PRINT April 1981


Artistic representation is proclaimed (and enforced) as “pure” (profound) in the same process in which “propaganda”—previously an open political rhetoric—is . . . transformed into fetishized, irrationalist representation centered . . . around commodities and fantasy figures. . . . The transformation of [the] older political discourse of bourgeois democracy of Europe into [the] new advertising discourse of Fascist/Democratic Europe/America . . . is centered in . . . Hollywood and Madison Avenue. . . . “Propaganda” [is placed] . . . on a more subjectified footing through . . . cinematic techniques with their links to experimental (and depth/dream) psychology.
—Jeff Wall, Problems1

A 1978 EXHIBITION BY Jenny Holzer at the Franklin Furnace in New York was juxtaposed with the appearance of Holzer’s printed statements in variously-sized posters on nearby public walls. “Street art” met “gallery art”: statements identical (although often in different combinations and typographic sizes) to those on the gallery windows appeared anonymously throughout the neighborhood, where they were placed alongside other posters, graffiti, and other “street work.” The exhibition itself was of large posters, each one filling a window that faced the street. Many of the posters survived in fragmented form, in some cases for months after the termination of the Furnace exhibition.

Holzer’s work used the common code of vernacular discourse, the written and spoken text, permitting it to be read by both the art public and by the general public. Rather than remaining detached, it engaged with other public language codes. The work, then, referred both to the spectator (who read it), and to signs, not necessarily those of art—political messages, miscellaneous posters or advertisements, comments superimposed on these printed messages (including, possibly, those written across the artwork itself), or adjacent, related street works by other artists. Holzer’s wall posters remained on the same level as these other kinds of statements, but placed the assumptions of both in a kind of relief. Unlike the false homogeneity (the single, closed idea) of other, nearby wall-posters, Holzer’s statements, in their exposure of multiple contradictions, opened up a heterogeneous array of viewpoints to those reading other messages in the vicinity.

Some extracts from a Holzer poster:


Such statements place in contradiction certain ideological structures that are usually kept apart. They refer to beliefs that for many provide the underlying psychological basis for action. Members of the public reading these statements might at first agree with some, not agree with others—all the while wondering if they are to be taken seriously. They are hilariously funny. But later, in appraising them, the reader gradually becomes aware of contradictions, not only in the internal relationship among the statements on the poster, but also in the relationship of those statements to others in the surrounding environment. For, when the posters appear on public walls, the philosophical assumptions implicit in them pick up the underlying meaning of, or generate their contradictions from, assumptions found in public languages; at the same time, they subvert these assumptions and conventional meanings.

A Holzer poster is composed not of one message but of many diverse and contradictory messages, making a single interpretation by the spectator impossible. Unlike the political messages in the surrounding environment, Holzer’s do not aim rhetorically at changing the reader into a believer, whose beliefs then would be merely embodied in the message. Most of the statements quoted (listed) by Holzer seem ultimately “unviable”; statements a reader might, conceivably, agree with are placed in relation to totally untenable ones.

All statements are made to appear banal (not mystifying) and unsubstantiated. Unlike most “political” art, which a priori begins with a worked-out belief and then employs a methodology to prove it, Holzer’s statements deconstruct all ideological (political) assumptions.

In 1970, and again in 1973, Daniel Buren placed conventionalized, vertically-striped one-color posters, on 130 advertising billboards in several stations of the Paris Metro. These posters are documented in the black-and-white photographs of Buren’s two-part publication from 1973, Legend I and II. Each striped “sign” partially obscured a large billboard ad. The location of the works in 1973 was exactly the same as it had been in 1970. The earlier works consisted of blue-and-white striped paper positioned in the upper right part of the board, while those of 1973 were orange-and-white striped, and were positioned in the lower left corner. The only visible change that occurred in the three years between documentations (besides this positioning) was a change in the types of advertisements, which differed both in style (cultural signification) and in the types of products advertised. Ostensibly, we see a series of simple photo-documentations, made over three years, with Buren’s neutral sign-as-artwork as the apparent raison d’être for the photo-documentation. But we also see startling changes in the cultural signification of the advertising images—changes that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. The architectural backdrops are seen to isolate both the neutral art signs and the advertising signs, by framing the juxtaposition of the two. While the art refers only to itself and keeps a static meaning, the ads subtly change meaning when seen in various locations during the same time period, or when seen in the same station in 1970 and then in 1973. Buren uses the particular qualities of the photographic medium to bring out the “content” of the advertising system. Showing the difference between the ads of 1970 and the ads of three years later contradicts, or historicizes, the “timeless” quality that the mythology of advertising would like to project. Buren’s art recedes, in order to call attention to the function of the ad as mythological sign. While Holzer’s use of non-neutral vernacular signage is an implied critique of Buren’s anonymous (and elitist) art signs, Buren’s work does not romantically idealize non-gallery street art—a possible weakness of Holzer’s works.

Unlike Pop art, which was made to refer to the media world of signs and current cultural representations, Minimal work was composed in terms of its material support—pointing to the limits of its structure. These limits were the physical art gallery and the system of art-gallery installations. Where Pop art had referred to art images in terms of common societal codes—signs on billboards, in ads, on TV—which were shared by design, “high art” and popular culture alike, Minimal art appeared to aspire to structural self-sufficiency, and thereby to be free of any symbolic content. In an essay accompanying the exhibition, “Objects and Logotypes,” which he organized in 1980 for the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago, Buzz Spector suggests a connection between three-dimensional Minimal Art and two-dimensional corporate design of the 1960s in America.2 Quoting Robert Morris, he sees Minimal Art as referring to “manufactured objects” in its repeatability. Spector notes that Donald Judd’s wall boxes keep a rigorously regular measure with respect to “. . . voids between elements, proximity to corners or projecting architectural elements, and distance from boxes to floor. . . . These measures are three-dimensional contextual cues to the identity of the works—spaces characteristically ‘Judd.’” These seemingly neutral, three-dimensional Minimal art forms can be related to two-dimensional corporate design. According to Spector, the typical graphic corporate trademark of the ’60s was based on “similarly explicit measures between elements, even to the spacing between letters. . . . Control of the space surrounding the logotype [trademark] becomes an active element of the total display.” Corporate symbols are used on business cards, in ads, buildings and vehicles to build for the corporation’s employees and for the public the corporate “image.” A typical example is George Nelson’s “Herman Miller” logo.

Similarly, some of John Knight’s artworks have focused on exhibition posters and announcements as preliminary influences on spectators’ perceptions of a show; in this sense, the qualities of a gallery’s “image” would have as important a background influence on an exhibited work’s “meaning” as would the architectural space. These two aspects—three-dimensional design and two-dimensional design—are conflated in Knight’s exhibitions at California State College, Humboldt, in 1973 and at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax in 1975. Both consisted only of posters which were intended to “give a ‘complete’ description of the space in the sense of an architectural phenomenon.”3 In a 1978 project, Journals Piece, Knight sent magazine subscriptions to various residences that he knew of through social or architectural contacts. Here two-dimensional graphic design became a part of three-dimensional interior design and influenced patterns of interior life.

Two-dimensional design can be used to reflect corporate identity, social/political identity and individual identity. Examples of graphic markers of individual identity (which often serve to correlate that identity to corporate or social/political interests) are personalized T-shirts, personal stationery and business cards, greeting cards and the like. (T-shirts imprinted with logotypes are a good example of either corporate or social identities being used by individuals as a sign of individual identity.) These “personal” items mark an “individual” identity that is socially prescribed by convention and commercial systems of exchange.

Recently, such artists as Louise Lawler, Kim Gordon, Michael Asher and Vikky Alexander have designed cards, interiors and matches for individual clients. These “products” are neither part of commercial mass production nor designed for gallery exhibition and sale as art objects. They set up a peculiar and ambivalent relation between artist and client. A designer’s professional relation to a client is more like that of a doctor or an interior decorator; the designer’s goal is assumed to be that of improving the quality of the client’s life-style (and, indeed, life) by redesigning an aspect of it. This activity is not, however, free of social convention, as the usual purpose of the improved “personal” design is to enhance the client’s social status. Thus the kind of designer-client relationship that is constructed inherently questions values of both “design” and of art receivership, in psychological as well as social/esthetic terms.

Graffiti, too, uses a highly readable variant of the normal decorative-art code. But because the graffiti’s author (artist) isn’t classified as an artist, graffiti is not (considered to be) art. Graffiti begins as a mark of individual identity, a personal “signature;” when it is placed on public buildings, it modifies their socially-fixed meanings. Graffiti often seems to the public a negative sign of defacement; but for its writer, it means, in many cases, giving the surface a more meaningful public symbolism. Graffiti is one way subcultures express an alienated, oppositional reaction to their environment. Ali, a New York subway graffiti writer, states: “Graffiti takes away the placenta and reminds people how violent the subway is. The real vandalism is what you’d see if you scraped the windows clean.”4

“High art” has more recently taken its revenge upon graffiti by appropriating it into it system. “Debased” popular art’s transformation into fine art is inseparably linked, it turns out, to the evolution of style. The art historian T.J. Clark has pointed out that, in the 19th century, “reference to popular art was, in . . . sublimated form, . . . [a] source of delight to the connoisseur who ‘recognized’ it, and praised the artist’s transformation of his sources.”5

Frank Stella’s “Exotic Birds” paintings are prime examples of an artist’s skillful elevation of a “debased” popular form—graffiti—into stylistic and formal innovation. But Stella’s compositional game is more complex than it first appears, involving a self-conscious process of bringing the effects of fashion to the foreground. Graffiti has become fashionable. Actually, by mimicking fashion, in the way that Andy Warhol mimics “show business” Stella raises some basic questions.

This work seems deliberately to accelerate the process whereby a type of popular art, initially perceived as “tasteless” or repulsive, becomes “high style”—initially through irony and later through transformation according to compositional devices (formalism). High art’s economic reliance on fashionability, with its plays on good or bad taste, and the reliance of fashion (one which must be disguised) on popular forms, creates an uneasy tension between the formalist concerns of high art and its secret links with the “real” world. In Stella’s paintings the uneasy juxtaposition of tasteless but chic imagery is used in the end, and paradoxically, as a device in the service of compositional formalism. Stella’s strategy entails a suspended ambiguity. Unlike practitioners of Pop Art, he doesn’t base his images on duplication of popular imagery, and unlike those of Minimalist formalism, he doesn’t adopt a (stylistically) purist stance. Instead, Stella elects to go for the two readings simultaneously.

Stella’s strategy owes something to John Chamberlain’s work, in particular his “smashed-automobile” sculptures. These sculptures are the end-product of a process in which formerly elegant cars, now turned to junk, are again transformed by the artist into the “elegance” of sculptural, high-art objects. The art viewer is aware of the cultural irony here. There is esthetic irony, too, in Chamberlain’s questioning of the effect of American mass-consumption on both vernacular taste and high-art esthetics; as well as social irony concerning the economics involved in the ethos of built-in obsolescence of both popular and fine-art objects and styles.

Stefan Eins’ experiment at Fashion Moda, an alternative space he opened in New York’s South Bronx (a media symbol for urban blight and devastation), involves the relationship between fashion in “high art” and in vernacular, urban art produced by untrained, non-white ghetto artists. He had noted that younger “downtown” gallery artists were stylizing their work according to urban decorative codes that ranged from 14th Street tacky glitter to neo-primitive, fake African. At the same time, many of these artists professed an interest in making their work political and accessible to the general public. Eins noted also that the “new museums”—alternative spaces—were being funded according to how well they met local community needs. But the community being served for all of the many alternative spaces, was inevitably that of the Soho elite. (Earlier, Eins himself had run a storefront space in Soho.)

Fashion Moda exhibits an equal number of community-based and gallery artists. Since many of the South Bronx artists had been doing only graffiti paintings on subway cars before, this gallery afforded them their first opportunity to confront professional artists and artworks. Both groups exhibiting at Fashion Moda, the locals and the Soho artists, have influenced each other’s work. This tendency was taken a step further when Fashion Moda presented a typically “mixed” show, with work by three geographically separate groups of artists indistinguishably hung together in The New Museum. (The museum itself is located in an area in which different cultures meet—on the predominantly Puerto Rican shopping strip of 14th Street, but adjacent to the upper-middleclass academia of NYU/Parsons School of Design and the New School. The three groups shown were Soho artists, South Bronx artists and artists from New Orleans and Atlanta (who were not represented by the New York-based, gallery art establishment). Within this exhibition one interesting phenomenon was the proliferation of spray-painted murals which redefined (or recreated) styles as diverse as ’40s decorative (derived from Kandinsky), Morris Louis’ and Jackson Pollock’s materialistic, all-over color painting, and Pop art—styles that are now (or always have been) part of the everyday urban environment.

The street is a contested zone. In American mainstream culture, it is the public interface between individual and corporate commercialism, and the people:

On Main Street, shop-window displays for pedestrians along the sidewalks and exterior signs, perpendicular to the street for motorists, dominate the scene. . . . It is the highway signs, through their cultural forms or pictorial silhouettes, their particular positions in space, their inflected shapes and their graphic meanings, that identify and unify the megatexture. They make verbal and symbolic connections through space, communicating a complexity of meanings through hundreds of associations in a few seconds from far away. Symbol dominates space. Architecture is not enough. Because the spatial relationships are made by symbols more than by forms, architecture defines very little. . . . The sign is more important than the architecture. . . . Sometimes the building is the sign.6

Robert Venturi uses the symbolism of the commercial sign as ironic reference in his own architecture by placing signs on stop of standard structures. Some of these signs relate to older, architectural stereotypes—they play with the idea that the ornamentation of most architecture, from Neo-classical to Beaux-Arts, alludes to an earlier architectural style and value system. Two examples are a project for a jazz club in Houston (1976), which is surmounted by a grandiose three-dimensional, 19th-century ship, and the Hartwell Lake Regional Visitors Center (1978), in Hartwell Lake, South Carolina, the rural-cottage style roof of which is topped by a scaled-down, three-dimensional medieval castle. In both projects, Venturi deliberately separates the publicly symbolic sign from the utilitarian structure. The signs use the same scale and communication codes as billboards do. They reduce three-dimensional reality to Disney (fantasy) scale, and enlarge two-dimensional typographic conventions to oversized publicness. By incorporating commercial trademarks or symbols into a building’s visual code, the architect can comment through the work on the commercial surroundings. Venturi’s approach is dualistic; the competition between two different orders—the architectural and the commercial—is reflected in two different viewpoints. From a distance, perhaps viewed from the highway, a work fits into the commercial scale and code, whereas up close, the pedestrian’s viewpoint reveals its architectural formalism.

Venturi proposed a series of road-signs, called “City Edges,” for use during 1976, the Bicentennial year, on the highway approaches to Philadelphia. In concept, they played off the standard modern design and iconography of existing billboards and road-signs. Venturi’s signs represented food, buildings, art, and other subjects that typify contemporary or historic Philadelphia. Things to eat—for example, “HOAGIE” or “SOFT PRETZEL”—were depicted in both word and image; they echoed other roadside billboard ads for brand-name food products. These Pop art-like representations of food were contrasted with framed, billboard-scale reproductions of paintings from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Below each painting were the addresses of the museum and of other art museums in the city. In one “WELCOME” sign, Benjamin Franklin gestured toward the auto rider, while striding atop a handscripted, 18th-century-style message that said, “To Penn’s Greene Countrie Town.” Across the road a commercial sign advertised the “COLONIAL MOTEL,” using an identical hand-scripted typeface.

There are two ways in which the Venturi series could be read. First, signs could be read in relation to each other: modern food to famous paintings to colonial, historic buildings—the logic of the series not being manifested until all had been seen. Second, each Venturi “Bicentennial” sign was seen in relation to a comparable, extant commercial message—a typical food in relation to an ad for a commercial food, and so on. In one case an advertisement for a contemporary “colonial-style” house was shown in relation to a Bicentennial sign depicting an actual, historical colonial building.

Venturi’s design for a Science Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, returns its subject matter to its own geographic location. Just as modern artists such as Flavin or Buren wish to control the entire architectural environment, so architects have moved toward assuming total control, in their own right, designing more than the external shells of buildings. Venturi is interested here in representing (redesigning) the museum’s conceptual relationship to place. In the Science Museum, the geography of the area is presented not only through displays inside the museum, but also outside, through environment in which both the city, and the spectator are located. The more sculptural depiction provided by a geological map of a region is meant to contrast with the conventional maps found in typical museum displays. Venturi also has taken typical museum objects and displays out of the neutral setting of the building’s interior and has placed them, instead, within the three-dimensional, “real” context of its urban surroundings. Thus the city, and the museum as an artifact of urban culture, are contrasted to and placed back within the countryside that surrounds them.

In recent years these and other artists have increasingly blurred the line separating private, “high-art” work from vernacular and corporate-commercial discourse. In all of this work, attention is focused on the subtexts that underlie the visual rhetoric of both art and public signs.

Dan Graham is an artist whose previous article, “Art in Relation to Architecture/Architecture in Relation to Art,” appeared in the February, 1979 issue of Artforum.


1. Jeff Wall, Problems, Vancouver. B.C.: Simon Fraser University, 1979.

2. Buzz Spector, Objects and Logotypes: Relationships Between Minimalist Art and Corporate Design (exhibition catalogue), Chicago: Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, 1980.

3. John Knight, personal conversation with the author, 1979.

4. Ali, quoted in Richard Goldstein, “In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below,” Village Voice, December 24–30, 1980.

5. T. J. Clark, Image of the People, London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.

6. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972.