On Wednesday, January 11, Tom McDonough presented the 24th annual Hilla Rebay Lecture, titled “The Artist as Typographer,” to a packed auditorium at the Guggenheim. Afterwards, listeners had an opportunity to view Maurizio Cattelan’s aptly named “All,” the artist’s infamous farewell to the art world suspended in the museum’s rotunda.
The Artist as Typographer: Recent years have seen a proliferation of younger artists whose work employs typography, printed characters, or even the very institution of printing. We have been accustomed to the predominance of language in art at least since the rise of Conceptual practices in the early 1970s, but the current turn represents something different: it takes up not language per se, but language’s material realization and the particular histories carried within its forms. In this year’s Hilla Rebay Lecture, Tom McDonough, Associate Professor and Chair of Art History at Binghamton University, focuses on artists and collectives—such as Dexter Sinister, Shannon Ebner, Janice Kerbel, and Adam Pendleton—whose work demonstrates how typography has become a central element of aesthetic practice.
Modern typography developed in the interwar years of the 20th century as one element of the utopian project of reinventing the life-world, embodying a fantasy of universal legibility and literacy. After the Second World War, it was transformed into a tool of corporate promotion and advertising. Artists of the avant-gardes and the neo-avant-gardes alike were engaged in these projects, from Bauhaus design to Dada collage, and on to the work of Rauschenberg and Fluxus. Both sides of that history seem taken up and reworked in the recent practices under scrutiny here.
Several developments can be said to have laid the groundwork for the current interest in typography: the development of a critical design history during the 1980s, which placed the history of typography within a larger cultural framework; the broader shifts in cultural practice, and reading practice in particular, brought on by the advent of digital technologies since the 1990s; and a reassessment of the legacy of language-based Conceptual and post-Conceptual practices toward a focus on the material qualities of communication itself.
The rise of artist as typographer finds precedents in the work of Lawrence Weiner—and helps to account for the high regard in which he is held by younger artists today—as well as Liam Gillick, an early exemplar of the trend (although other trajectories are possible as well, say, from Johns to Wool and Ligon). But it is among artists who have emerged in the last decade that the practice is most prevalent: their work has proposed a new critical practice that takes up language and its representation as a material object, heavy with social meaning.
The Hilla Rebay Lecture brings distinguished scholars to the Guggenheim Museum to examine significant issues in the theory, criticism, and history of art. This annual program is made possible through the generosity of the Hilla von Rebay Foundation.