Words to be Looked at: Language in 1960s Art
Language has been a primary element in visual art since the 1960s--in the form ofprinted texts, painted signs, words on the wall, recorded speech, and more. In Words to Be LookedAt, Liz Kotz traces this practice to its beginnings, examining works of visual art, poetry, andexperimental music created in and around New York City from 1958 to 1968. In many of these works,language has been reduced to an object nearly emptied of meaning. Robert Smithson described a 1967exhibition at the Dwan Gallery as consisting of "Language to be Looked at and/or Things to beRead." Kotz considers the paradox of artists living in a time of social upheaval who use wordsbut chose not to make statements with them. Kotz traces the proliferation of text in 1960s art tothe use of words in musical notation and short performance scores. She makes two works the"bookends" of her study: the "text score" for John Cage's legendary 1952 work4'33"--written instructions directing a performer to remain silent during three arbitrarilydetermined time brackets-- and Andy Warhol's notorious a: a novel--twenty-four hours of endlesstalk, taped and transcribed--published by Grove Press in 1968. Examining works by artists and poetsincluding Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, George Brecht, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Jackson Mac Low,and Lawrence Weiner, Kotz argues that the turn to language in 1960s art was a reaction to thedevelopment of new recording and transmission media: words took on a new materiality and urgency inthe face of magnetic sound, videotape, and other emerging electronic technologies. Words to BeLooked At is generously illustrated, with images of many important and influential but little-knownworks.Liz Kotz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and ComparativeLiterature at the University of Minnesota.