Language To Be Looked At
Today, there is no shortage of artists making text-based works; those who make meaningful connections between text and typography are rarer. The interdisciplinary relationship between art and design is blurred: throughout the twentieth-century artists have delved into or employed methods from the world of graphic design, and of late, critics like Alex Coles have attempted to nuance the argument of this interface between art and design. While design is a subject of taught rules that need to be skillfully understood in order to break and move beyond them, artists who employ techniques of graphic design or trade on its conventions often bungle the techniques and rules, as Rick Poynor points out, “perhaps through ignorance or perhaps deliberately.”  Text-based work by artists since the first wave of American conceptual art in the 1960s offers varying positions on the materiality of language, conveyed through artists’ use of graphic techniques when working with text. And each artist—I’ll look here at Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Tauba Auerbach, and Frances Stark—deals with such materiality (by which I mean the form of the letters) in a way unique to trends in graphic design, mass communications, and information according to the context and time in which the work is made.
Written language in visual art has a long precedent, from Futurist manifestos about literature, to the Dadaist collage of text and image by Hannah Hoch, used to evoke political argument, to its emergence in the Pop movement by artists such as Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein, where expressively written text integrated word to image and mimicked popular forms of art such as comic strips. The emergence of Lawrence Weiner, Robert Smithson, and John Baldessari in the 1960s offered a new way within conceptual art works for language to be rendered, made material, and embodied with new meaning. Similarly, artists Auerbach and Stark employ language today concerned with the material qualities of ideas once written and employ varying modes from design and writing that the audience recognizes, thus offering a “way in” to reading their respective work. The elements of design are little mentioned in the critique of such conceptual or post-conceptual works, perhaps because art critics lack the language or references to address such areas, or perhaps because the work (namely, the early conceptual works) are so encumbered with anti-formalist arguments that to address anything material or formal would seem to miss the point.
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About this Article
Language To Be Looked At was first published in Fillip 11 in Spring 2010. For more articles from this issue, see the Table of Contents.
Kim Dhillon is a Canadian writer based in London, England, where she is director of the design and art direction studio Partner + Partner and a Ph.D. candidate at the Royal College of Art.
The views expressed in Fillip are not necessarily those of the editorial board or the Projectile Publishing Society.
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