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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.