Aesthetic Alphabets

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Paul D’Agostino, PD (Initial Self-Portrait), 2017 acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

The language of art is rooted in a variance of archetypes and experiential knowledge that are assigned or convey specific social meanings. Artistic style might be considered a form of sociolinguistics (see: Labov, 1966; Eckert, 2008; Johnstone, 2009; and Irvine, 2001) due to aesthetic, performative and contextual elements that are derived from a myriad of social groups. Art historians can typically tell when a work was made and assign it an attribution, by connecting stylistic elements and patterns that are indicative of a specific movement, artist, ideology and/or culture. While the origin of language is still being debated, the earliest prehistoric art found in caves throughout the world suggests zeitgeist was in situ for communicating material life and supernatural ritual. As humans explored beyond their communities and mingled with other societies, they exchanged and incorporated differences in their regional forms and expressions.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all exhibit social, emotional and cognitive responses to the elements of art and principles of design. The formal qualities of a work of art such as line, shape, balance and color can be used to describe emotions or add emphasis to a work’s meaning. A jagged line might suggest nervous and anxious tension, while a painting predominately colored red might evoke feelings of anger or passion. A good strategy to perform with students who are linguistically developing and/or learning a second language, is to use color and shape to develop conversational vocabulary.  Vazquez (1981) states that works of art are replete with good examples for teaching linguistics via aesthetic principles: “one of the first skills taught to the learner of a second language is color. Teachers usually point out various objects in the classroom that are of the specific color being taught. I intend to eliminate that extra burden of looking around the room and then trying to decide whether that strange word that the teacher is saying is the name of the object or the name of the color of the object(s). By carefully selecting four or five paintings the names of ten to twenty colors can be taught with ease.”

After learning to describe colors, students can move on to identifying and elaborating upon geometric shapes. Shapes have further interdisciplinary vocabulary benefits, because they connect to STEAM learning (see: Artful Equations). Vazquez suggests introducing students to modern and contemporary artworks “with the purpose to develop vocabulary only.” This way, “it will be non-threatening to the student because we will not go into deep analysis, which is not what is important at the moment. Unconsciously, the student can have his/her reactions and if s/he wishes will be free to express them and possibly ask for meaning or an explanation of the piece of art before him/her. The works are mostly non-objective and are those which I feel are most useful in achieving the purpose of the lesson” (See: Vazquez, 1981, “Teaching a Second Language through Art” for specific examples of artworks used to supplement linguistical development). Eventually, the goal is to have students assign syntax to convey meaning by utilizing the vocabulary they have developed through observing works of art.

Artistic content can be quite literal, or it can prompt the beholder to connect the contextual dots, similar to how a poem or a piece of music may influence an imaginative narrative within our minds. While interpretations will vary among viewers, many artists have specific intentions for what their aesthetic style should communicate, even going so far as to create their own form of language. One of these artists is Paul D’Agostino, who is well versed in linguistics, literature and conversation. D’Agostino is fluent in Italian, German, French, Spanish and English, and has translated numerous literary works. He created his own painterly syllabary by transforming paint into decipherable vowels, consonants and word constructions. His 26 panel Chromatic Alphabet (2013-2015) is interpreted through color (red, orange, yellow and blue) and geometric shapes (circles, rectangles, squares, triangles and diamonds). Consonants are smaller than vowels in scale, and are defined by their color and shape against a grey background. The larger vowels, are painted as circles against a white background and each letter is given a chromatic assignment: red = A, orange = E, yellow = I, green = O and blue = U. Every letter is painted exclusively by D’Agostino’s hand, without the use of tools such as a ruler or a compass. This gives the series a gestural feeling that is uniquely expressive to the artist. His own dialect if you will. By employing his chromatic alphabet to individual paintings, D’Agostino spells out words and phrases, which are oft-humorous and astute references to the fields of linguistics and visual art.

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Paul D’Agostino, The People’s Art School, 1-3, 2019, gouache, acrylic and watercolor on gessoed heavy brown craft paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Titles such as Quadro (2015) literally mean ‘painting,’ while Homages to The People’s Art School, 1-3 (2019) refers to language relevant to the individual and collective work and creative cognition of Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky and Kazmir Malevich. It was inspired by D’Agostino’s research related to Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922, an exhibition at The Jewish Museum in 2018. D’Agostino elaborates: “I had the honor and pleasure of giving an artist talk and leading an exhibition tour while the show was up, so all the research I did with relation to it invariably fed into my artwork. The individual titles for these are basically the words painted on each one according to my Chromatic Alphabet. Left to right they are Haus und Garten (for Chagall), Proun (for Lissitzky) and Arkhitekton (for Malevich)” (D’Agostino, 2019). 

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Paul D’Agostino, Jar Jars Jar Ajar, 2019, acrylic on canvas. Courtney of the artist.

Puns are also a tactic D’Agostino frequently employs via his arrangement of the Chromatic Alphabet. For example, the painting Jar Jars Jar Ajar (2019) repeats the same letters J, A and R, to spell out the word ‘jar’ twice. However, the word on the right is manipulated both in scale and balance, which changes its inflection and expression. As D’Agostino (2019) explains: “the ‘large jar’ at left is ‘jarring’ the ‘small jar’ at right, leaving the smaller one ‘ajar’. So the title of the painting is “Jar Jars Jar Ajar”. Ha ha! Har har!”  

Thomas Micchelli interprets D’Agostino’s paintings as “a code of sorts, but one that distills speech into a conflation of sight and sound, visualized vocalizations that are as musical as they are linguistic….D’Agostino is using abstract painting to convey elemental sounds — the building blocks of both music and speech — in a visual/aural end run around the evolution of written language” (Micchelli, 2016). It has been theorized that music is older than speech or language and some even suggest that language evolved from music, art and crafts (Angier, 2016; James, 2018). Whatever the case may be for the origins of human linguistics, it can be said that the language of art has been a consistent tool for building knowledge and establishing our place within the world around us.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Angier, Natalie. “New Ways Into the Brain’s ‘Music Room.’ The New York Times, 8 Feb. 2016. Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

D’Agostino, Paul. (@postuccio). “I posted individual pics of this triptych of Chromatic Alphabet paintings…” Instagram, 3 Aug. 2019, Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

D’Agostino, Paul. (@postuccio). “The two vertically configured formations on this new Chromatic Alphabet painting look very similar…” Instagram, 7 May 2019, Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Eckert, Penelope. “Variation and the indexical field.” Journal of Sociolinguistics, 2008, 12: 453–476.

Irvine, Judith. “Style as distinctiveness: The culture and ideology of linguistic differentiation.” In Penelope Eckert and John Rickford (eds.) Style and Sociolinguistic Variation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 21–43.

James, Ben. “A Sneaky Theory of Where Language Came From.” The Atlantic, 10 June 2018. Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Johnstone, Barbara. “Stance, Style, and the Linguistic Individual” Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Stance,. Ed. Alexandra Jaffe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Labov, William. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1966.

, Thomas. “Paint as Language, Language as Paint: Paul D’Agostino’s Chromatic Alphabet.” Hyperallergic, 13 Feb. 2016. Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.

Vazquez, Doris. “Teaching a Second Language through Art.” Yale University: Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 1981. Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.


    1. Hi Erik, I’ve read a little Steiner, but am no too familiar with the Steiner-Waldorf approach (in practice). I’m intrigued by his connecting art to nature and his color theory, both of which have relevance in material-based explorations and discoveries within the art classroom and beyond. I’m glad that you found value in Agnes Nobel’s book. I’m going to add it to my reading list. Thank you for the recommendation!


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