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On artists who write and writers who art: Part 6

'Love', Robert Indiana

Throughout this series, I’ve been trying to think of artists who made serious attempts at writing, whether that be in poems or prose. There is of course a large number of visual artists who incorporate text as part of their visual work. To name just a few:

Picasso and Braque.
The Dadaists, such as John Heartfield.
Rene Magritte.
Antoni Tapies.
Andy Warhol.
John Baldessari.
Ed Ruscha.
Gilbert + George.
Robert Indiana.
Kara Walker.
Richard Prince.
Jenny Holzer.

Broadly speaking, these artists use text in the following ways: 

  • As part of a collage (think Picasso’s ‘Ma Jolie’) that plays with painted representations of things, plus snippets of actual things (e.g. newspapers) that traditionally do not belong inside the painted picture. The text is not usually intended to be read specifically for the meaning of the words themselves: they stand as a signifier of the world outside the picture frame, and thus serve the purpose of blurring the boundaries between what is considered art and non-art.
  • As a design element, used because the artist considers that the shapes made by the letters will work well in a particular part of a painting. Some artists, like Tapies or Twombly, do this teasingly—they incorporate marks that look like they ought to be a script of some sort, but really aren’t.
  • As one part of an ever-receding structuralist hall of mirrors. Language has no definite meanings, or even approximate ones. It is simply one set of signs like any other, and how we interpret them is influenced by always-changing historical, social, and psychological factors. Example 1: John Baldessari’s painting consisting only of the words ”EVERYTHING IS PURGED FROM THIS PAINTING/BUT ART, NO IDEAS HAVE ENTERED THIS WORK.” Example 2: Robert Indiana’s sculpture series LOVE, consisting of giant sculptures of the letters L and O on top of the letters V and E. 
Related to the last point, there are the ironists, who use words or whole phrases that appear to have definite meanings, but in a context heavy with a sense of quotation, or the selling-style messaging of advertising, so that we feel the words/phrases are being used sarcastically. Example: Jenny Holzer’s neon word sculptures.

Of the more recent artists listed above, I still respond more to the Robert Indiana sculpture than the Jenny Holzer word pieces. This may be for philosophical reasons, in that I think irony is limited as an aesthetic and political practice. But it’s also that Indiana combines so many ways of using text: his ‘LOVE’ sculptures are a devilishly witty combination of quotation, irony, cultural and art historical reference, and visually sharp art-making. The play of ideas goes something like this: the representation of Love that you are looking at is derived from a 1960’s hippy-script; this sculpture is therefore a cultural quotation of the hippies, who were all about peace and love; peace and love and all that hippy stuff is sort of embarrassing, so therefore this sculpture is a bit silly; but the hippies believed in peace and love because these are, in fact, wonderful things; so maybe this sculpture really is a celebration of love, after all; the words LOVE are about 12 feet tall, so this sculpture is obviously taking a banal word and turning it into a statue in the monumental tradition of Michelangelo and Rodin, thus ridiculing all that heroic musculature and ‘freeing the statue from the stone’ malarkey; yet this twelve foot high steel sculpture in bright colours is in fact rather beautiful to look at, so maybe this is the way we can still do all that old-fashioned big sculpture stuff.

A further contrast can be drawn by considering the work of Kara Walker. The difference between Walker on one hand, and the ironists and quotationists on the other, is that she embraces the narrative form, in her invented and half remembered stories of gruesome goings on between masters and slaves in the antebellum south. Sometimes the phrase-making is artistically crude, and politically a little too easily resolved, but there is always a sense that the words are as much a part of her artistic process, and purpose, as her splendidly delineated silhouettes.


Does anyone have any thoughts about who is a good example of an artist combining text and image?

On artists who write and writers who art: part 5 (Manet revisited)
On artists who write and writers who art: part 4 (Manet + Baudelaire)
On artists who write, and writers who art: Part 3 (Blake, Gauguin) 
On artists who write, and writers who art: Part 2 (Twain, cummings)
On artists who write, and writers who art: Part 1 (Kahlo, Kafka, Faulkner)

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