In 1989, British artist and graphic designer Paul Elliman set out to create a font based on found objects– like antique brooches, rotting cardboard pieces, and rusty binder rings–in which no piece was used more than once. Each character had to be small enough to put in your mouth, and had to have been created by a human. The resulting typeface, Found Fount (also known as Bits), is a growing collection of 10,000 found “letters” that has never been shown publicly until this month.
Elliman’s collection is the anchor of a new show at MoMA that brings together a diverse group of historical and contemporary artists who work with alphabets, words, and language. Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language spans multiple decades and multiple schools. Marcel Duchamp makes circular puns with Man Ray, next to Bruce Nauman’s spiralling neon mantras. Three black telephones in the gallery play recorded poetry by Vito Acconci and Allen Ginsberg, alongside Tauba Auerman’s fantastic work diagramming the language of color. John Cage’s sheet music drawings make appearances, as do Chopin’s sound poems, and a calendar of live performances. The breadth of artists represented illustrates the limits that humans reach, when thinking about language.
Amid all these crowd-pleasers, though, Elliman’s tiny jeweled pins and neatly organized mechanical detritus still dominate the show. MoMA’s curators call Elliman’s collection “a system for describing the world using the world itself.” Look at Found Fount for a few minutes, and when you look away, you’ll see letters and words all around you. That’s the idea behind Elliman’s typeface: It draws a parallel between language and design. We tend to think of the alphabet as something handed down from on high, but Darwin once compared language to a learned skill, like brewing or baking. By conflating letters with buttons and tape dispensers, Elliman echoes Darwin, reminding us that language is a toolkit, designed by us humans to help ourselves get by in the world.