Artists have always been communicators, creating their messages using color, composition and images. For centuries they told stories with pictures. About 50 years ago, the traditional visual narrative (whether representational or abstract) took on a new meaning in which narration became literal — not literary, by the way — and the words themselves were the art. It's sometimes called text-based art.
You might be thinking about pop art at this point, which also incorporated words during the same 1960s time period. The difference in pop art is that the words are one part of the art, not the only part. Andy Warhol used "Tomato Soup" along with the soup can. Text-based art would have had just the words themselves.
That's way oversimplified.
To get the broader point, visit "Syntax: Text and Symbols for a New Generation" at the Tampa Museum of Art. It's a gorgeous, stimulating and sometimes lighthearted sampling of text-based art that rambles (and occasionally rumbles) through more than half of the museum's galleries.
I call the show a sampling instead of a survey because it isn't entirely representative of text-based art and includes works that would undermine one meant to be scholarly or purist. All 50 or so works come from one collection, that of Miami resident Hadley Martin Fisher. It's a mere four years in the making, a formidable accomplishment for Fisher, 40. It has no doubt helped that his grandmother is the legendary philanthropist and collector Emily Fisher Landau, who has amassed one of the largest private collections of modern art in the world. Fisher's agenda seems to have its own focus, to concentrate on contemporary and emerging artists using text or text-related symbols.
Fisher has some of the venerables — John Baldessari, Joseph Kosuth and Mel Bochner — but Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman, for example, are missing (though a neon chandelier by Jason Rhoades pays a nice homage to Nauman). William Klein's inclusion is interesting but a little odd: He's a photojournalist and fashion photographer who was one of the pioneers of gritty street photography. His 1955 print of a New York movie marquee is probably from New York, an award-winning book in 1957. So, too, is Olafur Eliasson a question mark; he's a contemporary artist famous for immersive installations using lighting and natural elements such as water. But I was delighted by Daylight Map (2005), which illuminates the world's 24 time zones in white neon that is lit only during the zones' daytime hours.
But I'm starting to get wonky. The collector can collect what he wants, and perhaps gathering it up into a specific theme deserves more latitude than if a curator is organizing a show from a multitude of sources.
In broader strokes, this show is important and accessible in presenting its central idea. It's loaded with contemporary blue-chip names. Fiona Banner is represented by The Bastard Punctuation, 12 drawings that use airplane parts to represent punctuation marks: Wings are parentheses, the fuselage is a dash.
One of Tracey Emin's famous confessionals, When I Think About Sex . . . , is written in her handwriting translated to a neon sign. It, like much of her work, is an aesthetic response to every gut-spilling reality show and tabloid publication.
Sean Landers also approaches the confessional with navel-gazing text, his densely written and overwritten onto canvas. In the Garden of Gesthemane is an especially fine example. Arrows route us around the surface, connecting the phrases and words among the random thoughts he scribbles like tweets; they're paranoid, self-absorbed, witty and in need of spell-check (as in the title, for example), a narrative map of his world.
In each case, you could wonder why you should care. And why this is important art.
To me, artists such as Emin and Landers are extending the work of the groundbreaker Baldessari, whose Painting for Kubler (1966-68) is one of the first exhibited in this show. That was seminal, a paragraph-long homage to art historian George Kubler that comes off as pretentious (intended by the artist) and painted not by him but a commercial painter. He was articulating visually the belief uttered by Eric Gill, sculptor and typeface designer, that "letters are things, not pictures of things."
A work that connects more easily with this idea is Kosuth's fabulous W.F.T. #2. It's a wall-sized neon chart that traces the derivations of "water" in several languages, designed like a firework that explodes at the center, sending off sparks. I mentioned "lighthearted" early on and I was charmed by Job Creation in a Bad Economy, a video and sculpture by Antonia Wright and Ruben Millares. In the video, the two hurl themselves at a stack of books; they and the books fall into a pile and then they move on to another stack. Beside the video screen, the artists have constructed a pile of books (800, no doubt) that begs to be toppled. You can't, sorry to say; it's cordoned off. But putting it back together would be yet another job created.
Is this a great collection? Not yet. Is it a good show? In a word: yes.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.