Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Billy Apple, Typography and the Embodied Word

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Billy Apple, Typography and the Embodied Word

Article excerpt

In the twentieth century, mainstream philosophy famously takes what is referred to as 'the linguistic turn. ' [Much] can be and has been said about the way philosophy and language are in dialogue [..] but shockingly, totally absent from those accounts is any attention to the visual or material properties of language. No matter where one looks in the texts of Frege, Carnap, Wittgenstein, or Saussure, the materiality, and in particular the visual quality of written language goes unmentioned. [...] As artists engaged in increasingly intense explorations of the visual materiality and poetics of language, philosophers remained attached to using language as if it were independent of any circumstances of production. The visual arts argued back, and this is their philosophical contribution. In visual art, language is always embodied. Even in the simplest, most minimal approaches to conceptual art,[...] language is visual, graphic, and specific.

Johanna Drucker, 'What is a word's body?'1

Billy Apple's 1981 exhibition, Art for Sale, at Peter Webb Galleries in Auckland was a major turning point in his career. It comprised eleven more or less identical works - a single painted canvas and ten printed works on paper - all titled Sold. And they had been, that had been the idea; Apple stipulated the works must live up to their name: the show was not to open until the Gallery had sold the lot. This was Apple's first commercial exhibition for fifteen years and it was a sell-out. In both senses of the word, you might say. Might. Having disdained the art market for more than a decade, suddenly he was back in business. In both senses; the works were as they appeared: receipts doing double duty as accounts and as art. As art they investigated the modes of exchange they exemplified. All that distinguished them from one another, besides size and medium, were the specifics, handwritten on them, of the transaction concerned. Most of his works since then have looked much the same: selfreflexive canvases and works on paper covered in type. Apple was 46 then, his life was at mid-point. If his is a career of two halves, the first of which began in London with his inaugural show, Apple Sees Red: Live Stills, at Gallery One in 1 963, Art for Sale was where its second half began. The New Zealand half. The importance of the Sold transactional template derives not just from its adaptability to a range of circumstances, but more crucially from the ways in which it embodies language typographically. The nature and origins of such embodiments in Apple's work are the main subject of this essay.

With Art for Sale, Apple joined the ranks of typographic artists such as Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Hamish Fulton, Robert Indiana, On Kawara, Joseph Kosuth, Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, and others for whom the printed language has been a medium, more or less from the start of their careers. Associated, like Apple with conceptual or pop art, these artists appear to have followed the 'linguistic turn', but did their typographic texts engage in the intense explorations of visual materiality and the poetics of language to which Drucker refers, or were they just as oblivious to it as the philosophers? As Lucy Lippard's indispensable compilation, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966-72 (1973), seemed to suggest, language was widely understood 'as a medium without matter, as close to pure idea and thought as was possible'.2

Typographic artists did value printing's more modest and nondescript materials and productions-office stationery mainly: index cards, graph paper, ring binders and typing paper. Their earliest works were hand-andtype written works on paper, xeroxed or photostated and pinned to gallery walls, or handbills or posters pasted to lamp posts. But was it the case that 'every bit of evidence in the conceptual art realm flaunts its disregard for design, typography, graphic style, or expressive character'?3 Not exactly, if Lawrence Weiner's first printed book is anything to go by. …

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