Beginning in the early twentieth century, the tensions between words and images provided a basis for experimentation in art. Artists began to use words to interrogate the conventions of representation.
This preoccupation can be traced to works like Stéphane Mallarme’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard of 1914 and Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes of 1918. These works contain pictographic poetry, which are poems constructed in a pictorial form. They reveal that language is a fragile construct: words do no actually resemble what they refer to.
Experimentation with art and text can also be found in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto of Futurism. For Futurists, typographic form was a tool for attacking language itself. Disrupting the linear order of words was a way to overthrow accepted norms. Some Futurists experimented with using mass media in their artistic practice, signaling a break from what “high art” could be, and revealing how significant mass media had become in modern culture.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, Jasper Johns began incorporating words into his paintings. Later, artists like Joseph Kosuth really started using words in place of paint. In the mid-1960s, text-based art as we know it began to emerge as Conceptual art. These works often took linguistic form and raised problems of definition and analysis. This movement was as much about theory as art—the artworks were not just objects to look at, but also ideas to think about.
In the 1980s and 90s, the ideas of Conceptual art continued in the work of artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Holzer, for example, deploys pithy one-liners on t-shirts, billboards, and LED signs. Many contemporary artists see text as a tool for interrogating the social, political, and cultural landscape. By virtue of language and its connotations, text art draws us into questions about how we think, feel, live, judge, and differ from one another.
Visit the Alice C. Sabatini Gallery‘s exhibit, txt me, to see more language-oriented art. Through March 27.
Sara Stepp is an art history graduate student at the University of Kansas. After finishing her master’s degree in May 2017, she will begin a PhD program focusing on contemporary art.