“Words At Liberty”

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

“Words at Liberty,” an exhibition of 73 works on paper, demonstrates that for more than half a century visual artists have tried to reorient language for purposes of self-expression. Much of this work is impelled by the artist’s sense that language has often been devalued to the point of meaninglessness. It is therefore ironic that this exhibition is organized into “overlapping non-chronological categories” which are unintelligible, inadequate, misapplied, domineering, and/or confused.

For example, “words . . . that dominate the picture plane . . . and . . . become presences that revoke linguistic function” includes some works which actually give increased power to “linguistic function.” The Claes Oldenburg Ray Gun Poster (1961) spells out “ray gun” in letters that appear burned out of paper, provoking a mental image of how a ray gun acts, even though a viewer may never have seen one in operation. Similarly, the category “. . . signifier and signified are identical” includes works whose word and image are not at all alike; consider the Rafael Mandavi Picnic (1975) whose inscription, “picnic,” is below the image of a floating open box. The exhibition category “words . . . as expanded statements which demand to be read” includes works whose words cannot possibly be read. For example, Laurie Anderson’s New York Times Horizontal–China Times Vertical (1976) makes it impossible to follow one newspaper without consistently bumping into the other. Anderson’s overall pattern of woven newspaper strips makes a statement counter to categories, using products of traditionally separate cultures as inextricably connected and equal.

In addition to fighting with the single works of art, these artificial categories often fight the artist’s entire oeuvre. Nancy Spero’s words are highly charged conveyors of social and political meaning; yet in the category “words . . . that dominate the picture plane . . . and . . . become presences that revoke linguistic function” her ARS et 1974 is presented as nothing more than some sort of little calligraphic design. John Baldessari uses words wittily to alter ways in which an image may be understood; yet in the category “. . . signifier and signified are identical” his Place a Book in a Strong Light (1966–68) is presented as only sober, serious information. Baldessari’s characteristic droll humor—an Art Fundamentals book illuminated in a washed-out yellow light—is apparently misunderstood.

The exhibition catalog demonstrates another type of strange displacement: Baldessari’s Place a Book in a Strong Light travels. In the gallery it shores up “. . . signifier and signified are identical”; but in the catalogue it’s needed to buttress works whose use of words “extends the dialogue by transmitting directions and requests to the viewer . . . contradicting what is perceived as the hearer becomes the viewer.” Also in transit is Jasper Johns’ Voice (1967), whose billowing blackness around the inscription “voice” is called in the exhibition “. . . words conflicting with the image,” but in the catalogue falls under forms that “objectify what by definition cannot be visualized.”

All of which gives credence to the notion that language like art must be fresh and immediate in order to have value. Just listen to this category: “. . . signifier and signified are identical . . . synthesis of visual and verbal elements is the primary goal . . . with the image actualizing the text.” When you eliminate the gratuitous verbiage and substitute a chaste “the words explain the picture,” the category isn’t even interesting. The works of art are speaking but the exhibition doesn’t listen.

C. L. Morrison