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Friday, April 29, 2011

Graphic Design - Get the Message! at AIHA

Most of us have tried to figure out where you draw the line between fine art and commercial art. My own favorite answer to that slippery question is that it is entirely a matter of intent (not, as some would have it, a matter of quality).

This sentiment is mirrored by the opening quote of the wonderful exhibition Graphic Design - Get the Message! at the Albany Institute of History & Art (through June 12), which ponders that and more while making great use of the Institute's permanent collection and other local resources to present a broad swath of commercial design by talented artists over several centuries.

Organized into thematic sections (Foundations, Graphic Design and Commerce, Political and Social Messages, and The Creative Process), Get the Message! sprawls through four galleries and features seemingly countless original examples of printed matter in two and three dimensions, augmented by electronic, digital, and multi-media material - an appropriately dense barrage that captures so much of our overloaded everyday visual experience.

After an introductory room that touches on the range of themes with examples as intriguing and diverse as war propaganda posters and a powder-blue Tiffany box, the show delves into history with a large display of old-fashioned letterpress equipment and 19th-century broadsides that represent the birth of modern graphic style.

This room also holds a distracting installation of photographs and pulp bales illustrating the papermaking process as practiced today by key exhibition sponsor Mohawk Fine Papers. While it is a blessing to a struggling museum (is there any other kind these days?) to have such prominent corporate underwriting, I must say it's a shame to see it come at this sort of price.

The next, largest gallery puts out the really colorful stuff we readily think of as showcasing the classic elements of graphic design - illustration and typography - in the form of bright and clever posters from the past hundred or so years (examples shown at the top of this post, and above at left).

It could be argued that the 20th century, with its political causes, social unrest, and explosion of commercial advertising, was the golden age of graphic design, and this room shows why. Whether selling war bonds, popular entertainment, educational toys, or soap, the artists behind these designs knew how to get our attention and make a lasting impression.

I had the company of an old friend and longtime graphic designer on this visit, and it was a pleasure to watch how he viewed the work in this section - moving in close and often marveling at the fine-art techniques, such as charcoal drawing and oil painting, that were employed in the service of these pitches. He frequently commented with amazement at the elaborate lettering that these pre-computer artists routinely hand-painted - a nearly lost art today.

For me, it was the simplest designs that held up the best. One artist featured prominently throughout the exhibition is Woody Pirtle, an internationally-known designer active in the Hudson Valley, whose politically-charged posters use color, shape, type, and iconic images in effortless concert to illuminate, anger, or amuse (example shown above at right).

Pirtle is among several top creators - all with local connections - featured in the last section of the show (Creative Process). The others are illustrators Dahl Taylor and William Westwood; design firms Vicarious Visions and Spiral Design; and early 20th-century designers Will H. Low and Hajo Christoph. All are of the highest quality in the business and have found significant commercial success - who knew the Capital Region was such a hotbed of creative design?

The Creative Process section has the expected preparatory sketches and such, but it also shows elements of the commercial design world not typically seen outside its own confines - promotional pieces in expensively elaborate detail that design firms use to give clients an idea of what they can do. Here, Spiral Design is the mind-blower, and it's here that I think the line gets crossed back over into fine art - because, in this case, the client is the artist, and the intention is to show the artist's skill. It's some pretty amazing stuff, from all the participants, and an impressive capstone to the show's historical lead-in.

Hajo, as he was known, is also featured in a separate exhibition one floor up from Get the Message! that details his personal journey from Berlin to Castleton, where he forged a career designing witty and sophisticated packaging for many local manufacturers (example shown at the bottom of this post). There are abundant examples of Hajo's extraordinary work in both exhibitions, including delightful personal art in watercolor, oils, gouache, and other media.

By the way - here's the quote that starts the exhibition, from Paul Rand (world-famous designer of iconic logos for firms such as IBM, ABC and UPS):

Design is the method of putting form and content together.
Design, just as art, has multiple definitions; there is no single definition.
Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that's why it is so complicated.

Food for thought, no?

Rating: Highly Recommended

Note: Throughout the run of Graphic Design - Get the Message!, there has been a series of related lectures and events. The next two are coming soon - at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 6 (in conjunction with First Friday), illustrators Dahl Taylor and William Westwood will present; and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 8, Ellen Lupton, the author of Thinking with Type and other design guides, will address the topic How to Do Things with Typography: Introduction to an Art.

Further on, at 2 p.m. on May 22, graphic designer, typographer and calligrapher Paul Shaw will speak and sign his latest book, Helvetica and the New York Subway System; and at 6 p.m. on June 3, Laura Shore will speak on the topic The Truth About Paper.

All the events are free.

1 comment:

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