This October, I had the opportunity to attend the Kent State School of Art’s Experiential Learning trip to New York City. Over the course of four days, we saw dozens of galleries and museums, and thousands of pieces of artwork. When reflecting upon the trip, scrolling through the many photos I had taken, I realized that I had been very attentive to works incorporating text-based elements. Three artists stood out in particular – Byron Kim, Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman. I’m interested in the conceptual nature of the intersection of Fine Art and text, and have decided to explore the intentions of these artists, especially in relationship to traditional media, like drawing, painting and sculpture.
To understand the relationship between Fine Art and text, it’s important to look back at its origins. Prior to the 20th Century, text was a very limited element in the visual arts. Renaissance artists understood writing as important, but considered it an element distinct from image – they were two very different disciplines that rarely intersected.
Text was present in visual arts, but in a very peripheral way. It appeared in works only as the signature, or to clarify any possible vagueness by adding written description. The use of writing in art wasn’t at all gradual. Instead, it entered the visual arts at the beginning of the 20th century quite suddenly.
The incorporation of written language in visual art became popular in the 1960s. In this decade, many conceptual artists decided to explore text-based art, including Joseph Kosuth.
Text-incorporating works such as his can’t be considered literature, but rather artists’ texts, as they hang on or are attached to the walls, or are painted or printed on or attached to a canvas.
Joseph Kosuth produced artworks in a way that is now referred to as metalinguistic – openly rejecting formal and aesthetic limitations. One of his most famous pieces relating to language, One and Three Chairs, questions relationship of representation and reality. Three elements are presented: a photograph of a chair, a real chair , and the definition of the word “chair”. The juxtaposition of the three elements of the work of art starts a conversation about the nature of reality. Perhaps none of the three iterations of the chair are the real chair; but maybe, and most likely, a chair is the combination of signifier (image), signified (object) and sign (word). This ultimately leads to the philosophical question: what is “real”?
Since then, Kosuth has experimented with and given form to these kinds of thoughts about language and reality, painting dictionary definitions of words on canvas. He also represents colors and materials with words – instead of with the actual colors and materials. I experienced one of these works in the Infinite Blue show at the Brooklyn Museum on our first day of our trip. This work is a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953, which examines the topic of language and its ability to create meaning. Wittgenstein’s text discusses our perception of “blueness”, and Kosuth responds by representing that text in glowing blue neon, as part of his own ongoing investigation into the relationship between words, things, and their visual representation. The piece radiates light through the room, with an inscription reading “But don’t we at least mean something: quite definite when we look at a color and name our color — impression? It is as if we detached the color — impression from the object, like a membrane. (This ought to arouse our suspicions.)” Kosuth allows us to be immersed in the color blue, and are forced to consider the text discussing the idea and concept of blue simultaneously. This way, blue becomes not just a color, the name of the color, or the thought of a color – blue becomes all three. Kosuth uses this thought provoking text as a visual and conceptual element, and allows blue to become an experience.
This piece saturates the surrounding walls so intensely, it moves from sculpture to installation. I had learned of Kosuth’s work prior to the trip, but have never experienced one of his neon conceptual works in person. This piece’s thought-provoking nature definitely stuck with me, and sparked my interest in the use of text, and at what point text becomes art. Surrounded in blue, I couldn’t help but consider Kosuth’s ideas of reality, and the importance of language in relationship to truth and understanding. With this in mind, I became attentive of other artists using text as a motif, and wondering of the context behind those choices.
While exploring more of the Brooklyn Museum, I came across a series of five of Byron Kim’s Sunday Paintings. From a distance, they appeared to be a set of blue-tinted square canvases. Upon approaching the works, I realized that over the surfaces of each painting was a delicately written statement and date – similar to a diary entry – in graphite. As the title of the series suggests, these paintings are a record of the sky, made every Sunday by the artist since 2001. The paragraphs written on the canvas capture a touching reflection upon the artist’s life. Through the years, the paintings document day-to-day events about family life and social and political change, intersecting his personal timeline with world events. While the handwritten text changes daily, from a distance, the paintings themselves don’t appear to have a specific sequence. The square of the sky doesn’t change much – it’s here where I find the text creates the content. Without the text, you see a nearly two decade recollection of the sky on Sunday. With the text, the conversation becomes that whether “Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States” (“11/14/16”), hurricanes ravaged the coast, or the artist had an argument with his wife, the sky remains indifferent. Where he and the world experience change, the the sky remains mostly the same.These text-based works are incredibly different than those of Joseph Kosuth. They both, however, rely on language to inform the viewer’s experience of the work, both aesthetically and conceptually. While Kosuth’s piece discusses the relationship between language and object, using the idea of color as an illustrative example, Kim uses language to establish narrative while color is used as an atmospheric backdrop in content.
These pieces were some of my favorite from the entire trip. Kosuth’s text is absolutely as much a visual element as it is conceptual. In Kim’s work, the text is understated, almost melting visually into the painted images of the sky. The handwritten text is gentle, and subtle. There’s an element of life and nostalgia in Kim’s use of text, that I feel isn’t present in Kosuth’s work. Text isn’t being used as a conversation about language and understanding – instead, it is a very honest depiction of how we use text every day, to document our lives. Kim’s work is not a discussion of text itself, but a discussion of humanity through the lens of a personal diary. The delicacy and simplicity of these paintings is remarkable, and resonate quite a bit with me conceptually. The artist’s hand is used in a personal and vulnerable way. I’ve often used ideas drawn from the idea of the handwritten letter, but have never experimented with actually incorporating text into my work. I adore the idea of actually hand writing onto the surface of a piece. It immediately describes a thought in a way that’s difficult to achieve with imagery. Instead of a work being about a handwritten letter, the piece can be a handwritten letter. While Kosuth’s works are about language as a whole, Kim’s pieces are simply reliant on his use of language. It moves the use of text in fine art from something vernacular to something deeply personal.
Another artist’s work I encountered that utilized text were by Bruce Nauman. Nauman has worked in nearly every artistic media, and is an enormous figure in conceptual art. Like Kosuth, Nauman frequently used neon in his work, often as large wall installations. One Hundred Live and Die (1984) is a massive piece, that lights up 100 different phrases at different times, separate and with other phrases. Nauman pairs different nouns and verbs with the words “die” and “live.” Nauman’s work asks us to consider the meaning of life, and the ever present conflict between life and death. When paired with “live,” a work like “touch” can be tender and soft. The phrase “Touch and Live” reminds us that touch and human connection is essential to happy living. As the piece changes “Touch and Die,” lights up directly to its right. In great contrast, this phrase solicits danger and harm, and triggers an entirely different response in the viewer. In his 50 pairings of these phrases, Nauman forces us to see the ambiguity and relativity of language. Different emotions are brought forth by pairing the same word with “live” or “die.” impassively play out both the inevitability and the vacancy of language.