The first thing that one sees upon entering "In Other Words," the little SPECTRUM exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is a wordy work of art that artist Lawrence Weiner has had painted on the wall. Its lettering is violet-blue, and all it is is lettering. This is what it says:
"BACK TO BACK AT A POINT IN TIME IN RELATION TO A SUPPORT SYSTEM (i.e. a buttress)."
Now what is that supposed to mean? Your guess is as good as mine.
The Corcoran's Ned Rifkin, the curator responsible for the SPECTRUM exhibitions, writes that Weiner's work is "an abstraction of abstract art." But Rifkin's being kind. Is that "at a point in time" a reference to John Dean? Is the "support system" referred to the one which puts on art shows? Though any phrase may be ransacked for its meanings, Weiner's mocks one's efforts. It intentionally befuddles. Its pomposities offend. But in its dull and arcane way it does suggest the pitfalls facing those who try to turn language into art.
Poetry can do the trick. When Shakespeare writes "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps," readers see his meaning. When William Yeats evokes "the dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea," he, too, speaks to the mind's eye. But Weiner is no poet. Neither, for that matter, are most of the nine artists -- some are pseudo-scientists, others sloganeers -- whom Rifkin has included in his latest SPECTRUM show.
It is one of two exhibitions currently on view here that focus on artists who fill their art with words. The other -- "Cryptic Languages" -- is now on exhibition at the WPA. Both shows suggest a rule of thumb: Visual art that employs words has to be good looking. Otherwise it flops.
The artists Rifkin has selected -- among them Howard Finster, Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha, Alfred Jensen and Alexis Smith -- use their words to various ends. Holzer, for example, likes to slip them to the viewer in subversive and amusing and unexpected ways.
The piece she is showing, "Selections From Truisms," is not at the Corcoran. Instead her truisms appear, a new one every day, on the outdoor flashing sign above the Dupont Circle Metro stop. The one that ran there one day last week -- "Being sure of yourself means you're a fool" -- would have nicely boggled passers-by had its appearance been surprising, sudden and anonymous. But its unnecessary introduction ("The Corcoran Gallery of Art presents . . . ") and the credit line that follows ("Supported by a generous grant from B. Robert Lehrman . . . ") kill the joke completely and give the game away.
Both Ed Ruscha and Barbara Kruger write legends on their pictures. A sunset skyscape by Ruscha might, for instance, bear the words "The Act of Letting a Person Into Your Home." A photograph found by Kruger, say one of Howdy Doody, might instead bear the phrase "When I hear the word culture, I take out my checkbook." Their pictures have quite different moods. Ruscha's are at once deadpan, witty, chilling. Kruger's have the pounding vehemence of ads. But both of them rely on that sense of contradiction, that intentional disjunction, that has become one of the chief cliche's of contemporary art.
When painter David Salle puts a set of painted dowels beside a big scrawled nude, he is using the same gimmick. The dowels or the skyscape pull the mind in one direction while the big nude or the words tug it in another. The bafflement that consequently rises gives the mind, or gives some minds, the sense of seeing art. It is a meager trick at best.
Neither Ruscha's nor Kruger's art needs big scale. His books and her post cards are almost as impressive as their pictures on the wall.
Howard Finster is a different case. Finster is a seer, a believer, a folk prophet. His "Youth of Abraham" is a life-sized wooden figure wearing a gray suit that appears to be woven out of prophecies. The souls of men, and those of lambs, dance within its grayness, as do little received texts, "Quit wondering about me" or "I do not dought my visions" or even "Cats have fun."
Weiner's work depends completely on its words, but Finster's art looks grand long before one reads it. When language is employed in a subsidiary manner -- almost as a color or a texture or an information-lending element of collage -- it may add much that is worthy to the work of art that bears it. Words are well used often in the handsome exhibition at the WPA.
Kay Rosen's big wall drawings provide pun-filled pop-art polemics on dictatorial power and revolution's failures: "Remember Los Alamos," she warns us.
Words enhance the mysteries of Kay Hines' fine assemblages. In one, a Mo bius strip of paper is threaded through two typewriters. Those who read its text will find their time rewarded: "I often speculate on the invention of the rear view mirror which superimposes a pattern of vanity and interjects the streaming past into the curvature of the future." She tells us of the sphinx, and of "the silvery scribblings of snails." Her words enhance her objects. Hines knows how to write.
So does Henry Chotkowski, whose ambitious installation is a kind of archeological excavation of his personal obsessions. Among his layered subjects are his parents, Teddy Kennedy, the "Large Glass" of Marcel Duchamp (that most skillful of word artists), the shooting of the president just outside the Hilton and the paintings found in caves.
"Cryptic Languages" closes Saturday. "In Other Words" will run through June 29. A picture, they remind us, is worth a thousand words; it's not the other way around. Both shows have their virtues, and both do tell us much about contemporary art, but they pound one with their verbiage until one yearns for silence, until one cries, "Enough!"