Susan Bee and Mira Schor
Ripple Effects:
Painting and Language

This issue of New Observations: "Ripple Effects", examines the relationship of painters with language and other primarily linguistic source materials. Painting was traditionally an art form privileged for its purely visual qualities, although for much of its history it found its themes in linguistic sources such as biblical narrative, mythology, allegory, and history. In fact, painting and language exist in a field of interactive ripple effects that productively enrich rather than disrupt the surface of contemporary painting. Today many painters rely on linguistically based sources for their work, increasingly bringing images of these sources and of language into their paintings; also, some painters write about art or collaborate with writers, thereby engaging in a complex, multilayered practice, where art and language intersect. This is similar to the practices of some of the most prominent members of the New York School of painting.

As former co-editors of M/E/A/N/I/N/G as well as practicing artists, we have been committed to engaging in such a dual practice ourselves: we have often invited artists to write about issues and art of concern and relevance to their work. "Ripple Effects" is in a way a ripple effect of that involvement. We have invited some of the artists who first wrote for M/E/A/N/I/N/G to participate in this issue of New Observations as well as several other artists whose art practice involves language and writing as either subject or image of their artwork or as a parallel practice, or significant source of inspiration. We have encouraged them to extend the basic premise of the discussion in any direction of particular present relevance to their work.

In the past, dictates of modernism—"Greenbergian" modernism, at least—have distanced painting from language. Even though the appearance of language through the use of collage was an important turning point in the development of modernist painting, as Brian O'Doherty observed in Inside the White Cube, "Without going into the attractive complexities of the letter and the word in modernism, they are disruptive." Certainly much avant-garde art, other than painting, has benefitted from that "disruption," and for a while painting seemed to lose ground to these openly linguistic forms. However, in recent years we have seen the infusion of popular culture and multiple sources into the once sacred realm of the fine arts.

The artists who are included in this issue have a variety of approaches to the subject of art and language. Some of these artists represent language directly in their work: Julia Jacquette writes of her first experience of viewing paintings which represented writing and how that influenced her subsequent work. Kay Rosen emphasizes the way typography and language structure interpretation and discusses her desire to exercise the science of linguistics in what for her is the more suitable field of visual art. Amy Sillman distinguishes the importance of language as speech and her paintings as figures of speech; Christian Schumann describes his sources, from comics to concrete poetry; Mira Schor notes her initial political goals in depicting language as a sign for female thought and her concerns for imbricating writing language and painting language. Kenneth Goldsmith tells how the purchase of a used copy of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book inspired his subsequent artworks. Rochelle Feinstein discusses her use of words in painting and the grammar of painting. Jane Hammond explores painting itself, including the construction of painting as a language. Tom Knechtel and David Reed note the formative, constitutive importance of film, literature, and opera to their work. Faith Wilding writes of her interdisciplinary practice, where traditional painting language is but one of many languages used to communicate political and theoretical concerns. David Humphrey zeroes in on the relation of the concept of beauty to his paintings. Susan Bee writes about her relationship to writing and editing and about her collaborations with writers and how it has influenced her artwork. Lucio Pozzi discusses the distinction between art and words and the development of his Word Works. Pamela Wye narrates a parable about writing and art, while Richard Tuttle contributes a manifesto-like list of sentences and a poem.

Together, we think that these artists give some idea of the breadth and depth of the contemporary artist's preoccupation and possible obsession with language and how it changed and influenced their visual work.

Susan Bee is an artist living in NYC. From 1986-1996 she was co-editor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G. Her artist's book, Little Orphan Anagram, with poems by Charles Bernstein will be forthcoming in 1997 from Granary Books.

Mira Schor is a painter and writer living in New York City. A collection of her essays on art, Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture, will be published by Duke University Press in early 1997. She is on the faculty of Parsons School of Design.


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