Word Art
Painting, Sculpture or Photolithography Using Words and Phrases.

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Word Art
Text-based painting, prints and sculpture


Definition and Characteristics
Language Versus Form in Word Art
Related Articles

Postmodernism in Visual Art

• For more about postmodern schools, trends and styles,
see: Contemporary Art Movements (from 1970).

• For the leading museums, see: Best Galleries of Contemporary Art.

• For details of the world's most important festivals,
see: Best Contemporary Art Festivals.

Examples of Word Art

"Follow Your Dreams" (2010)
Graffiti word art by Banksy.

Untitled (1990) by Christopher Wool
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen,

What is Word Art? Definition and Characteristics

The term "word art" describes a category of text-based postmodernist art employed by several contemporary artists since the 1950s. A simple definition of text-based art might read: "art that includes words or phrases as its primary artistic component". Text-based imagery featuring words and phrases has appeared in a variety of different media including painting and sculpture, lithography and screenprinting as well as applied art (T-shirts, mugs). It also appears in the latest forms of contemporary art, like projection mapping.

There are two basic types of "word art": (1) First, artworks that include words or phrases because of their ideological meaning, iconic status or significance as advertising copy. (That is, where the word-content is crucial.) An example is the phrase "I shop therefore I am" which appears in the graphic art of Barbara Kruger (b.1945). Other examples include the 'date-paintings' of On Kawara (1932-2014); the "Love" sculpture of pop-artist Robert Indiana (b.1928); the projection art of Jenny Holzer (b.1950), such as "For the City" (Oct 2005), projected on the Fifth Avenue side of the New York Public Library in Manhattan; and the "Hope" poster designed by Shepard Fairey (b.1970) for the Barack Obama presidential campaign (2008). (2) Secondly, where the words or phrases form the actual "art content" of the work. Examples include the word paintings by Christopher Wool, such as Apocalypse Now (1988, Private Collection) and Untitled (1990, MBBR).


Word painting and other types of text-based art first appeared as a reaction to the "high culture" style of abstract expressionist painting practised by Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Mark Rothko (1903-70) and others in the New York School of the early 1950s. As a result of the ethical crisis brought on by the Second World War and the Shoah (see also Holocaust art), the Abstract Expressionism movement turned its back on all forms of representational art and focused exclusively on pure art devoid of any external content. Egged on by critics like Clement Greenberg (1909-94), abstract expressionists concentrated on purely formal criteria (line, shape, colour and the two-dimensional picture plane) while ignoring (or at least trying to ignore) representational and emotional content.

To show their disagreement with the direction taken by this high-brow abstract art, a few postmodernist artists such as Jasper Johns (b.1930) began inserting words (or numbers) into his abstract paintings - Gray Numbers (1957, Private Collection), False Start (1959, Private Collection), Jubilee (1960, MOMA, New York), and Gray Alphabets (1968, MOMA, New York) - in order to reintroduce content. Many of the letters and numbers inserted by Johns, were stencilled images, as stencilling tranforms words into a kind of object.

By adding this "text content", Johns was exploring the question - what is art? Is it merely a series of totally self-contained, self-explanatory forms of expression (like Abstract Expressionism), enlivened only by a heightened awareness of the process involved (as in Pollock's action painting - brilliantly captured by the photography of Hans Namuth)? Or is it (as Johns suspected) the communication of an idea. If the latter is true, some content needs to be inserted into the work of art concerned.

After Johns came the Pop-art movement with its use of mass-produced consumerist imagery, much of which included words and text. However, most of the words and phrases found in Pop-art do not form the primary artistic component of the painting or print in question, and therefore do not constitute genuine "word art". The textual commentary in the comic strip painting Drowning Girl (1963, MOMA, New York) by Roy Lichtenstein, for instance, merely supports the cartoon picture, as does the text in the series of Campbell's Soup images by Andy Warhol (1928-87). The best example of Pop "word art" is Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture (1970, original in the Indianapolis Museum of Art), a work full of emotional content.

With the expansion of conceptual art during the mid-60s, as well as the purist ethic of minimalism, which sought to reduce art to its bare essentials, new and more neutral forms of text art began to emerge. The conceptualist Joseph Kosuth (b.1945) began producing his "Definition Paintings" (1966-68), which consisted of photographic enlargements of dictionary definitions; the installationist Mel Ramsden (b.1944), a leading member of the Art and Language Group, introduced his "Guaranteed Paintings" (1967-68); and the Japanese-American conceptual artist On Kawara created a set of "Date Paintings" (the Today series), consisting entirely of the date on which the individual painting was made. These examples of "word art" represent the high point of the minimalist conceptual approach, which strips art of all personal emotion and other content, reducing it to the simplest visual representation of an idea, or to a bare item of information.

During the late-1970s and early-1980s, the conceptual artist Barbara Kruger achieved considerable recognition for her feminist art and photo-based pictures overlaid with blocks of primary-coloured text, which sought to highlight the way in which ideological messages infiltrate our daily life through advertising and TV. Her best-known work remains her iconic slogan "I shop therefore I am" (photolithographic print on paper shopping bag) (1990, Guggenheim Museum, New York).

During the late 1980s, the New York-trained painter and photographer Christopher Wool (b.1955) became famous for his word paintings (now selling for multi-million dollar prices), typically consisting of bold, black stencilled letters arranged in a geometric grid, but with all punctuation removed and spacing disrupted. His best-known work - Apocalypse Now (1988, Private Collection) - is a text-based painting based upon a line ("Sell the House, Sell the Car, Sell the Kids") taken from Francis Ford Coppola's film of the same name. This and other similar compositions by Wool have a kind of schizophrenic quality: one moment they are largely formal arrangements of black blocks on a white background, the next they are speaking to us with an edgy anxiety.

One of the most recent examples of text-based art, dating to 2010, is the work of graffiti art by Banksy (b.1973), entitled: "Follow Your Dreams" - a phrase which is then crossed out by the superimposed word "Cancelled".

Language Versus Form in Word Art

In a sense, word art - whether painted, printed or sculpted - occupies a sort of no man's land between language and visual imagery. When abstracted from their normal setting in books, words and phrases become neither art nor language but a strange hybrid. The pictorial setting, along with increased size, adds a new dimension and power to the words themselves. This is noticeable even in a newspaper's banner headlines - the larger the words, the greater their impact. At the same time, the live verbal message carried by the text remains an indestructible item of content, thus preventing the otherwise abstract work from becoming wholly formalistic.

There is one important caveat to the above. The words or phrases used by the artist must be more than mere blocks of data. On Kawara may be a clever conceptualist, but the text in his "Today" series is too minimalist to be more than a conceptual reminder of what is theoretically possible. Much the same can be said of Joseph Kosuth's "Definition Paintings", which are mostly cute juxtapositions. A more difficult issue - raised by some of the public "word art" of Jenny Holzer - concerns the quantity of text - namely, at what point does the sheer number of words overwhelm the artistic setting?

Barbara Kruger's type of graphic art is far more punchy and involves quite personal issues of self-identification and resonance. As she herself says: "I work with pictures and words because they have the ability to determine who we are and who we aren't". Unlike Wool who engenders a deliberate tension between form and language, Kruger's priority is language and its ideas.

Related Articles

Installation Art (1960s onwards)
More of an artistic environment than a work of art.

Photography (1960s onwards)
An established genre since the 1960s, photography has become a key component of postmodernist visual art.

Computer Art
Arguably the most influential media of contemporary art. Likely to make a major contribution to word-based imagery and graphics.


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