On Words and Pictures

by Susan Tallman

March 2013

This issue marks the second full year of Art in Print. Some of the issues we have published in that time were planned around particular themes such as the legacy of Stanley William Hayter (Vol 1 No 3) or the materiality of early modern prints (Vol 1 No 4). Others reflect the vibrant miscellany of endeavor that is printed art, mixing contemporary and old masters, historical analyses and on-the-ground reporting. Sometimes, however, a theme arises serendipitously, as it did for this issue, when a number of authors approached us with proposals that touched upon the troubled marriage of word and image in printed matter.

It is a relationship that goes as far back as print itself, though until the invention of moveable type it was more like one between conjoined twins than between spouses. Even after Gutenberg, when they were no longer forced to share the same template, words and images continued to divvy up the property of the page in illustrated books and livres d’artistes, in engraved copperplates, the graphic engineering of fin de siècle posters, and more recently, in the photographs, paintings and installations arising from the Postmodern desire to throw sticks in the spokes of accepted meaning.

In the pages that follow, Amy Peltz looks at the current state of alternative comics, a word-and-image form that has been fighting for space since the 1960s. Its current territory is a kind of art-world Kurdistan, bounded by literature on one side, street culture on another and the museum on a third. While the recent embrace of graphic novels by English departments around the world suggests a rapprochement on the literary front, Peltz suggests that younger artists are leaning toward greater visual invention and looking for a different kind of future.

Mark L. Smith looks back at Traces suspectes en surface (1972-78), the provocative and under-recognized collaboration between Robert Rauschenberg and the French Nouvelle vague novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. This unconventional, unbound book manifests a desire to set words and images at odds, allowing each to operate as a goad to the other, and leaving the viewer/reader to sort it all out.

More blithe in spirit, Stephen Chambers’ architecturally scaled print The Big Country mimics the ambiguous ambitions, at once decorative and pedagogic, of map labels and illustrations. Meanwhile, the WITH Collective’s new publication attempts to do away with the image altogether, leaving the text embedded in the physical object it produced.

Finally, Jürgen Partenheimer’s recent livres d’artiste, Louise Bourgeois’ many word-and-image prints, and a number of Gert and Uwe Tobias’Dresdener Paraphrasen woodcuts employ words and images as allies rather than adversaries, fiddling with the design of each to produce meanings independently available to neither on its own.

Willie Cole’s Beauties and David Musgrave’s Golems sport no words. For each image and object form a self-sufficient entity, and yet the purpose of Art in Print is to add words—words that fill in background information, that demonstrate how or why an image caught and stuck in a writer’s mind, that describe what it was like to be in the presence of the real thing (as opposed to viewing the reproduction.)

Words and pictures carry distinct meanings that do not add up neatly like two columns of numbers joined in a single sum. As the essays here make clear, sometimes they reiterate, sometimes they elaborate on, and sometimes they contradict each other. That complexity is one of the greatest assets of art in print.