Lesson: Text Messages

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Art, English, Design
  • "Silence=Death," 1987."Silence=Death," 1987.
  • "Hell, Yes!" 2001-07."Hell, Yes!" 2001-07.


Written by Museum Educator Avril Sergeon.
Words can be used as the basis of an artwork. The artist uses language to give form to an idea or emotion. In the late 1960s, Conceptual artists emphasized ideas over visual forms; and this paved the way for language to assume a central role in defining a work of art. In this lesson, we will discuss two text-based works of art, sculptures made of neon lights. One is displayed prominently on the New Museum’s façade and becomes one with the Museum’s architecture. The other is installed in the Museum’s interior and illuminates a stairwell.


  • Students will explore the message in each work of art
  • Students will understand the social history behind the artwork
  • Students will discuss the design elements of the artworks
  • Students will esign an artwork using a message that is meaningful to the individual student


Text is words.
Message is a communication delivered in writing, speech, or through signals.
Mark is a visible impression left on a surface or material.
Neon signs are light tubes that contain neon or other gases, and are made to glow when a high electrical voltage is activated.
Sculpture is a three-dimensional artwork created by carving, welding, or modeling.
Architecture is the product of the process of building.
Façade is the front of a building.
Affirmation is the declaration that something is true or right.
Emotion refers to feelings of joy, fear, love, hate, and so on.
Empathy is the identification with the feelings or thoughts of another person.
Activism is the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political and social goals.
Truism is a self-evident or obvious truth.


Computer programs for designing or manipulating images such as: Illustrator, Paint, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro and Garage Band
Hell, Yes! images in the Digital Archive
Silence=Death images in the Digital Archive

Lesson Strategy

Open Discussion
The New Museum was designed by the Japanese firm SANAA, whose principals are Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. The architects conceived the Museum to allow exterior exhibitions of art on a ledge or attached to the aluminum mesh that encases the building. On the interior, the emphasis was to maximize exhibition space, and the architects have created eccentric spaces in addition to the major galleries.

Look at Hell,Yes!, 2001-07 by Ugo Rondinone.

  • What does the expression mean?
  • Have you ever used this expression? Under what circumstances?
  • How is color an integral part of the work?
  • What do the colors and shape of the sculpture suggest?
  • What do you think of the overall design of the sculpture?
  • What is the artist trying to communicate?
  • Do you feel empathy with the artist’s intention?
  • How does the size and placement of the work affect the way you view it?
  • Why do you think the New Museum chose this sculpture to inaugurate the new building?
  • How does this gesture by the New Museum communicate its philosophy?
  • How does the sign “brand” the museum?

Ugo Rondinone (born 1963 in Brennen, Switzerland) addresses questions of affirmation and identity through his multimedia artworks which embrace both high art concepts and commercial signage. Through his sign projects, the artist seeks to explore emotional and psychic states expressed in banal, everyday language. He takes phrases from songs and popular expressions and makes them into rainbow-hued neon sculptures which are joyous affirmations of love, life, and sexual liberation.

Rondinone takes his colors from the rainbow flag, which has become the most easily recognized symbol of pride for the gay community. The flag was designed in 1978 by artist Gilbert Baker and displayed that year in the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day parade. The flag today has six stripes: red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, royal blue for harmony, and violet for spirit. The flag is an internationally known symbol and is officially recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers.

Critic Jan Avgikos has said of Rondinone’s work, “Mounted on the sides of buildings like little beacons of hope and encouragement, the signs look…..like actual advertisements of some sort. Yet there is reason for doubt in that they are completely anonymous. (There is) no obvious commercial promotion, nothing to indicate what product or service or entity they represent.”

Rondinone currently live and works in Zurich and New York. He has exhibited at worldwide venues including Whitechapel Art gallery, London, Centre George Pompidou, Paris, and the museum of Modern Art, New York. Together with fellow Swiss artist Urs Fischer, Rondinone represented Switzerland in the 2007 Venice Biennial.

We will now examine the second neon sculpture, which is displayed in a lower stairwell of the museum.

Look at Silence=Death, 1987 by ACT UP (Gran Fury).

  • Describe the artwork.
  • Do you know the origination and significance of the pink triangle?
  • Have you ever seen or heard the expression “Silence=Death”?
  • What do you think it means?
  • Can you guess the context of its origination?
  • Critique the overall design of the sculpture in terms of its effectiveness in conveying a strong message designed to promote action and encourage empathy.
  • How does the sign reference advertising strategies?

Artists have helped to articulate the diverse responses of the gay and queer communities to the devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic, which broke out in 1981. Angry about the apparent indifference of the medical establishment and about the widespread stigmatization of those diagnosed with the disease, some artists resolved to use their work as a tool to organize the affected communities to agitate for change.

Gran Fury was a collective of six artists who designed posters and this neon sign in reaction to the AIDS crisis. The name Gran Fury refers to the specific Plymouth car used by the New York Police Department and was also meant to reference their anger about the political and social inaction towards the AIDS epidemic. The Gay Liberation pink triangle was originally used upside down by the Nazis to brand homosexuals. The triangle was co-opted by the gay movement and used right side up as a symbol of pride. Gran Fury used the slogan “Silence =Death” for the first time in 1986 and continued to design posters until 1993. Disinterested in monetary rewards, Gran Fury donated most of their works to the organization ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) to raise money for the services it offered to its community. In the fall of 1987, curator Bill Olander offered the window of The New Museum, at its SoHo location, to ACT UP to use as a space for activism. The group accepted his offer and developed the installation “Let The Record Show.”

The New Museum has had a long history of exhibiting work by artists such as Ugo Rondinone, Gran Fury, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger, all of whom engage in a visual investigation of written language. The Museum’s exhibition history encapsulates the philosophy of openness, fearlessness, optimism, and social commitment that is exemplified by its activism in the contemporary art community.


Jenny Holzer, an artist who works primarily with text and light, is famous for her short statements, formally called “truisms.” Some are common myths while others
are just phrases on random subjects in the form of slogans. The sayings include:

“Money creates taste.”
“Enjoy yourself because you can’t change anything anyway.”
“Freedom is a luxury not a necessity.”
“Don’t place too much trust in experts.”

Visit the Web site http://adaweb.walkerart.org/project/holzer/cgi/pcb.cgi, which displays a list of slogans by Jenny Holzer. Use one of the expressions listed above or use a truism from the Web site which has some personal meaning for you.

Use the materials list to incorporate your chosen slogan into a design project. Think carefully about colors, font style, scale, and framing of the visual image. Also consider the final use and placement of your signage design. Will it be used on a T-shirt or poster, or will it be three-dimensional and displayed publicly like the sculpture of Ugo Rondinone and Jenny Holzer?


  • Conduct an in-class critique of completed design projects.
  • Evaluate students’ understanding of the potency of signage and text-based art.
  • Evaluate their comprehension of chosen slogans and their implications.

Extending the Lesson

Divide the class into three groups.

Research Project 1: Have the students research the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City. What have been some of the lasting results of that period of activism for the GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer) community?

Research Project 2: Have students study the social dynamics that created Proposition 8 and accounted for its success in California. What are the implications for the gay community if the amendment stands? In 1978, Proposition 6, a statewide initiative barring gays and lesbians from employment in California’s public schools, was defeated. What was different about the social and political climate at that time? What are the similarities? Who was Harvey Milk?

Research Project 3: Keith Haring was an artist and activist who used his art to address various social issues. Assign students the tasks of writing a biography of the artist, and researching his use of the pink triangle symbol, and the Silence=Death slogan. Ask the students to look at other works by Haring in which symbols function as words and discuss the social or political issues addressed by the artwork.

Additional Resources

Ugo Rondinone: Guided by Voices by Ugo Rondinone, Jan Avgikos, Beatrix Ruf, Jan Winkelmann Hatje Cantz, 1999

Lesson Plan: Text Messages