Text-Based Art Histories Available Online: A Brief Survey

Adam Daley Wilson
5 min readAug 23, 2022
Text-based art and words in art, black letters on white canvas, showing the history of text-based art, artist Adam Daley Wilson, ENGAGE Projects Gallery in Chicago, 2022. Adam Daley Wilson lives and works in Portland Maine. He is a self-taught artist with no art education or training. His degrees are from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford Law.
The full and complete art histories, plural, of text-based art came from almost every continent thousands of years before this piece, which visually references some of those histories and traditions. Courtesy ENGAGE Projects Gallery Chicago.

Overview: Online Sources For The History Of Text-Based Art

This brief article is a survey of what you’ll find online with respect to the history and origins of text-based art if you search for “text-based art” or “history of text based art” or similar. By way of context, this article discusses what you’ll find online; future articles will discuss what you can find in the leading physical printed books that exist on the subject.

An Objective Summary Of Search Results

Art histories of text-based art that are available on the internet are, on careful reading, generalized if not incomplete, particularly to treatments prior to contemporary periods. For example, run a search on Google for “text-based art” or “history of text-based art” and here are some of the first entries to appear:

Depending on your search, Google gives this special placement from “There’s Something About Text-Based Art” on a site titled Arts Help: “The history of typography is extensive. Dating back to ancient periods, humans from every sector of the world have used glyphs, symbols, calligraphy, and variations of type to formulate language, communication, and meaning.” That’s it for the history of text-based art in this article to which Google affords special treatment on page one of search results.

The other top result, if you focus your search on text-based art history, is a 2017 posting from the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library in Topeka, Kansas, titled “A Short History of Language-Oriented Art.” It states: “Beginning in the early twentieth century, the tensions between words and images provided a basis for experimentation in art. Artists began to use words to interrogate the conventions of representation. This preoccupation can be traced to works like Stéphane Mallarme’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard of 1914 and Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes of 1918. These works contain pictographic poetry, which are poems constructed in a pictorial form. They reveal that language is a fragile construct: words do not actually resemble what they refer to. Experimentation with art and text can also be found in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto of Futurism. For Futurists, typographic form was a tool for attacking language itself. Disrupting the linear order of words was a way to overthrow accepted norms. Some Futurists experimented with using mass media in their artistic practice, signaling a break from what “high art” could be, and revealing how significant mass media had become in modern culture.” The treatment then turns to conceptual artists of the 1950s and 1960s.

The second or third top listing on Google, a blog with a domain name “textarthistory.com” that is titled “The History of Text-Based Art: A Highly Subjective Look At Text In Art,” (anonymously penned by radiantcity66@gmail.com, with a last entry appearing to be in January 2016), opines the following as the sum of art history prior to the 1950s: “The first acknowledged piece of text-based art is by Simmias of Rhodes, Greek poet and scholar, c. 4th century BC. . . . Absolutely radical and unprecedented at the time.” There appears to be no other discussion of the history of text-based art except for this one point.

Further down the first page on Google when you search for “text-based art,” the first page to appear from The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that discusses the history of text based art — a “MoMA Learning” page that appears on Google with the broad title “Language and Art” — is actually a page about conceptual art in the 1960s. The page opines that “[t]hough text had been used in art long before, artists like Joseph Kosuth were among the first to give words such a central role.” Id. (emphasis added). We’ll come back to this italicized language, as it is remarkable for several substantive reasons. Separately, there are no apparent links to other pages of MoMA discussing the history of text art.

Further down the first page of Google, the first page to appear from the National Gallery of Art appears on Google as “Text and Art.” It too is a learning page, placing “Text and Art” as a subset of “Modern Art.” It does not discuss whether text-based art ever existed prior to Modern Art. Similar to the MoMA page, the National Gallery of Art page has no apparent links to other pages or resources about the history of text art.

Still further on down the search results, low on page two or even on page three, the Guggenheim Museum has its first page about text art titled “The Writing on the Wall: Art and Text in the 20th Century.” Its treatment of the history of text art states that “[i]n the 20th century, the explicit act of writing on a canvas developed its own (anti)aesthetic, with the Cubists and the work of Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, and Kurt Schwitters. Magritte’s iconic The Treachery of Images (1929) may be best known for its text: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” When the Cubists began adding textual elements to their multi-perspective, anti-mimetic paintings, it was originally to highlight the flat, graphic quality of text itself, and therefore the picture plane.” The Guggenheim treatment then moves “[s]everal decades later” to Lawrence Weiner.

Other treatments of the history of text-based art that can appear on page one, two, or three of Google, depending on one’s search, is an “Art Encyclopedia” stating that the history of text-based art did not begin until as follows: “Word painting and other types of text-based art first appeared as a reaction to the ‘high culture’ style of abstract expressionist painting practiced by Jackson Pollock (1912–56), Mark Rothko (1903–70) and others in the New York School of the early 1950s.”

A Brief Analysis Of The Above Sources

In one word: Insufficient.*

*This brief analysis will be supported and documented with fully developed research as this project continues.

Summary And A Look Ahead To Treatments In Published Books

As distinct from the next article, this brief article was a survey of what you’ll find online with respect to the history and origins of text-based art if you search for “text-based art” or “history of text based art” or similar. Treatments that you’ll find in the leading physical printed books will be discussed in the next article, coming soon.

— Adam Daley Wilson

Adam Daley Wilson is a contemporary conceptual artist represented by ENGAGE Projects Gallery in Chicago. He is also a Stanford lawyer.

[Draft pending ADW edit and addition of images, August 2022]

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Adam Daley Wilson

Adam Daley Wilson is a conceptual artist and oil painter represented by ENGAGE Projects Gallery Chicago. Adam Wilson, Portland Maine, Stanford Law, Penn, BP1