Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Guide to Well Designed Products: Pt. 1(?): Essences: Motherwell & Lustig: Modernism & Abstraction: Form

"On the book jacket, the essence of the book is translated by means of type selection, color and significant form into an immediate visual impression."
From "Alvin Lustig: His Work" in Everyday Art Quarterly, Spring 1950.
(I don't know who wrote this one.)
"The design of a book is an extremely subtle problem; as compared with the design of a magazine, it suggests rather the workings of a string quartet than those of a symphony orchestra. It involves a series of delicate relationships such as type selection, scale of type to the page, area of type on the page, width of margins, proportions of the book, choice of paper. These and similar nuances add up to a total that somehow must seem organically related to the material."
-Alvin Lustig, poet of margin, type & line
From his essay "Contemporary Book Design: 1" in Design Quarterly No. 31, 1954.
(I don't know if it's available for free on the internet, but I would highly recommend you hunt it down, oh faithful lovers of eloquent lines)

"The attitudes towards the surface on which the artist works, the use of the multiple axis, the breaking of the classical frame, new concepts of space--all of the working vocabulary of the contemporary architect, designer, painter or sculptor--have made their way, slowly and painfully, into the art of book design."
Hells yes, Alvin Lustig! You break that classical frame!

I love it when artists are so sincere and emotional when they write about things like margins and size-of-type.

Robert Motherwell, "Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 57," 1957-60

Read: Robert Motherwell's "On the Humanism of Abstraction," which isn't available on the internet to my knowledge but which is well excerpted here. Motherwell, being that eloquent master of, well, humanism and abstraction; that sincere and beautiful and ever-honest seer and prophet and voice of brutish nonfigural Gods like Pollock and so-on; his ideas are so applicable to us lovers of forms and lovers of things.

Let's talk about that.

I mean, really: Motherwell's black-on-white
(And oh you know the poetry of those shapes, you don't have to be told the title or the story about Federica Garcia Lorca or Francisco Franco or It was exactly five in the afternoon to know the power in his forms)
is no different from Alvin Lustig's "thin gothic" and all that negative space. His abstract expressionism is, inherently, the same as our abstract book designs. Obviously. Not that you didn't all go to design school and know all about Arnheim and Malevich and Lissitzky and all those other theorists, but it warrants being discussed.

Just like Motherwell said (it's hard to call him Motherwell--do you call your husband by his last name? Well, sometimes you do I guess...): all representation (mathematical, photographic, cinematic, literary, or in acrylic paint) is abstraction because, well, e=mc² is not energy rly and that painting of a tree is not akshully a tree. (This is paraphrasing. Contrary to some theories Robert Motherwell was not, in fact, a lolcat.) Anyway, so based on Platonic philosophy and all his aesthetic Stanford-Harvard Schoolin' and the merits of being One of the Greatest Painters Ever, R.M. argued that more abstraction=less complexity (a distillation, perhaps) and that a stupid Wyeth rowboat is still an abstraction just less of an abstraction than Mondrian. (And so there is no "realism," obviously, because it's a painting not a real rowboat, stupid.) Really, he talks about the misconception that a painting is created in an interchange between canvas, "nature," and painter. Really, he says, it's the relationship between medium, artist, and "reality." "Nature" is a construct that is no more true and real than all of the cultural context and cognitive space. So there is nothing more "honest" about a picture of a tree than there is about pictures of shapes--both reflect the artist's relationship with their own perception, thoughts, culture, reality, everything.

Then he brings in Plato. He basically said that things have an "essence" beyond their "real" being. (Or Whatever, I Hate Philosophy.) Motherwell said, then, that abstraction was a purer relationship between the canvas and the artist's concept of reality: it transcends the wordly "body" of stupid leafy things in order to represent the "essence" of that moment or relationship. It's more honest. So, even though Wyeth's stupid rowboat seems more "complex" and "real," it's actually less "real" by this reasoning than Mondrian's "squares."
"[Abstraction] can convey feeling in its 'essence' (in the Platonic sense) in a way that 'naturalism' cannot: it has far too many extraneous details, and loses its emphasis, its focus."
This is Mr. Motherwell's way of saying: My paintings are "more authentic" than Normal Rockwell's. And, true!

So that's what I'm saying, or, well, what Everyday Art Quarterly and Alvin Lustig were saying: that book design (and architecture and every other genre design) can/should/does distill meaning into form that conveys essence that transcends its opposite,which is pictures of trees and other stupid shit. Can you tell what kind of art I like? Hint: squares.

This is formalism! [Kind of] This is obvious! [To Lustig-lovers] I'm an amateur. [Clearly]

But I'm getting ahead of myself. In that essay, Lustig asserted that book design had a difficult time breaking that classical frame, of becoming more modernist and seeking pure essence in form. And that's true, right? There's a reason why Kuhlman's typographic inventions for Grove were so cutting-edge: they weren't being done. Literalism--and, by extension, Naturalism--prevailed in book covers. There was either traditionalist plainness on books, or there was...some sort of minimally-abstracted representation of what actually happens in the book. Pictures of boats, of foxy ladies doing things, of men in suits, that sort of thing.

Is this fair to say? It's an oversimplification, of course, but the reason I am so emotionally involved in these designers is because they do the same thing for me that Motherwell's canvases do to me: they convey a pure emotion ("emotion": a cheap word. "reality," is what I mean. or, you know, "essence"). And that emotion [should be/is] true to the aim of the literature it represents.

Okay, so I'm not sure that's a fair assessment. Alvin Lustig, of course, wanted his D.H. Lawrence loose-forms to convey...whatever it is that D.H. Lawrence wanted to convey, emotionally speaking. I assume it was respectably naughty. But we're talking about Alvin Lustig, poet-idealist-designer-ideal. He's not everyman, he's not everydesigner, he isn't a publisher or a marketer or New Directions Paperbooks as a company.

We're not so idealistic as to pretend that there isn't that lofty-but-probably-true-marketing element. After the war, you had all these people that had nice-looking houses and war-funded union-bolstered jobs in the suburbs. And people going to college. And America bombed out all these art schools in Europe so all these artists had to come to America, which was cool with us 'cause we wanted to be Best Country and win a Blue Ribbon in Free Art or whatever, so we gave Gyorgy Kepes and Josef Albers and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and All Those Other Guys jobs teaching Americans about the Graphic Design Thing they invented.

Anyway, so now America had middle-class folks who wanted middle-class cultural capital and we had all these Harvard-trained designer-types with all these ideas about letters and composition floating around their head, guys that knew Motherwell more than Wyeth. And the middle class folks wanted books, but they wanted some books that were Just For Them and they wanted to buy Lolita but they didn't want the obnoxious leatherbound hardcover or the low-brow pulp at the supermarket, so all these designer-types and all these publisher-types had to wrangle together all these forces and invent the Trade Paperback, stealing artists like Samuel Beckett and some other out-there guys from Europe (which didn't really have a culture anymore since we blew it up). And so we sold all these things to the new-moneyed middle classes to put on their Sears shelves and convince them they had culture and things.

That is to say: figuralism is for poor people, us middle classes "get" those square-paintings 'cause we have culture.

Disclaimer: my research is unsound.

These are the explorations I seek: to really deconstruct these assumptions about modernism and marketing. Like, where would George Salter fall in all of this? Surely he's a little pastoral, right?

I seek to fully understand the history of this nebulous "paperback" thing I so adore. To connect, in my world, my soul-wrenching melty-fluttery wholly human love for Motherwell's fields of black and white to Kuhlman's brilliant Beckett types and the perfection of spacial relationships that is my single true Lustig paperback. (I know, I only own one! My life is a sham, I cry every day). To validate my love for stupid things like the angle of a dresser's leg's in relation to the floor, or That Perfect Thin Gothic, or a watch or a shoe or a huge heapin' hunk of metal by Alexander Calder.

And to talk about it.

And to point out how fabulous the phrase "a guide to well-designed products" is. Clearly, the sapling of Design Quarterly totally gets me.

I'm sitting here next to Art in Theory 1900-2000. Malevich is calling me. And Albers. One of these days I'll know what I'm talking about, I swear. Please don't make fun of my 'cause I'm not a real designer-type.

I'll share my one-real-Lustig soon. And, you know, everything else.

In conclusion: Me-and-Motherwell-Sittin'-in-a-tree-(and-L-U-S-T-iiiii-G).

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