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Tag Archives: Text-based art

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

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.

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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