Many artists of the twentieth century – the Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists in the early decades and the Pop, Conceptual, and Narrative artists in our own time – have incorporated text in works of visual art. With the 1970s came the critical ascendancy of conceptual art – an art in which words dominate – and its proliferation in this country and abroad. Several focused exclusively on narrative or conceptual art, while others presented broader surveys.
Verbally Charged Images focuses on a specific aspect of that more general interest. The exhibition demonstrates how text can be used to alter one’s perception or preconceptions of the visual image by providing a subjective framework, thus reversing the traditional image-text relationship in which the image illustrates the text. The exhibition also suggests that the tradition of incorporating text in works of visual art remains a viable one, continually adapting itself to the broader conceptual concerns of its particular time. Although the mode of rhetoric varies from work to work, as does the location of the text in relation to image, text in these works “charges” the image as the title suggests, pointing to the artist’s conceptual intentions. The text, it must be emphasized, never simply describes, illustrates, or functions congruently with the image.
Although many examples of the trend isolated in this exhibition were executed during the 1970s, it has only been in the context of the 1980s that the phenomenon itself has become visible. Underlying the relationship between image and text in much of the work is an awareness of certain strategies – albeit manipulated and undermined in the hands of these artists – which are employed by mass media.
—Excerpt from catalogue essay by Nina Felshin, 1981.