I Love Typography

Art and Text

Artist Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 work One and Three Chairs presented a static composition that represents an idea three ways. It was heady stuff, addressing what conceptual artists saw as a crisis of reconciling the realization of concepts with the concepts. One of the three material representations in One and Three Chairs was an enlarged photostat of the dictionary definition of the word chair, making text both a literal and metaphorical focus in a work of art. It was not the first time text had been used in art, but it was a key moment in the conceptual art movement of the time, followed by decades of conceptual artists using text to convey their ideas.

Art and Text
Edited by Aimee Selby at Black Dog Publishing
Designed by Johanna Bennevier Black Dog Publishing
Essays by Will Hill, Charles Harrison, and Dave Beech
$45, Published by Black Dog Publishing, ISBN 978-1906155650

Art and Text is about this conceptual art. It covers works that include some text, are made up of text, or are text. The subject of these works is often the intersection of art, philosophy, and linguistics. While a few older works are shown, the focus of the book is 1960–2008 with most of the work from the latter decades.

Most of Art and Text is dedicated to images of the subject matter, but it does offer some writing. A foreword and three essays chart the development of language in conceptual art from Dada to the field today. These essays are interesting but can be uninviting. Each overuses the lingo of high art and little effort is made to explain the terminology. Because the terminology is so esoteric it will be hard for readers not already steeped in conceptual art to follow; if one can understand all of thee essays I suspect that one need not read them anyway. A glossary would have made them much more accessible.

Art and Text is broken into four chapters. Each has a short introduction followed by images with occasional captions to guide the reader. The captions are insightful and much easier to read than the essays. “Text” explores the range of text as a material, media, and subject. “Context” covers text art as reaction to social forces. “Art in Semiotext” is the most philosophical, questioning and manipulating language to question its limits, deficiencies, and possibilities. “Textuality” showcases works that examine the area where supposedly clear textual communication breaks down as meaning falls apart, is lost, or is shown to not exist. Thoughtful pacing of the chapters keeps the content from becoming boring, even when the art presented is only comprehensible with afterthought and reflection.

For a designer Art and Text can provide plenty of food for thought and inspiration. Some of the featured works overlap with recent design trends—albeit with dramatically different subjects. The almost total absence of graphic designers from the book was a little surprising. For example, it seems like Stefan Sagmeister overlaps the worlds of art and design as Barbara Krueger does, but he was left out; she was not. In the design classroom Art and Text would be a useful text for students exploring experimental typography.

James Puckett left a career in IT to study at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC, where he graduated with honors. While at the Corcoran he developed a passion for typography that resulted in a thesis on versatility in type design. The interest in type design sparked by his thesis led James to pursue commercial type design after graduation. James now resides in Manhattan where he designs type for release through his foundry, Dunwich Type Founders

Like its subject matter, Art and Text raises questions. If all of these artists are asking questions, does anyone care to answer them, or even hear them? Is conceptual art relevant to anyone other than conceptual artists and their critics? Is this the avant-garde ahead of its time or pretentious doggerel? These questions lead one to wonder just how much any art can really be understood in its era. Few people really understood Duchamp when he was working but now most art school freshmen can figure him out. Is conceptual art being made for a world in which the ideas that spawned it are finally widespread?

It is these questions that make Art and Text a success. Really explaining these works would take many more books. Attacking or defending conceptual art would be boring and redundant. But for 279 pages that are mostly photographs to inspire so much thought is an artful thing.


  1. As much as I love typography, sometimes it makes people think way too much and isn’t usable at all. For example, the ‘semiotext’ took more thinking than usual for me, and I’m used to typography.

    Typography can be both beautiful and readable at the same time.

  2. @Luke The beauty can come from the surprises the mind offers through confusion, art doesn’t have to be usable. Sometimes it’s nice to just let the mind wander.

  3. Jason

    Luke, I agree with Dan on this… part of the fun of looking at that specific sample of type was that the typography shows multiple word forms you can pick out from that arrangement.

    Also, think about the nature of the word itself, semiotext, derived from semiotics.

    It’s some good reading, and points out that function and fashion aren’t always needed for everything… especially when the word is repeated less than a inch from the confusing version.

  4. I did a lot of research into text/image relationships this previous semester and for the most part it just left me with more questions. It is common to think of the example of Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, but also important to note that people like Magritte were struggling with these ideas way before his time. We live in a world of pastiche. Nothing is really new anymore.

    Designers are beginning to blur the lines between “work” and “fine art” and I don’t think that this practice is not intentional. Designers like Ed Fella & Elliot Earls work outside their general practice to do things like, fine art graphic design. There needs to be a get your ideas out in a not corporate environment. Which I fully support.

    Link to my Text/Image Relationship research.

  5. David Engelby

    The connection between text as visually embodied in typography and as performing layers of semiotic codes within a given language culture will be a forever exiting and contested area. Therefore it is great to see there’s still being published books exploring this area.

    For those who are interested in semiotics and the art of text and typography, I can also recommend the beautiful typographic book “Pictowords. Semantic Typography” by Barbara and Gerd Baumann (Verlag Niggli 2005).

    Another great tip: Visit the website of the Danish Artist Lise Harlev, who works with typography as a provocative, ironic signifier of our moden culture.
    See for example http://www.liseharlev.com/more-his-place-than-mine5.html

    enjoy :-) David

  6. As a web developer I have noticed a lot more focus on typography in web design over the past few years. Instead of having large graphic driven websites we can have well designed static text sites just using a bit of typography, spacing and colour (this blog for example). I agree with Luke about the over Typography thing but good typography to me is several good fonts, colours working together and not just taking one to particular to the extreme. I guess its crucial to get the balance between great design and greay readability just right. That way all the above commentators would be happy!

  7. Yvonne

    Another great article. Well done

  8. Wife bought the book for me for chanukah. Have been thorough it more than five times. Accurate review. Pictures great. Mind rattling, but somewhat dated. Old colors, typefaces, and materials. Average people been doing some of the stuff for years. Kids too. But, historically speaking, though I know now enough to really have much cred, this stuff spread the field. Very democratic. We can do it. Not enough about type to meet its hype, but a very useful coffee table book, if there is such a thing. thank you very much.

  9. Great post! I attended a recent exposition from my Alma Mater (Wake Forest University), titled “Cuban Artists Books and Prints.” Cuban Artists created unique works of art that were, at the same, books. Some of the pieces includes a doll, an umbrella, and a dress, each of which was a book. You can see the site here: http://www.wfu.edu/cubaproject/. Enjoy!

  10. Just love the SEMIOTEXT page, would have been so difficult to do way back then in the 60s, it’s down to them that we can do what we can do so easily today! Ace post, feel like going back to uni now! Thanks :-)

  11. Emily

    Great article! For a little more inspiration - here is an example of some great typography from a Limbs for Life campaign.

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