Playing with art through words

Will Self, who has the kind of permanent look that suggests constant disdain, tedium and sorrow at the idiocy of the world, is one of the sharpest modern writers in the world today. Appearances are deceiving, for this wordsmith is very agreeable, charming even, and, if you have things to say, he’ll happily talk until the darkest point of the night.
In a typically engaging and meandering piece for the Guardian recently, the Man Booker Prize 2012 nominated author discussed the history of his modernist ideals. He first realised that this was his so-called destiny in 1987, after reading J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.
He wrote: “I had this epiphany: that of all the arts, fiction is the most powerful, since, with no materials other than a pen and paper, a writer can convince a reader that a man has changed into a monstrous vermin.”
It’s a typically eloquent and brilliantly executed idea, and, if you are a writer, a truth that you’d no doubt share. A musician and a painter might argue against this bold statement, as they rightly should, but you have to appreciate the validity of his claim: words articulate thoughts. What then of words juxtaposed against art? Now there’s something to mull over.
This idea, the “dynamic dialogue between art and language” is the focus of a new show at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers in New Jersey, where the team has brought together 100 works from American artists that embody this literary approach to art (from the respected Sally and Wynn Kramarsky Collection).
Entitled Art=Text=Art, the exhibition examines the contrasting works that have been created from 1960 to the present day by artists like Carl Andre, Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, as well as William Anastasi, Jasper Johns, Jane Hammond, Ed Ruscha and Richard Serra.
“I hope viewers will pause in the exhibition to puzzle out how words have a visual appearance apart from their powerful verbal meanings, how illegibility can often be more eloquent than literal interpretation, or how all data visualisation is never a given, but must be constructed,” said Marilyn Symmes, Zimmerli’s curator of Prints and Drawings and director of the Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts.
What is wonderful about this show is the distinct approach each artist takes in creating a work of art, of which words form an integral and even elemental ingredient.
Serra, for one, takes an absolute minimalist approach in Verb List (1967-68), an axiomatic work that is made up of two sheets of paper, upon which infinitives are listed across two columns. It plays on the word “know”, every action a sort of must-do something to achieve.
Meanwhile, in LeWitt’s The Location of Geometric Figures (A Blue Square, Red Circle, Yellow Triangle, and Black Parallelogram) (1976), the artist delivers an ordered composition of linear shapes with primary colour borders. Inside each shape, like shading, is an explanation as to what the drawing means.
The dialogue between art and language is a fascinating one, and is a divergent aspect of art, one that seeks to blur the boundary between disciplines. In much the same way an author or a reader may feel that imagery intrudes on a book’s literal concept, the same sentiment is shared in art, where words seem superfluous. This show challenges that.
Art=Text=Art at the Zimmerli Art Museum runs until January 6th 2013.
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