From Art To Signs And Back Again


I first became interested in sign painting as a craft when I went to an exhibit of Ed Ruscha’s work at the DeYoung museum in San Francisco. He painted landscapes with signs as shifting emblems of American culture, as well as word paintings that are signs selling an idea, not a product. While perusing the gift shop, I picked up “Sign Painters,” by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, who made a documentary film by that name, with an introduction by Ruscha.

While sign painting sits firmly in the realm of craft, plenty of American artists have been fascinated with hand-lettered signs. “Photographers were the first to see them,” says John Zinsser, an artist who teaches at the New School in New York City. “In the 1930s, Walker Evans saw beauty in signs where others saw decay, squalor, or poverty. When he saw signs peeling, or circus signs, or things that have double entendre meaning, he reframed them with the eyes of an aesthete.”

The first Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and 50s used sign paint as they made the first large-scale paintings, expanding the medium from European easel-sized paintings. The size was very American, related to a billboard or a movie screen, as were the colors. Zinsser says that while most people explain Jackson Pollack or Franz Kline’s use of sign paints as simply using the cheapest stuff they could find, there might be more to it. “The use of sign paint means they are abstract but still paintings, in a way, of the American landscape.”

In the early 1960s, artist John Baldessari hired sign painters to actually paint his word paintings. “He was repudiating painting, moving toward conceptual work,” says Zinsser. “Those paintings ask, ‘whose voice is it?’ which is a question you also can ask about sign painting. What is this omniscient voice of authority?” In the 1980s, Barbara Kruger made sign art using typographical language to amplify the voice of authority, making visual pronouncements.

More recently, sign painters have started influencing street art: “The emergency of widespread graffiti led to street artist such as Bansky and Shepherd Fairy, both of whom use sign painting methodologies,” says Zinsser.

© 2020 Laura Fraser, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: May 6, 2017