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Below you will find applications to the art theory of Stefan Beyst

Ever more examples will be added until there is a complete overview of the most important forms of verbal signs (whether or not conjuring up representations)that pose for art. The non-verbal counterpart is dealt with in 'Applications: non-verbal statements"


baldessari bochner eerdekens picasso kosuth nauman on kawara vautier weiner wool


PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)

In 1913, Picasso introduced letters in painting, where they had been banned for a long time. The letters are those of a journal, that is integrated in an imitation (still life). But his example inspired other to make a further stride.

rené magritte (1998-1967)

The letters 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' are painted on the painting with the same name. This time, they are not part of an imitation, they rather make a statement about it. No doubt, this is paint on canvas. But not an artwork: a statement about mimesis.


Ben Vautier paints all kind of verbal statements on panels like ': 'J'ai voulu abandonner l'art, mais j'en ai fait de l'art', 'L'oeuvre ici s'identifie au message'
, 'Art est un mot écrit':

art est un mot écrit

Statements about art, not art.

Ben Vautier produced also non-verbal statements about art.


In the late sixties, John Baldessari made some 'text paintings' with painted phrases like 'Pure Beauty' (1967) or: 'A two-dimensional surface without any articulation is a dead experience' (1967). 'What Is Painting' (1966–68) presents a painted text, that ends with the statement: 'Art is a creation for the eye and can only be hinted at with words'. Elswhere, Baldessari promises: 'I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art.' (1971). Baldessari soon proceeded to a series of paintings that juxtopposed a photo with a line of text in the vain of Magritte: a photo of a glass with the phrase 'A glass is a glass'. We are dealing here with - rather cheap - verbal statements about art. In other works, the statements are non-verbal.


Mel Bochner is one of the pioneers of 'conceptual art'. He began to use language in 'paintings': statements like 'Language is Not Transparent'. He uses not only letters, but also other symbol systems like measurement and counting - think of his room measurement pieces from 1969 onwards. Not only propositions are written down, but also concepts like 'betweenness' are made visible: ''Thoughts made visible'. But visualising the sound of spoken words through writing them down is quite a different thing from 'visualising thought', which in its turn should not be confounded with providing visual instances of an idea. In none of the three cases, 'visualising' does not turn thoughts into art... In the best case, we are dealing with poor philosophical ideas wrapped in more or less interesting design of letters, numbers and diagrams...

By the way, I know of more interesting 'ideas' than 'betweenness'...


The semiotic/linguistic approach of art placed the image on the same footing as the sign (or symbol). That gave a strong impetus to conceptual art. Joseph Kosuth does no longer imitate. Instead, he provides definitions, together with a photo and the real thing in 'One and three chairs' (1965). That the letters are rendered in different colours like in 'Four colors for words' (1966)does not turn them into visual art. This is just a case of semiotic use of the medium.


In 1967, Bruce Nauman dishes up the following statement: 'The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths'. But it is not because this profound wisdom is written in neon letters and hung on the wall of the museum, that it would suddenly become art. And that goes also when the words are painted. Besides, one can really ask some questions about another statement of Bruce Nauman,
this time in an interview:: '“If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art'.


From 1968 onward, Lawrence Weiner
established himself as a representant of 'conceptual art'. This concept covers many freights. In a first series of cases, we are dealing with a kind of scores for the execution of paintings. In other cases, like the trenches in asphalt, we are dealing with displayed reality. In still other cases, we are dealing with signs (symbols) that conjure up representations, like in the series 'En route' (2005). This is a kind of 'visual poetry': literature, where the design of the letters plays an important role. And, finally, there are the verbal statements about art, like the meanwhile famous ‘Declaration of Intent’ van 1968:

“(1) The artist may construct the piece.
(2) The piece may be fabricated.
(3) The piece may not be built.
[Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.]”


To understand why the man nevertheless calls himself an artist - to be more precise: a sculptor - we refer to 'Lawrence Weiner: and the flesh became word'

ON KAWARA (°1933)

In 1966, On Kawara started with the 'Today Series': a series of meanwhile more than two thousand 'paintings' with dates ('Date paintings'), sometimes combined with words and with excerpts from the papers of that day in an accompanying box. On thing and another can conjure up representations in the mind of the onlooker, but it is not determined which representations, even when we get, apart from the date, also other cues like 'One thing/Vietnam'. We are dealing here with a rather rudimentary form of mimesis. To be sure, it is only the representations, however unspecified, that are mimesis, not the 'paintings' that conjure them up. We are not dealing here with' paintings', hence, but rather with a primitive form of literature: comparable with an autobiography that would consist of the sequence of
dates, calligraphed with great care.


A rather intelligent and captivating variant is to be found with Fred Eerdekens. Through a sophisticated lighting, carefully selected objects are transformed in words. Thereby, sentences appear like: 'God/Ego' (1990), 'Holy Spirit come Home' (1997),'Could suggest something vague and unclear' (1999), 'Men ga een zachter gang' (1999), 'Life itself is not enough' (1999), 'Neo Deo' (2002), 'Tralala' (2002), 'Mhmmm' (2002), 'Passage Histoire (2003), 'Minimum' (2004), 'Ooohaah!' (2004), 'Forever' (2005' 'Words Gone' (2005), 'I hate Words' (2005), 'In a name' (2005).


passage histoire

Fred Eerdekens' creations are not just verbal statements about the world. What makes them interesting is the fact that de objects, the shades of which are words, contribute to constitute to meaning of the message. A remarkable feat in that respect is 'Neo Deo' (2002):

'neo deo' (2002)

The sophisticated letter design realises here on the visual plane, what rhyme, alliteration and assonance realise on the auditory plane.


During the 1990s, Christopher Wool painted texts in black and white which he painted during the 1990s, often using quotations, cut up randomly or partially erased or destroyed otherwise, so that the meaning is only discovered gradually. This has nothing to do with art as mimesis: we are dealing with mere letter design (of mostly non-literary texts)..

© Stefan Beyst, 2006

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