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.
Josef Maria Auchentaller's "Vienna Secession" of 1900 puts a new spin on that titillating tradition, using a nude male instead of a woman in an advertisement for a famous art show. The Secessionist-style artist breaks from his art nouveau predecessors in another way as well, giving the typography of the piece equal weight with the image. That same respect for type is seen in 1920's "Van Nelles Tabak (Van Nelles Tobacco)," by Dutch artist Jacob Jongert. The poster is breathtaking, and Miller has used it as a signpost for an artistic fork in the road. At this point, the exhibition arrives at the post-World War I boom in poster design. And whether the viewer turns left or continues ahead into a central corridor created by a pair of parallel partitions, the view is the same: Highly decorative art deco posters contrasted with more consciously designed modernist ones.
In the corridor are two of the most famous posters of the century: A.M. Cassandre's "Nord Express" and Pierre Fix-Masseau's "Exactitude." "Nord Express" is a 1927 ink on paper advertising a French railroad. Cassandre's approach is to convey the speed of the train by blurring the details of the locomotive, which is suggested by parallel lines set opposite the lines of the overhead wires. The name of the train is emblazoned across the top in thick, blocky letters. Fix-Masseau takes the opposite approach in "Exactitude," another French railroad poster from 1932 that shows a locomotive at rest. Across the top, in fine-line print, is the word "EXACTITUDE"--in this case, suggesting punctuality. The train stopped at the platform is meant to reflect the reliability of the ETAT railroad's schedule.
Back around behind the partition--the other tine in the show's fork--are more art-deco-style posters and a single piece from the art moderne style. Maurice Dufrene's 1930 "Rayon Des Soieries," a poster for a fabric company, depicts a woman holding a bolt of fabric over her arm. Dufrene, a Parisian who was also known for designing furniture, conveys his subject through a fascinating rhythm of solids and voids--the woman's hair, for example, is merely four parallel lines.
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While some of the graphic artists of the 1920s and '30s were luxuriating in the highly lyrical and decorative styles of art deco and art moderne, others were reveling in the avant-garde movements associated with modern art and architecture. It's this kind of work that greets us as we turn away from the Dufrene. Many of these avant-garde posters sport little more than pure typography--lettering alone, perhaps, or letters set against simple geometric shapes. One of the most radical and forward-looking of them is "L'eloge de Ilia Zdanevitch," a 1922 ink on paper by Iliazde, a Russian expatriate living in Paris. The Dada-style poster features words in various type styles crammed nonsensically all over the poster, with not even a geometric pattern for relief. The work of another Russian expatriate also reveals the influence of modern art--in this case, Russian futurism. In Nataliya Goncharova's 1923 ink on paper "Grand Bal de Nuit," the typography loops around a muscular abstract arrangement.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Iliazde's or Goncharova's disordered displays were artists who opted for crisp design elements. In "Tentoonstelling Van Nederlandshe Gemeente Werken," a 1926 work that Dutch designer Antonius Kurvers created to advertise a Frank Lloyd Wright show, there's no imagery at all--just the typeface along with a red square and some red lines. A similar simplicity characterizes Herbert Bayer's "Europaeisches Kunstgewerbe," a 1927 ad for a craft exhibit in which modernist type has been laid over a checkerboard pattern. At the time, Bayer was working in Germany at that famous center for international-style design, the Bauhaus. The Nazis later closed down the allegedly subversive institution, which is the main reason Bayer subsequently wound up in Colorado. (A Bayer solo show is scheduled later this month in the DAM's Close Range Gallery.)
Paper Revolution is a rare opportunity to view works that, though they may seem familiar, are rarely seen in their original form. But it's more than that: There's also all that art history.
Paper Revolution: Graphics 1890-1940, through next spring at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.