A poster at odds with itself recently made the rounds on New York’s subway cars and platforms. The upper half was a tour de force of sans-serif typography, a pocket of restraint amid an otherwise giddy advertisement for Jeff Koons’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The words “Whitney” and “Jeff” were spelled out in block letters that echoed the Upper East Side institution’s mid-century Brutalist building, once described in this magazine as “a forward assault-position for America’s artists.” 1 A set of diagonal lines zigzagged through the remaining space. These underscored a connection to the museum’s reverse ziggurat form while providing some moderate visual dynamism. Though bordering on abstraction, the configuration of lines retained just enough structure for the attentive rider to decipher a stretched and distorted “W.”
Below, these typographical markers of cultural sophistication—versions of which appear on all of the museum’s advertisements and comprise what designers call the institution’s “identity”—collided with the poster’s major graphic element: a cartoonish, mischievous kitten, its face and paws protruding from a knit sock. It’s one of Koons’s monumental sculptures, a work that appears at once aggressively phallic and innocent. Flattened and scaled on the poster, however, the picture was remarkable mainly because it was so cloying and sweet.
The adorable feline slipped in between the block letters spelling out the artist’s last name. The austere type was compromised further with a visual trick, one far less subtle than the careful oscillation between abstraction and meaning embodied in the springy “W.” Two pastel flowers positioned on either side of the kitten’s head stood in for the two “O”s in “Koons.” A tagline channeling the nonsense rhetoric of blockbuster movie trailers appeared at the bottom of the poster: “A Retrospective as Audacious as his Art.”
What makes Koons so audacious (and bodacious?) in the eyes of many critics is his ability to upturn cultural hierarchies by using banal imagery and objects as source material for lavishly produced paintings and sculptures. Quite a lot of this source material could be properly called graphic design. The Whitney retrospective includes actual Nike posters and liquor advertisements that Koons appropriated (i.e., purchased and hung in a gallery).
Of course, Koons is hardly a pioneer in this operation. A fairly comprehensive narrative of 20th-century art, from Picasso to the Pictures Generation, could focus entirely on artists claiming and recontextualizing the work of graphic designers. These acts of aesthetic privatization—the rebranding of common and collaboratively produced imagery as the work of an individual artist—have been celebrated by progressive-minded critics and historians for their critical potential to reveal the ideologies underlying for-profit mass media.
Yet if we attempt to apply the logic of appropriation in reverse—consider the myriad instances of designers borrowing tropes from modernist art, such as the nods to geometric abstraction found in the subway ad—the result is a bit murkier. Rather than a clear-cut inversion of “high” and “low,” we can perceive a circular process: designers quoting artists who were themselves quoting from various forms of design. The cultural hierarchies that figures such as Koons thrill to violate become a muddle. This ad is a particularly stark example of the necessary conflicts and cross-purposes underlying the relationship between the contemporary artist and designer. Here, the lowly designers supply all the markers of aesthetic ambition in contrast to which the artist’s insipid imagery becomes legible as something more than kitsch. In turn, the image (of a cartoonish artwork that is actually among the most opulent luxury goods produced in recent memory) appears almost to taunt the typography (on this subway ad) for its air of uptight elitism.
When the Dutch design firm Experimental Jetset (EJ) received an invitation to revamp the Whitney’s identity in 2011, they embarked on a research process that resulted in a “zig zag” tour, as the designers put it, through the museum’s collection and institutional history. 2 In 2013 they presented the results of this research along with a set of fonts and logotypes that the Whitney’s in-house design staff could apply to letterheads, websites, print publications and subway advertisements. The cornerstone of EJ’s design is the spindly character they branded the “Responsive W.” The sharp diagonals framing Koons’s name were but one iteration of this device, which is meant to be flexible enough to “respond” gracefully to any image it could be paired with or to any format in which it might be printed, from the narrowest book spine to the widest billboard.
What may appear to be a practical design solution came packaged with a distinguished art historical pedigree. In an essay, EJ describes how the Responsive W was the outcome of a romp through American art history. The designers cite diverse sources of inspiration ranging from Op and Concrete art to Ad Reinhardt’s drawings to Trisha Brown’s choreography. Ultimately, the firm found the closest affinity with Conceptual art, both in its textual aesthetic and its dispersed modes of authorship. After EJ returned to Amsterdam, the Responsive W would have to be generated by others following a set of specific parameters. This series of instructions, EJ believed, led to a work that was “not unlike a Sol LeWitt” wall drawing.
Though rarely articulated with such precision, the basic act of mining art history is nothing new for the graphic design field; in fact, the recycling of art might be regarded as both the promise and pitfall of the discipline. In the early 1970s, Susan Sontag argued that good graphic design—she was speaking of posters in particular—is always characterized by aesthetic belatedness. Rather than a protagonist of visual culture, the designer synthesizes a loosely defined period style. “The relation posters have to visual fashion is that of ‘quotation,'” she writes, “thus, the poster artist is usually a plagiarist . . . and plagiarism is one main feature of the history of poster aesthetics.” 3 In this view, poster design appears relevant and up-to-date when it signals awareness of a risky aesthetic program without actually offering true difficulty or controversy.
The 20th-century avant-garde has been one of the main targets of these designer-plagiarists. Michael Rock, a principal at the New York firm 2×4, observed in 1989 how forms of modernist art were being recycled into commercial design. “Marketing departments are becoming aware of the cachet associated with avant-garde,” he wrote, “thus avant-garde is beginning to be used for advertising and marketing purposes.” 4 Shorn of any subversive attitude, historical context or utopian spirit, imagery derived from Bauhaus, Constructivist and De Stijl sources was being rebranded for savvy shoppers. This phenomenon was not just a product of historical distance; the freewheeling lifestyle of the contemporary artist, Rock argued, could convey the right “edgy” image. Rock mentions how artists like Andy Warhol, David Levinthal and Kenny Scharf were commissioned to produce ads for Absolut Vodka, part of the brand’s attempt “to link a product with the downtown art movement, as a route to cash in on the highly aware and dying-to-spend crowd.”
Such narratives hardly paint a flattering picture of the design profession. Portrayed as either serving up warmed-over avant-garde aesthetics for corporate money or seeking out the next young painter to plagiarize, the designer had little to aspire to beyond reacting more quickly than others to the whims of “real” artists. It’s not surprising, then, that so much graphic design criticism from the later 20th century is marked by a sense of deep insecurity. Rock acknowledged as much in his influential 1996 essay “The Designer as Author.” He argues that authorship had become a loaded term among ambitious young designers precisely because it “connotes seductive ideas of origination and agency,” exactly those qualities that the designer-plagiarist lacked. 5
Of course, striving for an ideal of artistic autonomy could only be an act of masochism for professionals working on deadline and under constraints set by a client. Assessed on a scale of apparent creative freedom, designers will invariably fall short of their studio artist counterparts. Rather than apologizing for the profession, Rock’s solution was to devise new criteria for design that wouldn’t rest on what he considers long discredited myths of individual artistic genius.
Ellen Lupton, a prominent designer and curator, may have pushed this endeavor furthest with her characterization of the “designer as producer.” In Walter Benjamin’s call for politically radical artistic labor that employed new forms of mass media, Lupton found a touchstone for the late 20th-century commercial design world. Free from the constraints of the white cube and the luxury market for art, Lupton’s designer, empowered by a mastery of production techniques, could assume a far more consequential role by “critically navigating the social, aesthetic, and technological systems across which communications flow.” 6
Lupton’s characterization, though first articulated in the late ’90s, would not appear out of place in many art journals today. As David Joselit has argued in After Art (2012), the most urgent work being produced now is that which reflects critically on the circulation of information, the mutability of images and the new modes of perception and communication facilitated by the Internet. If the studio artist once appeared as an unreachable ideal for the ambitious designer, then the designer-as-producer has once again come to loom large over artists. 7
I say once again because at particular moments over the past century, especially during times of political or social crisis, design has appeared as the vanishing point for modernist artists. The Soviet avant-garde’s call to abandon studio work in favor of real factory production may be the most extreme example, though echoes of this “productivist” impulse can be found from the Futurists to the Bauhaus. Recently, the artist and critic Hito Steyerl revived this line of thought for the Internet age. What she termed “circulationism” is a strategy for artists working in a reality that “now widely consists of images,” pouring through screens and hovering in the Cloud. The appropriate response, Steyerl argues, is not a matter of making a new image, but of selecting one for modification, “postproducing, launching and accelerating it” over networks. Rather than originating novel concepts in the studio, circulationism “is about the public relations of images across social networks, about advertisement and alienation and about being as suavely vacuous as possible.” 8 Apparently, the anxieties Rock identified in the design profession 20 years ago are being reframed as aspirational ideals for emerging artists.
For many artists, assuming the role of a designer is less a matter of political commitment than of economic necessity. Whereas tending bar may have previously sustained artists eking out a life in urban centers, today’s soaring rents necessitate more lucrative gigs in 3-D modeling and high-end graphic design. In a press release for “Nobodies New York,” an influential 2011 group exhibition at 179 Canal, artist Josh Kline described how technically savvy artists in New York found themselves acquiring dual “skill sets,” allowing them to build corporate websites in glass towers by day while using the same digital tools to produce their own work for the white cube by night. It will likely be the forms that bleed between these two occupations that appear to us in retrospect as the most incisive of our overall creative economy. Kline’s sculptures, for instance, feature the 3-D printed hands and heads of nonartist creative professionals: designers, architects and art directors.
Still, strategically crossing the porous boundary between art and design is probably preferable to eliminating it entirely. Design-specific methodologies have much to teach the contemporary art world about the limitations of its own rhetoric. In a remarkably candid passage of EJ’s essay on the Whitney identity, the firm castigated the museum for insisting that full-color reproductions of single artworks be included on advertising posters. Citing their “more ‘Benjaminian’ ideological background,” EJ objected to the way the museum’s demand seemed to bolster the iconicity of masterpieces, whereas it felt that promotional material should serve a documentary function by presenting multiple images at once or by announcing exhibitions solely with text. In other words, the designers viewed their task of promoting the museum as an opportunity to undermine the art institution’s traditional commitment to the masterpiece.
Though it ultimately lost this battle with its client, the Responsive W remained as a trace of EJ’s dissatisfaction. After plopping a full-color reproduction onto a poster, the firm used the zigzag form as a sardonic device, simply a way to fill up the rest of the white space. As the designers said, “In many ways, this remaining space can be seen as a sort of representation of the museum itself—it is the space that exists around the artwork, the area in which the institute [sic] becomes visible.” If we accept that the “W” draws attention to that blank space, we might imagine the posters not just as some plagiarized form of lite-conceptualism, but as a public form of institutional critique.
By the same token, the art institution may be one of the few environments to facilitate sustained critical attention on the history of graphic design. And by this I’m referring not only to the few design-specific curatorial departments that exist to promote and preserve a selection of “groundbreaking” design objects. One important, though often undervalued, mechanism by which the ephemeral stuff of visual culture has survived is through its appropriation by avant-garde artists who plaster found texts and images onto their canvases. Even as handbills and newspapers crumble in obscure archives, we can get to know Weimar typography and poster tropes through a Hannah Höch collage. A design vocabulary of midcentury America appears to us through Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines. Though the collections of New York’s Whitney or the Museum of Modern Art are conventionally narrated as a journey from one triumphant avant-garde gesture to the next, we might also be able to see each successive canvas as a highly concise summation of the graphic design culture that existed at various moments. While Sontag saw poster designers trailing behind visual fashion, it is also true that some of the most fashionable works of visual art are reliant upon the history of design.
And this brings us back to Koons, whose simple act of arranging together in the gallery a series of posters that would normally be glimpsed independently across busy urban vistas becomes a didactic lesson in graphic design semiotics. His liquor series is a group of ads catering to customers from a nuanced spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. A simple narrative of fun and sex is included in a Spanish-language ad for Bacardi, while the pure flow of amber liquid is enough to convey abstract ideas about luxury and sensuality to customers of a high-priced liqueur. The point may be blunt, but it’s also one that rarely has the opportunity to be made, as so much of the visual landscape slips from our attention as quickly as the subway can move.
WILLIAM S. SMITH is associate editor at Art in America.