The terms ‘visual language’ or ‘vocabulary’ are often used to help describe the distinct characteristics of an artist’s practice. This analogy with words is apt within the context of modern and contemporary art, since the use of text, written or verbal, has been a significant feature of artists’ practices since the early twentieth century.
Cubist painters integrated letters and words, painted and found, into still lifes as they questioned representation on the two-dimensional surface. The marriage between poetry and the visual arts at the heart of Surrealism helped to articulate dream-inspired imagery and unlock the unconscious. Playful linguistic manipulations were central to the Dadaists, and Marcel Duchamp, often described as the father of Conceptual art, left an important legacy with his radical, often elaborate use of wordplay.
Such trends were partly the result of the growing cross-fertilisation between different disciplines. Just as music could be a metaphor for abstract painting, new forms developed in literature could be the model for extending visual boundaries. In the post-war period, artists expanded on the trajectory established by their predecessors and the blending and collision between art, music, literature, philosophy, politics and social agendas spread. Text has since been used in multiple ways: as narrative, as instruction, as statement, as sculpture, in literary and poetic forms, as recorded speech, and as the matter or object of the artwork itself.
Text was a crucial vehicle for artists challenging the notion that an artwork should consist of a physical object. With a shift towards ideas and systems that invited the viewer to engage with an intellectual concept, art became increasingly ephemeral and transient – famously described as the ‘dematerialisation of the art object’. Sol LeWitt coined the term ‘Conceptual art’ in 1967, and the text-based work of Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Art & Language, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and others represented a fundamental strand in this movement.
The printed word from mass media and advertising also increasingly found its way into imagery as artists drew on popular culture. Text was immediate, and billboards and signage exemplified the new commercial world. Artists have also looked at words as graphic signs in their own right. ‘The words have these abstract shapes, they live in a world of no size,’ noted Ed Ruscha in relation to his early single word-works which often employ visual alliteration. Ruscha’s later drawings of pithy phrases resonate with the work of Bruce Nauman whose colourful neon text-pieces are frequently self-referential and playful.
As well as the object of art, the role of the artist was also being transformed. Joseph Beuys’s role as teacher, activist and politician were all part of his position as an artist and he articulated his thinking through extensive lectures, using blackboards to illustrate his ideas The artist’s own words were now inextricably linked with the artwork itself.
The political, philosophical and narrative possibilities of text appealed to younger generations of artists. Artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger have appropriated the message as their medium, placing provocative, often highly politicised statements in public places – projected onto buildings, or displayed on electronic signboards to investigate the phenomenon of mass communication and question the information we receive.
Artists have, of course, also looked to language for its poetic impact and literary resonances. Concrete poets, including Ian Hamilton Finlay, explored the formal qualities of language through its visual arrangement on a page. Finlay was also drawn to how language shapes the world in which we live and his sculptural works entwine references to nature, the Romantic sublime and history through a combination of deftly chosen objects, poems and sentences.
In all these cases and more the openness and ambiguity of language has offered artists the means to provoke and suggest, urge and instruct, compelling the viewer or rather, the reader to explore realms beyond the physical presence of an object in a gallery.