Vitamin Txt | A Global Survey of Artists Working with Text

Out now from Phaidon

Written by

Bennett DiDonna

Photographed by

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Mario Ayala, Dash Bus, 2022. Acrylic on shaped canvas. 120 × 120 in. (304.8 × 304.8 cm). Picture credit: © Mario Ayala. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery (page 29, image C).

If a picture is worth a thousand words, one can only assume that a picture of words must be all the more impactful. Phaidon’s recently released imprint Vitamin Txt: Words in Contemporary Art, the twelfth installment in the Vitamin series, captures the creative expanse of contemporary text-based art through a global survey of some 103 living artists. Featuring work from the likes of Barba Kruger, Ed Ruscha, Jeffery Gibson, and Sable Elyse Smith, Vitamin Txt explores the power of text to create, transcend, and subvert, across a range of mediums including sculpture, painting, video, and installation.

In celebration of the release of Vitamin Txt, we spoke with critic and editor Evan Moffitt, who wrote the introduction for the imprint, to discuss the distillation of ideas that the intersection of art and writing offers, the liberating power of text in art, and the evolution of text and art in the digital age.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 2017 (Fear Eats the Soul) (White Flag), 2017. Printed flag. 5 × 8 ft. (1.5 × 2.4 m). Picture credit: artwork © and courtesy the artist and Creative Tme (page 242, bottom, image B)

Can you tell us a bit about your interest and experience with text-based art? Is there a first artist or piece that resonated with you?  

When I was growing up in Southern California, few artists captured the graphical quality of the landscape in Los Angeles – a city of signs – better than Ed Ruscha, and his Back of the Hollywood Sign will haunt my dreams. But Barbara Kruger, whose work I’ve always loved but was never lucky enough to study under when I was at UCLA, probably had the biggest, earliest impact on me. Her works get right to the point – and the fact that they still feel so prescient, forty years after she first won acclaim, is a testament to how little the state of the world has improved since the 1980s.  

Do you feel words have a unique power coming from an artist or in the context of a work of art?

Artworks like Kruger’s or Ruscha’s appropriate the familiar language of advertising with an added dose of the uncanny. They feel familiar–until they start to feel unnervingly strange. There’s great power in that. Beyond aesthetics, I think when artists are allowed to make work free of censorship or overbearing market pressures, they can have the freedom to imagine what a better world might look like and the moral clarity to show us the way.

Tim Etchells, The Show, 2020. Machine-cut plywood. 26 ft. 3 in. × 30 ft. 10 in. (8 × 9.4 m). Installation view: Landwiese, Zurich, Switzerland. Picture credit: artwork © and courtesy the artist / Photo: Philip Schaub. Commissioned for Spektakel, Zurich. (page 89, bottom, image D)

How do you feel text-based art evolved in recent years, particularly in the context of social media and digital outlets?

That’s a vast subject, one I hopefully covered in part in my essay! Text-based art has evolved just as much as language has, right along with our means of communication. I find it tremendously exciting that a lot of younger artists are using the language of memes and online chat platforms to introduce new rhythms and textures into the field of visual art. There’s plenty of opportunity for humor and subversive codedness in that, too.

What do you hope readers take away from this survey of text-based art?

I hope this survey can serve as an introduction to the incredibly diverse array of text-based artistic practices out there today and encourage readers to read on further. So many artists are wonderful writers, and we have a lot to learn from studying their works as closely as we would a good book.

Patrick Martinez, Struggle and Progress (Frederick Douglass), 2018. Neon on Plexiglas. 30 × 40 × 3 in. (76.2 × 101.6 × 7.6 cm). Edition of 3. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Rubell Museum, Miami, USA. Picture credit: Artwork © and courtesy the artist / Photo: Michael Underwood. (page 159, top right /image C)

Vitamin Txt: Words in Contemporary Art is out now and available for purchase HERE.

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Vitamin Txt, Phaidon