20th century artists experimenting with letters, words, and symbols as visual motifs at Norton Simon Museum

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20th century artists experimenting with letters, words, and symbols as visual motifs at Norton Simon Museum
John Cage (American, 1912–1992),Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, 1969. Silkscreens (8) on plexiglass set in a wooden base, edition 39 of 125, 14-3/8 x 20-1/8 x 10-5/8 in. (36.5 x 51.1 x 27.0 cm). Norton Simon Museum, Gift of Mrs. Judith Thomas, 1970
© John Cage Trust.

PASADENA, CA.- The Norton Simon Museum presents Word as Image, an exhibition showcasing 20th century artists who experimented with letters, words, and symbols as visual motifs. Culled from the Museum’s collection, the objects on view offer humorous and thought-provoking encounters between pictorial and linguistic modes of expression. Artists whose work is in the exhibition include Pablo Picasso, Liubov Popova, John Cage, Andy Warhol and others.

At the beginning of the 20th century, words appeared as elements in avant-garde compositions, where they were used to break down distinctions between art and daily life. In Picasso’s Still Life with Bottle of Marc (1911), splintered lines and shapes reinvent the genre of trompe l’oeil still-life. Only the legible letters “E,” “vie” and “Marc” prompt the viewer to perceive the central object, a bottle of brandy, and recognize the composition as a café scene. In Liubov Popova’s Cubo-Futurist painting The Traveler (1915), snippets of Russian words like журналы (zhurnaly), meaning journals, and II кл, meaning second class, evoke a train’s physical environment. Partial bits of text parallel the fragmented appearance of Cubist and Futurist abstraction while capturing the dynamism of early 20th-century modernity.

As the century progressed, Pop and Conceptual artists responded critically to their social and cultural climates by inventing visual forms, sometimes co-opting contemporary cityscapes full of billboards and graffiti-covered walls. Claes Oldenburg and Ed Ruscha evoked Los Angeles through prints of monumental architectural letters, as both considered the city’s signage part of its essential identity. Similarly, Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup series (the Museum’s edition is dated 1968) appropriates the visual language of mass production and typographic design to blur the distinction between fine art and advertisement. Language also serves as an inside joke for many works in the exhibition, like Robert Heinecken’s photogram Recto/Verso, 1/5 (1988), which offers a critique of fashion magazines and beauty standards. Here a single legible headline, “A Neutral Presence,” ironically accompanies a distorted image of reversed text and superimposed women’s bodies, thereby interrupting the passive consumption of mass media.

The exhibition features artworks that engage linguistic and art historical themes simultaneously. In Arthur Secunda’s kaleidoscopic lithograph Cathedral Voices (1969), inspired by Claude Monet’s paintings of Rouen cathedral, intentionally illegible letters conjure the acoustic and optical experiences that one may have inside a religious building. John Cage, in his own nod to art of the recent past—Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (1969), an homage to the great conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp— collaborated with printers, researchers and a graphic designer. The resulting sheets of Plexiglas are printed with fragmented letters that appear to float and fall in a kind of three-dimensional typographic symphony. Designed so that it could be reassembled to create new visual compositions, it likewise uses words and letters as a means of interrogating the creative process.

Spanning the comical to the political to the conceptual, Word as Image calls our attention to how we are constantly “reading the image” in and out of museum spaces. Many of the artworks express ambivalence about the meaning and legibility of the text contained within, emphasizing instead the formal appearance of letters or numbers. As such, artists challenge us to consider language and image anew, by positioning words as an essential part of visual culture.

Word as Image is organized by Alex Kaczenski, the Museum’s graduate intern for the 2022-23 academic year. It is on view in the Museum’s Focus Gallery on the main level since August 11, 2023 through January 8, 2024.

Word as Image: Text in 20th-Century Art
Friday, August 25, 2023
1:00 pm – 2:00 pm
Join a Museum educator for a tour that explores the interwoven nature of text and image in modern art. View the exhibition Word as Image and discuss related works in the collections.

Word as Image: Text in Art
Saturday, September 9, 2023
1:00 pm – 2:00 pm
Consider the relationship between language and image through a guided tour of text-based works in the exhibition Word as Image and the permanent collection. With a Museum educator, explore how artists such as Pablo Picasso and Ed Ruscha, among others, place text at the center of their compositions.

Word as Image
Saturday, September 16, 2023
1:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Join a Museum educator for a brief tour examining works in the exhibition Word as Image. Then, head to the lower-level courtyard to combine text, image and photography into a unique composition of your own.

Norton Simon Museum
Word as Image
August 11th, 2023 – January 8th, 2024

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