By Show and Tell
By Bree Davies
By Bree Davies
By Cory Casciato
By Emilie Johnson
By Robin Edwards
By Bree Davis
By Josiah M. Hesse
R. Craig Miller, curator of the Architecture, Design and Graphics department at the Denver Art Museum, is out of step with the current trend in curating--and thank goodness for that. Too many curators today dispense with such inconvenient details as history and style, relying instead on their own instincts and insights to present individual takes on the selected material. The problem with this fashionable approach is that the resulting shows don't teach the viewer anything--except whether the curator has good taste. Miller, on the other hand, still favors the old-fashioned approach. As a result, not only do his exhibits show us he's an aesthete, but they send us on our way with a lesson in art history as well.
That's surely what Miller has accomplished in the gem of a show now occupying one of the smallish second-floor galleries at the DAM. In Paper Revolution: Graphics 1890-1940, Miller takes us on a quick journey from the art nouveau style to the international style, using nearly fifty world-class posters as the vehicle. And he's not just boasting when he says that the show, though concise, "does say a lot."
Paper Revolution is the first of three shows Miller has planned that will showcase selections from the corporate art collection of Norwest Bank. That collection, which consists of some 400 objects, was begun in the 1980s as the result of a tragedy. On Thanksgiving Day in 1982, the Minneapolis-based corporation's headquarters building, a sixteen-story art deco landmark, was destroyed in the costliest fire in that city's history. With the building a total loss, Norwest in 1985 hired the great architect Cesar Pelli to design a replacement that would incorporate whatever lighting fixtures and art deco adornments could be salvaged from the original.
Pelli's thoughtful and sensitive design is said to have inspired then-CEO Lloyd Johnson to form an art committee even as the building was going up. The result was the hiring of curator David Ryan to assemble a collection of objects that would complement the new building. (Ryan has his own connections to the DAM--he launched his curatorial career here in the 1970s, when he served as an intern in the Modern and Contemporary department.)
Miller first saw the Norwest collection last year when he went to Minneapolis to organize the first DAM show. "David [Ryan] and I were going all over the building, in and out of people's offices, down hallways, with the art spread out everywhere," says Miller. It was during this initial visit that Miller recognized the fine quality of Norwest's posters and began to formulate Paper Revolution. "I looked at their entire graphics collection," he recalls, "and I wondered, 'Is there a logic here?'"
Miller found his logic in the way the bank's collection demonstrates the evolution of modern graphic design--and that's the show that unfolds before us at the DAM. As we enter, we are confronted by a diagonal partition covered with text--just like a poster. The intelligent exhibition design, which also includes bright-white walls edged in red, yellow and black, is the work of the DAM's Leland Murray, with eye-catching graphics by fellow staffer Mary Junda.
After entering, the viewer is led to the right, where a wall has been plastered with eight William Bradley posters. This is the starting point for the story Miller has to tell. Bradley, the only artist whose work is seen in depth in Paper Revolution, was the foremost graphic designer in America from the 1890s through the turn of the century. The pieces here demonstrate his artistic range, from the modern abstract character of "The Twins," an 1894 poster advertising the Chap-Book magazine, to the neo-medieval style of "The Kiss," an 1896 plug for his own periodical that recalls the work of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Next to the Bradleys is an incredible poster that exemplifies both the exoticism and the linear approach of European art nouveau. The 1895 work "Delftshe Slaolie (Delft Salad Oil)," by Dutch artist Jan Toorop (who is also famous for his symbolist paintings), captures two women preparing salad. The women's hair and dresses are exaggeratedly large and fill almost the entire poster. Toorop's use of acid green and brick red is particularly bold--so much so that "Delftshe Slaolie" served as a stylistic source for the psychedelic posters of the 1960s. No kidding.
More examples of European art nouveau include some very famous images by some very famous artists. Surprisingly, there's nothing from Toulouse-Lautrec. But as a consolation, Miller has included the well-known "Tropon," by Belgian genius Henry Van De Velde. This 1898 poster, which promotes a tonic, spells out the product's name in a unique typeface that's surrounded by a maze of lines. Even today, the colors--purple, yellow and white--are eye-popping.
More subtly tinted is another familiar image, 1898's "Job," by Alphonse Mucha. In the center of the poster, Mucha, a Czech who worked in Paris, has placed a seated woman in a circle. The woman holds a cigarette in one hand and a pack of Job rolling papers in the other. She's drawn as a seductive siren, barefoot and wearing a strapless dress. It's an early example of using sex appeal to sell--in fact, it's interesting to notice how often the graphic designers of the 1890s used images of women to promote their products, a trend that has continued to the present.