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:
- Appropriation of content
- Appropriation of form
- Reclamation of gender, racial and social identity
- Use of non-traditional media
- Greater artist control over message
- An overt political ferocity
I might also add, more so observationally than anything else:
- Lots and lots of books
- 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.
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.