Kay Rosen’s (b.1943) practice is distinguished by her use of language as raw visual material. After studying linguistics, Spanish, and French, Rosen transitioned away from academia and established herself as a visual artist in 1968, maintaining text as the foundation of her work. For four decades, her formal and humorous interventions into written language has been defined through painted wall installations, drawings, collages, paintings, prints, and videos.
Rosen’s work is characterized by her adaptation of simple words or phrases, typically in generic sans serif typography, rendered in dense, unmodulated color. Her works are graphic, and appear commercially manufactured, however each work is meticulously hand-made, with a brush or pencil; she paints or draws the discrete objects herself, and employs a sign painter to produce her large-scale architectural interventions.
Guided by the structure of words, she describes the elements of text “as objects, architecture, or sculptures,” and the forms that comprise individual letters as “body parts.” Critic Roberta Smith has referred to her as a "writer’s sculptor.” The artist has noted that her use of language is not descriptive, but rather performative. As she explains, words “enact or become the thing they represent, or some aspect of the thing,” thus becoming image.
Through her transformation of phrase into form, she removes the geographic or national locus of language often creating a universally-legible mode of communication. Her choice of color is informed by a desire to distinguish certain elements of a text, enforce concealed meaning, or evoke a mood. Through visual arrangement or rearrangement, she presents the viewer with problems to solve, messages to decode, ideas to translate. Her approach has anticipated contemporary communications in today’s image world, when political positioning and change is activated through short-form messaging, phonetic abbreviations, and acronyms.
Throughout her career, Rosen has invited political content into her work, often drawing from the contemporary political context. Her choice of succinct and accessible vernacular may be compared to political slogans, though her work is intentionally more transgressive. As curator Cornelia Butler points out, Rosen “became intrigued with the investigation of the cultural possibilities for language through the subversion of its basic structure, form, and appearance.” In order to prompt the viewer to analyze the follies of life from a new perspective, she interjects humor, which she explains “takes the form of silly humor, ha-ha humor, or ah-ha humor that occurs when one sees something in a fresh way.” Ultimately, through her sustained investigations into, and manipulation of, language as a medium, she has determined her role to be “primarily cognitive, discovering a message that’s concealed in a bit of text.”
Kay Rosen’s work is currently on view in the permanent collections of Art Institute of Chicago, IL and Indianapolis Museum of Art and as part of Incomplete History of Protest: Selections From The Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY. Her work will be featured in upcoming exhibitions at Musée d'art moderne et contemporain (MAMCO), Geneva; This Brush For Hire, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and as part of Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, curated by Michelle Grabner and Jens Hoffman. Rosen’s work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions and installations at Aldrich Contemporary Museum Ridgefield, CT (2017); Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Houston, TX, and Grazer Kunstverein (2016), a collaboration with Matt Keegan; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia (2014); Aspen Art Museum (2012); Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA (2011–13); Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, CA (2013); Art Institute of Chicago (2011); Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, New Zealand (2004); University Art Museum, University of California Santa Barbara (2004); The Drawing Center, New York City (2002); M.I.T. List Visual Art Center, MA (1997); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL (1994); Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN (1994); Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (1990); and New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY (1984). The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, CA in conjunction with Otis College of Art Design in Los Angeles, CA organized a two-venue mid-career survey exhibition of Rosen’s work entitled Kay Rosen: Li[f]eli[k]e (1998–99). Rosen has also been included in many group shows internationally including Tang Museum of Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY (2014); Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Germany (2013); Museum of Modern Art, NY (1996, 2012); Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein (2012); Honolulu Museum of Art, HI (2012); Christchurch Public Art Gallery, New Zealand (2011, 2012 ongoing); the inaugural exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA (2008); Prospect.1, New Orleans, LA (2008); Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), North Adams, MA (1999, 2001); and Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C. (1991). Rosen was included in the Whitney Biennial 2000 and the 1991 Whitney Biennial as part of Group Material’s “AIDS Timeline.”
Rosen is currently a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, awarded in 2017. She has received three National Endowment for the Arts, Visual Arts Grants to date (1987, 1989, 1995), an Anonymous Was a Woman Grant (1995), the SJ Weiler Fund Award (2014), and the Artist Award for a Distinguished Body of Work from the College Art Association (2014). Rosen taught at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago for 24 years. Her work is included in the permanent collections of Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL; Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, CA; Museum of Modern Art, NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Rebaudengo Collection, Turin, Italy; Collection Lambert, Avignon, France; and the Israel Museum, Jerulsalem.