Winter 1993

Word Art

J. Abbott Miller
Overview

In post-war art the visual and the literary have blurred. Typography is the point at which they meet

There has been a slow and steady erosion of the boundaries between art and design over the course of the twentieth century. The avant-gardes have always deliberately blurred the media and institution of art, incorporating the “other” of design and advertising as well as breaking disciplinary boundaries between visual and literary forms. The art-or-design dichotomy that used to fuel discussions about the artistic potential of design has shifted: instead, much of the media-conscious art of the post-war period has incorporated advertising and mass media strategies. Typography is an interesting reference point for looking at this incorporation and at the blurring of the literary and the visual.

To approach the question from a historical perspective, one should return to Cubism, where the “low” of typography mixed with the “high” of art. The collages of Picasso and Braque incorporated fragments of newspapers, logos, wrappers and wallpaper – scraps of Parisian commercial life that brought non-art materials into the artist’s studio. They also brought to art the verbally and visually complex language of typography. Art historians have argues over the extent to which Picasso’s newspaper fragments were intended to be read as a form of verbal/visual poetry, analysed for their literal content, or “seen” as pictorial and compositional elements.

The appearance of typography in the visual arts was part of a widespread interest among Modernist writers and artists in the relationships between mass culture and art and between words and pictures. After Cubism there was an explosion of art in which newspapers, advertising and packaging were treated as part of contemporary urban life, as omnipresent as smokestacks or still-lifes.

MESSAGES FROM OUTSIDE

Two distinct sensibilities towards typography flow from Cubism: the painted letter and the collage. Type enters Cubist works both as a representation and as a material fact. In collage, scraps of printed paper are physically lifted from their commercial sources; the painted letter invokes the regularity of typography through drawn or stencilled forms.

Mechanical repetition is one of the features which distinguishes typography from other media such as handwriting, lettering and calligraphy. The stencil provides a primitive form of “printing” on canvas or on paper. In Cubism, the stencil is employed as a form of drawing whose most immediate referent is “typography” or “the printed word”. Placed among drawn and collaged letterforms and logotypes, the stencil was used to quote the consumer landscape of Paris. Picasso’s interest in the look of the printed word – rather than strictly its poetic or literary value – is evident in hand-lettering with spiky serifs.

The painted letter and the collage are both ready-mades: the artist is not “inventing” new typographic forms, but is referring to a commercial or industrial vernacular. Thus both avenues of Cubism issue from an interest in materials and messages brought into art from outside. But despite their common origin, the painted letter and the collage present two different modes of artistic production. Collage is inherently additive, combinatory and heterogeneous. It is the medium of graphic design (what is a “mechanical” if not a collage?), and graphic design is often the raw material of collage. Collage reorders existing typographic elements, while the painted letter stimulates typography. Unlike collage, the painted letter brings with it an element of representational distance. The painted, drawn or stencilled letter produces an image of typography rather than its material or literal presence.

I have outlined these distinctions in order to use the categories of the painted letter and the collage as a structure for looking at typography in recent art. I use these categories not so much to describe what it, physically, a painting versus what is a collage, but to illustrate how the sensibility of collage has fed into one current of artistic production, and the painted letter into another.

THE PAINTED LETTER

Stencils have been used in art production from Cubism onwards. On a practical level, they are an expedient way of painting letters on canvas. As a mode of mechanical reproduction that remains linked to the hand, stencilling occupies a mid-point between industry and craft. Stencils perform an abstraction of typography by breaking letterforms into constituent parts. Like a brush or a palette knife, the stencil is a tool that leaves a trace. Its status as an indexical mark, like a footprint in the snow, has made it easy to incorporate it into the province of Modernist painting.

The alphabet and number paintings of Jasper Johns, for example, employ the stencil as a structure that hovers between abstraction and figuration. Just as Johns’ thick wax encaustic medium was a reproach to the fluid, gestural spontaneity of abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, so too was the stencil a codified form of drawing, a space circumscribed yet open. The associations of stencils with commerce – packing crates, dry-goods signs – underscored the flatness and anti-illusionism of the painted surface. Robert Indiana was also fascinated by the anonymity of the tools of the sign painter. Indiana called commercial stencils the “matrix and format for my painting and drawing”, finding in this imagery a purportedly American and democratic visual language. The literary content of Indiana’s paintings also feeds on an American vernacular – what he referred to as the “road literature” of the American highway.

In contemporary art practice, the stencil refers as much to the commercial vernacular as to the art historical sources of Cubism and Jasper Johns. In the work of Glenn Ligon and Christopher Wool, the repetitive forms and interchangeable components of stencils are linked to the repetitive, conventional aspects of verbal communication. Their work, like that of Johns, exploits the painterly facets of stencilled letters, but maintains a strict black and white palette. In works such as Prisoner of Love number 1, Ligon uses the lightness of the ground and darkness of the medium to address issues of race. A legible phrase at the top of the work gradually dissolves into dark obscurity at the bottom. The texts of Ligon’s pieces, such as “we are the ink that gives the white page a meaning”, are amplified through repetition, performing a visual analogue for chanting.

Christopher Wool, on the other hand, creates complexity from deadpan clarity. The monumental scale of his paintings makes their verbal content seem forthright to the point of banality. But in large, one-word paintings such as Drunk, the absence of the letter “u” becomes provocative. In Untitled, the rhythm of the story is contradicted by the spacing of the stencils: spacing is foregrounded as the condition of meaning. Like Ligon, Wool weds literary content and visual form through a particular use of the stencil. The stencil is a theatrical point of departure for generating a textual image.

The logic of the stencil is to “look like” typography – to formalise the representation of words by introducing the visual codes of commerce, printing and mass media. This same logic is at work in other pieces which do not necessarily use “stencil” fonts, but similarly aspire to the status of the typographic by quoting typography as it appears in commercial and mass media imagery. For example, the early Pop paintings of Edward Ruscha, such as War Surplus, depended upon the measured re-creation of letterforms on canvas. Ruscha’s paintings are a theatrical re-presentation of typographic form, focusing on the evocative, pictorial potential of type. In a similar way, though less graphically exuberant, a series of intentionally bland paintings by John Baldessari invokes the authority of typography to declare their “content”. Typical of this series is one in black type on a white ground which spells out in simple caps “PURE BEAUTY”. Another promises that “everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work”. The deadpan humour relies upon the methodically painted, respectfully presented lettering.

The same interest is theatricality and re-presentation informs the paintings of On Kawara, who invokes a different range of associations through his crystalline letterforms. The paintings accrue an enigmatic quality by virtue of both their quantity and maniacal perfection. The date paintings represented here, One Thousand Days One Million Years, are an ongoing project to document and represent time. Since he began his date paintings in the 1970s, Kawara has developed his own sans serif letterforms, drawing largely upon Futura mixed with other sans serifs. Kawara’s palette – black, white and red – is firmly rooted in the language of graphic design and printing. His use of a “typeface” in his painting is made more complex by his insistence on drawing, redrawing and mediating its forms through subtle manipulation.

THE COLLAGE

Collage has yielded a different set of concerns. Because it incorporates fragments of the already printed, collage imbues typography with a kind of documentary or archival – rather than fictional or theatrical – function. One of the strongest currents in post-Cubist collage flows from Dada. John Heartfield, Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann use the typographic (and photographic) language of mass media as tools with which to critique government, business and mass media itself. Heartfield’s images and messages were published in high-circulation magazines, rather than being confined to an art-world context. This fluidity of exchange between high art and mass media has characterised the development of collage in Modern, and later, post-modern practice. Because of its incorporation of actual elements of mass media, collage locates itself in specific social and temporal contexts, making it a mode of art production inclined towards the examination of the institutional boundaries of art and mass media.

The torn paper, ransom note-style typography of Dada, with its heterogeneous sizes and styles of type, became associated with the tradition of art as social critique. In many ways typography, in Dada and its offshoots, signifies “mass media” and as such could become a symbol of existing power relations. To speak through typography, especially someone else’s typography (as torn paper garments suggest), was to speak in the dialect of power. To adopt that language, or to transform it, constituted a subversion or redirection of authority. Torn paper collage was the chosen medium for the affichistes. Active in France and Italy in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the affichistes were not a self-consciously defined movement, but their torn paper collages display a remarkable consistency of style and method. They produced complexly layered canvases that used everyday advertising (beverages, movies, food) as raw material. The imagery is created from posters that are applied, ripped off, scraped away and covered over. The “radical” signification of torn paper continues to be a durable symbol of oppositional art and media practices.

Dada’s incorporation of typography was part of an artistic and cultural perspective that questioned the status of art and its institutional frameworks. The oppositional heritage of Dada informed radical movements from the 1940s to the 1970s, including Lettrism, International Situationism and Fluxus. In surveying these movements, one sees that typography – and typesetting – began to be incorporated as yet another resource of artistic production. While Cubism viewed typography as the “other” and introduced it in an almost fetishised way (the torn paper memento), subsequent art movements began to assume the presence of typography in art. While much of the conceptual and media-based art of the 1970s and 1980s is not, technically or physically, a “collage”, it is possible to view its use of typography as an extension of collage.

Thus in the work of such artists as Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Hans Haacke and Jenny Jolzer, typography is a primary, sometimes exclusive, means of expression. In Kosuth’s early conceptual art pieces, such as One and Three Chairs, 1965, a dictionary definition of “chair” is juxtaposed with a photograph of a chair and the chair itself. Kosuth’s piece asks the viewer to consider three forms of representation, posing the authority of “dictionary typography” and photographic accuracy against the three-dimensional chair. In more recent work, Kosuth has incorporated texts in large-scale installations such as his Zero and not installation from 1986, which sues a text by Freud that has been struck out but is still legible. The typographic reference here is to book typography, blown up to such massive proportions that its encircling pattern takes on an imposing and imprisoning quality.

For almost 30 years, the work of Lawrence Weiner has consisted of posters and installations that use a spare typographic palette, usually on a white or neutral field. Winter’s typically sans serif, all caps typography, like Baldessari’s painting, has a “purged” quality: the look of art reduced to nothing but language. Weinter’s “art” is composed of texts that describe spatial, physical and conceptual relationships: the work of art dematerialised or reduced to a kind of recipe Weinter’s posters often function as a part of the installation, sometimes being the sole component of the exhibition or constituting the work itself. Of course, the “neutrality” of Weinter’s typography participates in a recognisable, non-design idiom, yet his work has a difficult elegance. He sans serif cleanliness’ resembles the Modernist typography which dominated graphic design in the New York art community and in art advertising during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Over the last 20 years the political art of Hans Haacke has used typography that mimics the targets of his critique. In an infamous piece from 1975 which examined Mobil Oil’s sponsorship of cultural programmes, Haacke adopted the Mobil logo and the crisp Chermayeff and Geismar design guidelines for works that appropriated the language of big business in order to expose the interconnections between business, politics and art. On Social Grease took quotes from business leaders about the value of corporate art collections and cultural programming and presented them as relief plaques in the style of tasteful corporate signage. The statements originated in intra-professional seminars and publications. Haacke’s project consisted of bringing these surprisingly blunt statements into an art-world context that would otherwise never have seen the cynical motivations of corporate patronage. A recent project on the relationship between conservative US senator Jesse Helms, Philip-Morris and the tobacco industry featured an enormous, Pop-scale cigarette pack with the brand name Helmsboro, in a typographic parody of the Marlboro package.

Haacke’s issue-oriented stance differs from that of a group of younger artists whose work is directed more generally to cultural politics. Jenny Holzer’s text installations are stripped down and telegraphed. Her investment in the literary style of her work – reminiscent of the terse and enigmatic writings of Karl Kraus – contrasts with their effectively stark visual presentation. Jolzer also uses “ready-made” typography: LED displays and spectracolor billboards. Her early work took the form of densely leaded, all caps italic photocopied sheets pasted to the walls. These pieces had the look of a maniac methodically ranting at the word processor. As her reputation and visibility has increased, she has turned to more elaborate media and materials, although always keeping the typographic conventions of her chosen form, whether the inscriptions of funerary monuments or complex LED installations.

Another range of work has centred on the relationship between words and pictures. Photo-texts by Victor Burgin and Barbara Kruger have addressed voyeurism, feminism and racial and sexual serotypes through the juxtaposition of image and text. Unlike the “straightforward” all caps, sans serif typography of Burgin, Kruger is more interested in the “style” or “look” of her typography. Her training as a designer and her work as art director at mademoiselle are evident in the sometimes flashy layouts and red frames of her large-scale photo pieces. This has given her work a wider visibility, but it has also become a reified image of politicised art, a look that is itself being quoted by mainstream design. Kruger doubtless finds this whole cycle of appropriation and re-appropriation amusing and, ultimately, irrelevant to the specific messages of her work.

VOICE OF THE AUTHOR

While certain tendencies in art practice have depended upon typography sophistication – Pop quotations (Ruscha), parody (Haacke, General idea, Gran Fury) and the magazine-style layouts of Kruger – another tendency has been a reluctance to engage in a self-consciously “professional” handling of type, or at least a handling of type that bears the marks of a design education. In this other camp – which embraces both the painted letter and collage traditions – there is a persistent interest in anonymous, ready-made, vernacular and non-desingerly type, a stylistic neutrality that operates at different levels in the work of Wool, Ligon, Weinter, Baldessari and Burgin. By using “ready-made” typography, the artist divests him or herself of any special interest in the specific “design” of the letterform. This distance between the artists and the typeface – the acceptance of a commercial, generic brand or industrial vernacular – has been, intentional or not, a major point of difference between art and design. The narrowness of typographic tendencies in art becomes apparent when looking at work through this broad perspective. The characteristic interest in neutrality, the persistence of sans serif capital letters and the use of text type as display and vice versa reveal both the differences between art and design education and between values in the art and design communities.

Typographic expression in recent art practice has turned away from the neutrality and referentiality of the conceptual and media-critique traditions. Work by a younger generation of artists is mining a vein of illustrative and stylistic experimentation most closely allied with the early Pop work of Ruscha. It is noteworthy that this resurgence of typographic expression has been carried out in the context of painting (or works on canvas) rather than in photo-based media. In the paintings of Marlene McCarty, who is also a practising designer, sometimes obscene phrases and their typographic settings evoke the predominantly male-identifies pastimes of motorcycling, race-car driving and pornography. Her 1991 exhibition at New York’s Metro Pictures featured wall-to-wall canvases with heat-transferred slogans such as “Nothin’ like a piece of pussy ‘cept the Indy 500” and “Our Swift and Massive Tool of Terror”. The phrases were set in extended tough-guy fonts with racer-like stripes coursing through the type. In paintings such as Untitled, from the Immaculate Collection, the words “I fucked Madonna” are painted in letters which seem to flame, flare, quiver, throb and undulate in genital excitement.

McCarty’s work shows no evidence of the cool irony of Pop or the intellectual distance implied by “appropriationist” work. The viewer is left to interpret phrases such as “Suck Mine” with cues provided by typography alone. The artist’s relationship to the verbal content hinges on how one reads the lettering: it is a peculiar kind of pressure to put on type. It is McCarty’s investment in the evocative potential of lettering, its ability to position or at least inflect the voice of the author, that distinguishes her work from the Pop traditions with which she might superficially be linked. This investment in the letterforms is also what signals her background and education in design.

Literature on design history and theory is gradually building a discourse within which issues such as identity, sexual power, gender and race are no longer seen as alien subjects or “special interests”. Work by artist such as Barbara Kruger and Marlene McCarty is involved with strategies and forms that should be equally at home in the province of design. Such work finds itself in an art-world context partly for financial and institutional reasons, but also because graphic design has so few non-professionally identified outlets. It will be interesting to see how – or whether – the institutions of graphic design expand to allow experimental and theoretical work to occur within its field. This would require a loosening of the client-defined realm of design, and also an uncoupling of the concepts of design and service.

First published in Eye no. 11 vol. 3, 1993

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