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.
Best known for pioneering earthworks (sculptures that altered the natural environment in their making), language for Robert Smithson was an architectural material akin to other media (such as earth and stone). While Spiral Jetty (1970)—a 1500-foot-long coil of salt, rock, and earth jutting into the water from the shore of Great Salt Lake, Utah—is Smithson’s best-known work, others—drawings and word works—offer a similar pursuit of matter rendering ideas despite being contained within the page. A Heap of Language (1966) is the most explicit example of this pursuit, and yet it has been viewed by his critics as either an artwork or a word work depending on the parameters of the category in question. Over a numbered grid (like a blueprint), Smithson drew a triangular shape composed of a list of handwritten words, all related to language (such as speech, dialect, and alphabet) in pencil. Richard Sieburth analyzes A Heap of Language by approaching it from both sides: examining it first by looking (thus questioning its formal and sculptural qualities) and then by reading (examining the conceptual integrity of the work).  Sieburth takes his critical cue directly from Smithson’s own writing: the 1967 press release for Smithson’s exhibition Language to be Looked at and / or Things to be Read argued that a word is meaningless and paradoxical if isolated from its context.  Like a cog in a machine, a word conveys meaning only when in context. Smithson clearly stated this in 1972, claiming that a “sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas—i.e., ‘printed matter’.”  What Smithson seems to suggest is that a word is defined by its context, but that it also, simultaneously, takes us elsewhere.  The sculptural shape of Smithson’s mass of words dominates the visual scape of the work. In the context of his oeuvre, Smithson’s words are akin to his sculptural materials of earth and rocks. The mount serves as a support for his construction, regardless of whether it exists off the page or not.
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About the Author
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.