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Beyond Words – Art Between the Verbal and the Visual

A review by Christina Müller (Frankfurt a. M.)

Horst, Philipp: Language/Art. Artistic Representation between Poetry, Concept and the Visual. Trier: WVT, 2010.

Philipp Horst's study examines the change in the use of language in the visual arts of the 20th and 21st century. The author observes three stages of this development which roughly correspond to the historical movements of modernism and conceptual art as well as contemporary computer art. Whereas modernist artists may be inspired by poetry (or poets by paintings), their works clearly favour the use of one medium, either the visual or the verbal. In the 1960s, however, conceptual artists attempt to merge visual and verbal elements in order to create an equal balance of the two media in their work. This development eventually leads to a third stage at the beginning of the 21st century, when computer artists create works which can neither be classified as visual nor verbal because these media are fused in order to invent a virtual quality which defies conventional descriptions of art. 

Philipp Horst's interdisciplinary analysis seeks to define and interpret a change in the use of language which can be detected in the visual arts of the 20th and 21st century. For this purpose, the author has chosen to study the works of several artists from three different movements: modernism, conceptual art, and contemporary computer art. Before proceeding to look at the art itself, Horst presents a few theoretical concepts relevant for his study. Horace's famous phrase "ut pictura poesis" is used to illustrate the fact that we are unable to perceive two media as one, and that our sensory impressions are thus dependent on maintaining the dialectic between the visual ('pictura') and the verbal ('poesis'). Roland Barthes' theory of signs defines a medium which in a certain context transmits a message as the 'core medium'. This core medium, however, is not always clearly identifiable in the context of postmodern art, which is why the term 'intermediality' and Jean Baudrillard's idea of the simulacrum being a sign referring not to reality but rather to another sign are examined. Eventually, Horst presents Friedrich W. Block's concept of 'language art' as a useful definition for a genre of art which cannot clearly be attributed to either the visual or the verbal medium.

The author's hypothesis is based on a three-step argument. Firstly, Horst introduces modernist art using the examples of William Carlos Williams and Marcel Duchamp. He maintains that both Williams and Duchamp clearly favour one medium in order to produce art even though a second medium may influence their work. For example, Williams' poems on paintings by Brueghel clearly are poems made up of words even though they allude to colours and shapes which can then be imagined (visually) by the reader. Similarly, Duchamp's famous piece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915 - 1923) is a purely visual composition created from different materials, although Duchamp also produced a corresponding work, the Green Box (1934) containing numerous pieces of writing meant to explain its rather mysterious visual pendant. The verbal and the visual medium are, at this stage of art history, still clearly separated, even though they may inspire each other, meaning that the public cannot be in doubt as to whether it is confronted with poetry or a piece of visual art. This is true despite the fact that Duchamp, as Horst points out, though working at a time when modernism was the predominant movement, must be considered as a pioneer of conceptualism.

By the time of the 1960s, a clear distinction between visual and verbal art can no longer be held up. Conceptual artists such as Jenny Holzer create works like the Truisms, an extensive collection of phrases written by Holzer herself which are displayed at different places in cities all over the world. The surroundings and the style of the display cannot be separated from the meaning of the sentence itself – the visual and the verbal element comment on and complement each other. Thus there is no longer an explicite hierarchy of the media; the work of art is equally visual and verbal. Another example of this conceptualist use of media are the 'word sculptures' created by Susan Howe, a poet who is mainly concerned with how the words and phrases she has written are arranged on a white sheet of paper. Both Howe and Holzer also use their art as a means of commenting on political and social issues, such as gender roles and consumer habits.

The third part of Horst's analysis looks at contemporary computer art, an art form in which the medium is no longer identifiable – in Horst's words, it becomes a "lost medium". Computer artists such as Alan Sondheim or Jaromil create what might be called poems written in programming languages such as PERL: combinations of words which can also be read as texts or considered like a visual composition on a white background, but when typed into the correct programme, will plant a virus into a computer or turn themselves into a game. For Horst, this three-dimensional type of art, which has not only a visual and a verbal aspect, but also a virtual quality which cannot be attributed to either of the two media, seems to be the natural consequence of a development in art history which has been continually merging the visual and the verbal – until finally, in computer art, the visual and the verbal medium both vanish in order to create something new between them.

Philipp Horst's hypothesis is interesting, thoroughly explained, and plausible, even though the author does not sufficiently explain the connection between the artists' use of their art to transport political messages – a phenomenon he explicitly focuses on in the context of his study – with the change in the use of language in art. It certainly would have been worthwhile to examine the political potential of language as opposed to visual art more closely. Besides, the book contains quite a few spelling and typing errors which may from time to time distract the reader of this otherwise well-written and soundly reasoned study. However, the author sets out his ideas in a very clearly spoken and lucid manner, and it is a pleasure to follow the course of his argument throughout the different periods of art history.

Horst, Philipp: Language/Art. Artistic Representation between Poetry, Concept and the Visual. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2009. 196 p., paperback, EUR 23,50. ISBN 978-3-86821-134-4

Table of Contents

1. Introduction, Opening 7

2. Premises 15
2.1 The Medium and Language Art 15
2.1.1 Intermediality 18
2.1.2 Evaluating the Medium 25
2.2 Modernism - From object to idea 27
2.2.1 Modernism 27
2.2.2 Conceptual Modernism(s) 33
2.3 Conceptual Art 40
2.3.1 The Premises of Conceptual Art 40
2.3.2 Language Art in Conceptual Art 47
2.4 New Media Art 48
2.4.1 New Media Concept(ual)s 48
2.4.2 The 'Lost' Medium - Language art in flux 51

3. Modernism/s
3.1 Visual - Not text but texture 52
3.1.1 Marcel Duchamp 52
3.2 Verbal - William Carlos Williams 65
3.2.1 A Beginning 68
3.2.2 Ekphrasis 72
3.2.3 The Treatment of Form - The object in the poem 79
3.2.4 Visual Tension vs. Narrative Sequence 83
3.2.5 The Poem as an Object 91
3.2.6 The Use of Colour 94
3.2.7 The Other Way Around 99
3.3 Conclusion 102

4. Conceptual Art 103
4.1 Visual - Jenny Holzer, words that shine 103
4.1.1 Public Space 106
4.1.2 Truisms 110
4.1.3 "Please change beliefs" - the Truisms project on the "a da 'web" 119
4.2 Verbal - The poetry of Susan Howe 120
4.2.1 A Beginning 120
4.2.2 Layout 126
4.2.3 The Use of (White) Space 130
4.2.4 Palimpsest 133
4.2.5 Erasure 136
4.3 Conclusion 137

5. New Media Art 139
5.1 Fusion, Verbal, Visual 139
5.2 Code Poetry (ww)web 140
5.2.1 A Beginning 144
5.2.2 Jaromil 153
5.2.3 Florian Cramer 158
5.2.4 Alan Sondheim 166
5.3 Conclusion 177

6. Postscript 179
7. Bibliography 182
8. List of Illustrations 194

Jenseits der Sprache - Kunst zwischen Wort und Bild

Philipp Horsts Studie untersucht die Veränderung im Gebrauch von Sprache in der Kunst des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts. Der Autor definiert drei Stadien dieser Entwicklung, die er grob den Epochen des Modernismus und der Konzeptkunst sowie der zeitgenössischen Computerkunst zuordnet. Während die modernistischen Künstler von der Literatur (oder die Dichter von der Kunst) beeinflusst werden, bevorzugen sie in ihren Arbeiten doch explizit ein Medium, entweder das Visuelle oder das Verbale. Die Konzeptkünstler der sechziger Jahre dagegen versuchen, visuelle und verbale Elemente zu vermischen, um ein ausgewogenes Verhältnis der beiden Medien zu schaffen. Diese Entwicklung führt schließlich zu einer dritten Stufe zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts: Nun schaffen Computerkünstler Werke, die weder als visuell noch als verbal gelten können, da sie durch eine Fusion dieser Medien eine virtuelle Qualität erschaffen, die sich konventionellen Beschreibungen von Kunst entzieht.

© bei der Autorin und bei KULT_online