PRINT December 1989


FREUD, IN HIS EARLY WRITINGS, considered the making of visual art a primitive or infantile stage of expression to be followed, and improved upon, by the development of language. Linguists do not consider the possibility of a language that is solely visual. It’s true that some contemporary art is consciously molded to linguistic rules, which makes it easier to write about critically, and the explanations, interpretations, and analyses from the press become a part of the work, since the work is set up to include them. But painting seems for the most part to have its own, nonlinguistic dimension. Though it can almost be described in words, even analyzed in linguistic terms, there is always a place where language fails to engage within the languagelike rules given in the work, which, after all, is directed to issues of nonverbal meaning as well as to external ones of culture, politics, and so on.

The question changes, however, when the art itself contains language as its sole image. Does a painting of a word portray language, or some paradoxically nonverbal aspect of language? Is it subject to the usual questions of esthetics? Does the commonplace vocabulary with which we react to a painting—familiar words like “expressive,” “empirical,” “spiritual,” “intuitive,” et cetera—still apply? What does a painting of the word sky, for example, convey that a painted skyscape omits, and vice versa, and what does the combination of visual, tactile, and verbal matter express that any of these elements alone would not?

Is it possible to transcend the limitations of either language or image?

Although all of these questions have been addressed by 20th-century artists and their critical explicators, the issue becomes particularly loaded when art deals with the taboo, or with those physical/psychical needs and functions so integral to human life as to focus intensely our desire and our terror of the unknown. Loving. Dying. These aspects of our existence are basic subjects for art, and in a period when art is actively exploring the use of language, it’s a self-evident step to approach them linguistically. In doing so, though, artists are touching on a far older phenomenon.

Many cultures contain the idea of the taboo word, the magic word, the word that hides a secret—a forbidden idea, vow, act. And if what is secret can only be imagined—only imaged, pictured, in the mind—then perhaps we can say that what the word hides is an image. The word disguises the secret, insinuates it without revealing it, softens its impact. The word is not the secret itself; it is the secret’s mask of concealment. It hides the thing or action of which it is an idea. Contingent upon facts and events outside of itself, the word is symbolic, resembling the symbolic literature and art that represent their subjects in codes understandable only to those who know the key. Yet the word itself is not secret but explicit. Although it may become, by its association with the forbidden, a secondary forbidden—a disturbing stand-in for the real thing—everyone seems to know it, and it names clearly what it represents. It is a protective device, reminding us of what feels unthinkable, impossible, yet unavoidable, and helping us to tolerate it. Thus the word becomes an icon of what it protects us against. It draws the image of the forbidden into a fixed conventional thought.

Loving. Dying. In the West, the way a written or printed word looks is usually irrelevant to its meaning. Unlike Chinese or Japanese pictographic calligraphy, Western text is not a visual illustration of its own content. In calligraphy, both the pictograph itself and its execution, its quality, are conceptually integral to what is written; the idea and the writing of it intertwine, the literary marrying with the visual, so that a poem’s form as a shape on paper—as a drawing—is essential to its core of meaning. The Roman alphabet, of course, is not pictographic, but Western painters have been able to apply calligraphic principles. In Robert Motherwell’s “Je t’aime” pictures, 1955–57, for example, the French words for “I love you” are writ large and roughly calligraphic, in dark oils, over a succession of broken fields. The canvases show handwriting and drawing as the same thing—show writing as painting, or, more precisely, as expressionist painting. As for love, Motherwell’s series is virtually a portrait of it in the ’50s—tender, somber, sentimental, and somewhat artificially touching.

Bruce Nauman’s Eat/Death, 1972, is equally pictorial. At the beginning and end respectively of a neon sign reading EAT, the letters D and H flash on and off, transforming an invitation to consumption into an omen of the end of all appetite. The work is an anagram at once self-definitive and self-contradictory, at once an icon’s caption and the icon itself. The viewer’s subconscious, also captionlike, functions as a subtext, for Eat Death snaps us between huge emotions, suggesting, in the same instant, ultimate gratification and ultimate terror. Moving through the series of responses evoked Rorschachlike by the image, we are at once passive and active participants in the work. There is an aspect of the myth or fairy tale here: as in classical legend, the viewer/protagonist, blind and unknowing, stumbles upon a dangerous truth that was always obvious, always there to be seen and yet, for some fated reason, that always remained unseen. Eat is buried in death. It has always been there, though we/I/you missed it. Stupid! Living is eating up time until we die. Or death is eating up life. Or death is inevitable—eat that.

This icon, this taboo (it conjures a hint of cannibalism), is written as though in script from the heavens—in luminous letters of flashing blue. The rhythmically flickering light is a touch sadistic: EAT . . . DEATH . . . EAT . . . DEATH. It stirs up the ambivalence between fulfillment and fear, not only emphasizing the text but providing a meaning that would otherwise be absent. Death does not communicate its terror by analogy; Nauman’s piece delivers the message, and does so in a complicated way, at once hidden and obscure and clear and obvious. Language is the image, neon is the color, and electricity is the medium.

Robert Indiana’s 1966 work Love—the well-known picture of the four letters of its title arranged in a double row as a perfect square—appeared first as a painting, then as a poster, a sculpture, an eight-cent stamp. It was virtually a logo of the mid to late ’60s, when “love,” or so went the thinking of the time, was “free.” And part of the power of the work was this twist it gave a sexually and emotionally loaded word, a nearly secret word, which now had no secret behind it but stood for something happy, trivial, apparently careless—sex and love as fun, as entertainment, like going to the movies. Love’s image in this work was an advertising image. If the script of Motherwell’s “Je t’aime” made love plaintively sentimental, Indiana’s simple graphic described something simple and graphic. In 1962, the artist had used similarly blunt stencil-style lettering to paint the word DIE, making the connection between love and death.

Two years ago, the Canadian artists’ group General Idea created a poster based on Indiana’s Love but substituting the word AIDS. They returned Indiana’s image to the taboo—literally so, for in the age of AIDS, “free” love of any kind seems a taboo. Also, of course, in our culture, homosexual practices have been the forbidden love. Last year at Artspace, an alternative space in San Francisco, General Idea papered a room with the multicolored posters. As visual decor, as color and pattern, the room seemed bright and cozy, but the word crept up on the viewer as the writing on the wall.

The poster was seen again this fall, translated into the flickering electric light of the Spectacolor public-display board in Manhattan’s Times Square. Despite its formidable economy (the uncluttered graphic directness it shares with its ’60s model), it seemed to create a dolorous circuit between love and fear. The piece illuminated love today through the love of the ’60s, Indiana’s LOVE. In doing so, it showed how the climate has changed.

Children know what shamans of all denominations know, what Freud and Lacan knew—that words are magic. General Idea’s AIDS image reminded me of that. Seen big and in lights over Times Square, it said to a large public what Nauman had said: EAT DEATH. And it tied together the pair of Indiana pieces: LOVE and DIE, pointing out the bitter irony between the ’60s advertising image of love and the truth of mortality, and revealing the painful and startling contradiction of love as part of any equation with mortal illness. At the same time, by helping to make the AIDS crisis visible, in opposition to the morbid forces that would keep it obscure, the display board showed that LOVE does not equal DIE. Love is an action, an act for life. That is not changed by AIDS.

AIDS is our culture’s secret word that everyone knows, a taboo word for a taboo fact. The General Idea AIDS poster puts the lie to a whole conservative sociopolitical atmosphere. Heidegger, when he wrote about Being, felt that he could not write it without crossing it through: Being. For existence is temporal and finite, and cannot be thought about without thinking about its opposite. Art, it seems to me, can do the same thing: can impart a sense of mortality, and a sense of the ironic disjunction between our desire for permanence and the fact of our transience. Commingling loving and the threat to life, the AIDS poster is a poignant reminder of the dichotomy implicit in Greek tragedy: the coexistence of consciousness and the lack of complete control. It does what Heidegger did—for a word with a cross through it is not a word; it’s a picture. And sometimes a picture is the only way to get the General Idea.

Pat Steir is an artist and writer who lives in New York. This article is in memory of her friend Jürgen Glaesemer.