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Seeing words, reading images

In today's advertising-driven age, the parallels between text and image are taken for granted, so that to see the image is to read the words.

So what does the opposite mean? What is it to read the image and see the words, to scan a work of art and understand the message it contains? Therein lies the subject of the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky's traveling exhibition Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns: Poetic Works as Metaphor.

"In some ways, the exhibition presages" mass-market advertising, museum curator Janie Welker says of the show, organized by the Contemporary and Modern Print Exhibitions of Laguna Niguel, Calif., and on view at UK through March 1. "The show features two giants of 20th-century art who recognized the power of the visual symbol for communication. They were so interested in symbols and symbolism, both abstract and concrete, and they recognized the power of visual symbols for our minds."

The exhibit features works by each artist made to be included in separate artist books — limited-edition "books as art" — in conjunction with works by major poets. The prints, created independently by the artists, also reflect the influence of the poets.

The exhibit begins with abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell's 1980-83 lithograph series Elegy to the Spanish Republic, created in response to works by Spanish poet Rafael Alberti. Prints, etchings and aquatints by pop artist/minimalist Jasper Johns, produced in 1976 for the artist book Foirades/Fizzles, are referenced against the author of the book's five accompanying essays, Irish poet Samuel Beckett.

Motherwell (1915-1991) is recognized as the youngest member of the group of artists, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner, who founded the abstract expressionist movement in New York. They favored huge canvases and bold, spontaneous gestures, and they put great emphasis on the artistic process.

The 19 lithographs in this exhibition were created in response to the poem El Negro Motherwell (Motherwell Black), which was written by Spanish poet Rafael Alberti and dedicated to Motherwell. Motherwell became politically engaged by the failed struggle against fascism during the brutal Spanish civil war in the late 1930s. The pieces here reflect Motherwell's political leanings through the gestures associated with abstract expressionism, and the evocative use of black brings a compelling magnetism to the simple marks within the prints.

Some works can be interpreted as figural — a house here, a bull there — but the powerful message of the abstract lithographs relies both on the image and on accompanying text, written by the artist either alongside or within the image itself. Together, they produce an emotional understanding that reflects Motherwell's empathy for and belief in humanity.

"Motherwell was such an intellectual," Welker says. "He was interested in expressing deep emotions without literal representation — like the death of idealism during the Spanish civil war — that it evolved into ideas on the nature of life."

Although less gestural than other works on display, Forever Black/en Permanencia Negro features dottings of red, orange and white that add color to an almost completely blacked-out print. From within the oppressive gloom of the work, the dots twinkle out with a hope for the dawn of humanity in Motherwell's self-labeled noche de España.

The 31 prints by Johns (born in 1931) are less visually accessible than Motherwell's, but that fits both with the artist's intentional rejection of the abstract expressionist movement and with the international reputation of the Johns/Beckett book Fizzles as being cerebrally complex.

"There was a sense of existential angst about everything in the world after World War II," Welker says. "Nothing made sense — there was a need to create new structures to express ideas. Johns didn't want to put his personal feelings out there on the line, (but he) took things that are common to challenge us to really see them."

The print Casts (Words) consists of a muddled framework of line and shadow in which clear circles are filled with the names of body parts. Arranged haphazardly, not in an order corresponding to the shape of a figure, the work reflects Johns' exploration of ideas by offering an opposing definition to the viewer's socially imposed recognition of words and imagery relating to the body.

The result of the interplay of text and image makes Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns: Poetic Works as Metaphor not an easy show to view. Walking around takes time because, for this show, the white cube of the gallery is a good thing; as the hustle and bustle of our fast-food society wears off, a certain level of intellectualism creeps back into the act of viewing, allowing us to look beyond the surface for deeper meaning. There's no spoon-feeding of images here. If you want something easy, there's got to be a billboard around somewhere.