13 Artists Who Highlight the Power of Words
Most of us are so used to reading that we forget each letter is a shape and each word its own composition. There’s a significant aesthetic dimension to the writing we read daily—in emails and books, on packaging and signs—and so it makes sense that visual artists have co-opted graphic design and typography strategies for their own philosophical ends.
Using language, artists transform a basic communication tool—the alphabet—into unique provocations. Language is also particularly malleable, cost-free, and renewable. “There’s a million different ways artists can use it,” said Jewish Museum curator Kelly Taxter. “Often, it’s artists who work with issues of politics or social justice.” Just as artists are still finding new ways to manipulate paint, canvas, and space, they’re constantly developing fruitful new reasons to turn words into art.
Jenny Holzer turns common public objects into subversive artworks bearing powerful words. She engraves poetic statements about power, feminism, and individual agency into benches made from streaked Carrara marble, spotted granite, and royal blue-tinged sodalite. Holzer renders her phrases in all-caps and serif lettering, turning them into monumental proclamations: “PROTECT ME FROM / WHAT I WANT,” “IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST / TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER,” “RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY.” They become creative mandates in shared spaces and benevolent counterpoints to state directives.
If Holzer’s benches transform public park fixtures into artistic media, her LED banners co-opt a structure associated with commerce and advertising. On screens that would typically promote sales, company names, or stock market updates, Holzer broadcasts punchy phrases such as “DON’T TALK DOWN TO ME” or “WITNESS,” along with longer, looping messages. The artist often repurposes her poetic phrases, or “Truisms,” building their power through repetition. (One of Holzer’s most famous messages, “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE,” has been readopted as a protest mantra in the #MeToo era.)
“I like placing content wherever people look,” Holzer told fellow artist Kiki Smith in a conversation for Interview Magazine, “and that can be at the bottom of a cup or on a shirt or hat or on the surface of a river or all over a building.” Holzer turns the public realm into her exhibition space, gifting her thoughtful poetry to anyone who wants to sit or read a sign.
Many artists working with words offer profound written statements in their work. Mel Bochner’s most famous pieces, in contrast, simply read “BLAH / BLAH / BLAH.” The artist plasters the essentially meaningless phrase on billboards and jams it in block letters across brightly colored paintings. The artist seems most interested in highlighting the banalities of contemporary communication. A 2017 monoprint, for example, juxtaposes collaged phrases such as “OH WELL, THAT’S / THE WAY IT GOES,” “IT IS WHAT IT IS,” “WHAT CAN YOU DO?” and “SHIT HAPPENS.” Bochner elevates non-committal conversations and bromides to fine art. Reading them, the viewer can feel a little indicted. Who hasn’t leaned on some of those clichés when making small talk?
In another series, Bochner renders a group of synonyms—for words like “money,” “obscene,” “obvious,” or “amazing”—in rows. The viewer is forced to consider both the subtleties of language and the garishness of English: We have an awful lot of ways to discuss commerce and convey hyperbole. Bochner’s style amplifies this sense of ornamentation; exclamation points and bright oranges, yellows, and reds abound.
Ed Ruscha’s iconic photography series “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963) captured the signage and architecture of 26 gas stations between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. Ruscha developed a new mythology about the American West as he emphasized the roadside signs that populated it. Though the pictures are, ostensibly, of buildings, nearly all of them contain words: “Conoco,” “Texaco,” “Stop/Save,” “Say Fina,” “Cafe,” “Mobil Service,” “Navajo Rugs,” “Beer & Liquors.” In fact, such phrases become inextricable from the landscape itself.
The series laid the groundwork for Ruscha’s career: Over the past five decades, he’s continued to link language and the environment. A painting from 1989 juxtaposes the phrase “Safe and Effective Medication” with a picture of dark clouds. In more recent work, the titular expressions “Pay Nothing Until April” (2003), “Wall Rockets” (2000), and “History Kids” (2009) overlie painted, craggy mountains. Viewers consider the association—or lack thereof—between the different elements as they wonder what any of those obscure phrases actually mean. Typography itself becomes as integral to a work’s mood as color or composition—Ruscha’s angular, thin, white lettering in all-caps is simultaneously delicate and declarative, mechanical and strange. It’s Ruscha’s own font, which he calls Boy Scout Utility Modern.
According to writer Mark Prince, Sean Landers’s art has “always been embarrassing.” Landers conflates painting and drawing to indulge a diaristic impulse, using his art to share cringeworthy confessionals. On a 1990 ink-on-paper work titled Ouch, he made public such private musings as “I wonder what it is about Hellen that through [sic] me for a loop? Shouldn’t I be used to heartache by now?” and “I really do fear that this may be the stupidest body of work that I’ve ever embarked on.” In the sprawling [sic] (1993), Landers gets more graphic, wondering if he is “deluded enough to think that my jerking off in my studio was something higher than what it is.”
Newer paintings, from 2017, resemble doodles on canvas.Flicker Dimming Protocols features the artist’s first name in cursive; sketches of a dog, skeleton jester, and robot; and scribbled, melodramatic text: “youth passes so fast” and “Ageing is the penultimate / content of art / death is the ultimate.” In other works, he paints tree trunks that have been gouged with words, like “I Made Art → Lots of Art → Most of it Good → Some of it Very Good → And I Hope Everlasting.”
Adam Pendleton’s raw material is language, but the artist often doesn’t care if his words make clear sense. His broad project “Black Dada,” which he began in 2008, co-opts the dreamlike, nonsensical aesthetics of European inter-war artists like Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí, repurposing them for Pendleton’s own concerns as a black American. In his 2017 painting If the function of dada, for example, Pendleton silkscreens, inks, and spray-paints so many black letters against his white canvas that the viewer struggles to decipher any messaging. It’s a perfect strategy to convey contemporary dissonance and chaos.
Not all of Pendleton’s work with text, however, is illegible. He’s appropriated phrases from writer Gertrude Stein, artist Ad Reinhardt, and musician Sun Ra, and frequently overlaid varying backdrops (photographs of bricks or an African mask) with the word “INDEPENDANCE.” For the 2015 Venice Biennale, he created large-scale wall works for the Belgian pavilion that replicated the words “Black Lives Matter” in a loose, graffiti-like scrawl.
Using stencils of generic fonts, Kay Rosen paints words and phrases on gallery and museum walls, and also projects them onto façades. “ADD AND END,” she tells us in a bright mix of primary colors (Happy Ever After, 1994/2016). “JUMBO MUMBO,” she says, in blue-and-black lettering (Big Talk, 1985/2017). The titles infuse the works with additional humor. “The linguist in me wanted meaning to be carried by the structure of the words, not type style; the inner painter insisted that color convey meaning; the sculptor in me obsessed about the construction of letterforms through materials and process,” she wrote in Art in America in 2014. “Visual consistency gives text authority—which is the fundamental lesson I learned at my publishing day job.”
Rosen’s work is often about concrete poetry and wordplay. In fact, some of her canvases read as rebuses. Head Over Heels (2016), for example, features the words “fall over” toppling sideways—you might also read the text as “fal lover,” turning the title into a double entendre about both form and romance.
In the late Jason Rhoades’s installations, neon words hang from the ceiling-like linguistic confetti suspended in space. His work literally lights up the gallery space with riotous, evocative slang. In My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage… (2004), for example, all 240 phrases refer to female genitalia. Visitors walk under a tangle of language that includes “Cock Alley,” “Cooze,” “Fuzz Box,” “Private Property,” “Ginger,” and “Fluttering Love.” Underneath lie overlapping towels, suggesting a Muslim place of worship. With his title, Rhoades indicated that the terms—and the female body itself—added up to a pseudo-religion for him. (Objectifying? Probably. But 2004 was…a different time.) In another work, Fuzzy Puddle/Turkey Beard (2003), the titular phrases appear in orange neon against a black sign. The latter hangs upside down. Lingerie lace loops over the bright, cursive wording—just in case the viewer couldn’t already guess what particular anatomy the phrases refer to.
Erica Baum, excerpts from Dog Ear, 2016. Courtesy of Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY.
Erica Baum doesn’t choose the words that she includes in her “Dog Ear” series, per se. In close-cropped photographs, the artist captures a dog-eared book’s page and the one hiding behind it. The viewer sees two separate triangular sections of text, one laid atop another in a square format. Neither the photographs nor their titles disclose the source material. In Enfold (2013), the dog-eared page simply reads “A,” while the page behind offers a kind of fragmented nonsense poem: “a wave would be hear / to enfold the note / spraying its foa / music. I gre / my thing / struck / in.” Viewers must choose to read the words and guess at the larger story. Alternately, they can opt not to read at all, and simply look at each work as a group of black forms against light pages. The letters become secondary to the concept: Baum’s work captures the physical evidence of reading—folded pages signify that readers have temporarily abandoned their books as they return to real life.
According to legend, Christopher Wool developed the idea for his word paintings in 1987, after seeing graffiti scrawled in black lettering across a delivery truck. His subsequent canvases embrace their gritty conceptual origins. Across stark white backgrounds, he uses stencils to create blocky black letters, detached at their joints, erratically spelling out “Sell the House, Sell the Car, Sell the Kids” (a line from the film Apocalypse Now) or “TR/BL” (“trouble” with the vowels removed). Broken up into lines and curves, the letters become both heavy compositional elements and potential vehicles for additional meaning.
Yet given the limited palette and lack of any other context, the words stop short of real significance—“leached…of personality,” as Peter Schjeldahl wrote in a 2013 review of Wool’s Guggenheim retrospective. For the New York Times, Roberta Smith concluded: “These paintings conflate the act of seeing, reading and even speaking as you tease and sound out the meanings of their run-on or awkwardly broken words.” Time Out situated the work in a particularly historical context, asserting that Wool’s language “seemed to encapsulate a collective mood of foreboding and unease brought on by the Reagan administration and the various disasters—the AIDS crisis, the 1987 stock market crash, the savings and loan scandal—it left in its wake.”
The anonymous collective Guerilla Girls fits into a rich tradition of protest artists who employ words for explicitly political ends. In particular, the group uses language to reconsider gender discrimination and violence. “What do these men have in common?” one of their 1995 posters asks. Below the bold black wording, photographs of O.J. Simpson and minimalist artist Carl Andre appear. The answer to their provocation? The state accused both men of murdering women (Simpson: his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson; Andre: his wife Ana Mendieta). Both enjoyed acquittals and avoided jail time. The Guerilla Girls discuss the prevalence of domestic violence beneath the pictures. They also include a tagline at the bottom: “A public service message from Guerilla Girls conscience of the art world.”
Another famous work, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum? (1989), critiques the lack of art by female practitioners in major institutions. Across the Guerilla Girls’s oeuvre, wry ideology becomes an art form. Their messaging—and its situation within the institutions it critiques—supersedes all other aesthetic concerns.
EJ Hauser, blue mountainbed, 2018. Courtesy of Derek Eller Gallery.
EJ Hauser, the second garden secret, 2018. Courtesy of Derek Eller Gallery.
From 2008 to 2012, EJ Hauser used newsprint as a backdrop for her drawings. Up-to-the-minute writings about the world became literal foundations for the artist’s gestural marks. Hauser explicitly linked abstraction with earthly concerns, arguing against claims that non-figurative work is divorced from reality. In halted attempt at terrorism, white swishes of oil paint overlay text about a civilian-thwarted attack. In laker, a shower of vaguely patriotic red, white, and blue brushstrokes obscure the faces of two basketball players. The sports section, ostensibly, is just as good a background as the international pages.
For a 2013 painting, forget-me-not three, Hauser painted her own text to undergird ambiguous black shapes. Beneath lines, circles, and a pair of cartoonish legs, the viewer can just make out the titular phrase, “forget me not.” Written in off-white against a pale background, the words already look endangered, as though their disappearance and erasure is imminent.
In a body of work now on view at Derek Eller in New York, Hauser uses text as scaffolding for her images: Look closely at her marks and you’ll find the backbones and curves of various letters, jumbled together to eliminate the boundary between word and picture.
Barbara Kruger co-opts the format of magazine advertisements in her prints, photographs, and silkscreens. They overlay black-and-white pictures (often of women) with white text inside red banners (“Your body is a battleground,” most famously). Commerce and feminism mingle uncomfortably: Kruger’s art often calls attention to the way that corporations, mass media, and the government attempt to control women. All the works feature a Futura typeface, turning the artist’s oeuvre into its own subversive brand.
It’s no surprise that Kruger began her career as a graphic designer. In the 1960s, she worked for Condé Nast’s women’s magazine Mademoiselle. Yet as an artist, she’s been able to significantly expand her palette. Her large-scale installations have grown to cover the walls, floors, and sometimes even ceilings of rooms at museums and galleries, immersing viewers in her loud, bold language.
Art historians consider Lawrence Weiner one of the forerunners of Conceptual art. The artist is best known for rendering text directly on walls, letter by letter, often in his own invented sans serif font, Margaret Seaworthy Gothic. Flat against the wall, the phrases lack the objecthood that’s often an artwork’s prerequisite.
Despite lacking accompanying imagery, Weiner’s word art frequently evokes distinct settings and things. Stones skipped across the bay of Naples (2009) or Stacks of Severed Trees Laid Beside a Fissure in the Earth (2007), for example, suggest artworks and arrangements never made, just considered. As viewers read the piece, they complete Weiner’s projects themselves—conjuring a mental images of what he has merely described.
Alternately, other Weiner pieces focus on a sense of space. Raised High Above (2018) or The Right Thing in The Wrong Place (2016), for example, evoke more ambiguous objects and agency—who did the raising, or put something where it wasn’t supposed to be? “He has experimented with how language can perform as a public artwork, as a sculpture,” Taxter said. According to her, his work asks “Who owns what phrases?” New York’s new, as-yet-unfinished multidisciplinary arts center The Shed recently commissioned Weiner to make work for the entry pavilion. His two lines of text read “IN FRONT OF ITSELF”—one facing the building, and one facing away from it.