Graphic designer Saul Bass was the first great artist I was ever a fan of. My father, who'd taken night-school art classes as a young man during the Depression, was a jack-of-all-trades in small advertising agencies and had an eye for the good stuff in commercial art. Since I longed to draw covers for Collier's or Argosy, he pointed me to great illustrators such as Robert Fawcett and Austin Briggs. The latter was one of the two artists I put down as my favorites on a questionnaire for Art Appreciation in my freshman year at UCLA, the first art class I ever took. The other was Saul Bass, whom I discovered on my own by seeing, at age 14, The Man with the Golden Arm, the groundbreaking movie about a heroin addict, starring Frank Sinatra. The film's title sequence-a menacing dance of white bars on a black screen, with Elmer Bernstein's music building to an ominous climax-blew me back in my seat, and I was never quite the same.
Bass's story is told in an abundantly illustrated new book, Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design, by his daughter Jennifer Bass, herself a graphic designer based in California, and Pat Kirkham, who teaches decorative arts and design history at the Bard Graduate Center in New York. The tale begins with a familiar template: a precocious son of Jewish immigrant parents in New York wins a scholarship, works hard at crappy jobs, is noticed by higher-ups in his field and starts spreading his professional wings.
With Bass (1920-1996), the country of parental origin was Russia; the borough was the Bronx (home to one-third of New York's Jewish population, the largest concentration in the world at the time); the scholarship was to the Arts Students League; the vocation was commercial art; and Warner Bros. was the site of that first job, as a layout and paste-up man. "I was in the ass-end of the industry," Bass said, "[but] I was young enough, naive enough, and sufficiently cocky to believe I could elevate movie advertising to the standards set by Man Ray's Rayographs and Jean Cocteau's films and illustrations."
Bass was further emboldened by taking a class in advertising design at Brooklyn College with the Hungarian-born painter/designer/theorist György Kepes, previously a teacher at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and later the founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. Bass moved to Los Angeles in 1946, where, two years later, he did a wonderful cover-featuring a small photo of an egg (the beginning of creativity?) and an antique drawing of a hot-air balloon set amid dynamic dots and swirls on a light blue background-for the progressive and prescient L.A. magazine Arts & Architecture.
The designer then embarked on what is, to me, his most significant artistic endeavor-posters and title sequences for movies. Bass was still a company employee when he did the publicity visuals for the gritty Kirk Douglas prizefight picture, Champion, 1949 (sometimes making the photo of the embracing stars larger than the title, sometimes the reverse), and for No Way Out (1950), about a wounded white crook (Richard Widmark) who resists being treated by a black prison doctor (Sidney Poitier). The advertising for No Way Out had to downplay the fact that a black actor had a lead role, so Bass partially hid Poitier's head behind an abstract shape and typography. (This was 1950, remember, four years before Brown vs. Board of Education.)
After striking out on his own in 1952, Bass began his most imaginatively fertile period, creating the logos and title sequences for another pioneer African-American-in-the-lead film, Carmen Jones (1954), starring Dorothy Dandridge. (Here a flame, with an outlined rose in its midst, flickers against a dark screen.) He also produced the unforgettable, doubly bent, black limb for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955); the cut-apart silhouette corpse for Anatomy of a Murder (1959); and the upraised arms reaching for freedom in the form of a rifle for Exodus (1960). These shapes and their color combinations (respectively: black, teal and violet; red and black; blue, black and white) are as visually delicious and moving (if you've seen the movies or know their stories) as any iconic image by, say, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns or Romare Bearden.
Alas, beyond efficiently relating the biographical facts, the writing in the book is pretty awful. Part of the problem is that Bass's professional life consists of one triumph after another, and his personal life comprises one long happy marriage to Elaine Bass (who became his design collaborator), with whom he had a son and a daughter. In short, there's little drama. The relentless references to "Saul" ring more like ad brochure copy than serious prose. Some italicized Bass words of wisdom on such subjects as "the process" and "humor in film" resemble hagiographic quotes from "Ron" in Scientology texts.
Fortunately, the visuals in this handsome volume more than make the case for Bass as one of the best artists of the second half of the 20th century. He's Warhol without the cynicism masked as naiveté (or the reverse): a maker of indelible, elegantly stark images (Warhol's Marilyn Monroe, Bass's arm of an addict; Warhol's Campbell's soup cans, Bass's double-"U" for United Airlines). Neither artist is shackled to that connoisseur's fetish, the unique object produced by an inimitable touch of the human hand.
Warhol, however, has a much higher standing in art history. His attitude toward corporate America had the kind of double edge that still keeps smart people wondering what he really thought and felt. He genuinely liked Campbell's soup, Coca-Cola and movie stars, but there's something damning-with-fulsome-praise in his ghostly embrace of them. Bass, on the other hand, seemed to believe-as most of us no longer do-that the titans of commerce actually have a humane, universally caring side that can be made evident to the public through superbly designed logos. (Bass probably made 10 or 20 times his film-work income by graphically conjuring corporate identities.) Besides United Airline's overlapping orange and blue U's, the Dixie company's named spelled with a floral X, Alcoa's arrowhead A with a downward-pointing red triangle in its middle, AT&T's circled bell and later striated globe, and-for the not-for-profit art sector-the Getty Center's blue square cropping the contained letters G-E-T-T-Y. About the museum's logo, the book's words (in body text and a caption) are as precisely on-target as Bass's design:
Elegant crisp white letters are beautifully held in balance and space within a blue field. The refinement of the Zen-like design is tempered by the offsetting of letters of differing sizes and the slicing away of edges.
The logo refers to the five main departments of the Getty and the contrast of Richard Meier's white buildings against the blue California sky.
Bass passed away in 1996. It's a cliché beyond clichés to say this, but we probably won't see his like again. Only incredible luck could produce another such master of shape, composition and color, with the rare knack of getting straight to the essence of a subject.
PETER PLAGENS is a painter and writer living in New York.
Graphic Design: Now in Production Andrew Blauvelt, Ellen Upton et al., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 2011; 240 pages, $40.
This richly illustrated compendium, featuring essays by 15 scholars and critics, accompanies a major exhibition that highlights communication design since 2000. The show covers design-driven posters, magazines, books, software and typography as well as branding campaigns for businesses, organizations and countries. Many of the gallery displays are interactive, and the exhibition also features information-sharing Night School activities and a retail store offering designer-created goods.
“Graphic Design: Now in Production” is currently at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, through Jan. 22,
2012. Subsequent itinerary: the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, June 2-Sept. 3, 2012, in the museum’s temporary display venue, Building 110, Governor’s Island; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Sept. 30, 2012-Jan. 6, 2013; Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, N.C., October 2013-January 2014.
Design and Truth
by Robert Grudin, New Haven, Conn.,
Yale University Press, 2010; 224 pages, $26.
Exploring how design reflects the mindset of a society, be it through the esthetics of motorcycles, Google software or the World Trade Center towers, Grudin argues that good design keeps us in touch with our primal nature.
The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism
by Nicholas Fox Weber, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2009/11; 544 pages, $27.50.
As a student of art history in the 1970s, Weber developed a close friendship with Josef and Anni Albers, who shared stories of their experience at the Bauhaus in the 1920s and early ’30s. The author contextualizes these memoirs through an anecdotal account of the personal relationships fostered at the historic German school.
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts
by Simon Garfield, New York,
Gotham Books, 2010; 356 pages, $27.50.
Garfield’s lighthearted work delves into the 560-year history of fonts as well as the recent interest in typeface that has accompanied the rise of computer word-processing. The author explores the subliminal responses prompted by various fonts. Case studies include graphic designs linked to 1960s Beatlemania and to the 2008 Obama campaign.
Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline
by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, New York,
Princeton Architectural Press, 2010; 272 pages, $50.
Offering abundant images, this volume charts the evolution of timelines in the U.S. and Europe from 1450 to the present. The authors show that time can be represented in myriad ways—including a line, a circle or even a vertical ladder, as was done by 18th-century missionaries hoping to convert Native Americans