“There are things that I’m constantly looking at that I feel should be elevated to greater status, almost to philosophical status or to a religious status. That’s why taking things out of context is a useful tool to an artist. It’s the concept of taking something that’s not subject matter and making it subject matter.”
Texts—writings, readings, signs, titles, guides, catalogues, blog posts like this one—are part and parcel of how art is presented in museums. Curious visitors come hungry for enlightening information, for tidbits to connect the dots or stories that humanize the work on view. Art historians act as writers, readers, and investigators whose success can be measured in published output. For those who work with art and appreciate it, language and art are endlessly intertwined.
The history of text and language in contemporary art encompasses most of the last 60 years. Language was an important tool for Conceptual artists in the 1960s. Many used language in place of more traditional materials like brushes and canvas, and words played a primary role in their emphasis on ideas over visual forms. Though text had been used in art long before this, artists like Joseph Kosuth and John Baldesarri were among the first to give words such a central role.
Conceptual artists also used language in the form of instructions detailing how an artwork should be made. Sol LeWitt was among the principal originators of this strategy, which his peers widely embraced. Arguing that ideas alone can be art, he allowed for a measure of separation between the artist and the physical execution of his or her artwork. His work exemplifies this: he would generate ideas for artworks and write instructions on how to make them, which other people—sometimes whole teams working days or weeks—would then carry out.
At about the same time, a cultural revolution was underway, led by activists, thinkers, and artists who sought to change, and even overturn, what was, in their eyes, a stifling social order ruled by conformity. The Vietnam War incited mass protests, the Civil Rights Movement sought equality for African Americans, and the women’s liberation movement gained momentum.
It was in this climate of turbulence, experimentation, and increased consumerism that a new generation of artists emerged in Britain and America in the mid- to late-1950s. These artists began to look for inspiration and materials in their immediate environment. They made art that mirrored, critiqued, and, at times, incorporated everyday items, consumer goods, and mass media messaging and imagery. In reference to its intended popular appeal and its engagement with popular culture, it was called Pop art.
Pop artists strove for straightforwardness in their work, using bold swaths of primary colors, often straight from the can or tube of paint. They adopted commercial advertising methods like silkscreening, or produced multiples, downplaying the artist’s hand and subverting the idea of originality and preciousness—in marked contrast to the highly expressive, large-scale abstract paintings of the Abstract Expressionists, whose work had dominated postwar American art. Pop artists favored realism, everyday (even mundane) imagery, and heavy doses of irony and wit.
But many Pop artists, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, were very aware of the past. They sought to connect the traditions of fine art with the mass culture of television, advertising, film, and cartoons. At the same time, they challenged traditional boundaries between mediums and techniques, merging painting with photography and printmaking, combining handmade and readymade or mass-produced elements, and bringing together objects, images, and sometimes text to make new meaning.
It is out of this convergence of Pop Art and Conceptual are that artists like Ed Ruscha and Vernon Fisher were born and influenced generation of artists to follow, like Mark Bennett; Kim Rugg; Kay Rosen; Feodor Voronov; and, Ken Craft. From this stew of pop culture and high art, we find that some of the most interesting art and ideas born of this period are nothing more than our own lives taken Out of Context.
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