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The Painted Word: Language as Image in Modern Art, is the selection of post 1960s artwork curated by Robert S. Mattison, Metzgar Professor of Art at Lafayette, on exhibition at the Williams Center for the Arts Gallery through Dec. 14.

An illustrated lecture will be given by Mattison 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, in the Williams Center for the Arts room 108. A reception will follow.

Named for the 1975 satire of modern art written by Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word is an exhibition of paintings, prints, photographs, neon and LED works, Chinese artwork incorporating calligraphy, and drawings that explore the use of language in modern art. It also demonstrates the use of letters and words in imagery to challenge and stimulate the viewer’s experience of artwork. The exhibition includes works by renowned artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lalla Essaydi, Fung Ming-Chip, Jenny Holzer, Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Joseph Kosuth, Glenn Ligon, Bruce Nauman, Qiu Zhijie, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Lorna Simpson, Lawrence Weiner, Xu Bing, and Zhang Dawo.

As Mattison writes, “In the opening pages, Wolfe imagined a museum exhibition in which paintings were represented by reproductions the size of postage stamps, and the museum walls were filled with giant texts written by art critics. While Wolfe intended only to mock the perceived role of the art critic, he was ignorant of the fact that a wide range of contemporary artists were already asking profound questions about the relationship between text and image. They were, in fact, busy putting words on the wall. This exhibition traces notions of language both as visual image and conceptual program pursued by artists from Western and Eastern traditions from the 1960s to the present.”

The earliest works in the exhibition are represented by Robert Rauschenberg’s Cardbird (1971), and Jasper Johns Embossed Alphabet (1968-69). A founder of conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth’s Wittgenstein’s Color (1998) features the word “Red” constructed from red neon tubing, a non-traditional art material. Lawrence Weiner’s Blue Moon #8 (2001), looking like a scientist’s flow chart, features loosely aligned collage elements, text that focuses on verbs and thus states of becoming, and meandering directional lines connecting ellipses. Ed Ruscha’s print 000 (1970) features elements from both Pop and Conceptual Art. Pop artist Robert Indiana’s screen print Die from the series The Golden Five (1980) refers to Charles Demuth (1883-1935), who was among the first American artists to use sign systems in his paintings. Video artist, sculptor, and performance artist Bruce Nauman has long been interested in the failure of both language and images to adequately communicate feelings and thoughts.

The problematic relationship between language and image highlighted by such artists as Johns, Kosuth, Weiner, and Nauman was taken up in the 1980s by a younger generation of artists such as Basquiat, Holzer, Simpson, and Ligon who saw this issue as related to political, gender, and racial activism. Among the current generation of artists, the Moroccan-born, Essaydi’s recent photographs depict calligraphy, a sacred art form to be employed only by men, covering the clothing of veiled women. These works reflect on the life of Arab women as well as the more general relationship between Arab culture and the West.

The relationship between text and visual image has had a long and venerable tradition in China. Calligraphy first became recognized as an art form in China during the first century AD, and by the 6th century, calligraphy was ranked alongside poetry as one of the highest forms of art. As a result of long-standing conventions, experiments made with calligraphy by modern artists from China since 1985 have resulted in some of the most hotly debated art topics in that country. Despite the long relationship between image and text in the Far East traditions, the new Chinese calligraphers parallel their Western avant-garde compatriots in that their generative energy comes from questioning assumptions. The exhibition includes the work of four Chinese calligraphers, Fung, and Zhang,Qui, and Xu.

In both the east and west, the use of text as image asks important questions about modes of communication and information gathering that are essential to our understanding of the human intellect.

The Painted Word is presented as part of Lafayette’s Roethke Humanities Festival. This year’s theme, “The Book Re-Visioned: Crossroads of Traditions and Technologies,” celebrates books and their many interpretations and permutations through exhibitions, readings, workshops, lectures, performances, and special events. A complete schedule can be found by visiting, Quick Links, Performing Arts/Williams Center. The biennual festival is named in honor of poet Theodore Roethke, who taught at Lafayette during the 1930s.

In addition to works from the Lafayette art collection, lenders to the exhibition include Allentown Art Museum, Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, Richard D. Marshall Collection, Estella Collection, David and Helaine Dorsky Collection of New York, Lawrence Weiner and Marian Goodman Gallery, Joseph Kosuth and Sean Kelly Gallery, and Laurence Miller Gallery of New York.

Williams Center gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday; 2-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, as well as noon-5 p.m. the first Sunday of each month for First Sunday Easton; 7:30-9:30 p.m. on the evenings of Williams Center performances; and by appointment. The Williams Center is located at the intersection of Hamilton and High Streets on Lafayette’s main campus. For more information, call the gallery at (610) 330-5361 or email Additional information about the Williams Center gallery program can be found by visiting

The Williams Center gallery is funded in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

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