Most of us are so used to reading that we forget each letter is a shape and each word its own composition. There’s a significant aesthetic dimension to the writing we read daily—in emails and books, on packaging and signs—and so it makes sense that visual artists have co-opted graphic design and typography strategies for their own philosophical ends.
Using language, artists transform a basic communication tool—the alphabet—into unique provocations. Language is also particularly malleable, cost-free, and renewable. “There’s a million different ways artists can use it,” said Jewish Museum curator Kelly Taxter. “Often, it’s artists who work with issues of politics or social justice.” Just as artists are still finding new ways to manipulate paint, canvas, and space, they’re constantly developing fruitful new reasons to turn words into art.
Jenny Holzer turns common public objects into subversive artworks bearing powerful words. She engraves poetic statements about power, feminism, and individual agency into benches made from streaked Carrara marble, spotted granite, and royal blue-tinged sodalite. Holzer renders her phrases in all-caps and serif lettering, turning them into monumental proclamations:“PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT”, “IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER”, “RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY”. They become creative mandates in shared spaces and benevolent counterpoints to state directives.
If Holzer’s benches transform public park fixtures into artistic media, her LED banners co-opt a structure associated with commerce and advertising. On screens that would typically promote sales, company names or stock market updates, Holzer broadcasts punchy phrases such as “DON’T TALK DOWN TO ME” or “WITNESS” along with longer, looping messages. The artist often repurposes her poetic phrases, or “Truisms” building their power through repetition. (One of Holzer’s most famous messages, “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE” has been readopted as a protest mantra in the #MeToo era.)
“I like placing content wherever people look,” Holzer told fellow artist Kiki Smith in a conversationconversation for Interview Magazine, “and that can be at the bottom of a cup or on a shirt or hat or on the surface of a river or all over a building.” Holzer turns the public realm into her exhibition space, gifting her thoughtful poetry to anyone who wants to sit or read a sign.
Many artists working with words offer profound written statements in their work. Mel Bochner’s most famous pieces, in contrast, simply read “BLAH BLAH BLAH.” The artist plasters the essentially meaningless phrase on billboards and jams it in block letters across brightly colored paintings. He seems most interested in highlighting the banalities of contemporary communication. A 2017 monoprint, for example, juxtaposes collaged phrases such as “OH WELL, THAT’S THE WAY IT GOES”, “IT IS WHAT IT IS”, “WHAT CAN YOU DO?” and “SHIT HAPPENS.” Bochner elevates non-committal conversations and bromides to fine art. Reading them, the viewer can feel a little indicted. Who hasn’t leaned on some of those clichés when making small talk?
In another series, Bochner renders a group of synonyms—for words like “money”, “obscene”, “obvious” or “amazing”—in rows. The viewer is forced to consider both the subtleties of language and the garishness of English: We have an awful lot of ways to discuss commerce and convey hyperbole. Bochner’s style amplifies this sense of ornamentation; exclamation points and bright oranges, yellows and reds abound.
Ed Ruscha’s iconic photography series “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963) captured the signage and architecture of 26 gas stations between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. Ruscha developed a new mythology about the American West as he emphasized the roadside signs that populated it. Though the pictures are of buildings, nearly all of them contain words: “Conoco”, “Texaco”, “Stop/Save”, “Say Fina”, “Cafe”, “Mobil Service”, “Navajo Rugs”, “Beer & Liquors.” In fact, such phrases become inextricable from the landscape itself.
The series laid the groundwork for Ruscha’s career: Over the past five decades, he’s continued to link language and the environment. A painting from 1989 juxtaposes the phrase “Safe and Effective Medication” with a picture of dark clouds. In more recent work, the titular expressions “Pay Nothing Until April” (2003), “Wall Rockets” (2000), and “History Kids” (2009) overlie painted, craggy mountains. Viewers consider the association—or lack thereof—between the different elements as they wonder what any of those obscure phrases actually mean. Typography itself becomes as integral to a work’s mood as color or composition—Ruscha’s angular, thin, white lettering in all-caps is simultaneously delicate and declarative, mechanical and strange. It’s Ruscha’s own font, which he calls Boy Scout Utility Modern.
Adam Pendleton’s raw material is language, but the artist often doesn’t care if his words make clear sense. His broad project “Black Dada” which he began in 2008, co-opts the dreamlike, nonsensical aesthetics of European inter-war artists like Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí, repurposing them for Pendleton’s own concerns as a black American. In his 2017 painting “If The Function Of Dada”, for example, Pendleton silkscreens, inks and spray-paints so many black letters against his white canvas that the viewer struggles to decipher any messaging. It’s a perfect strategy to convey contemporary dissonance and chaos.
Not all of Pendleton’s work with text, however, is illegible. He’s appropriated phrases from writer Gertrude Stein, artist Ad Reinhardt and musician Sun Ra, and frequently overlaid varying backdrops (photographs of bricks or an African mask) with the word “INDEPENDANCE.” For the 2015 Venice Biennale, he created large-scale wall works for the Belgian pavilion that replicated the words “Black Lives Matter” in a loose, graffiti-like scrawl.
Using stencils of generic fonts, Kay Rosen paints words and phrases on gallery and museum walls, and also projects them onto façades. “ADD AND END” she tells us in a bright mix of primary colors (Happy Ever After, 1994/2016). “JUMBO MUMBO”, she says, in blue-and-black lettering (Big Talk, 1985/2017). The titles infuse the works with additional humor. “The linguist in me wanted meaning to be carried by the structure of the words, not type style; the inner painter insisted that color convey meaning; the sculptor in me obsessed about the construction of letterforms through materials and process,” she wrote in Art in America in 2014. “Visual consistency gives text authority—which is the fundamental lesson I learned at my publishing day job.”
Rosen’s work is often about concrete poetry and wordplay. In fact, some of her canvases read as rebuses. Head Over Heels (2016), for example, features the words “fall over” toppling sideways—you might also read the text as “fal lover” turning the title into a double entendre about both form and romance.
In the late Jason Rhoades’s installations, neon words hang from the ceiling-like linguistic confetti suspended in space. His work literally lights up the gallery space with riotous, evocative slang. In “My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage…” (2004) all 240 phrases refer to female genitalia. Visitors walk under a tangle of language that includes “Cooze”, “Fuzz Box”, “Private Property”, “Ginger” and “Fluttering Love.” Underneath lie overlapping towels, suggesting a Muslim place of worship. With his title, Rhoades indicated that the terms—and the female body itself—added up to a pseudo-religion for him. (Objectifying? Probably. But 2004 was…a different time.) In another work, Fuzzy Puddle/Turkey Beard (2003), the titular phrases appear in orange neon against a black sign. The latter hangs upside down. Lingerie lace loops over the bright, cursive wording—just in case the viewer couldn’t already guess what particular anatomy the phrases refer to.
Erica Baum doesn’t choose the words that she includes in her “Dog Ear” series, per se. In close-cropped photographs, the artist captures a dog-eared book’s page and the one hiding behind it. The viewer sees two separate triangular sections of text, one laid atop another in a square format. Neither the photographs nor their titles disclose the source material. In Enfold (2013), the dog-eared page simply reads “A” while the page behind offers a kind of fragmented nonsense poem: “a wave would be hear / to enfold the note / spraying its foa / music. I gre / my thing / struck / in.” Viewers must choose to read the words and guess at the larger story. Alternately, they can opt not to read at all, and simply look at each work as a group of black forms against light pages. The letters become secondary to the concept: Baum’s work captures the physical evidence of reading—folded pages signify that readers have temporarily abandoned their books as they return to real life.
According to legendlegend, Christopher Wool developed the idea for his word paintings in 1987, after seeing graffiti scrawled in black lettering across a delivery truck. His subsequent canvases embrace their gritty conceptual origins. Across stark white backgrounds, he uses stencils to create blocky black letters, detached at their joints, erratically spelling out “Sell the House, Sell the Car, Sell the Kids” (a line from the film Apocalypse Now) or “TR/BL” (“trouble” with the vowels removed). Broken up into lines and curves, the letters become both heavy compositional elements and potential vehicles for additional meaning.
Yet given the limited palette and lack of any other context, the words stop short of real significance—“leached…of personality,” as Peter Schjeldahl wrote in a 2013 review of Wool’s Guggenheim retrospective. For the New York Times, Roberta Smith concluded: “These paintings conflate the act of seeing, reading and even speaking as you tease and sound out the meanings of their run-on or awkwardly broken words.” Time Out situated the work in a particularly historical context, asserting that Wool’s language “seemed to encapsulate a collective mood of foreboding and unease brought on by the Reagan administration and the various disasters—the AIDS crisis, the 1987 stock market crash, the savings and loan scandal—it left in its wake.”
The anonymous collective Guerilla Girls fits into a rich tradition of protest artists who employ words for explicitly political ends. In particular, the group uses language to reconsider gender discrimination and violence. “What do these men have in common?” one of their 1995 posters asks. Below the bold black wording, photographs of O.J. Simpson and minimalist artist Carl Andre appear. The answer to their provocation? The state accused both men of murdering women. Both enjoyed acquittals and avoided jail time. The Guerilla Girls discuss the prevalence of domestic violence beneath the pictures. They also include a tagline at the bottom: “A public service message from Guerilla Girls conscience of the art world.”
Another famous work, “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum?” (1989), critiques the lack of art by female practitioners in major institutions. Across the Guerilla Girls’s oeuvre, wry ideology becomes an art form. Their messaging—and its situation within the institutions it critiques—supersedes all other aesthetic concerns.
Barbara Kruger co-opts the format of magazine advertisements in her prints, photographs and silkscreens. They overlay black-and-white pictures (often of women) with white text inside red banners. Commerce and feminism mingle uncomfortably: Kruger’s art often calls attention to the way that corporations, mass media and the government attempt to control women. All the works feature a Futura typeface, turning the artist’s oeuvre into its own subversive brand.
It’s no surprise that Kruger began her career as a graphic designer. In the 1960s, she worked for Condé Nast’s women’s magazine Mademoiselle. Yet as an artist, she’s been able to significantly expand her palette. Her large-scale installations have grown to cover the walls, floors, and sometimes even ceilings of rooms at museums and galleries, immersing viewers in her loud, bold language.
Art historians consider Lawrence Weiner one of the forerunners of Conceptual artConceptual art. The artist is best known for rendering text directly on walls, letter by letter, often in his own invented sans serif font, Margaret Seaworthy Gothic. Flat against the wall, the phrases lack the objecthood that’s often an artwork’s prerequisite.
Despite lacking accompanying imagery, Weiner’s word art frequently evokes distinct settings and things. Stones skipped across the bay of Naples (2009) or Stacks of Severed Trees Laid Beside a Fissure in the Earth (2007), for example, suggest artworks and arrangements never made, just considered. As viewers read the piece, they complete Weiner’s projects themselves—conjuring a mental images of what he has merely described.
Alternately, other Weiner pieces focus on a sense of space. The Right Thing in The Wrong Place (2016) for example, evoke more ambiguous objects and agency. “He has experimented with how language can perform as a public artwork, as a sculpture,” Taxter said. According to her, his work asks “Who owns what phrases?” New York’s new, as-yet-unfinished multidisciplinary arts center The Shed recently commissioned Weiner to make work for the entry pavilion. His two lines of text read “IN FRONT OF ITSELF”—one facing the building, and one facing away from it.
This British powerhouse is known for a heart-on-her-sleeve approach to confessional art. Tracey Emin works in a wide range of mediums, including film, painting, neon, embroidery, drawing, installation and sculpture. Her work is intensely personal, revealing intimate details of her life with brutal honesty and poetic humor.
Ever the controversial wild-child, she debuted her first neon works in a “museum” she opened in tribute to herself when she was just 32. The artist’s interest in neon can perhaps be traced back to her troubled youth in Margate, England; her 1995 film Why I Never Became a Dancer shows us around her seaside hometown, studded with vintage neon signs. Emin’s style has since become ubiquitous, even inspiring copycats and forgeriescopycats and forgeries.
Her early neon text sculptures rendered her own handwriting in lights, conveying often saccharine messages like “be faithful to your dreams” or “just love me.” In 1998, the artist got serious, unveiling a pro–European Union neon in London’s bustling St Pancras train station. With the United Kingdom’s days as part of the EU winding down, Emin’s message was forlorn and simple: “I want my time with you.”
Innovative and intellectual, “Four Colors Four Words” is a pioneering early work by Joseph Kosuth. Spelled out in clear orange, violet, green and blue neon lettering, both the color and the words describe what we are seeing. By simultaneously displaying these two realities, Kosuth is prompting us to question how and why, their functioning is different. Executed in 1966 while still a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, this work signals how Kosuth was to examine verbal assumptions and definitions with disconcerting literalness over his career.
Along with other Conceptual artists, Kosuth sought to demonstrate that the “art” component is not found within the object itself but rather in the idea of the work. His practice is highly self-referential, drawing influence from Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s seminal theories.
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This article has been edited by The Art Dose.