Kay Rosen


Kay Rosen’s syntactical paintings are covered with words. Here she showed six recent works, all done in enamel sign paint on canvas, all in the same small, square format. All of them feature four short rows of words or names in white or brightly colored boldface sans-serif italic against fields of solid black. In each work a narrow margin matches the hue of the words. Rosen’s carefully painted Futura typography looks very similar to that used in Barbara Kruger’s critical rhetoric, but the resemblance is strictly formal. Rosen’s interest is more in language itself, in the tension between the discrete meaning of the syllable and the transformation of sense that develops from its arrangement into words and sentences. To that end she scales her words so as to make the sides of these canvases serve as interrupting margins, forcing word breaks that change the meaning of the text.

In John Wilkes Booth, 1987, Rosen has painted four words in red on black, breaking them into an almost perfect stack of doubled syllables: “assass/in in/the the/ater.” Not until the last line does the strategy of interruption reveal itself. The stack of yellow names in Dred Scott, 1987, alludes to the infamous 1857 Supreme Court decision that blacks were not entitled to the rights of citizens. The shared syllable among the four names (“Dred/Eldred/Mildred/Modred”) suggests a kind of family tree, like the one in the fifth chapter of Genesis. Here, Dred begat Eldred and Mildred, who can only look forward to “more dread.” Rosen succinctly evokes the history of Dred Scott’s descendants, who have inherited a tradition of racism, oppression, and fear.

Part of the success of Rosen’s wordplay comes from her effective choice of typography in these paintings. Some of the artist’s earlier work, such as her book Line on Lines, 1982, and her installation at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1984, suffered from her predilection toward kitschy, ’50s-style lettering. There, Rosen’s critique of the tasteful, corporate alphabet was subsumed by the nostalgic connotations of her scavenged letterforms, allying them instead to the letter fetishism of concrete poetry. In contrast, the consistent use here of a single typeface ties together the entire suite of works, letting other aspects of their pictorial syntax be read.

Rosen’s fields of black are barely contained by their bordering lines. Viewed from directly in front, the painted edge looks very thin, but from an angle the border is seen to wrap around the sides of the work. The tension set up by that carefully calibrated play of the stretcher bars is accentuated by the push of bold letterforms against the column margin.

The subtle duplicity of two kinds of reading is most effectively demonstrated in this design.

Buzz Spector