Project 3: Place in Art

Research point: Notes on the Tate website’s “artist rooms” article about text and language in art. [accessed 30/03/17]

History: first use of text in art

Early 20th century

  • Text in art reflected the emerging avant-garde movements of the time.
  • Culturally, this period coincided with increased presence of printed work, increased sophistication in marketing/advertising.
  • Words, letters and symbols used in art by Francis Picabia (The Fig Leaf 1933), Kurt Schwitters (Mz. 299 1922), Marcel Duchamp (Fountain 1917).
    • All these artists associated with Dada movement: rejected traditional art materials, processes and subjects by appropriating found objects, called readymades.
    • Duchamp used his pseudonym “R. Mutt” on Fountain 1917; this was a provocative statement about the (changing) role of the artist and the object
    • For Duchamp, the artist is someone who rethinks the world and reconstructs meaning through language.
      • This thinking paved the way for the emergence of conceptual art as a genre.
  • Sol LeWitt coined the term “conceptual artist” in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art 1967.
  • Other key players in the emergence of conceptual art: Joseph Kosuth, Art & Language, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long

Text and language in conceptual art

  • Use of text, language in art became a way for artists to challenge idea that art = physical object
  • By late 60s/early 70s, conceptual art was established as an art movement/category.
    • Conceptual art marks shift from art as physical object to art as intellectual concept.
      • Duchamp described this as “dematerialization of the art object.”
  • Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner were particularly concerned with language.
    • Weiner’s “statements/sculptures” (“Roughly ripped apart”) were typically vinyl lettering applied directly to exhibition surface, however they could be experienced in several forms: writ large on a gallery wall, spoken as a dialogue in video, printed in a book, tattooed on the skin.
      • He used language and words to focus on interaction between artwork and “receiver.”
      • Statements suggest physical action, instructions to be enacted, manipulation of matter.
      • Weiner wanted to offer universal(?), objective(?) experience in which reader can “execute” work through imagination.
      • Personal response: Arguably, we’re always completing a work of contemporary art in our imaginations: it’s simply not obvious enough to do otherwise. Without having experienced his work first-hand, I’m struggling to understand what made Weiner different from a poet here. What exactly differentiates his statement “sculptures” (this label feels pretentious to me) from a poet’s verses, other than the gallery context? Don’t all texts seek to somehow engage the imagined reader/target audience? Can’t any text be tattooed on the skin or printed in a book? Feeling resistance/skepticism…
    • Ruscha was a conceptual artist who drew heavily from popular culture.
      • Saw words as graphic signs, abstract shapes
      • His texts (dirty baby) are not instructive but provide humorous reflection on American pop culture, slang, conventions, excesses.
  • Bruce Nauman‘s colorful neon text-pieces are playful, self/process-referential.
    • In early 70s, he did several illuminated text signs that employed word play (anagrams) and bold color to upset the meaning of everyday phrases, expressions.
  • Mario Merz worked with neon texts juxtaposed against everyday objects
    • Che Fare (What is to be done)? speaks to the tension around the individual’s engagement in modern society.
      • Words appear to be melting into a big pot: symbolic of the “I” disappearing into/subsumed by the collective “we”?
  • More recently, Jenny Holzer‘s text works cast a critical eye on modern society, making clever or provocative statements about everyday experiences and emotions.
  • Joseph Beuys identifies as artist, teacher, educator and uses blackboards (often live) to illustrate his lectures/ideas.
    • Wants to enact social transformation through his work.
    • Personal response: Are his lectures/teachings considered art or, simply, teachings? As with my remark about Weiner’s work above, I feel resistance to the grouping of any creative work that already exists as a profession (teaching, lecturing) under the art umbrella, wonder if I’m missing something. Does everything an artist makes/thinks constitute art? I’m also curious about those chalkboards; how is the integrity of the piece preserved, given the transience of traditional chalk markings?
  • Richard Long uses sparse (but evocative, I think) text and similar aesthetics to document his long walks in landscapes all over the world.
    • Personal response: I like the way the phrase “the medium is the message” rings true in his work. It’s very true, soft, and poetic to me.
  • Ian Hamilton Finlay embraced what to me seems a more classic, natural integration of text in art, particularly sculpture and installations.
    • Concerned with how language shapes the world in which we live.
    • Little Sparta combines aphorisms, poetry, classical references to literature.
    • Personal response: Another example, for me, of the medium matching the message. His work is simple, beautiful, accessible, poetic. I find it very moving, particularly inspired by Little Sparta.
  • Cy Twombly was inspired by Mediterranean heritage and referenced classic literature and mythology in his work.
    • Blurred line between painting and writing.

Further reading about a selection of above-mentioned artists


  • seminal: Strongly influencing later developments.
  • factiousRelating or inclined to dissension.
  • avant-garde: New and experimental ideas and methods in art, music, or literature;  a group of artists, musicians, or writers working with new and experimental ideas and methods.
  • Dada: An early 20th-century movement in art, literature, music, and film, repudiating and mocking artistic and social conventions and emphasizing the illogical and absurd.

*All definitions provided by English Oxford Living Dictionaries. [accessed 31/03/17]


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