Trends Fairs USA

Artists have the last word at the fair

Large or small print, in neon or on canvas—text-based art is everywhere at Art Basel Miami Beach

The joy of text:?John Baldessari’s Prima Facie (Second State): Puzzled, 2005, at Sprüth Magers (L16). Photo: Vanessa Ruiz

“Greedy schmuck”, “So what”, “Other people think”: the walls of Art Basel Miami Beach seem noisier than usual this year, with a profusion of text-based works. Barbara Kruger’s huge vinyls, inspired by advertising slogans, can’t help but catch the eye throughout the fair—her works are at Mary Boone Gallery (D9), Sprüth Magers (L16), L&M Arts (M7) and Skarstedt Gallery (D10)—while at Richard Gray Gallery (C3), enormous painted letters by Jack Pierson, The world is yours, 2002 (which sold for $450,000), greet visitors at one of the fair’s entrances.

Smaller but equally conspicuous neons also grace the walls, including Alfredo Jaar’s Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, 1995 ($36,000 at Galerie Lelong, G1), Tavares Strachan’s You belong here (white), 2012 (up to $25,000 at Galería Elvira González, D13), and Claude Lévêque’s nostalgic installation We are happy family, 2012 (sold for €65,000 at Galerie Kamel Mennour, M11).

Didactic works such as Kruger’s Buy low sell high, 2012, at Sprüth Magers, and Sam Durant’s Dream more work less, 2012 (Blum & Poe, K21), have also proved popular with buyers: on the fair’s opening day, the Kruger sold for $275,000 and all three editions of Durant’s work went for $35,000 (these works have since been replaced on the stands). “Text can be fun, light and ebullient, so it chimes with the Miami mood,” Tim Blum says. At Goodman Gallery (C20), Damon Garstang says visitors are finding Hank Willis Thomas’s I am the man, 2012, “quite absorbing”. It is certainly one of the most popular pictures for people to be photographed against (a quick ego boost?), and it has sold for $20,000.

Although working with text is a well-worn legacy of Conceptual art, many of the more instantly inviting works here make their impact by also being appealing to the consumer-driven market they address (Buy low sell high being a prime example). “Kruger’s work is charged with commerce, art, relationships—that appeals,” says Jim Oliver at Mary Boone. The gallery’s sales include the artist’s Untitled (Big shot), 2012, and Untitled (Love hurts), 2012, which went for $250,000 each.

Not all the text-based work is as immediately accessible as an advertising campaign. “There are different activities being invoked when language is applied,” says Beatrix Ruf, the director of the Kunsthalle Zürich. John Baldessari’s use of words alongside an image “informs the way you look at both”, says Andreas Gegner of Sprüth Magers, in reference to Baldessari’s large-scale work Prima Facie (Second State): Puzzled, 2005 ($350,000). Kay Rosen’s admiration for the visual and aural possibilities of words is evident, and enjoyable, at Sikkema Jenkins (L12), where her four-part installation The up and down paintings, 2000, is on offer for $175,000.

Reading between the lines

Jack Pierson also enjoys the intellectual possibilities of language. “A lot of my work is about realising how powerful a word can be,” he says. Pierson also has pieces on view at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (C11), Regen Projects (C14) and Christian Stein (F7). Such processes owe much to the Conceptual analyses of printing and language realised in works such as Luis Camnitzer’s A Text Printed Twice on Canvas, 1972, at Alexander Gray Associates (K3, sold for $60,000), and Ed Ruscha’s Rusty Silencers and Corkscrew Clause, both 1979, at Acquavella Galleries (C4, $320,000 each).

As a direct way of communicating, text can also help an artist’s preoccupations come to the fore. “Much of it is political or [is used] to bring our attention to the pitfalls of narrative, documentation or ideologies,” says the art adviser Lisa Schiff. This is evident in Andrea Bowers’s activist installations, Tree sitting platform…, 2012, at Andrew Kreps Gallery (J5, $20,000-$26,000, two of three sold), and in Glenn Ligon’s No Room (Gold) #50, 2007, with Richard Gray ($375,000). There is also a swathe of feminist artists who have used text since the 1970s to get their points across. “It was a time when women had a lot to say and text in art was another way to be heard,” says Sarah Watson of L&M, in reference to Jenny Holzer’s 1983 LED work Truisms ($400,000).

More often than not, words can add to a work’s complicated message. “I find the best of [text art] to be often even more opaque than an abstract painting would appear to a complete novice,” Schiff says. This is borne out in works such as Joseph Kosuth’s Error of philosophers #8, 1991—which includes the phrase “whether on the other hand all existence is not an interpreting existence”—at Lia Rumma (K7, around €100,000), Rosemarie Trockel’s Russian-lettered Untitled, 2012, a yarn piece at Gladstone Gallery (H12, sold for around $700,000) and Antonio Manuel’s multilingual, newspaper-intervention piece He tied a Goat in Dance of Evil—Clandestine Series, 1973, at Galeria Luisa Strina (K14, $350,000).

The profusion of text among the neon, canvas, vinyl and installation works at the fair, many of them made this year, is an example of the increasing possibilities now available to contemporary artists. “It’s not necessarily that they are now more in favour of using text, [but] that they are working more with everything now,” Ruf says.

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10 Dec 12
15:23 CET


Another empty stage of fashionable art that says nothing of importance. The idea is neither new or special. We should probable call this new art Textism.

8 Dec 12
19:50 CET


Funny, I just once again pondering how Chinese calligraphy is taken as art. Of course, it is done with a brush, on its own, or carved into clay. My conclusion about why it is art is that most Chinese people never learned to write, and it was actually prohibited for the commoner to learn to write, so, there is, more or less, a real basis for elevating it to art. Moreover, it can be very stylish. So, to me, the West using text as art is like the West following China, but with less style, which is really disheartening to someone who knows China and art.

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