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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Letterforms and Writing in Contemporary Art

Since the mid-1950s, Jasper Johns has depicted everyday icons and emblems—what he famously calls “things the mind already knows”—and, in the process, has fundamentally challenged ideas about what art can be. Johns has repeatedly used letterforms, either depicted individually or layered atop one another, to address modes of perception and knowledge. His 1956 painting Gray Alphabets (The Menil Collection, Houston) was his first engagement with the alphabet, as well as the first time he used the word gray, a recurring color in his oeuvre, in a title. In the painting, the 1960 drawing (private collection), and the 1968 print (68.689), Johns plays with the tension between the allover composition and the discrete forms within each unit. Due to the variation in colors, marks, and forms, the letters simultaneously reflect an established order—an effect amplified by the grid structure—and remain unique. The rectangular shapes and the illusion of a raised surface are reminiscent of children’s wooden alphabet blocks, which are literally the building blocks of language. Yet by showing line after line of the letters repeated in a standardized order without commentary or development, Johns negates this function, instead showing a stream of information without a resolution.

Johns’s Alphabet (1972.733), made the following year, is believed to be the first work in which he portrayed the entire set of twenty-six letters, superimposed in alphabetical order. The letters have an elegant yet impersonal feel and appear as if they were stenciled, thus signaling both an absence of the artist’s personal touch and the official information-granting capacity in which letters are employed. Despite the recognizable subject and elements, Alphabet becomes a nearly abstract composition because of the number and complexity of the various tangled and intertwined forms. Untitled (2015.399), made in 2013, also shows Johns’s engagement with the nature of perception and the ways in which thoughts are constructed and communicated. The print is composed of three distinct bands containing motifs found in his art throughout the decades: the top register houses numbers running from 0 to 9, the center features a map of the United States, and the bottom presents letters in American Sign Language. Although it is the first work Johns created using digital technology, he evokes the more traditional art of drawing through irregular gray and black tones and pools of ink, which represent his attempt to capture in a print the aesthetic of ink on plastic, a material he has depicted in his drawings since 1962.

Tony Fitzpatrick has also engaged the alphabet as a subject for his art. For Max and Gaby’s Alphabet (2010.268.1–.26), he created twenty-six etchings, each of which corresponds to a single letter of the alphabet. Inspired by suggestions made by his children, Fitzpatrick filled each letter’s page with multiple objects or figures that begin with the appropriate letter. “A,” for instance, contains the form of an atom in the center, below which is a small atomic bomb, while above is a rocket carrying an astronaut into space, perhaps representing both positive and negative potentials of this discovery. The prints use bold, contrasting colors and combine playful forms that make reference to superheroes, comics, tattoos, and everyday life. With experience in tattooing and printmaking, Fitzpatrick provides an abundance of details and witty juxtapositions, creating work that appeals to both children and adults.

Like Johns, Christopher Wool has examined the relationship, and subsequent tensions, between text and image and between reading and seeing. The large black stenciled letters of his “word paintings,” which contain either single or multiple words decontextualized and without punctuation, possess a graphic power and strangeness that is amplified by their stark white background. In Untitled (2014.237), he focuses on the forms of letters themselves, liberated from linguistic responsibilities. Rendered in gray tones against a background of muted pink and white, the letters vary in size, font, and orientation. Their gracefully curved forms frequently become entangled with one another as well as with the blurred gray skeins strung across the image’s surface. Decorative elements such as floral forms and beaded lines, interspersed across the composition, create a sense of levity. As opposed to the structure of Wool’s “word paintings,” which evoke the gridlike orientation of Gray Alphabets, the collagelike aesthetic, shifting planes, and layers of color and forms in Untitled introduce a dynamic tension that reverberates throughout the composition.

Glenn Ligon has also employed isolated fragments of texts—including passages from celebrated African American authors, quotations from political figures, and the artist’s own prose—to question how such writings and the meanings they convey function when removed from their contexts. Without altering the text itself, he stencils the letters, evoking both impersonal sign painting and Johns’s celebrated engagement with alphabets. By contrast, Ligon pushes letters to the point of abstraction in Debris Field II (2015.631); letters created in tones of black and gray are scattered across the surface and, despite their stenciled forms, lack uniformity in tone, finish, and structure. Unlike earlier work, the letters do not derive from a quotation and instead bring to mind things that are left over such as thoughts that remain after a text is written or words unspoken, an effect amplified by their proximity to seemingly randomly placed smudges, scrapes, and stains. By removing meaning and order, Ligon examines how letters and language function when emptied out and used purely as image.

Suzanne McClelland works with the appearance, sound, structure, and regulation of language by examining found passages, both written and spoken, from which she “lifts” fragments. In Mr. Man (2015.701), she distorts letters, turning them into near abstractions; while some hint at words, most represent only themselves, making up two towering mounds of discarded sounds or thoughts. McClelland defies the dictates for reading (which, in English, involve moving from left to right and from top to bottom, a structure Johns applied in Gray Alphabets), instead making visible stutters, repetitions, ellipses, and other irregularities of oral rhythms. The title, Mr. Man, derives from an insult hurled against a celebrated writer in Stephen King’s book Misery by a character memorable for her refusal to use crude language. However, it can also be read more broadly, as it calls attention to the underlying gender, racial, and social biases that often inform and structure language.

In Stamp of Memories I (1999.128), which derives from her 1990 print Ste Sebastienne, Louise Bourgeois drew a mythical female version of the martyred saint running naked and smiling despite the arrows that puncture her body. As the print progressed, Bourgeois added a menacing cat’s face and three eggs, perhaps alluding to her three sons, and covered the figure’s body with circular stamping. Acting as a kind of skin or protective armor, the stamp contains the interlocking forms of “LB.” Although the letters correspond to the artist’s initials, the stamp actually belonged to her father, Louis Bourgeois. The artist, however, sought her own stamp and, by extension, mark: one that would simultaneously make reference to and reject familial connections. In 1994, she produced Stamp of Memories II, where the female figure is covered by the less ornate and more easily read block letters of her own stamp.

Although their work reflects different processes, concerns, and references, Cy Twombly and Jacob El Hanani have both made art referring to the physical act of writing and mark making. Since the 1970s, El Hanani has created pen-and-ink drawings comprising thousands of minuscule marks—including geometric forms, patterns, and letters (often in Hebrew)—drawn without any mechanical assistance or magnification devices. El Hanani engages the technique and history of micrography, an ancient Judaic art practice that combines writing and drawing in extreme miniature and which was traditionally used for sacred texts. In these three works, whose titles refer to religious texts—Shir-Hashirim (Song of Songs) (1981.237), Mishley (the Book of Proverbs or the Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible) (1981.300), and Tehilim (a collection of Psalms) (1983.199)—El Hanani varies the application, density, and tone of his applications to create abstract designs. When viewed from a moderate distance, individual marks—which sometimes even include letters and written passages—are not visible. The shimmering surface and abstract patterns recall the work of Agnes Martin and other Minimalist artists, yet on closer examination, forms come into focus and reveal the astonishing diversity of lines and complexity of patterns in each work.

Central to Twombly’s art are allusions to the processes, gestures, and forms of writing. Whether tight and multiplied, as in Note I (68.523.2), or enlarged and loose, as in Untitled I (1974.657.6), his rhythmic glyphs and flowing lines evoke a range of associations, including graffiti, children’s doodles, and exercises for learning script, such as the Palmer Method, a technique that, using muscle training, promises greater efficiency and uniformity in handwriting. Yet, Twombly’s inimitable marks lack the perfected regularity promised by such exercises. Rather, by showing variations in the slanted, looped forms, densely layered in regulated horizontal lines compressed in a tight rectangular space, he alludes to the fatigue generated by the act of writing, while also revealing the poetry possessed by the wiry, irregular etched forms.

In Untitled I, Twombly focuses on the physical process of mark making, highlighting through exaggeration the rhythmic quality of the gesture. Despite mimicking script, the looped, linear forms convey neither information nor narrative, thus turning writing into an abstraction. The dark palette evokes a blackboard (a reference Twombly also explored in paintings during this period), an effect achieved by layering black ink over white before printing the etched plate. The allover composition and fluid lines recall works by Abstract Expressionists, yet the regularity and repetition of both horizontal bands and looped forms reject such influence. Unlike clearly articulated, finely modeled calligraphic marks, Twombly’s loosely drawn forms show variations in structure, size, and, tone, the latter of which he encouraged by using the open-bite etching technique.

These works show just some of the ways contemporary artists have engaged language and letterforms. Like the avant-garde artists who preceded them, these contemporary artists show how wordplay can be used as a means to address larger artistic, social, and political concerns.