Word as Image

“I never read, I just look at pictures.” This humorous quip by Andy Warhol, printed on a 1968 poster for an exhibition in Stockholm, teasingly undermines the presumed hierarchy between the intellectual act of reading and the simplicity and directness of viewing images. Yet throughout the 20th century, artists such as Pablo Picasso, Liubov Popova, Ed Ruscha and John Cage exploited the assumed distinction between looking and reading to position language as its own pictorial form. Word as Image, presented in the Museum’s focus gallery, highlights artworks from the Norton Simon collections that center on or subvert the idea that a text’s legibility is essential for making meaning. Objects from prominent and lesser-known practitioners of modern art movements, including Cubism, Pop Art and Conceptual Art, offer humorous and thought-provoking encounters between pictorial and linguistic modes of expression.

At the beginning of the century, words and letters appeared as elements in avant-garde compositions, where they were used to break down distinctions between art and the real world. In Picasso’s drypoint Still Life with Bottle of Marc (1911) and Popova’s painting The Traveler (1915), 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 climate by inventing visual forms, sometimes co-opting contemporary cityscapes full of billboards and graffiti-covered walls. Language also served as an inside joke for many of these artists, as in Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup series (the Museum’s edition dated to 1968), which appropriated the visual language of mass production and typographic design to blur the distinction between fine art and advertisement. Other artists, like Ruscha, expressed ambivalence about the meaning and legibility of text by emphasizing the formal appearance of letters or numbers.

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. As such, artists challenge us to consider language and image anew, by positioning words as an essential part of visual culture.