Visual Arts


Visiting the current exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum is like taking a nostalgic stroll through a supermarket. On display are everything from Ritz cracker boxes and Wrigley gum packets to magazines and newspapers, tourist guides and WPA posters. Coca-Cola packages compose one entire installation--even the ring-top can looks outmoded these days--while the Talking Heads and Rolling Stones record covers we considered "cool" in our younger days make up another. So what is all this cheap, mass-produced stuff doing in an art museum? It is part of the first comprehensive survey of American graphic design to date, "Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History," organized by the prestigious Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Design has more to do with art than we may think. Design, in fact, was the conduit through which European modernism reached the American public. Take, for example, the work of Herbert Bayer, a West German designer who had studied at the Bauhaus and immigrated to this country in 1938. In a layout he did for the Container Corporation of America, Bayer combined the amorphous shapes of Joan Miro and Jean Arp with the bold, readable type he perfected at the Bauhaus.

Modernism's use in a commercial vehicle made a difficult, avant-garde style familiar to the American masses.

Bayer was working in one of the most interesting periods in the history of graphic arts, and one that produced some of its most successful objects. During the Thirties and Forties, American design ranks were bolstered by European emigres like Bayer, who converted the aesthetics of modernism into a common visual language for the general public.

But "Graphic Design in America" does more than concentrate on this important period. It is an utterly comprehensive exhibition. The first thing that strikes us upon entering the Phoenix Art Museum is the omnipresence of graphic design in our environment. An enlightening installation, and one that could have been more effectively placed at the beginning of the exhibition, traces our visual progress through an average day.

We are inundated with graphic design from the moment we awaken to the digital face of the alarm clock, through the morning paper and cereal, the signage on the side of the road during our commute to work, the items on our desk, and finally the snack packages and book jackets of our quiet evening at home.

Even now you are caught in the design web. This very page was designed with considerations of typography and the integration of text and illustration.

"Graphic Design in America" is also an exhibition with a mission. The curators' goal in assembling these 500 objects was to assert the status of graphic design as art.

With a designer like Bayer, the case is easy to make. The same is true for others of the Thirties and Forties. Paul Rand's book jacket for The DADA Painters and Poets manipulates the size and arrangement of letters in a way that the DADA artists themselves had made available. And his oh-so-familiar logos for IBM and UPS favor a de Stijl penchant for simplicity and essential form. Rand goes so far in his writings as to suggest that this orderliness conveys the essence of truth and, therefore, the paternal nature of the big corporations.

Today, the new-wave work of April Greiman illustrates the same marriage of art and design. Her work returns to the ingredients of classic modernism--geometric letter forms and primary shapes--in inconsistent postmodern montages. Her image campaigns for hip L.A. restaurants and her brochure for CalArts are energetic, sexy compilations of words and disparate images. Her production is tied to commercial interests, but it asserts itself as a graphic creation. In general, the twentieth century has blasted close-minded perceptions of what constitutes art and what belongs in an art museum. Design has insisted upon a place in the museum, along with architecture and photography. Both the Walker Art Center and the Museum of Modern Art in New York have established departments in design. An interesting addition to the current show, in fact, is a catalogue by Arthur Drexler from a 1951 MOMA show entitled "8 Automobiles" that examined automobile design.

A lot of the current interest in graphic design, especially of the Thirties and Forties modernist era, is because of postmodernism's fascination with the forms and effect of the media. Commercial art has inspired artists from Picasso to the Pop crowd, but this interest has peaked in contemporary work. Consider the black-and-white text/images of Barbara Kruger--who was an art director for eleven years before dedicating herself to fine art--and the standardized pictorial symbols, called isotypes, of Matt Mullican. Despite such cross-fertilization between fine art and design, there are still legions of stuffy art lovers who refuse to recognize design's validity. Their most damning objection is the multiplicity of reproduction and the anonymity of a graphic image--anathemas to the "unique creation" rule of fine art. Graphic art, also, has a commercial purpose that contradicts the nonfunctional status of art. Finally, graphic art is primarily a process of montage, combining photographs, drawings and typography. Anything this manipulated must be a craft, detractors claim.

Unfortunately, the current exhibition is not entirely successful in dispelling these prejudices. The contributors to the catalogue go to great lengths to individualize designers and their styles, and to emphasize the fact that a print board is a unique creation just like a painting. Yet the exhibition itself is so overwhelming that the objects, even here in an art museum, are threatened with anonymity. Some displays look like grocery store magazine stands. And, because of the quantity of work, different designers are jumbled together in a confusing mix. In their insistence on being historically comprehensive, the curators have gathered a mind-boggling mass of material and information. When we enter the exhibit, we are immediately assaulted by an MTV-like display of words, colorful street photographs, isotypes and corporate logos. It is something akin to the hyped-up pages of USA Today and does not inspire us to focus on aesthetic issues. The curators should have left out a few of the gum wrappers and Coke cans in favor of a more coherent and forceful exhibition. Perhaps that will be the role of the next major retrospective. Graphic design deserves serious art historical attention. It remains the most successful visual conduit of vanguard ideas into the mainstream of culture. "Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History" is at the Phoenix Art Museum through June 17.

Design has more to do with art than we may think. Design was the conduit through which European modernism reached the American public.

We are inundated with graphic design from the moment we awaken to the digital face of the alarm clock.

The curators' goal in assembling these 500 objects was to assert the status of graphic design as art.