Farewell Massimo Vignelli

Wow, has it been a month since the last post? Apologies for the radio silence over here–we are closing in on the final weeks before the opening of our summer exhibitions (June 20th for members, June 21 for the public!) and all of the troops have been rallying to perfect install and content before our guests arrive!

I had to return to the blog today to pay tribute to Massimo Vignelli, who passed away in New York yesterday at the age of 83. Vignelli was a design visionary, executing some of the most iconic graphic programs of the 1960s and 1970s, and renowned especially for promulgating the International Typographic Style through his many designs for advertising, corporate identity, and packaging. With his company Unimark, and later Vignelli Associates, he launched graphic identity systems for Knoll (1967), American Airlines (1967), and the New York City Transit Authority (1970), as well as the iconic “Big Brown Bag” logotype for Bloomingdales (1972).

Massimo Vignelli, New York City Subway Map, 1970

Cranbrook Art Museum holds in its collection the 1970 subway map Vignelli designed for the New York City Transity Authority, which was inspired by the rational graphic forms of Harry Beck’s 1931 London Underground Diagram. “A different color for each line, a dot for every station. No dot, no station. Very simple,” Vignelli recalled in his monograph From A to Z. Although no longer in use–it was employed by the NYCTA from 1972 to 1979 before being replaced by Michael Hertz’s more topographic rendering–the map remains an icon of the designer’s office. It was featured in the 2007 documentary Helvetica, and here you can view a segment of the film in which Vignelli discusses the work.

Dot Zero Magazine, 1966-1968. Image via designarchives.aiga.org.

While recently conducting curatorial research for the upcoming exhibition, Culture Breakers: The Living Structures of Ken Isaacs, I came across Dot Zero magazine, a lesser-known Vignelli gem for which Isaacs penned an article in 1968. Edited by Robert Malone, the periodical was a promotional venture with Finch paper company intended for quarterly release, although ultimately only five issues were produced over a period of two years. Vignelli served as designer and creative director of the publication, and worked with an editorial board comprised of Malone and a team of stars from the design community: Herbert Bayer, Jay Doblin, Ralph Eckerstrom, and MoMA curator Mildred Constantine. As Malone wrote in the introduction to the inaugural issue, the periodical aimed to “deal with the theory and practice of visual communication from varied points of reference, breaking down constantly what used to be thought of as barriers and are now seen to be points of contact.”

Comprehensibly sober in its approach, the magazine was a vehicle for showcasing the visual allure of the rigid grid layout, black-and-white color scheme, and Helvetica typeface. The editorial content emphasized a highly intellectualized examination of design, featuring essays authored by Marshall McLuhan, Umberto Eco, and John Kenneth Galbraith. As is often the case with artistic publications of its kind, the print run was quite limited, so back issues are hard to come by–but that’s why we have the internet: samplings of the spreads can be viewed here and here.

The design community has truly lost one of its most beloved and influential champions, and he will be sorely missed. Fondest of farewells, Massimo.

Shelley Selim
2013-2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Art Museum

Warhol on Vinyl (It’s Record Store Day Tomorrow!)

We’re big vinyl connoisseurs here at the Art Museum. One of us collects albums with covers featuring mid-century furniture (like this one!). Another spent a weekend scouring every record store in Stockholm for a Swedish pressing of Lee Hazlewood’s Cowboy in Sweden, to no avail. So it’s no surprise that we are pretty pumped for Record Store Day tomorrow, an annual nationwide event–held on the third Saturday of April–for which record stores feature limited edition pressings and exclusive releases from hundreds of musicians, new and old.

Record collecting has experienced a surge in recent years, particularly for my generation. If we want to get diagnostic, it all could be chalked up to a cultural response to the immateriality of music (and more broadly, our lives in general); a longing for the days past when music–in its vinyl manifestation–was tangible, permanent, and thus held more personal value. But there’s also that big, beautiful album cover to consider. It’s just not the same in its 72-pixel form on the screen of a smartphone. How is one to appreciate the true graphic genius of an Alex Steinweiss at that scale?!

Warhol Album Art

This summer, Cranbrook Art Museum will celebrate one artist’s mastery of the album cover with Warhol On Vinyl: The Record Covers, 1949-1987+, opening June 21st. Andy Warhol designed over fifty album covers in the duration of his career, and in the first exhibition of its kind, the world’s preeminent collection of these works–generously donated to the museum by Frank M. Edwards and Ann Williams–will be on display in its entirety. Viewers are invited to examine the interplay between Warhol’s mass-produced graphic designs and the fine artworks that brought him his greatest notoriety–and with the additional display of record covers appropriating the artist’s imagery after his death, we can also examine the impact of the art world’s greatest “borrower” on future generations of creatives. More details about the exhibition are on our museum website.

But this isn’t Cranbrook Art Museum’s first foray into the motley realm of album art. In January of 1979, the museum mounted Record Album Art and the Recording/Artist, a touring exhibition from Syracuse University’s Joe and Emily Lowe Art Gallery, curated by Nancy Alder. The show featured a melange of album covers spanning the twentieth century, and considered the historical progression of the design process, visual trends, and the interplay of fine and commercial art.

Zephyr, Sunset Ride, 1972

The cover illustration for Zephyr’s Sunset Ride (1972) by David Willardson was highlighted for its allusions to the Art Deco travel poster–like this one or this Villemot.

Erich Leinsdorf and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Wagner: Prelude and Love Death and Strauss: Death and Transfiguration, 1962. Cover art by Ben Shahn. Image via shugarecords.com.

The Social Realist painter Ben Shahn is celebrated for his contributions to graphic design–perhaps the most recognizable being his incredible posters created for the Office of War Administration during World War II, all but two of which went unpublished. He designed many original album covers (one amazing Pinterest user has assembled most of them here), but was also known to simply reuse works from his painting repertory. The above Leinsdorf-conducted recording of Wagner and Strauss, which was also displayed in the exhibition, features Shahn’s The Phoenix on its cover, a gouache and ink work he executed a decade earlier.

Fortuitously, a review of Record Album Art and the Recording/Artist in Art Journal noted, “[A]lthough the show’s emphasis seems to have settled on the historical evolution of record packaging as an art form…the direct hand of “fine” pop artists has also been visible. Some seven years ago I was belatedly introduced to the Rolling Stones via Andy Warhol’s witty album for Sticky Fingers: a screen print of jeans incorporating a real zipper opening to an inner print of hirsute nudity. The time didn’t seem ripe to donate  it to our favorite stuffy museum’s graphics department, but it should surface again in a Warhol retrospective–and the Syracuse show paves the way.”

We look forward to seeing fellow vinylphiles at the Warhol exhibition this summer, and feel free to share your favorite album artwork in the comments. I’m pretty partial to Nick Price’s illustration for Never For Ever myself.

Shelley Selim
2013-2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Art Museum

References:

“College Museum News: Exhibitions,” Art Journal 37, no. 3 (1978): 256.

Music-Mushrooms-Manuscripts: John Cage at Cranbrook

John Cage Listens to John Cage, 1974. Offset lithograph poster designed by Michael McCoy, with photography by Frances Greenberg. Printed at Cranbrook Press. (c) Michael McCoy. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

In early April of 1974, artist-composer John Cage traveled to Cranbrook to celebrate the opening of Music–Mushrooms–Manuscripts at the Art Museum, an exhibition of his drawings, photographs, books, poems, prints, and sound recordings. Featured works included his 1969 series of Plexigrams, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, and the Mushroom Book, both printed by Irwin Hollander (1973-1975 head of the Cranbrook Academy of Art Printmaking department). On the evening of April 12, Cage attended a concert of his own music—aptly titled “John Cage Listens to John Cage”—performed by local musicians as well as students from the Cranbrook Upper School and neighboring Andover and Seaholm high schools. The program featured a 35-piece ensemble of brass, string, woodwind, and non-pitched percussion instruments for the performance of Atlas Eclipticalis, executed in unison with the multi-piano composition Winter Music. Other works included Variations IV, 4’33”, 0’00”, and Prelude for Meditation, the latter representing his earlier compositions exploring ambient noise and prepared piano. The entire evening was conducted by a seventeen-year-old Steve Tennent, who had just graduated from high school four months earlier, and a promotional poster was designed by co-head of the Cranbrook Academy of Art Design department, Michael McCoy.

Steve Tennent conducts the orchestra from the back of Cranbrook Upper School's Little Gym. Photo courtesy Steve Tennent.

During his week-long visit to the Academy, Cage also performed a 2 ½ hour long excerpt from Empty Words, a text composition he would not complete until the following year. What one reviewer deemed a “metaphysical ode to extemporania,” the work comprised of drawings as well as phrases, words, and sounds randomly culled from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau.

Empty Words folio. Photos courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

Cage spent much of his time at Cranbrook with Irwin Hollander’s Printmaking students, playing chess and conversing but holding no formal critiques. At some point, the “Cage Bag” project materialized, spearheaded by Printmaking students Chuck Baughman and Doug Huston. A suite of droll and imaginative prints–including a program for the concert performance and limited edition postcards–were tucked into white paper bags silk-screened with Cage’s face.

The Cage Bag and its contents. Photo by Doug Huston.

Students assembling the Cage Bag. Kim Rendleman (MFA Printmaking '74) is sitting at the end of the table on the left, with Doug Huston (MFA Printmaking '75) to her right and Stephen Milanowski (BFA Photography '78) standing behind her. John Cage can be seen at the left edge of the photograph, engrossed in a game of chess with a student (or possibly Irwin Hollander). Photo courtesy Doug Huston.

Twelve limited-edition postcards were created, all featuring CAA student Jim Poole wearing the Cage Bag as a mask in various settings around campus. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

Back of Cage postcard. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

"John Cage Listens to John Cage" concert program. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

"John Cage Listens to John Cage" concert program. Photo courtesy Stephen Milanowski.

The Cage Bags were distributed to the audience on the evening of the “John Cage Listens to John Cage” performance, with the goal to have everyone in attendance wear the bags over their heads, creating a sea of John Cages staring back at the stage. Convincing listeners to participate proved a fruitless venture, but the night was capped off by two streakers masked in Cage Bags running through the gym and improvising a keyboard piece for Variations IV.

Doug Huston chases runaway Cage Bags on Academy Way. Check out those silver shoes! Photo by Stephen Milanowski.

At 4pm on Sunday, March 23, I’ll be lecturing more on John Cage’s visit to Cranbrook, as well as discussing Mushroom Book and Sounds of Venice, two Cage works currently on display in the Cranbrook Art Museum exhibition My Brain Is in My Inkstand: Drawing as Thinking and Process. Immediately following will be a performance of Sounds of Venice by Detroit musician and composer Joel Peterson (check out his amazing gallery/restaurant/performance space Trinosophes, across from Eastern Market). Special thanks go out to Steve Tennent, Stephen Milanowski and Doug Huston, who provided so many incredible photographs and memories from that week. And if you haven’t yet seen My Brain Is in My Inkstand, be sure to catch it soon–the exhibition closes on March 30!

Shelley Selim
2013-2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow
Cranbrook Art Museum