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Artist-Writer-Artist: The Parameters

While this subject of artists who write and writers who create art never leaves my mind for long, it's been absent on this blog for a while, except in the form of teaching the Journal and Sketchbook class in different places this year. With this post, I am proposing to restart the series, and to continue the investigation into the work of artist-writer-artists, in the hope of gaining some fresh insight into the creative process of individual artist-writer-artists, and into the creative process generally as it manifests itself in visual art and the word.

Jenny Holzer

Robert Indiana

Maira Kalman

The last time I talked directly about this subject, I made a distinction between artists who incorporate text into their work as just another visual element similar to a colour or a shape, and those artists who spend some time working with words, who explore the possibilities of expression that arise in the 'opposite' medium. So Jenny Holzer, who works in gnomic phrases cast in neon or in the form of giant billboards, and Robert Indiana, who made giant sculptures out of words, are less interesting to me than someone like the writer-illustrator Maira Kalman, whose witty narratives in word and image have graced the New Yorker's pages for many years. I'm looking for artists who put aside the visual art for a period, and try to make a work of art based on language, or writers who put aside the poetry or the fiction and attempt to make a visual work of art.

What about mixed media works? What about illustrators? What about artist's books? What about Holzer, Smithson, et al? Even if they use short bits of language to make a visual statement, isn't there something useful to be discovered about creativity from that?

Yes, these may also be worth considering at some point. But I'm looking for artist-writer-artists, people who are engaged with a different form for a prolonged period of time. I want to use my own aesthetic sensibility to find good examples of each, in the hope that the investigation will NOT prove that you can only make good work in one medium. I want to talk about these people, and at times to talk to these people.

I found a lot of valuable resources about artists who use words at Artists Who Write, a blog set up by the University of Oregon-Portland for an interdisciplinary MFA course. There is a lot of information here, though most of the artist-writers they list can be grouped into a few categories:

  • Word as image: artists who use words as another visual element, like a collage shape (Fiona Banner).
  • Word as slogan: you read the words for their meaning, and the meaning is nearly always intended as a socio-political critique (General Idea/ImageVirus, Mark Manders).
  • Artists who work with the serial nature of film, or artists’ publications: There are a lot of artists in this category (Aleksandra Mir, Fiona Banner again, Carey Young, George Chakravati, Alfredo Jaar), and there is a decades-long history of artists’ publications. They all deal overwhelmingly with the form of the book, the abstract idea of seriality, making multiples, what constitutes originality – again, with words receding towards being just another visual element.

A useful classification of what constitutes an ‘artist publication’ can be found on the website for the EU’s archive Artists’ Pub: http://www.artists-pub.eu/artists-publication/ :
“artists’ books, multiples, book objects, artists’ newspapers and magazines, ephemera such as posters and invitations designed by artists, photo editions, postcards, stamps, stickers, graphic artworks, Xerox copies, stamp artworks, sound art (on records, cassette tapes, audio CDs), radio art, multimedia editions on CD-ROM and DVD, artists’ videos and films, net art and computer art.”
This still leaves the following categories:

  • Artists who write to explore image and metaphor (e.g. poetry)
  • Artists who write to explore narrative (e.g. fiction/non-fiction)

As a summary of these parameters, I'll end this long blog post with some examples, offered without commentary:



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