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The Use Of Text In Works Of Art

Nancy Kranzberg

When viewing St. Louisans Alison and John Ferring's fabulous contemporary art collection, I noticed that many of the works contained text. There were works by Suzanne McClelland, Kara Walker, Jenny Holzer and many other well-known artists who frequently incorporate text in their works of art.

I asked Alison to comment on text in art. She said, "Now more than ever we are barraged with text in our lives. Spam, email, texting, sexting, tweeting. Words are ricocheting at dizzying speed. Books are fast becoming nostalgic reminders of a bygone materiality. Yet text does determine materiality. It seems more and more contemporary artists are using text and books as a type of anchor of materiality."

An article on the internet says the cubists were the first to use text in modern art, but the text was used mostly as mere decoration. Kurt Schwitters saw text as material to shape, nurture and blossom. He influenced sound exploration, poetry, music and design. John Cage took it from there.

Our own Jessica Baran, ekphrastic poet has had her poetry published in Art in America and many other prestigious magazines and has published several books of poetry. She describes ekphrastic poetry as the tradition of putting art into words, not through mere description, but through another kind of written project with its own discreet identity. A good example is when a film is made of an artwork, or an artwork is based on a poem.

When I asked Baran to comment on text in art she said, "Visual art is visual - you have to remember and respect putting art into words. The differences between what we see and what we say may not readily seem apparent, as we tend privilege verbal translations of the visual world as our primary mode of communicating. You see a painting you like, and you describe it to your friends in words."

The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis recently exhibited the works of Sean Landers where text actually became the pictures and The St. Louis Art Museum has works by Kara Walker, Jim Dine, Faith Ringold and dozens more and had a special exhibition featuring the works of William Kentridge.  All use text as a major part of their works.

The Bruno David Gallery recently featured the textual works of Bunny Burson in a show entitled, "Hidden in Plain Sight" which talked about letters written by her mother during the years of The Holocaust. Buzz Spector, Dean of the Washington University School of Art, has also had many showings of his very verbal works at the gallery.

In the upcoming season of Opera Theatre, a newly commissioned opera by Ricky Ian Gordon, "27,” about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, will investigate the intersection of art, text and music. Gertrude Stein did many artists portraits using words as her medium, these word portraits attempted to capture the essence of the artist.

And of course Stages St. Louis recently presented "My Fair Lady" which puts yet another twist on words in a musical form. The song "Show Me" says, "Words! Words! Words! I'm so sick of words! I get words all day through; First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars burning above; if you're in love, show me, etc.”

The lines of the different art disciplines are once again not so clear, but what difference if the end result gets the artists' message across?