The weight of the word

Words and language have long been concerns of modern art, but can the alphabet still inspire contemporary artists?

Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language is a group exhibition that brings together historical and contemporary works of art that concentrate on the material qualities of language, manipulated as any other artistic material. The work in MoMA New York’s new show, whether a century old or made much more recently, is intended to be seen, heard or even felt, and not necessarily read. In the case of the more contemporary elements of the exhibition, the gallery informs us, the work seeks “freedom from the strictures obeyed by language of the more practical sort”.
The exhibition is divided in two, both physically and thematically. It starts with work from a wide range of 20th-century artists, organised, somewhat snugly, in a corridor stretching 100 or so feet towards the second gallery space (this passageway of exceptional work presents an “abbreviated timeline of language in modern art”). It is at the end of this corridor, somewhat distant from the opening pieces, and through a dividing set of double doors, that the work of the remaining 12 contemporary artists is to be found, arranged in a far grander and more open space.

And yet, despite the hustle and bustle of the first gallery, it is, of course, thrilling to see Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Vive la France (1914-15) in the flesh. It is the exhibition’s opening exhibit and a much more textural piece than might be imagined from the images reproduced in primers on the Futurist movement, with a rough surface of paper collage, ink wash and crayon. On close inspection the typographic forms are somewhat less well defined than they may seem in the books. But that’s immaterial. What Marinetti had set about creating in this and other works of the period, was what he described as “parole in liberta”, essentially to show how language might behave, free from defined order and grammar. A year or so before this piece was produced, Marinetti declared “the abolition of syntax, punctuation, adjectives and adverbs”. Vive la France is a visual and philosophical embodiment of this declaration, and though barely more than 12 inches square, is a typographic, phonetic, almost sculptural crie de coeur.

Walk and talk

Take just a few steps further along this same alleyway of wonderful stuff and the air is rich with the strains of Kurt Schwitters, reciting his extraordinary work Ursonate (‘Sonata in Primeval Sounds’). As a pleasing and welcome contrast with much of the ‘free’ typography in evidence at the show, the final printed text of the Ursonate is the epitome of tranquil typographic layout presented here alongside an audio loop of a recital of this quite remarkable sound poem. Published as an edition of his Merz periodical in 1932 (number 24), the book reproduced the work in full and was designed by Schwitters’s collaborator, Jan Tschichold. The restraint shown by Tschichold is utterly at odds with the extraordinary enunciation of Schwitters, the sound being more analogous to the physical spaces Schwitters created in his Merzbau installations. Still, it is utterly captivating to listen to language freed of its constraints in such a way.

At this point in the exhibition, typophiles might well be wondering whether along with grammar, 20th-century artists also freed themselves of any notion of typographic rigour. A glance across the work would leave you with the distinct impression that the artists’ specimen book contained a total of about five fonts. Certainly in the case of Lawrence Weiner, who has spent much of his life using language as a material, the choice of words and – significantly – their eventual location, is far more important than the consideration of the font in which the work is rendered. It would be an assumption that he is fond of Franklin Gothic to the exclusion of all other families – but evidence suggests he at least sees merit in the clarity of its condensed form. It’s a shame then that in the relative confines of the first gallery, his wonderful Rocks Upon The Beach Sand Upon The Rocks (1988) is easily missed, positioned high above the majority of the work, and out of the average visitor’s eye-line. Elsewhere, a lithograph of Jasper Johns’s 0 Through 9 (1960) is a terrific, gestural assault upon the movement within slab-serif numerals; and the work of the Campos brothers, particularly on 1950s literary magazine Noigandres – named after their own poetical group – has a surprisingly contemporary air.

And then, there is a change, as the corridor comes to an end. The physical difference between the two gallery spaces, and its impact on the work is not wholly successful. Having passed the blinking neon of Bruce Nauman’s Raw War (1970), Experimental Jetset’s 2003 mash-up of Futurism and John and Yoko, and glass-cased back copies of the wonderful dot dot dot (now happily succeeded by the equally stimulating Bulletins of The Serving Library), you push open grubby glass doors into a much less intimate setting.

Duly, the work gets bigger, but not correspondingly more interesting. Nora Schultz’s Discovery of the Primitive (2011), a rather large evocation of what seems at first glance to be a printer’s drying rack, certainly needs breathing space. It’s not alone in having the balance weighted heavily in favour of size as opposed to meaning. Yet in amongst it all, certain of the contemporary pieces seem to recognise the spirit of the original few, who saw language as something you could build with, free of meaning. In particular, two of Tauba Auerbach’s pieces, The Whole Alphabet (Lowercase) and All the Punctuation, both in typewriter ink on paper, both completed in 2005, hark back to the physicality of metal thumping ink onto paper employed by a substantial number of her predecessors. Each piece has a barely restrained aggression, the collision of forms resulting in a sort of modern equivalent of the interrobang, where meaning is piled upon meaning. But such is the contrast in scale of the contemporary space that the gentler qualities of these twin works are all but lost; they have a quietness not immediately obvious in her other work in the show, and a delicacy that seems to be lacking from of a great deal of the remainder of the contemporary pieces.

Only in the case of one other – British artist Paul Elliman – does the room and space of the contemporary gallery act in concert to allow proper contemplation of the work. Though not colossal in scale, his Found Fount (1989-ongoing) benefits from being afforded a more generous footprint. Having space to step back from his collection of as yet undiscovered alphabets – lying as they are within the flotsam and detritus of life – provides a welcome perspective on his thinking, on the scale of his ongoing project, and on the connection this piece has to the wider world. The transient and disposable nature of much of Elliman’s collection is very clearly at odds with the permanence and solidity of the 26 letters and the various related sorts of the Roman alphabet. Yet the act of looking deeper into this work does more than prompt a search for forms we think we recognise; it encourages the discovery of new shapes – currently locked inside keyrings, processed ferrite oxide, scissor handles and cardboard – that up till now have no place in what we consider to be the formal, known building blocks of language. If this
is Elliman’s intent, then he has succeeded in a way that borders on moving.

Of course, all the work to a greater or lesser degree challenges the principles and shackles of linear narrative, presents language that has been ‘constructed’, or focuses on the object rather than the meaning in written, typographic and occasionally spoken content. The show is, in its   contrasts and even in some of the less successful elements, a thought-provoking collection which brings together some stunning and beautifully crafted work that helps chart a particularly energetic period in the history of modern art and society in general. But, as churlish as this may sound, it is as if Marinetti’s wondrously expressive foot square of ink, collage and crayon – the opening piece of the show – has not only pervaded every subsequent exhibit, but quietly overwhelmed them too, in its gentle but perfect summation of the intent of every artist that followed.

Patrick Baglee is a writer and creative strategist based in New York. Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language is on until August 27 at MoMA in New York. moma.org

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