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Text Art

Text Art

Left: New works by Argentine painter Claudio Giannini at Diseno in Boston. Right: A page from Libretto, a handmade editioned book of 10 works by artist Ward Schumaker from Dusk.

There is a long history of the use of text in art. Think of the illuminated manuscripts from medieval times in which the text is supplemented with painstaking decoration.  Jumping way ahead to the 20th century, the use of text has been a defining characteristic of art in the modern era. Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns are well-known, significant examples. In the ‘80s, Jenny Holzer created public, large-scale illuminated displays of text art. Today, text in art is everywhere, from affordable inspirational decoration to high concept pieces in the world’s most important museums.

Art consultant Amelia Larsen of colourBLOC immediately throws out a handful of artist names when we mention text based art—Christopher Wool, Ben Eine, Retna, Banksy, Patrick Martinez, Mark Bradford, and Sandra Chevrier.  Eichholz helps us understand some of the many ways artists use text and typography in their work: “Some artists paint words that come as inspiration from daily life, while others collage magazine or newspaper strips from childhood into their work, and other artists use the medium of light to create ironic or quirky phrases. Urban artists use text in reference to pop culture icons as a way of marking an era and often use text to make a statement about a current social or political movement.”

Susie Nielsen, who owns Farm Gallery + Project Space in the artist enclave of Wellfleet on Cape Cod, finds that in contemporary art, a lot of work is about re-purposing materials, using them in a new context. She says, “One of the things I love about text based art is how artists can change a words’ context so that we see something familiar in a new way. Text can play with words’ meaning in society.”  Sometimes however, Nielsen points out, “Sometimes text based art is just about using the text as a material or canvas. In abstract art, text can act as a point of entry to draw in the viewer, then ground them.”

Finally, Niesen leaves us with an illuminating comparison: “Using words in art has such a profound beauty because it says the thing it is, but leaves the viewer’s relationship with that object open. For instance, the word "chair" is more poetic than a painting of a chair; it leaves the visual out for the viewer to fill in with their imagination. You might compare it to reading a book as opposed to watching a film.”


Left: MayFrenzyDesigns, Life Is Awesome, Ink on Paper. Right: Megan Shay, Embroidery Floss, Cotton, Wood.

Text is used decoratively in many aspects of life. The most obvious example for us, of course, is monogrammed bedding. As we discussed in an earlier post, “Monograming At Matouk,” monograms first made an appearance as early as 350 BC when Greek and Roman towns used them to mark the names of their city and ruler. By the Victorian era, monograms became a way for wealthy aristocrats to mark household goods like table linens and cutlery.


Left: Matouk Love pillows. Right: Matouk Logotype pillow.

Today, the practice of monogramming items for the home—such as towels, sheets, stationery, and silver—is a classic design statement. In addition to the traditional approach of combining initials to form a symbol, Matouk embellishes linens with single letters as well as words. There’s our Logotype pillow, a preppy take on a single initial, and Lulu DK’s Love pillow which features embroidered free-flowing script.

Below we explore the meaning behind art that initially seems quite literal. And, for more examples of text-based artwork, as seen at Art Basel Miami and various residences, click over to our “Art of the Word” Pinterest board.

Uplifting, sarcastic, or just plain humorous messages have become quite popular. Many examples of affordable text based artwork are available on Etsy and similar sites, and are showcased in interiors all over Pinterest and home design blogs. On the left, a print by May Frenzy Designs is straightforward, colorful and enthusiastic.

Fashion grad and fiber artist Megan Shay, who works out of her hometown in Pennsylvania and sells her pieces in her Etsy shop Cardinal & Fitz, plays with fabric patterns and puns in her riffs on colonial era samplers. She says, “Funny and unique embroidery pieces are my specialty!”


Left: Scott Reeder, Real Fake, 2013, Fiberglass and Paint, Kavi Gupta GalleryRight: Martin Creed, Work No. 2070: People, 2014, Neon, Metal, Motor.

An abundance of text art can be seen at contemporary art fairs like Art Basel Miami. On the left, Real Fake” by Scott Reeder sat on the lawn of the Bass Museum of Art as one of 24 large-scale sculptures and installations comprising a public, outdoor exhibition. His text works are usually composed of juxtaposing, two word phrases, as is this one.

On the right, a towering, glowing, slowly spinning piece by contemporary superstar artist and Turner Prize winner Martin Creed greeted people just inside one of the entrances to at Gavin Brown's Enterprise at Art Basel Miami Beach 2014.


Left: Pat Falco, Untitled, 2014, Acrylic on Paper. Courtesy of the artist. Right: Peter Scarbo Frawley, wow, mom, concrete poem, Letraset onPpaper, 1970. Courtesy of Farm Gallery + Project Space.

Pat Falco, who received a BFA in illustration and art history from MassArt in 2010, creates graphic pieces with lots of text and plenty of humor. Two years ago, in an interview in The Boston Globe he said, “I don’t like talking as much. The art is a vehicle for me to interact with people.”

Peter Scarbo Frawley is as a concrete poet who strips letters and words down to the simplest form. He starts with an idea and how you interact with the work becomes part of the piece.


Top left: Kelly Sherman, LUST LOVE DINNER DISHES FOREVER, 2013, Gouache on Paper. Courtesy of the artist and Barbara Krakow Gallery. Bottom left: Geoff Hargadon, CFYW painting - 6742, 2015, Screen Print and Latex Paint on Coroplast. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Kayafas. Right: Ashley Normal, Make It!, 2014, 2 of 500, Digital Archival Print. Courtesy of the artist and Chases Garage.

On April 11, 2015 Massachusetts College of Art and Design hosts its 26th annual art auction to benefit the school’s scholarship fund. There is a range of work included in this year’s offerings that use typography and text, including these pieces by Kelly ShermanGeoff Hargadon, and Ashley Normal.


Left: Sam Trioli, Truman Letters II, 2014, Silver Leaf and Oil on Panel. Courtesy of Farm Gallery + Project Space. Right: Julia Salinger, untitled, Ink on Found Paper.

Sam Trioli created a series of silver foiled paintings with excerpts of text from letters that Harry Truman wrote to his wife Bess during his presidency. This work is part of a solo exhibition based on Harry Truman, looking at narrative and history. He is taking a slice of history and re-contextualizes it into a moment of reflection while bringing it into the present day.

Julia Salinger combines meandering lines with written words. Her drawings intertwine with text to evoke a stream of consciousness, dream-like experience. Saliger also often works over existing book pages, making her work very graphic in nature.


Collage on paper, 2011; wood and acrylic sculpture, 2013; both by Damien Hoar de Galvan. 

Artist Damien Hoar de Galvan, who studied behavioral science in college and earned a post-baccalaureate at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2008, uses everyday, recycled materials such as plywood or pages pulled from a spiral notebook. His seemingly simple messages question values and emotions and often reflect his conflicting feelings on contemporary life and art.


Matouk’s decorative signage at Bloomingdale’s in New York City.