atomic War Comic

Teenage Dope Slaves

Captain America

Comic America Under Communism

And as they grew into young adulthood, these were their social models:

Lucky Strike Do You Inhale

Ad Coffee Spanking

Ad Campbells Pea Soup

Ad Televison Benefits Children

And somehow managed to balance this:

Nuc Attack Home Split Image

and this

1950s-3d-movies

not to mention

Korean War Headlines

while again this was happening:

Bomb Drill

And eventually this:

civil-rights-march

Which is how it totally makes sense that they ended up producing art that not only reflected the absurdist culture they grew up in, but also used those same images and messages as ground for their work. And some felt the freedom to dispense with imagery altogether and go straight for the message, and permanent hats off to them because once that happened there was no going back. Plus it also got very, very flat, which was very, very interesting.

1960’s next!

Kurt Schwitters kicked your ass before you were born.

Untitled (D’Cily). 1942                         Man soll nicht asen mit Phrasen. 1930

Schwitters, influenced by Ferdinand de Saussurre (d. 1913) whose work focused on the relationship of sound to written language and tension between name and object (as illustrated by Magritte in 1928), worked in a multitude of genres including typography (see Merz, below), collage and painting. He also worked with performance pieces and poems that took the form of graphic scores. I don’t mean to imply I understand the entirely of his work, I’m stealing part of this while I better learn the larger picture of what he created. However, I do know this: Kurt Schwitters was the first to give equal weight to both artist material and text then exploring what this implied.

The Cubists were the first to use text in their work, but it was text as decoration briefly used. Schwitters saw it as a material to shape, nurture and blossom. Schwitters spanned the gap between the end of Surrealism and the explosion of a multitude of American art movements that took root in the 1960’s. He influenced sound exploration, poetry, music and design (all 4 wrapped up into John Cage).

Plus he created Merzbau, a freakish construct attempted 3 times, the first of which was in his apartment in Hannover, began in 1923.

It was destroyed by an Allied air raid, so he tried again in Norway in 1937 then again in London in 1947, a year before his death. Schwitters said Merzbau contained everything of importance to him, with the initial Merzbau containing grottoes for Hans Arp, Theo van Doesburg, caves for Hannah Hoch, El Lissitzky and Mies Van der Rohe, plus grottoes dedicated to abstract concepts such as a ‘murderers cave’ or ‘love grotto.’ It doesn’t get any better than that!

Just because I can, and while I’m working on a post about Kurt Schwitters, here’s something that’s been gnawing at me.

Raoul  Hausmann postcard to IK Bonset. 1921.

Stefan Sagmeister. Lou Reed album cover 1996. (Found this combo on Dublog, an excellent design site out of Ipswich, UK.)

Now then, direct reference or direct rip-off? Sagmeister has made a living writing over people’s faces. Good, bad, I don’t know. Seems boring to me, but that doesn’t matter.

Reminds me of a class I took in my MFA program. Lit class, studying Gertrude Stein. My prof, Robert Polito (who also wrote a great bio of pulp master Jim Thompson) was astounded that Gertrude Stein would comment on what she was seeing immediately around her as she wrote letters to friends. ‘Who’d think to do that?’ he said.

Me. And probably you. Seemed an odd question from a writer.

But me, I’ve always written about the immediate here and now. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to write about in a letter, perhaps we’re supposed to write pre-letters, drafts of letters before we sit down to do the real thing. My point being this: I didn’t need to know Gertrude Stein’s letters to write my own. Sagmesiter didn’t need to know Bonset to start writing on people’s faces and Basquiat didn’t need to study Francis Picabia to know the value of a signature on canvas. There’s only so many ideas and they blossom throughout time as variants of what has come before.

Which reminds me of another story, from my psychology teacher in high school. This is the ol’ ‘immortal monkey’ story, the Infinite Monkey Theorem. In this case is you put a monkey in a room with a typewriter with an endless spool of ribbon and paper, that it’s inevitable that at some point over an infinite span of time that the money would write out, in perfect order, the complete works of Shakespeare, and presumably Mickey Spillane.

He presented it as fact, ie, again there’s nothing new under the sun because everything is inevitable and has happened before, which coincidentally is the theme of Battlestar Galactica, thus the theme too is being recycled so long as it has resonance.

Therefore, I suppose that it’s entirely possible that in my sleep I’ll craft a miniature version of Guernica, or rewrite War and Peace in an obscure Indian dialect devoid of vowels. Not likely, but ideas recycle. Remember the last great idea you had that someone else is already making millions off of? It’s kind of like that. Just ask Hausmann. Or any of the ‘Basquiat-inspired’ abominations on eBay. And if Cubism could have been copyrighted back in the day, then the heirs of Picasso and Braque might very well own a small European nation by now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better yet: Basquiat.

Lastly, for this era, there’s Magritte:

Magritte. This is Not a Pipe. 1928

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howard Finster Heaven and Hell

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

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

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

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

Again, big deal.

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

Let me know if I’m missing something obvious. 

Have fun!

My other site: davidnielsenart.com