Monday, April 14, 2014

Tonic in the Air!


Below is a public letter to my Commercial Modernism in America Students. They have been working on a periodical analysis project. They submitted first drafts of their papers last week. –GT.

I have been reading your papers for class. I have some thoughts for you as a group. I’m addressing these remarks to you generally in anticipation of meeting and talking with you individually. Some of the issues raised may not apply specifically to you, but they are common enough to be characterized as consistent themes. 

My observations are offered within the narrow context of the Periodical Analysis assignment, but they are broadly relevant for all those who strive to write well on cultural topics. Consider them tips with parochial utility offered in an expansive spirit. 

The purest distillation is this: Look. Describe. Interpret. In that order. Text + image + fusions of the two. 



Now, specifics. Every paper I have read so far has fallen into the category of Option 1, spelled out thusly: You will write a sustained analysis of a single issue, making an index of and describing its contents, then producing a sustained reading of a single spread (if it contains disparate pieces) or two consecutive spreads (if that’s what it takes to incorporate different kinds of material, like ads + editorial content). 

Let’s break that into halves.

[You will make] an index of and descri[be]…its contents. 

What does this mean? 

For starters: look at the thing. Curiously. Comprehensively.

How many pages are in the magazine? Where was it published, and by whom? What categories are listed in the table of contents? If there are particular subjects of interest (say, in a women’s magazine, the sequence of illustrated spreads at the outset of fiction stories) tell us. 

As for content analysis, if constructing a table for data seems easier than writing a prose paragraph, fine, do that; then refer to it. 

When you mention stories and illustrations, cite the authors and illustrators. Same with cartoons and cartoonists. This a form of seriousness and courtesy; it doesn’t matter if their biographical narratives or artistic aspirations are germane (they’re not, in almost every case), they are the people who made those things.  

Say you want to write about an advertisement: before digging in, why not compile a categorical list of all the ads in the magazine (table again) so we know if the one you are focusing on is particularly representative or not. If it’s not particularly representative but interesting for other reasons, fine; tell us that. 

We want lots of facts about your artifact. 

Why do we want those facts? Because they establish your authority as a reporter and critic. They’re evidence for an effective interpretation. Which anticipates the second half of the prompt:

[You will produce] a sustained reading of a spread or two. 

Here we pause to say that if you are writing about a visual subject, it is helpful to show your reader a picture of it. As I am that reader, I will make my request explicit: please provide visual documentation of what you are writing about. Skye Lacerte, Kristin Flachsbart and others at West Campus will be make scans for you if you are polite and you give them several days to accomplish the task. So get on that! In the meantime–or as an alternative–you can photograph the material yourself and crop it in Photoshop. 


Your artifact provides an opportunity to think about something. What does it mean? What can it tell us about the cultural moment in which it was made? What’s the interpretive opportunity? (If there isn’t one, you may have chosen badly. Back up and ponder: what would I like to know about this thing that I don't know now?)

For example: above, an advertisement from the Saturday Evening Post from the early 1950s for Carrier Air Conditioning. I pulled the ad from the tear sheet folder for an illustrator named Mac Conner in Walt Reed’s research files. (There are approximately 250,000 such tear sheets in said files, from the Reed Illustration Archive.) Kristin Flachsbart was kind enough to make the scan (along with others) for me. Thank you, Kristin!

We can start topically:
When and by whom was air conditioning invented, industrialized and popularized? 
What’s the background on Carrier Corporation specifically?
What arguments in what contexts does the ad make for air conditioning? 


Consider the social and political history of the United States between 1940 and 1970, and between 1970 and 2000. What–for example–might be/have been the correlation between the widespread availability of air conditioning and, say, domestic architecture? Between A/C and the distribution of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives? Or A/C and the distribution of professional sports franchises? Does anything in the ad presage such developments? 

How might the visual and readerly context of a mass-market magazine like the Saturday Evening Post have influenced the look of this ad? 

Is the editorial orientation of the Post, published by Curtis Publishing of Philadelphia, relevant for this discussion?


Does the ad represent ideas about gender roles? How? 
Does the ad represent ideas about nature? How?
Does the ad capture significant dimensions or trends in the popular culture of the time? How?
Does the ad suggest latent attitudes about American experience in then-recent decades? How?
Is anyone missing from this ad? Who? Why?

Which readings from this semester might be helpful for interpreting this artifact? 

Here are some possibilities: 

Jules David Prown, “Style as Evidence.” Winterthur Portfolio Vol. 15, No. 3 (Autumn, 1980).
Published by the University of Chicago Press for the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library,
Wilmington, Delaware. Pages 197-210.

Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies.” PMLA, Volume 121, No. 2.
(March 2006). Published by the Modern Language Association. Pages 517-531.

Fields, Wayne. “Recovering America: Al Parker’s Postwar Illustrations.” Catalogue essay in
Ephemeral Beauty: Al Parker and the American Women’s Magazine, 1940-1960. Stockbridge,
Massachusetts: Norman Rockwell Museum, 2007. Pages 18-27.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life.” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essaystranslated and edited by Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon, 1964. Pages 1-40. 

Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” (1939). Anthologized in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. 1992, 2003. Pages 539-549.

Also: if you are writing about a women’s magazine in the Postwar period, go read the first and second chapters of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, “The Problem That Has No Name,” and “The Happy Housewife Heroine.” W.W. Norton, 1963. 

Look. Describe. Ask questions. Interpret. Use sources from your reading packet as interpretive prompts if you’re stuck, and even if you’re not. 


Finally: do you read magazines? Do you read, for example, Cosmopolitan? Maxim? Glamour? Sports Illustrated? (You are squarely in the demographic for these publications.) If so, you consume editorial material and advertising which address you as someone who a) buys things, b) uses products and services to create or amplify your sense of identity, c) experiences desire, and quite possibly d) has sex. As a complicated human, you are capable of digesting material aimed at you because you buy, self-construct through brands, desire people and things, and are sated without being transformed into an unreflective, dumb-assed desire robot. If you know this about yourself–as I am confident that you do–you may wish to extend such awareness to other humans from other historical moments. Say, for example, Postwar American women who read The Ladies Home Journal while leading otherwise complex and conflicted lives.

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Harry and Alfred Make Pictures of People


I have written often about the final project in Word and Image 1, which is a Figure, Story and Staging problem. Prior posts here and here. Yesterday we went to the Modern Graphic History Library to look at tearsheets and originals.


Curator Skye Lacerte pulled a great assortment of Al Parker's early two-color work, from the late 1930s well into the 40s. Those pieces show the clever narrative and design sensibility of all Parker's work. They are still modeled in the manner of the era, before he began to pursue the (occasionally radical) flatness of his work during the 50s, in the manner of the era.


By comparison, Parker circa 1959, (when flying was totally glamorous).



As a counterpoint, and as a set up for discussing key drawings (also a prior topic, most significantly here) we also looked at a stack of Harry Beckhoff tear sheets from the Charles Craver collection. (I have yet to wade into the Beckhoff file from the Walt Reed collection, but I am greatly looking forward to it!) 


I simply love this stuff, both formally and dramatically.


I am posting these examples with relatively little commentary, for reasons of efficiency. The people in these stories are often in formal wear. 

A toreador with a drum. 

A story told through posture. 


Lots of two-fisted types and colorful dames.


An Art Deco tableau.

Some hat! 


A sailor pulled in two directions, one more attractive than the other. 

Two very different illustrators, but both characterized by wit and style.

Images: Al Parker, Restaurant fight breaking out in front of jungle wallpaper, watercolor(?) and gouache with additions in dry media, date and citation unavailable, circa 1940; Parker, Be-robed man with plumed knight’s helmet speaking with woman, watercolor(?) and gouache with additions in dry media, date and citation unavailable, circa 1940; Parker, An emblem as famous as the people it serves, two-page spread advertisement for American Airlines, circa 1959; Harry Beckhoff, “Excuse me sir, but it’s the truth!” Collier's Weekly, April 5, 1941 [all of these Beckhoff images are fiction illustrations published in Collier's]; Beckhoff, “Calfs are seldom house broke,” June 12, 1941; Miss Wilson gasped at Peter March, June 1, 1939; Beckhoff, He held is beloved drum aside, March 4, 1939; Beckhoff, We did a bit of firsting stuff together, April 9, 1938; Beckhoff, "Boys, Boys!" March 1, 1941; Beckhoff, “I smell Nassau in May,” June 17, 1939; Beckhoff, “Mr. Lethbridge,” cried Sally, “meet my fiancé!”, January 8, 1938; Beckhoff, A Sailor pulled in Two Directions, January 16, 1937.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Michael Lobel on John Sloan today at 5:00 pm


Art historian Michael Lobel is in St. Louis today and will be lecturing tonight in the Olin Library Gingko Room at 5:00. Michael's visit is sponsored by the Modern Graphic History Library. He has just published a provocative book on John Sloan with Yale University Press (edited by WU Art alum Michelle Komie!) that focuses on Sloan's illustration work. Had a great lunch with Michael, animatedly discussing popular visual images. Looking forward to his talk greatly! If you're in town, come on by...

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Display That! (Examples + Commentary)


When I started this blog in 2007, I identified several subjects of interest: graphic connoisseurship, broadly speaking; the relationship between cartooning and illustration; the culture of popular images and artifacts; and informational images.


Since that time I have continued to teach synthetically-oriented courses in communication design. These experiences are designed to address illustrators, designers and hybrid types. In many respects my own work has a hybrid sensibility. (Above, an evening's worth of stargazing observations, Cassiopeia Does the Twist, Utah 2008; below, period automobiles from "Shanghai Pictorial," Spartan Holiday No. 1, 2012.)



I'm working with my wonderful colleagues Amy Auman and Scott Gericke in Word and Image 1–a really fun if challenging course to teach.   


We're in the early stages of a new project: a Collection Poster. Each student has been assigned a topic (e.g., mammals, firearms of the Napoleonic Wars, echinoderms, summer apparel). They are to research the subject, then develop a collection of 8 to 20 items to present on a poster measuring 16 x 20 inches. Their approach can be taxonomic, historical, primarily decorative, explanatory (How a Steam Engine Works), or some combination of thereof. It's an awesome problem; we're jealous of the students who get to work on it!


Today I'm pulling old and new sources together to provide a sense of just how big the world can be on such projects. Many students, when presented with the problem, experience it as a limitation. "Why would I make a poster that just shows _________? That's boring." Well, it might be. It also might be fascinating, delightful, eye-opening, wonderful.

Here are some samples of images which display groups, things, people, sites, processes, etcetera. These x samples are varied, but certainly not exhaustive.


Cross Section of Human Skin, from the 1965 World Book Encyclopedia. A black-and-white drawing enlivened and clarified with tints. Given a good key drawing (no small thing) it would take about 30 seconds to do this by multiplying the black layer in Photoshop and throwing a little color behind it.


Several variations on a theme: figures displayed to show relationships or actions on a single plane. Fremont petroglyph, Nine Mile Canyon, Utah, photographed by my friend and colleague Stan Strembicki a few Mays ago. He climbed up on a ledge to shoot this one, just as I was beginning to figure out that you can drive into Nine Mile Canyon, but you can't drive out the other end. Big bummer.


A WPA poster promoting a play; note the arrangement of the figures and the effective and efficient use of 3 colors. (Richard Halls, 1936.)


A character sheet presenting the cast of The Jetsons, 1961 or 62. George, Jane, Judy et. al., may have been designed by Ed Benedict–they betray his sense of shape. I have never been able to find a character design credit for the show.


For comic relief, plus drawing meets photography, on the distressingly named lolsnaps.com. Captioned Drawing On Windows Because Work Gets Boring. I cannot find an attribution. Possibly Gamera.


Reasons to buy a 1960 Dodge Polaris, especially if you're female.


Polyp Types, Hydra. An essay in line weight, by Elizabeth Buchsbaum, from Animals Without Backbones, 1937. I have written about her before. (I would really like to locate her drawings for exhibition purposes. I once heard from someone in the Buchsbaum clan, but then the line went dead. Anybody out there?)


Matisse's Red Studio, from 1911.


Map of France, from the Geographical Panels in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Stefano Buonsignori, 1576. I stood in this room in 2003, agape. I bought the ridiculously expensive book, which sits among my atlases of various cartographic and typographic personalities. A really beautiful thing; lovely color and variation in treatment.


Global Emissions, Good Magazine. Data underscored by image, but not subordinated to it. It seems like a metaphor, but really isn't. More like a simile, I guess.


A fragment of the Astor family real estate empire, published in toto on a broadsheet on January 1, 1899 by the New York World. Google Street View before the fact.


In the urban vein, here's an illustration from This is London, by Miroslav Sasek. Okay, it's deep space, so not strictly informational, but look at the handling of the cars. None of them overlap. They're simultaneously units of information and decorations.


The Swedish graphic designer Olle Eskell. Clear rules, elegant decisions, charming and comic result.


This may not be intelligible, but who can gainsay its urgency? Children are ferocious intenders. I love this thing. Megalomanical obelisk with tapeworm? By the incomparable Francesca Ryan. (I pumped the contrast on the pencil, producing that somewhat over-the-top yellow. Not Francesca's fault. Bad art direction!)


Spearheads. A Scandinavian expert memorably named Worsaae catalogued Viking artifacts in the British Isles in 1846-47. This is one of 12 watercolors (No. 3, to be precise) to appear in An Account of the Danes and Norwegians in England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1851-52. 



A positive/negative flip on traditional display, combined with whimsical narrative. Another piece by Olle Eskell: a Graphis cover from 1962.



More old stuff from Britain. Specimens from a book of English fossil finds; "Eocene Shells at Bracklesham" from The Geology and Fossils of the Tertiary and Cretaceous Formations of Sussex, by Frederick Dixon. 1850. This (and a thousand other printed pictorial excavations) at the wonderful blog Bibliodyssey. To some degree like the spearheads above, a stone wall built from tiny pebbles and varied rocks, mortared with negative space.



Speaking of calcified stuff: cetaceans (whales) as artifacts as well as a kind of 3D chart, at the Galerie de paléontologie et d'anatomie comparée in Paris. What a wacky place. My photograph, from last summer. 

Game boards provide excellent case studies in systematic display, from the purely geometric (Kolor-Blox, via sushipot, circa 1935) 


to the more pictorial (Snakes and Ladders, forerunner of MB's Chutes and Ladders.) Snakes is creepier, but way cooler, too. 



Finally, to pay my respects to the terrible winter gods who are threatening to rough us up well into March, I offer an ode to meteorological phenomena, crammed into a tidy rectangle. Courtesy of John Emslie, London, 1844. 

Happy composing!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Steinbeck, Google and Attribution


Struggling out of a bloggy torpor, hoping to get back in the swing, just a little. Today, a prompt: the February 27th Google search graphic celebrates John Steinbeck's 112th birthday with a cycle of illustrations on a slider, several per book title from a selection of the greatest hits: Grapes of Wrath, 



Cannery Row, 



Of Mice and Men, 
The Pearl, etc.


An agreeable project, to be sure. The interactive aspects of these things are somewhat engaging. I like the textural summation of the episodic structure in the spelled-out GOOGLE best.

But where's the designer/illustrator credit? Presumably this comes from the bowels of the Google-plex–a staff job?–but even so, it would be nice to have an attribution. Not being evil (even if said motto has come to seem a teeny bit outdated) would include stating credits. This is a hobby-horse of mine, as readers of GT (possibly having dwindled in response to my lowered production) know. Objections to bogus or zero attribution: A Noseful of That, and a perennial favorite of buried-credit objectors: Roy Lichtenstein.