October 11-November 26, 2019
Alexander Berggruen is pleased to present its inaugural exhibition, Words, which opened on Friday, October 11, 2019, with a reception from 6-8 pm at the gallery: 1018 Madison Avenue, Floor 3. This group show traces how artists of different eras and geographies used language in response to their surroundings, sometimes in establishing their place within the art historic canon, while in other cases implementing socio-political commentary through text.
As is the case with certain works included in the exhibition, text in art can celebrate the formal elements of letters and words. As Ed Ruscha once noted, “words have these abstract shapes, they live in a world of no size.”(1) Ruscha’s 1963 Hello, included within Words, presents a painterly rendition of the word “Hello” in an all-caps traditional serif font, projecting a conservative, friendly greeting to its viewer. The 1979 Ruscha Rusty Silencers, by comparison, exists in a more contemporary, sans-serif font in vacant white, resting atop an almost sunset-like gradient of pastel — combining harder text with a softer palette.
In an interview with W. J. T. Mitchell, Barbara Kruger once noted: “I’m interested in pictures and words because they have specific powers to define who we are and who we aren’t. And those pictures and words can function in as many places as possible.”(2) In this light, many of the works within Words convey a conversation between text and image. The unique 1983 Kruger Untitled (Surveillance Is Your Busy Work), the basis for a print published by the artist for a project with New York City’s Metro Transit Authority, pairs a powerful black-and white photograph of a scrutinous man, with Kruger’s signature overlaid bold text, bringing into question the subject’s presence in our realm.
In other examples within the show, text meets symbol, as is the case in Charles Gaines’s 2016 work Librettos: Manuel de Falla/Stokely Carmichael, #14, where Manuel de Falla’s score from the 1904 opera ‘La Vida Brève’ is juxtaposed with a 1967 speech by Stokely Carmichael, civil rights activist and Black Panther Party member.
Text can also act with conceptual service. In Joseph Kosuth’s unique 1966 Four Colors Four Words wall-mounted neon, the work exists as its exact descriptor — four words, each lighted in monatomic gas light by four different, vibrant colors. In John Baldessari’s Looking South on National City Blvd., National City, Calif., the artist draws from his deep archival image collection to present his own conceptual, quite dry and factual account of the scene represented in image, with text as its caption.
And still, in other examples from the exhibition, text functions as the hook for an underlying narrative. In Danny Fox’s 2019 painting Blood Map, language connotes an almost tombstone-reminiscent, elegiac tribute to the myth behind the artist’s grandfather — a Scottish man who traveled to Ghana to build a hospital, and later in life settled in Cornwall, Fox’s own birthplace. The painting involves Fox’s exploration of his bloodline through his ability to immortalize his ancestor in painted image, and text — “McArthur 84” — emblazoned in bold acrylic at the painting’s lower register.
Kerry James Marshall
Emily Mae Smith