The roadside billboard as a versatile form of contemporary public art.
foreword by Joseph Thompson This book accompanies the exhibition of artists' billboards that opens the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's (MASS MoCA's) inaugural season. The exhibition comprises a twenty-work retrospective of billboards designed by artists over the past three decades as well as five newly commissioned ones. The retrospective includes works by, among others, John Baldessari, Geneviève Cadieux, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Gran Fury, Group Material, the Guerrilla Girls, Jenny Holzer, Joseph Kosuth, and Barbara Kruger. The new works, made in cooperation with the communities where they will be installed, are by Julie Ault and Martin Beck, Lothar Baumgarten, Sue Coe, Leon Golub, and Gary Simmons.
In addition to the descriptions and color images of the historic and new billboards, the book contains almost three hundred short entries, offering the first broad survey of the medium. More than half of these entries include a small color image. The book also contains three essays. In "Disturbances in the Field of Mammon: Toward a History of Artists' Billboards," Harriet Senie finds precursors for contemporary billboards in European art posters (Toulouse-Lautrec), modern political posters (Rodchenko), and war billboards ("Uncle Sam Wants You"). She looks at the subject matter of contemporary artists' billboardsracism, feminism, environmental issues, war and peace, consumerism, and AIDSand at artists' strategies and site choices. Public artist Peggy Diggs discusses the process through which billboards are made and the problems encountered by billboard artists, and curator Laura Heon writes about works in the exhibition, in particular the (often conceptual) billboards that do not "sell" any political message. Copublished with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
About the Author
Joseph Thompson is Director of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA).
Read an Excerpt
The term 'artist's billboard' has been used to describe everything from El Lissitsky's state-sponsored Constructionist admonition that The Factory Benches Await You to Gran Fury's spoof of a Benetton advertisement at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Kissing Doesn't Kill, Greed and Indifference Do. At its broadest, the term applies to any large poster mounted in a public place, whether for advertising, political propaganda, or even decoration. This diversity means there are many billboards to be organized. It also means that, for the purposes of this exhibition, 'artist's billboard' has required a more focused definition.
The objects in Billboard: Art on the Road are works of art in the form of roadside billboards, bus billboards, bench billboards, and large bus shelter posters from roughly the last thirty years. Conceptual art billboards, social activist billboards, and billboards that are simply attractive images are represented. Billboard's catalogue features the works in the retrospective and those MASS MoCA commissioned, and also includes a wide-ranging survey of over two hundred and fifty additional billboards by artists.
The majority of the works included in the Billboard exhibition and survey -- and the majority of all billboards made by artists -- address social issues that have held the attention of the artistic community at certain times. As Peggy Diggs argues in her essay, these billboards find cracks in the monolith of advertising and corporate culture in which to insert dissent. Often disguising themselves in the trappings of advertising, works such as Erika Rothenberg's There Are Still Traditional Families are Trojan Horses, slipping into the built environment almost unnoticed, then springing their often radical messages on us....
A few artists, such as Les Levine and Barbara Kruger, have made twenty or more billboards, though most artists have made only one or two. Motivations for making many billboards vary. Les Levine, for example, has made a long and successful career out of translating his sophisticated premises into billboards that have simple texts and images, yet are anything but simplistic. Often artists who have made numerous billboards, such as Levine, are committed to disrupting the flow of advertising from billboards to a passive audience by placing art in the path.
A handful of billboards in the exhibition reflect an interest in the idea of communication per se, rather than a desire to communicate a particular idea. Geneviève Cadieux's La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way), for example, gives no directive. A pair of lips, parted as if to speak, stretch across the billboard like its namesake, the Milky Way. The artist has placed a clear (if cosmic) reference to communication (the mouth) on an established site of communication (the billboard), resulting in a strangely mysterious work. Similarly, John Baldessari's Man and Woman with Bridge combines abstruse, meaningful looks from a man and woman at opposite sides of an image (just what these looks mean, we do not know) with this obtuse form of communication, the billboard. These meta-communicative billboards, rich with unknowable meaning, have precedents in billboards made by Conceptualist artists Joseph Kosuth and William Anastasi during the late 1960s. Such billboards are unusual because they do not draw from the two major precedents that Harriet Senie identifies in her essay, advertisements and political propaganda....
Billboards are ephemeral and almost always destroyed when taken down -- so records of many of them are sparse, a fact revealed in the survey. The now defunct Eyes and Ears Foundation of San Francisco, for example, was a prolific maker and exhibitor of billboards, often churning out one every few weeks and placing it on the roof of its building at the corner of Eighth and Folsom Streets. The Foundation was responsible for over 100 billboards, the largest number by any single group, none of which are included in the survey because records are not available. The Revolution Gallery in suburban Detroit, by contrast, has ample information and photographs of the billboards that artists continue to install on the side of its building, and these works are well represented in the survey.
The artists' billboards of the last thirty years are an anomaly in contemporary art, not so much because they attempt to address a wide general audience, but because they often succeed. In response to the need for quick comprehension in a cluttered built environment, a billboard demands economy of design from artists, forcing them to pare down their images to essential, comprehensible qualities. The works in this exhibition engage the unsuspecting passerby with ideas that are often complex and mysterious, but which are expressed with great visual clarity. The coupling of reductive images with expansive ideas that a billboard requires is its salient quality as an artist's medium, and is a hallmark of the billboards in this exhibition.
Laura Steward Heon, Associate Curator Excerpted by permission of MIT Press. Copyright c 1999 MASS MoCA.