Spring 2010

To the letter

Paul Shaw
Typography special section

Calligraphy, in the hands of artists like Carl Kurtz and Susan Skarsgård, can be abstract, gestural, conceptual, or simply beautiful. It is always surprising.

What does a calligrapher do in the 21st century? The role of scribe, writing out manuscripts, was long ago usurped by the printing press. The job of copying out documents for governments and business disappeared with the invention of the typewriter. Some eke out a living filling in diplomas, writing out invitations to social events and addressing envelopes. Others survive by doing custom lettering for advertising and design, a field that has been severely challenged in the past two decades by the increasing sophistication of digital type, especially OpenType fonts with their endless array of alternates, ligatures and contextual characters. And then there are those who see salvation in calligraphy being accepted as an art rather than a craft, who seek to gain for it the same level of acceptance in Western society that it has had for centuries in Asia.

The champions of calligraphy as art have suggested several models: abstract imagery in the manner of Jackson Pollock, gestural mark-making à la Franz Kline or Cy Twombly, or conceptual art rooted in language like the work of Ed Ruscha or Jenny Holzer. Two calligraphers whose work sometimes fits into one or more of these categories but often as not into none of them are Carl Kurtz and Susan Skarsgård.


Legibility and abstraction

Much of Kurtz’s work – ‘arresting but often rather simple and direct sentences’ taken from low culture (the blues are a favourite source) as well as from high (Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson and Haruki Murakami) – is accomplished using graphite. It is calligraphy as drawing.


Elemental alphabets

Although she has worked with literary texts – what calligrapher has not? – Skarsgård in recent years has spent much of her energy exploring the alphabet. ‘The familiar shapes of the alphabet, taken down to their elemental form and stripped of their meaning, have always been intriguing to me,’ she explains…

Skarsgård’s alphabets are not simply collections of 26 letters but compositions that explore shape, negative space, rhythm, pattern, colour, texture and perception. Reflecting her diverse training they conjure up a wide host of associations: George Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa, Op Art, the prints of Ben Shahn and Sister Corita Kent, the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti and Hans Schmidt, Arabic calligraphy and Russian lubok prints. Many of them – often the best – are illegible and abstract, light years removed from what is popularly thought of as calligraphy.

In the past quarter of a century, calligraphy has come unmoored from its original meaning of ‘beautiful writing’ in Greek and from its roots in the scribal culture of the past. Now that technology allows letters to be revised, retouched and combined seamlessly, the important thing is not that they have been reproduced – whether by letterpress, silkscreen, giclée or any other process – but that they retain the energy of man-made marks…


First published in Eye no. 75 vol. 19.



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