The Last Supper

Essays by Emily King
1 508 words8 min read

The relationship between art and typography is long-term and ongoing. For around a century, type has been appearing in art works and the incidence of type in art is certainly on the increase. Broadly speaking artists who use typography fall into two camps: those who use type as language and those who use type as image. Artists in the former camp are likely to be called conceptual. They tend to employ only a single “neutral” font with the purpose of communicating in pure language, language that floats free of specific application. The typefaces used by these artists vary widely: Joseph Kosuth favours Sabon, Douglas Gordon goes for Bembo, Lawrence Weiner chooses Franklin Gothic Condensed Caps and Simon Patterson opts for American Typewriter. Of course these faces do flavour language and in practice, after having been associated with the work of a single artist for some time, they become a de facto typographic identity for that artist. Paint a sentence on the wall in Sabon and you have yourself a DIY Joseph Kosuth.

Contemporary artists in the latter camp, those who use type as image, are likely to be called conceptual too - but that is just because conceptual has become a debased catch-all term. Of course these artists bristle with ideas, but they are ideas that are most properly located in the continuing practice of Pop. Artists such as Ashley Bickerton, who worked with logos in the late 1980s, and Daniel Pflumm, a young German artist who has picked up the logo theme and is running with it right now, are working in the tradition of Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha. For this kind of art to be successful, the typography that the artist employs must be absolutely right. Artists working in this vein who are happy to use improperly executed or unconvincing logos pay be price by creating weak, ineffective images or installations (see Michael Landy’s Scrapheap Services).

The division between these two camps may seem pretty neat, but of course it collapses with very little provocation. Where, for example, do you locate the work of Jenny Holzer? She uses a generic LCD font, but her homilies are crafted to work in this format alone, they are not portions of context independent language. Other artists hovering between the two camps include Christopher Wool, whose typographic paintings create a confusion between type as language and type as image through the use of an outsize, stencil font. Similarly, the later output of Ed Ruscha works by generating a tension between how words appear and what they say.


Very different from the work of Ruscha, Wool or Holzer, but also sitting in the intersection between type as language and type as image, is Damien Hirst’s ‘The Last Supper’ print series. In these prints Hirst has modified medicine packages, replacing the proprietary names of medicines with the names of ordinary foods and substituting the logos of pharmaceutical companies with his own name. These prints concern language; by replacing brand names with general terms Hirst raises philosophical questions about the relationship between what things are and what they are called. These prints are about the conjunction of language and image; they address the convention that certain words appear in certain visual contexts. These prints are also about pure image; their effect relies on confounding expectations - expectations that can only be established by a mock-up medicine package that looks just so.

In order to get ‘The Last Supper’ series visually perfect, Damien Hirst employed the services of graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook. The process was this: Hirst took colour photocopies of the medicine packages that he wanted to mimic, he crossed out the names of the medicines on these photocopies and wrote in his alternatives by hand, he also offered a few visual and verbal suggestions as to the redrawing of the company logos, then he sent the marked up photocopies to Barnbrook and left him to get on with putting together the artwork for the prints. Barnbrook, who has worked with Hirst on a number of projects, describes Hirst’s role in making ‘The Last Supper’ as that of an art director. He is particularly careful to point out that, in this instance, his relationship with Hirst was not collaborative. Barnbrook emphasises the distinction between this project and other Hirst/Barnbrook productions – most significantly the book I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now – which have been the outcome of a more two-way creative process.

Jonathan Barnbrook is very comfortable with the idea that an artist might act as an art director. As he points out, the aim of many contemporary artists is to communicate through the mass media and communication of this kind requires input from a number of different people. To put it simply, “you can’t do everything yourself”. This seems perfectly reasonable, but in practice the contracting out of art-making can cause problems. In an incident a couple of years back, the photographer Anthony Oliver felt short changed by artists who were selling his photographs as their work. The case attracted comment in the national press and it appeared that Oliver had popular sympathy on his side. The question seemed to be whether Oliver’s act in taking the photographs was sufficiently creative to undermine another individual’s claim on those images as their own work. This in turn raises the question of whether some activities are more creative, or art-like, than others: is taking a photograph more of an art act than setting type?; is setting type more of an art act than making a model? Barnbrook suggests it is all about the soul; the questions being “whether you are making something out of the unique thing that you have in your soul.” Taking another tack on the issue, there seems to be a certain set of skills that we feel an artist simply ought to have - drawing has always been in there, maybe taking photographs is in too - and for some people the set might include graphic skills.


Then there is the question of credit. Credit in the mass media is not evenly distributed, but while, for example, the director of a film might receive the lion’s share of the praise, it is generally recognised that film-making is a team effort. It is not the same with art. The myth of the artist is not robust enough to accommodate multiple credits on art works - even the credit sequences on art films are kept to a minimum. In Barnbrook’s experience, it is the gallerists and dealers who strive to privilege art by undervaluing any other activity that might teeter on its territory. It should come as no surprise that the art myth is policed most vigilantly by these people; the commercial art world is a deeply conservative arena and their incomes are dependent on myth maintenance. Barnbrook is full of respect for artists, particularly Hirst with whom he hopes to continue working, but has nothing but venom for the galleries with which his work for Hirst has brought him into contact.

Questions of credit may rankle, but of course the real issue is not names-in-lights, but money-in-pockets. When I talked to Barnbrook he was working on the follow-up series to ‘The Last Supper’, a set of prints titled. The fee that Barnbrook would earn for this work had not yet been decided; it is not clear whether he should be paid the standard art-work rate or a more substantial fee that is proportionate with the relatively high cost of a Damien Hirst art work. The question of ‘who pays how much for what?’ is one of life’s most perplexing issues. The economics of demand, supply and market efficiency get you some way to answering that question in the real world, but turn to the world of contemporary art and these concepts become pretty nebulous. Art is undoubtedly a product, but it is a bit of an odd one.

By now Barnbrook will have finished Hirst’s second print series. On September 23rd they will go on show at the Gagosian Gallery in London and we can all find out how much they cost. Even though the price is likely to be way out of the league of the average graphic designer, I believe that the whole affair must be cause for celebration in the graphic community; the existing cultural hierarchy might be irksome, but it can be no bad thing for an artist of Damien Hirst’s status to recognise and employ the talents of one of Britain’s best graphic designers. Barnbrook doesn’t share my optimism. Happy with his working relationship with Hirst and happy with the prints, he still feels that the art world is wilfully blind to the significance of graphic design and that designers working in that world are trapped in the role of messenger.
© Emily King, no reuse without the explicit permission of the author.

  • is a London-based writer and curator with an interest in graphic design. She wrote an MA thesis on film title sequences and a PhD on typeface design of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Recent projects include the book Restart: New Systems of Graphic Design and the British Council exhibition The Book Corner. She is design editor of Frieze magazine. In 2009, she was the curator of Quick, quick, slow exhibition at the Experimenta, in Lisbon.