Professor Theo van Leeuwen: Modern art as semiotic inquiry
Modern artists have questioned and changed how meaning is made in a variety of modes and multimodal combinations. Often they were ahead of semioticians. Sometimes they worked together with semioticians. Sometimes they worked themselves as theorists as well as practitioners, writing papers as well as producing paintings or films. But their contributions to semiotics have not always been understood, as society prefers to think of artists as intuitive, romantic geniuses rather than as thinkers.
This paper will explore modern art as semiotic inquiry. A few case studies will be presented to illustrate the point in detail. Barnett Newman’s work will be interpreted as a semiotic inquiry into colour that happens to be articulated in the form of paintings. Jean Tinguely’s work will be interpreted as a semiotic inquiry into kinetic design that happens to be articulated in the form of moving sculptures. And David Byrne’s visual work, which is executed in the medium of PowerPoint, will be interpreted as a semiotic inquiry into the affordances and constraints of contemporary semiotic software.