Naming game

Graphic design and the power of words go hand in hand, but during the 20th century, the use of written language also emerged as a defining development in the visual arts. Early experiments in other disciplines, such as concrete poetry or avant-garde type and design from the likes of El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters, opened up the possibility of words to artists, says Aimee Selby, editor of Art and Text, a new book that charts this relationship between word and image. The proliferation of mass media also played a part, she adds, as did developments in linguistic theories. ‘Finally, the shift that Marcel Duchamp created when he titled his found objects has had a huge influence,’ adds Selby. ‘The linguistic really gave the work of art new potential in the act of nomination.’ The publication features a broad range of text use, from incorporating existing words or printed matter to a more explicit exploration of the role or nature of language, as in Kay Rosen’s wordplay works. Text is also used to convey the personal, social or political, or in a notational and calligraphic way. In some cases, its form and content play an equally important role, adds Selby. For some conceptual artists, such as John Baldessari and Robert Barry, neutrality and simplicity in a typeface were key to complement their thinking about the function and possibilities of art more generally. ‘For other artists, who have consistently worked with words, font came to play a defining role,’ says Selby, citing Christopher Wool’s black-on-white stencilled type, Joseph Kosuth, who uses serif fonts, and Mark Titchner, who evokes 1980s graphics and computer games with type – plenty of text for thought.

Art and Textby Dave Beech, Charles Harrison and Will Hill is published by Black Dog Publishing on 20 August, priced £24.9

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