Text-Based Art — Short Criticism Number 1 — Wool, Holzer, Ruscha, Kruger, The Second Law of Thermodynamics, and Entropy.

Adam Daley Wilson
4 min readNov 13, 2023
Artworks for Text-Based Art Short Criticism Number 1 — Clockwise Christopher Wool, Jenny Hozer, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger.

THESE SHORT CRITICISMS will try to do something different. Three main ways. They’ll consider three or four artists at a time. They’ll cut across creative fields, art, music, literature, movies, more. And they’ll try out some novel interpretations — to see if they’re plausible, to see if they hold water. So let’s get right to it.

Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger, Christopher Wool — specifically their text-based art. The question: Can their art be understood within the physics concept of entropy?

Context: Loosely speaking, in physics, the second law of thermodynamics states that, in a closed system, the entropy, or disorder, of that system tends to increase over time. Disorder increases. Things break down.

Is it plausible that text-based artworks of Kruger, Ruscha, Holzer, and Wool can be interpreted through this science concept of entropy? Let’s see.

First, the broad cut. On the one hand, these artists visually place words within formal boundaries (words in straight lines, not floating randomly, all one font, all one color, etc.). This seems the opposite of entropy; these denote order, structure. Are these visual elements an attempt by these artists to impose order and structure? — if so, on what? — their artworks? — language itself? — something broader?

On the other hand, these artists often seem to say things that are the opposite of order — as we’ll explore below — which, if true, cuts towards the second law of thermodynamics, and entropy, meaning, perhaps, that the application of science, as to art, may be of some use.

That’s the broad cut. Now a quick test:

Wool’s ‘Apocalypse Now’: it’s black stencil text, and stencil is as ordered as it gets. Seems this is the exact kind of imposing-order-on-language as mentioned above. Ditto its text repetition. But look — the spacing is fragmented. The letters drip. The last phrase is jarring, the first time you read it. So both visually and substantively, is there more than the standard interpretation, that it’s commentary on 1980s New York rich? Is it about a broader increase of disarray, disorder, decay? Seems plausible, given all the elements of the piece. On this quick test, I’ll say yes, physics and entropy help the art analysis.

Holzer’s ‘Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise’: words by LED display, or projected by machine — that’s even more order than stenciling. Perfect fonts and spacing; no visual evidence of decay. But the words, their substance: Resigned to corruption, resigned to the nature of power, resigned to the nature of our human systems. But is this entropy? Read close: On its face, Holzer’s phrase says decay has already happened, and will continue — but it does not suggest (compare Wool’s last phrase) that abuse of power will keep increasing — get worse — over time. Rather, it’s just an unchanging fact. On this measure, it’s a stretch to say Holzer’s piece can be understood through entropy. There’s timelessness and universality, and an acceptance of something unmoving and sad — but that’s not really entropy.

Ruscha’s ‘Honey, I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today’: it too has visual formality (straight lines, text same size, all capital letters, etc.), and, presumably with intention, it’s funny. None of this is the stuff of entropy. But — and is it a stretch? — are Ruscha’s words a subtle nod to an increasing disorder? Traffic always gets worse and worse, not better — and isn’t traffic a systems that we can’t control? It sounds like a stretch to apply entropy to this one. Especially given Ruscha’s overall body of work. Still, it was fun to try and see.

Kruger’s ‘Your Body Is a Battleground’: here again, order — not just through text. Stunning visual order, too: mirror image on vertical line. But look close — the face, positive to negative, side by side — the lines don’t appear to match up at all. But does it speak to increasing disorder, like Wool — or just stagnant disorder, like Holzer? The standard interpretation: Kruger is saying something is wrong — but what next? I’d argue: if Kruger’s last word ‘battleground’ is to be given full meaning, not discounted away, then this may be the one artwork of the four that rejects entropy — doesn’t ‘battleground’ mean there’s a fight, to take or take back? I’d argue it’s plausible: Kruger’s piece says entropy can be reversed, pushed back.

SO THIS HAS BEEN THE FIRST ONE: Can a concept of physics be useful to understand pieces of visual text-based art? This time, it’s uncertain, but there are lots of concepts to try, and many creative works to consider, and not just pieces of visual art — and so with others we may have better luck.

— Adam


November 7, 2023



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