[In a recent post, “Words and Pictures?” (25 July), I ruminated on the way film writer Gerald Di Pego and director Fred Schepisi of Words and Pictures created a story pitting “words”—that is, language—against “pictures”—that is, images—told in a medium that relies on both words and pictures so significantly. I noted in that article that there are “artists who use both words and pictures,” naming specifically William Blake, “who integrated text into his images,” and Jenny Holzer, “who uses words as pictures” in her work. I also brought up the Dada poets, who “used words not so much for their meanings as for the pictures they could make on the printed page.” One artist who also incorporated text into many of his paintings, drawings, and photographs whom I didn’t mention is David Wojnarowicz, and I’m sure there are several others as well. I thought, though, that it would be an interesting exploration to examine the work of these artists and see what, if anything, we can glean from them.]
In the movie Words and Pictures, released earlier this year, screenwriter Gerald Di Pego and director Fred Schepisi set up a contrived conflict between Jack Marcus, a veteran prep school English teacher, once-renowned poet, and general word maven (played by Clive Owen), and newly-arrived art teacher Dina Delsanto, a celebrated painter with a successful New York career seemingly behind her (Juliette Binoche). The two soon-destined-to-be-lovers tease and provoke one another right from the moment they meet in the faculty lounge over which medium is the better conveyor of ideas and feelings, words—that is, writing, Marcus’s specialty and obsession—or pictures—the focus of Delsanto’s world and life. It’s not long, after Delsanto has disparaged words in her art class and Marcus responds in his English class (which share a large number of students), before the poet challenges the painter to a contest to prove whose metier is worthier: his students will compose pieces of writing and hers will create paintings and drawings and the best of each will be published in the next edition of the school’s literary magazine (which Marcus edits). (The contest eventually evolves into a challenge for Marcus, who’s been blocked for years, to write a new poem from which Delsanto, who suffers from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, will draw inspiration for a new painting.) In the end, the students and faculty of the school will judge the results and decide which creation has accomplished the artist’s purpose more effectively.
I said this was contrived, not only because Di Pego and Schepisi have set it all up very conveniently, but because there’s not really a conflict between words and pictures to begin with. This is especially so since most of Delsanto’s AP art students are also Marcus’s AP English students, portrayed as the school’s best and brightest who manage to use both words and pictures interchangeably as the need and circumstances necessitate. When the final show-down occurs at the end of the movie, Marcus makes a passing concession that, of course, both writers and painters are artists who “take us to another place.” (As I observed in the first article, the movie does use music in one scene in which Marcus expresses his feelings to Delsanto, a medium that’s neither words nor pictures, but that idea isn’t developed. I’m not going to develop it here, either, except to say that there are other artistic means, like music, dance, and architecture, which don’t—or don’t strictly—depend on words or pictures in order to communicate ideas, moods, or feelings.)
Not even considered in Words and Pictures is the phenomenon of artists who use both text and imagery to make their art, and what I want to do here is take a look at those creative spirits from that narrow perspective: their use of words and pictures together. It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything at all, we get from this examination—because I honestly don’t know what the results will be; it’s an honest-to-God exploration and I have no idea what’s on the other side of this mountain. (Talk about going to another place!) Shall we have a look-see?
WILLIAM BLAKE (1757-1827)
William Blake was an English poet, painter, engraver, and printmaker who was born in Soho, London. Largely home-schooled (by his mother) and then self-educated—he left school at ten, after learning to read and write—he was seen as a visionary and a mystic. An outspoken iconoclast in both his poetry and his visual art, he was something of a social outcast during his lifetime as well. He’s also considered by some to be the first multi-media artist because of the books he made for his richly illustrated poems, particularly Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794).
Blake self-published his books of poetry, using etched copper plates to effect the integrated text and images, tinting the engravings by hand with water colors afterwards or using a method he invented himself. Many critics find this evidence that the artist and poet never intended his poems and illustrations to be separated. Blake printed each copy of what he called “illuminations” by hand, in different colors, with different details, and sometimes with the poems in a different sequence. In some estimations, the books are as beautiful as medieval illuminated manuscripts, “the words enhanced by decoration of design and colour,” in the view of Kathleen Raine, a poet, critic, and scholar with a particular interest in Blake.
Blake’s designs are immensely complex, full of symbols and mythology that he invented, requiring readers to use their imaginations to comprehend the dialogue the artist set up between his texts and his illustrations. “At a time when painting had become a manner and a mannerism,” wrote Jacob Bronowski, a mathematician, biologist, historian of science, theatre author, poet, and inventor who wrote several books on the artist, “Blake crowded his paintings with matter. It was not wholly a painter’s matter; but neither was it a writer’s matter. It was common to all that he did, the single and compact matter of a great imagination. And Blake knew how he wanted to put this matter. He knew that it needed a manner of its own . . . .” Literary critic Harold Bloom contends that Blake invented a new art form that combines design and text in varied ways so that the two “illuminate one another” and Raine wrote: “Such art comes from a source deeper than the individual experience of poet or painter, and has a power of communication to that same level in the spectator.”
Literary critic Northrop Frye, who established his reputation with a book on Blake, wrote:
In the Preface to Jerusalem [1804–20] Blake speaks with pride of having developed a free and unfettered verse, but he hardly seems to notice that he had at the same time perfected a far more difficult and radical form of mixed art, for which there is hardly a parallel in the history of modern culture. The union of musical and poetic ideas in a [Richard] Wagner opera is a remote analogy; but the poetry is not independent of the music in Wagner as it is of the painting in Blake. Blake seems to have worked on his text and his pictorial ideas simultaneously: this is clear from the manuscript of The Four Zoas , where the pencil sketches in the margins indicate that Blake did not think in terms of a poem to be written first and decorated afterward, but, from the beginning, in terms of a narrative sequence of plates.
Blake’s words and pictures weren’t just the two sides of a coin or a matched set, created merely to compliment one another. They were both independent of one another and dependent on one another simultaneously. Frye explained:
Blake . . . hit very early on a form in which text and design are simultaneously present and contrapuntally related. From the start Blake avoids all devices that would tend to obscure either text or design at the expense of the other. . . . The words are left alone to do their own work.
More surprising than the independence of the words from the design is the independence of the design from the words. . . . In Blake the poem does not point to the picture . . . . On the other hand, the design is not, like most illustrations, an attempt to simplify the verbal meaning. . . . [W]e can see that, so far from simplifying the text, the design has added a new dimension of subtlety and power.
So, from this brief examination, it seems that William Blake, at least, “thought” in both words and pictures, if not simultaneously then with equal import and weight. One medium for him wasn’t more “worthy” in its capability of communicating thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and they weren’t so much interdependent, either, but co-dependent. His poetry books were, perhaps unique (and maybe we’ll see), specimens of “words with pictures/pictures with words.”
THE DADA POETS (1916-24)
Dada, or Dadaism, was an art and political movement that evolved out of the aftermath of the start of World War I, the first mechanized war, and lasted for about eight years. It was first a reaction to the horrible destruction technology visited on humankind, but it quickly became a response to all forms of regimentation, oppression, suppression of thought and ideas, conventionality, and conformity. Anti-establishment, anti-conventional, and anti-regimentarian, the Dadaists were purposefully provocative and relentlessly anti-establishment—even (or especially, perhaps) with respect to the art establishment. They weren’t, however, without a considerable sense of humor; some of their work is profoundly silly. (For the interested ROTter, I posted a report on a 2006 and ’07 Dada art exhibit on this blog on 20 February 2010.)
Dada artists turned their hands to almost everything: painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and other usual forms of art; film, music, dance, theater and performance; printed works including posters and flyers for Dada events, books, journals and magazines; signs, illustrations; sound poems—and just about anything someone could come up with in the years between the World Wars. Since some of the originators of the Dada movement were poets, Dada poetry was one of its initial mainstays. In 1920, Tristan Tzara (1896-1963; born Samuel Rosenstock in Romania), one of the principal founders of the movement, even wrote out the process of creating a Dada poem:
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
What Tzara didn’t include in his instructions was the way the words were to be assembled on the page—the patterns the poet determined they should form. The Dada sound poems focused on words as sounds and just vocal noises; some were recorded, but they wouldn’t work too well on a printed page. The “literary” version of Dadaist poetry, if that’s even the correct designator, are sort of the reverse: they look interesting on the page, to the eye—but reading them, especially aloud, would be very difficult (if not even impossible). In his 1918 “Manifesto of Dadaism,” Tzara affirmed of Dada writing: “Every page should explode, either because of its profound gravity, or its vortex, vertigo, newness, timelessness, or because of its crushing humor, the enthusiasm of its principles, or the way it is printed” (my emphasis). Using typography itself as a medium of communication, the “pictures” the words made on the page were equally important as the sense the words conveyed, if not more so, requiring readers to look “at” the words as objects rather than just “through” them to meaning. Tzara, for example, wrote Bilan (“Balance Sheet”) in 1919 using 20 different typefaces, and German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) designed poems for Die Scheuche Märchen (The Scarecrow Fairy Tale, 1925) featuring anthropomorphic letters with feet and arms.
Today, this kind of work, in which the typographical arrangement of the text is the significant element in conveying the meaning or impact, known as visual or concrete poetry, depends almost exclusively on what the poem looks like on the page rather than what the words say. While some literary experts consider the two terms, coined in the 1950s, synonymous, others see visual poetry (called vispo by adherents to the form) as a subset or off-shoot of concrete poetry, while yet others consider them discrete forms. The distinction between them is that concrete poems may still convey meaning semantically, through rhyme, rhythm, and other aspects of word meaning and poetic diction, while visual poems are entirely pictorial in their effect, the words frequently nonsensical. I’m not going to enter into this debate, principally since Dada predates the use of either term and, therefore, Dada poetry is essentially sui generis. (Dada poetry is what it is, let’s say.)
One significant point in Tzara’s manifesto is that he said that Dada writing should be characterized by great impact of what it says OR by how it’s printed on the page—either words as words, or words as pictures. Unlike Blake’s illuminated poems, Dadaist poetry isn’t really an integrated, multi-media art form. While Blake worked in both media at once, the Dadaists used an either/or approach. They gave equal weight, perhaps, to both communications forms, but they didn’t make them work together. Dada visual poetry (as distinguished from the sound poems) relies almost entirely on the typography, together with the fonts, which often include a wide variety in each work, and the lay-out, and less on what the words mean denotatively or even connotatively (which, as we’ve seen, are often haphazardly assembled). In fact, when read, many of these Dada poems lose part or all their effect. (I should confess here that I’m generalizing about Dada poetry. Many of the artists and writers of the movement wrote decidedly avant-garde poems but still conveyed meaning through the semantic sense of the words.)
JENNY HOLZER (b. 1950)
Born in Gallipolis, Ohio, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer went to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Having taken summer classes there in 1974, she enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program in 1975; a year later she moved to New York City and joined the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Though Holzer started out to be an Abstract Expressionist—she “wanted to be soft like [Mark] Rothko and ruthless like Ad Reinhardt”—like many artists in that era, she became interested in a more socially-aware, even political art, especially in a feminist vein. The young artist began “concentrating on work that had content—accessible work,” she said in a 2012 interview. “There was a lot of talking and reading in the ISP, so language was welcome.” Looking for a way to insert narrative and commentary into visual art, she began putting words into her paintings. “I used language because I wanted to offer content that people—not necessarily art people—could understand,” Holzer says. Soon she abandoned traditional painting entirely and focused on language. She started displaying messages, mottoes, verses, and quotations in public spaces, such as billboards, the sides of subway cars, projections on building façades, plaques on storefronts, stone benches, and baseball parks—eventually mounting lighted electronic signs and her work began to share similarities with Dada art.
“Words, in fact,” wrote artist Kiki Smith in Interview magazine, “are the marrow of the 61-year-old Ohio-born artist's large-scale, technology-driven productions.” Holzer felt the writings she’d read in the Whitney’s ISP could be reduced down to simple phrases everyone could understand. She called them Truisms (1978), and she printed them anonymously on paper and pasted them on building façades, signs, and telephone booths in lower Manhattan. “Maybe I can convey some of the valuable content [of the ISP reading list] in an accessible way,” thought the artist. In 1977, Holzer had started writing her own texts, but since 1993 she’s focused on passages by others. These have included literary texts by respected authors but also quotations from other sources, such as declassified (and much redacted) government documents, including autopsy reports, military maps of the Iraq invasion plans, FBI e-mails from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and letters from Gitmo prisoners. One large LED display presented testimony from soldiers interrogated about atrocities they committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; other works in this line are Was in Baghdad Ochre Fade (2007) and Redaction Paintings (2009).
In addition to several successful exhibits at galleries and museums both in the U.S. (the Guggenheim, New York, 1989; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1991) and abroad (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1988; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany, 2000), Holzer become the first woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. The 1990 U.S. pavilion housed her LED signboards and marble benches. Holzer was one of the first artists to embrace new technology for her work—later she began using computers to manipulate and generate her texts, offering her a greater variety of possibilities in both text size and configuration—and the lighted messages became the artist’s main medium after 1996. In 2010, Holzer returned to painting on canvas, though her medium is still words. As she explained to Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian of London in 2012: “I wanted to show time and care. I wanted it to be an indicator of sincerity and attention. I wanted it to be human.” The artist also asserted, “The paintings seem true because nobody wants me to do them.” She insists, “I hope to show the truth.”
In 1993, while New York‘s Times Square was undergoing a massive renovation (some called it “Disney-fication”), Holzer created scores of signs and messages for the vacated storefronts of onetime porn shops and empty marquees of former grind houses along 42nd Street. Slogans such as “alienation produces eccentrics or revolutionaries,” “abuse of power comes as no surprise,” “raise boys and girls the same way,” and “laugh hard at the absurdly evil.” She has emulated the diction of advertising and political sound bites, and Smith asserts, “Holzer simultaneously honors the value of language to communicate and critiques its ability to control and contain.” In the words of Stuart Jeffries, Holzer’s “characteristic” texts are “as punchy as a headline, yet confusing to unsuspecting passersby.”
In contrast with William Blake, who was both a painter and a writer/poet, Holzer doesn’t perceive herself that way. “I really wasn't—and I'm not—a writer,” she admits. “[E]ventually writing wore me down because it didn't come naturally,” the artist explained. “The visual is easier for me”—which is why she turned to quoting others in her messages, “people who really are writers.”
The Dadaists were intent on ridiculing all that was conformist and establishmentarian. Their messages were anarchistic and provocative, and often hidden in obscurantism and nonsense. Holzer wants to illuminate with her messages, to throw light (if you will) on subjects previously hidden and secret, like the Abu Ghraib violations. While the Dada poets and artists were political only in a general way, espousing a kind of muscular libertarianism, Holzer is conscientiously political in her art. Her messages question consumerism and power; describe violence and torture; lament oppression, war, disease, and death; celebrate sexuality and feminism. She doesn’t offer an opinion or commentary on the words she displays, however, leaving the viewers to come to their own understandings of what the texts import. “I think the material speaks for itself,” Holzer told Jeffries. “There's no reason for me to give my pathetic opinion.”
“Ms. Holzer has infused Conceptual Art’s playful language with real-life seriousness,” wrote art critic Roberta Smith in the New York Times. Her intent is to provoke a response in the viewer and, critic Smith says, her work “regularly succeeds in taking us deep into the machinations of human frailty and power.” Holzer’s said, for instance, “The desperate things seem to require attention, the lovely things seem to elicit celebration. If I had to choose, I would go to the awful in the hope that doing something could yield a happier result.” In addition to the more substantial structures on which Holzer inscribes her words, they’ve also appeared on T-shirts, baseball caps, and even condom wrappers. “I like placing content wherever people look,” declares the artist, “and that can be at the bottom of a cup or on a shirt or hat or on the surface of a river or all over a building.”
DAVID WOJNAROWICZ (1954-92)
Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, painter, photographer, videographer, sculptor, writer, and activist (among other things) David Wojnarowicz dropped out of New York City’s High School of Music and Art at 16 and ran away from home to escape a violently abusive, alcoholic father. Most of his short life was fraught with hardship, artistic, political, or personal. After hitchhiking cross country and back between 1970 and ’73, Wojnarowicz settled again in New York, living for a time on the streets and working as a prostitute, thief, and hustler. The world in which Wojnarowicz lived is recorded in a graphic (and autobiographic) novel, Seven Miles a Second (DC Comics, 1996), created with artist and cartoonist James Romberger, and in the monologues he transcribed from some of the people he met on the streets, published in The Waterfront Journals (Grove Press, 1996). The artist’s own journals have also been published: In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz (Grove Press, 1999). His world’s also visible in much of Wojnarowicz’s art, especially his paintings, which often contain images and sometimes words reminiscent of the childhood he always carried with him. Sadly, when he died of AIDS in 1992—he was diagnosed in 1987—he hadn’t gotten very far chronologically from his childhood. (I posted a profile of the artist, “David Wojnarowicz,” on ROT on 15 March 2011; he’s also mentioned extensively in “The Return of HIDE/SEEK,” 4 January 2012.)
As early as 1970, Wojnarowicz began writing and taking photographs (with a stolen camera and film) to document his life and the life he saw around him, and also as a way to take control of his life, which was already painful and difficult. He was bearing witness to the history that the official record didn’t tell because, the artist thought, “People should witness things. They should, at the very bottom level, be witnessed.” This might be called Wojnarowicz’s creed and would be the prevailing impulse of the artist’s work in all the forms, including his writing— perhaps particularly his writing. His visual artworks were eclectic in their use of media, ranging from conventional canvas, to masonite, maps, advertising posters, photographs, trash-can lids, “found objects,” and such unlikely material as loaves of bread and plastic sharks—and he often incorporated texts into his paintings, along with other visual media. Wojnarowicz offered his art as testimony of life he felt no one else acknowledged. According to writer and cultural critic Cynthia Carr, “Art was his way of witnessing. On some level, the work was about putting information out there, exposing what’s usually hidden and creating cultural counterweight. Where the marginal were ignored, he would exalt them.” Personally shy and reticent (as was Jenny Holzer), art and writing gave him a way to say what he couldn’t in a social setting. It became the artist’s mission to call attention to any injustice he perceived in American society, especially (but not exclusively) where it concerned the gay community.
Wojnarowicz saw himself as an outsider in the art world; in fact, Wojnarowicz at first didn’t think of himself as an artist at all. “Artists,” according to him, “were such-and-such people,” people who were special, different from the rest of us. Wojnarowicz “wasn’t particularly an artist,” he insisted; he was just a guy with something to say who tried hard to find ways to say it—like music, writing, or installations. He’d been writing since he left the streets—poetry, transcribed monologues of street people—but photography was another way to chronicle the world he was witnessing and which few others, especially the established media, were recording. “A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history,” Wojnarowicz asserted. Some of his later works, including photographs, incorporate disparate visual media and written texts in the form of short stories, which, as in William Blake’s art work, are integrated into the painting with the other media (see He Kept Following Me and I Feel a Vague Nausea, both 1990).
In his essay in the catalogue for Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz (New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999), art historian and critic John Carlin wrote:
Simply put, David was not just an artist; he used art as a vehicle for something else, not as an end in itself. David was more like a shaman, the witch doctor of our tribe, than someone purely interested in formal relations or being smart. . . . He was less concerned with aesthetics than with communicating—about himself and society, about things that were real and actually happening but that no one wanted to talk about.
His artistic matrix, however, wasn’t beauty or even aesthetics in general. He had no interest in being “decorative.” Wojnarowicz wasn’t interested in design or composition—he hadn’t had any training in that anyway. He wanted to communicate, to show people what the world he saw looked like—even if they didn’t want to see it. He was a habitual truth-teller, even as a second-grader when he learned that everyone dies: “I remember running down the block and to every kid that I saw I said, ‘We all die, one day we’re all going to be dead!’” The kids cried and their parents decided Wojnarowicz was a sick child—because he thought everyone should know the truth. Leo Shapiro, the stage director whom I’ve mentioned often on ROT, believed that artists are society’s oracles. “The point of an oracle,” Shapiro asserted, “—you support the oracle, you don’t support what it says. It doesn’t always give you good news.”
In a 2011 Brooklyn Rail review, Kara L. Rooney called Wojnarowicz’s art “often elusive, sometimes dangerous, and always brutally honest.” Shapiro called Wojnarowicz “the canary in the mines—the ones that die first.” Rooney put Wojnarowicz in the category of the “selfless” artists whose artistic impulse
derives from a genuine passion for change, seeking to foster political and social awareness among disparate economic classes. The work of these artists challenges the status quo. It shakes things up. It provokes. It is groundbreaking in its execution and often only appreciated in hindsight. In short, it haunts us.
While writing had long been a mainstay of the artist’s creative life--he started keeping a journal when he was 17—text began appearing in his visual art in the 1970s. Wojnarowicz’s generation, in addition to being impelled to address issues of sex, race, gender, and ethnicity, was also drawn to mixing their media, including non-traditional ones like pop culture and even pornography and recycled materials like posters, maps, and even derelict cars. Like his contemporaries, Wojnarowicz saw little distinction among the various means of making art or making his statements, working in paint, sculpture, photography, installation, and collage with equal force. Wojnarowicz also made films and videos and was, as noted, a prolific writer and speaker as well. (He also played in a band, 3 Teens Kill 4, known as 3TK4, from a New York Post headline.) “Often juxtaposing text, paint, and collaged elements with photography,” observed Melissa Harris in Aperture magazine in 1994, “his works animate ideas and images, playing them off one another both ironically and metaphorically. Experiencing Wojnarowicz’s art is like being in the wake of a dream—or perhaps a nightmare.” Richard H. Axsom concluded of the artist’s legacy in a 2002 profile on glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture: “Of all the media and formats for which Wojnarowicz is known, the works that combine image and text are the most complex and moving, offering the best summary of his art.”
At a 2004 retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work that combined image and text, Out of Silence, the Chelsea gallery PPOW asserted: “Wojnarowicz's juxtaposition and overlay of the two signifying systems, the visual and the linguistic, is central to his artistic development.” In the works where the artist combined images and text, the words seem intended to be both read as text per se, and simultaneously to be seen as part of the overall visual message in tandem with the pictorial aspects. Wojnarowicz’s words enhance the pictures’ points, illuminating and concretizing them. In his graphic (in both senses) autobiography, 7 Miles a Second, for example, we can see very clearly that the text isn’t a direct narration of the pictures and the pictures don’t actually illustrate the words: they function separately and together, contrapuntally. In his essay on the artist, English professor Bill Albertini points out that “the text and visuals comment ironically, and darkly, on one another.” In some of Wojnarowicz’s mixed-media work, it’s not the picture that’s dominant, but the words: in Untitled (One day this kid . . .) (1990-91), for instance, the center of the piece is a ’50s-style photo of a freckle-faced boy, clearly the artist himself as a child, while all around the innocent-looking picture, occupying two-thirds of the space, is a text predicting the boy’s possible tragic future.
More akin to Blake than Holzer, Wojnarowicz was impelled to use any and all media to convey his ideas for several reasons. First, he just didn’t know any better: never having had any formal training in art or its establishment practices, the artist learned by observation, experiment, and imagination. Second, he possessed an endlessly restless and curious mind, always searching for new and more effective ways to communicate. Third, he was good at a lot of the forms, visual and textual. His painting was raw, rough, and powerful, and his writing was just as moving and brutal, poetic and honest. (He was an equally effective orator, by the way.) Oddly, though, he innately distrusted words, especially the way they were used (or abused) by politicians, bureaucrats, and advertisers—a kind of Postmodern Newspeak—in what he called “the preinvented world”: “The bought up world; the owned world—the world of coded sounds; the world of language, the world of lies; the packaged world; the world of speed in metallic motion.” (In fact, he sounds a little like a less-gentle Dina Delsanto and less in tune with Jack Marcus.) Yet, he subverted the establishment’s hegemony over words and turned them against those he saw as responsible for society’s ills and injustices or who should have helped but didn’t. If pictures were successful in showing the world what no one else was revealing—the responses of people like Donald Wildmon, Jesse Helms, and William Dannemeyer proved that they were!—then words and pictures were even more effective. If anyone wasn’t sure what the pictures meant, then the words would leave no doubt.
In a 2012 interview with Matt Fennemore about a stage adaptation of Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives (Vintage, 1991), the performance artist remarked: “Visuals and soundscapes will support and underpin the text and further assault the senses”; that precisely captures, perhaps in reverse expression, the way Wojnarowicz’s words and pictures work symbiotically in his visual art as well. It may be ironic (but only slightly) that this multifaceted artist was thrust onto the main stage of American culture because of words—“Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” his controversial essay in the 1989 catalogue for Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing (Artists Space)—and then rose once again in a controversy over pictures—the excerpt in 2011’s HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (National Portrait Gallery) of his 1986-87 video, A Fire in My Belly.
Most artists devote themselves to one medium or the other, pictures or words. There have always been some who’ve shared the same spaces: N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), the father of artist Andrew Wyeth, made a career of illustrating boys’ adventure stories—one artist’s pictures encapsulating the words of another. But William Blake and David Wojnarowicz, separated by two centuries, found they needed both words and pictures to make their art, integrating the one form with the other; and the Dada poets and Jenny Holzer both made the words into pictures—or at least visual images. In all their cases, I’d say, theirs would have been poorer, far less powerful art (if, indeed, art at all) if they hadn’t worked simultaneously in both media, if both forms weren’t present in their work at one and the same time. Gerald Di Pego and Fred Schepisi can make Jack Marcus and Dina Delsanto conceive a conflict between words and pictures, argue over which is a truer conveyor of meaning and emotion, but not all artists can keep the two separate. Proving, I think, that words and pictures aren’t in conflict—it’s only the imaginations of some artists that are. QED.