Sculpture in So Many Words -text pieces from 1960-75
Sculpture in So Many Words is an exhibition of text pieces from 1960-75 curated by Dakin Hart. About the show, Hart writes:
Comprised of text sculpture from the early 1960s through the mid 1970s, this presentation examines a body of work in which the most material of the visual arts was reduced to the least substantial of materials: ideas. Because much of this work was conceived for ephemeral media—gallery announcements, newspaper and magazine ads, posters and broadsheets, bulletins, articles, flyers, artist’s books, journal and catalog submission and various other insubstantial and impermanent documents—it is easy to overlook as ephemera. It can be difficult to discern whether a text sculpture is an original work, a reproduction or a transcription—which is part of what makes them interesting as sculpture, and as conceptual art. Many were self-published; most are not composed of complete sentences; and few have ever entered, or even been noticed by, the market—although that is changing as the importance of ephemera to the period is recognized.
Image and object free, the exhibition traces one important, largely unrecognized route by which Duchampian conceptualism and Cageian time-based process theory coalesced into the practices that constitute much of contemporary art. It represents a language lab in which sculpture was reconceptualized as the all-encompassing, multi-disciplinary welter we know today. The material engages concerns as diverse as the body and the self, space and time, the built and natural environments, process and materials for their own sake, as well as social structures and causes. This vastly expanded field, which we now think of simply as art, emerged directly from the thought experiments conducted in these works. The strategies by which they generate “sculpture” are as varied as the practice of sculpture has become and include instructions and prescriptions (the “Go to Eros fountain and throw in all your jewellries” of Yoko Ono’s Fountain Piece), event and performance scripts (George Brecht’s Two Exercises, Alison Knowles’ Make a Salad), descriptions of actual installations that work as well conceptually as in fact (Bruce Nauman’s Floating Room), purely conceptual objects (Richard Serra’s anti-war Lead Shot), purely textual “installations” (site specific magazine pieces such as Dan Graham’s poem Schema), lists of ideas for alternative processes, procedures and materials (Lawrence Weiner’s Traces, a list of object actions in the form of past participles, Robert Morris’ Castelli exhibition poster listing dates and materials), political and social poses (Joseph Beuys’ poster Dusseldorfer, expressing solidarity with students), organizational structures and documents (the list of services offered to artist by Les Levine’s Museum of Mott Art inc., Don Celender’s roguish letter exchanges with prominent figures), as well as allusions to sculpture’s historic conventions, traditions, practices, principles and modes of presentation.
Why call these text pieces sculptures? Many of the artists defined their text work as sculpture and referred to it, both explicitly or implicitly, in their titles. Moreover, typical of art of this era, all of these works are concerned with the physical and conceptual place of the art object and the object of art in the real world. By the early 1960s music, film, dance and other forms of performance were infiltrating the visual arts, even as the rigid distinctions between painting and sculpture were crumbling in works such as Robert Rauschenberg’s combines and Jasper Johns’ object paintings. Sculpture, however, was still the de facto mental model for artworks designed to occupy, and exist in, real space—as opposed to hanging on walls as representational windows onto something else. What the artists making text sculpture realized was that working with ideas in the form of language allowed them the conceptual freedom required for rapid, inexpensive, logistics-free prototyping. There is no space in which an idea cannot be installed, no material of which it cannot be made, no shape it cannot assume, no conceptual feat it cannot attempt.