Abstract Critical

Words in Paintings: Paintings into Words

Charles Harrison on the origins of Conceptual Art:

“One of the reasons, I think, for the crisis that could produce Conceptual art, the crisis of modernism, was both the development and at the same time the decline of abstract art. What high modernism meant – the highest values of modernism in the 1950s and 1960s – was invested in immaculate abstract paintings: in Pollock, in Rothko, Morris Louis, Barnett Newman. This was the best art of the time, no question. Anyone who was serious knew that. But it seems to me that what this art was doing was making the very best of the price that modernism itself had had to pay for its initial critique of the academic, the literary, the mythological – all that – things that had propped up academic art. In a way,what modernism did was to strip away literature, and in doing that it also deprived itself of certain possibilities of intellectual content, complication and depth. There was no clearer sign of that than the absolute antimony – the separation – that high modernism made between art and text. So the most unimaginable thing would be a word written on a Rothko painting. It would be a complete act of vandalism. It was conceptually ruled out.

But then, if abstract art has no further to go, what’s art left with? Where to find its content? The smart people in the 1950s – Jasper Johns is the paradigm – see that problem. What does Johns do? He starts putting words into abstract paintings, putting the text back in. He says ‘I’m believing art to be a language’ and so on. That’s the ultimate critique of Abstract Expressionism – to put words into the painting. But of course, John’s gambit is limited, in the sense that the words are always assimilated to a pictorial surface, so they are always subordinate to a painterly kind of representation.

The next move, in the wake of John’s work is to make the text pictorial – as people like On Kawara did – finding ways to make textual subjects into pictures; the text as picture. Kosuth’s ‘Definitions’, painting with words, Mel Ramsden’s early ‘Guaranteed Paintings’, ‘Secret Paintings’, 100 % Abstract (1968), again are texts turned into pictures. That’s happening in the late sixties. That’s a sort of primitive Conceptual art. In a way, things like Weiner’s ‘Statements’ are a bit more sophisticated because they are not pictorial texts, but they are texts that create the strange sense of ‘What’s the work?’ Is it the text or is it the material surface that the text evokes?”

Charles Harrison in conversation with Elena Crippa, January 2009, in Charles Harrison:Looking Back, Ridinghouse, 2011, p. 203


  1. Natalie Dower said…

    Enjoyed the comments but can´t help finding your elucidation of ´antimony´ a bit comical.
    Apologies !

  2. Nick Moore said…

    Motherwell should also be included in ‘the best art of the time’, and he was not only literary but a philosopher….If the ultimate critique of abstract expressionism was putting the words back in, then Motherwell was well ahead of his time! see his his collages, espicially ‘Viva’ from 1947; and the ‘Je T’aime’ series of the mid fifties where the writing was in integral part of the image.