Good (Graphic) Design Poster Exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Canon of Graphic Design History

Good (Graphic) Design

Poster Exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Canon of Graphic Design History

Clemence Imbert

The first edition of Philip B. Meggs’ survey A History of Graphic Design and the academic symposium Coming of Age, held at the Rochester Institute of Technology, respectively in 1983 and 1984, are said to be the foundation stones of graphic design history as an academic discipline.[1] From the start, graphic design historians have been concerned with their own discipline’s scope and methods.[2] Born in the age of post-isms, the discipline was to be inherently reflective, afraid of producing vain portfolios or providing an exclusively masculine and occidental perspective on history.

In this respect, Martha Scotford’s essay, “Is there a canon of graphic design history?,” published in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design History in 1991, was a tough blow.[3] “It occurred to me that the study of graphic design history, coming out of its infancy, may be producing its own canon, perhaps unintentionally and unconsciously,” she writes. By means of a statistical analysis of the “best known general historical surveys of the past twenty years,”[4] counting and measuring the size of graphic design work reproductions, and whether these appeared in color or black and white, the author proved the existence of a list of eight designers whose works “are made more memorable than others by differences controlled by size, color and repetition”[5] (by alphabetical order): Herbert Bayer, A. M. Cassandre, El Lissitzky, Herbert Matter, László Moholy-Nagy, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Piet Zwart. A canon that proved to be “all male, all born before 1920, all native Europeans.”[6]

Scotford is well aware that her methodology is fragile. Possible copyrights, the high price of color reproductions, and basic issues of page layout all influence the author’s and/or publisher’s choice and treatment of illustrations. Thus, Scotford suggests that a different canon might be found through investigation of other sources; for example, in the history of exhibitions.[7] Over and above the many possible lists of heroes, the main point of Scotford’s original essay is to warn against what she calls the “master/masterpiece approach” in graphic design history that puts the emphasis on great figures and great images, eventually neglecting the social aspect of graphic productions. Quoting from the American Heritage Dictionary, she points out that a canon is an “authoritative list” (alluding to the word’s original definition designating the Church-approved books of the Bible), but is also “a basis for judgment; a standard; a criterion.”[8] Listing the designers who constitute the diffuse pantheon of historiography is impossible. What is possible, however, is to reveal and describe the unconscious principles at stake in singling out so-called “great” graphic design works. In this article, I intend to show that museum curators have preceded historians in this regard, and consider museum exhibitions and their catalogs as original places where knowledge on graphic design has been first produced. I will examine the key role played by a specific influential institution, such as the Museum of Modern Art, in setting the criteria of “good graphic design,” and therefore writing and affirming a canonical narrative of graphic design history.

Indeed, Scotford’s body of five classic historical surveys features an exhibition catalog of a 1968 show held at the Museum of Modern Art: Word and Image: Posters from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Scotford, incidentally, does not credit the book as an exhibition catalog, and undermines this show’s seminal role. Years before the publication of Meggs’s survey, the exhibition catalog of Word and Image was to be the first illustrated overview of poster history, and is listed in the bibliography of most of later American studies on graphic design (Meggs’s included). The content of this influential book needs to be considered in relation to the exhibition for which it was written and published. Word and Image displayed exclusively posters from the Museum’s graphic design collection, which had its genesis with the Museum itself in 1929. This knowledge begs insight into the Museum’s early years and its first formulation of aesthetic standards for industrial and graphic design. Following this, I will then focus more precisely on Word and Image and a very similar exhibition, The Modern Poster, held twenty years later and offering the same comprehensive view on poster history.

The canon as standard: comparisons and competitions

The Museum of Modern Art was one of the first museums to collect and exhibit posters alongside paintings and sculptures, as early as 1930.[9] When asked to design an organization chart for the future Museum, Alfred H. Barr Jr., MoMA’s first director, came up with the pioneering idea of a “multi-departmental plan” that “proposed an active and serious concern with the practical, commercial, and popular arts, as well as with the so-called ‘fine arts.’”[10] In particular, Barr had planned a dedicated curatorial department for “commercial art” that would have included “posters, display, advertising layout and typography, packaging, etc.”[11] This department was fated never to come into existence. Graphic design was to be presented at MoMA principally under the aegis of the Architecture and Design Department,[12] and to a lesser extent, the Prints Department.

Alfred H. Barr Jr. had a strong predilection for posters and typography, an aspect overlooked by most of his biographers. This interest of Barr’s emerged during his European trip between 1927–1928, just two years before he was appointed director of the yet-to-be-opened museum. Barr visited modern museums and art schools, meeting artists in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Russia. Among others, he spent four days at the Bauhaus (which, according to him, had a seminal influence on the future museum), and two months in Constructivist Moscow.[13]

Barr brought back several posters and examples of “typography” (books, brochures, leaflets, catalogs), some of which he exhibited in May 1929 at Wellesley College, where he was then a teacher. The show was entitled Modern European Posters and Commercial Typography. The display must have been very simple: “The posters cost us 125 dollars, and the only other expense was thumbtacks,” he recalled to Russel Lynes in 1973.[14] The Wellesley College Archives keep a checklist and some of the original wall texts. The show displayed contemporary German, Russian, Dutch, English, and French posters, among others posters by Bayer, Cassandre, Rodchenko, and Lissitzky. The show opened on two posters advertising the Pressa exhibition, a press trade fair Barr had visited in Cologne the year before;[15] one designed by Fritz Helmut Ehmcke, the other by H. Nockür. These were displayed side by side, in relation to a wall text stating: “About the same number of words and the same pictorial material—the Rhine, the Cathedral, and the exhibition tower are used in each but one is designed for English and American readers, the other for German: what a difference!”[16] Interestingly, we find this exact same comparison again in Barr’s landmark exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art, held at MoMA in 1936, famous for the family tree of modern art movements designed by Barr for the catalog cover. The installation photographs show the same two posters displayed side by side on the wall dedicated to the “Influence of Suprematism.” They are also used to illustrate the exhibition catalog’s introduction (fig. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1. Cubism and Abstract Art, March 2 – April 19, 1936. Photo: Beaumont Newhall. Photographic Archives, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright SCALA.

Fig. 2. Alfred H. Barr Jr., ed., Cubism and Abstract Art, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936), 10-11. Photographer unknown.

Barr used this recurrent comparison as a didactic tool to illustrate the difference between abstract and figurative art for the American public whom, he thought, was at the time unfamiliar with modern art. This comparison also seeks to engage with the question of quality in design. Through his comment (“What a difference!”), Barr expresses his contempt towards American advertising. In a chronicle published in the Wellesley College News during the 1929 show, an anonymous writer (perhaps Barr himself?) complained:

It is interesting to speculate on the comparatively sluggish development of poster painting in our own country. We are still immersed in the photographic [photo-realistic] technique…. Are we too materialistic—or too unadventurous?[17]

The Cubism and Abstract exhibition catalog likewise states:

In 1928 it was thought that Americans, accustomed to an over-crowded and banally realistic style, would not appreciate the abstraction of the right hand [Ehmcke’s] poster. The German public, on the contrary, through the activity of its museums and progressive commercial artists was quite used to an abstract style.[18]

It is with this ambition in mind that posters were first displayed at MoMA in 1933 in relation to two (modest) poster competitions.[19] Subsequent poster competitions were organized during the 1930s and 1940s, among others, for the United States government and the Allied Forces during the Second World War, and for the fight against polio.[20] These competitions are consistent with the MoMA’s activities in the field of industrial design. The Museum hoped to promote better-designed products, to both American manufacturers and shoppers. This was the goal of the Useful Objects exhibition series begun in 1938, which would be furthered in the Good Design exhibition series in the 1950s.[21] The fact that graphic design was attached to the department of industrial design made it the subject of the same prescriptive approach, within the standards of “good (graphic) design.” Given the activities of professional associations such as the American Institute of Graphic Arts or the New York Art Directors Club, which followed the same goal, MoMA’s poster competitions may have seemed somewhat redundant, and subsequently ceased in 1950.

These early competitions give a clear idea of MoMA’s canon, understood as a standard of taste. The jury for these competitions generally awarded posters using hand-drawn geometrically stylized illustrations (photographic illustration remained scarce). It is obvious that modern painting, and especially cubist and abstract painting, which the Museum championed in those years, has served as a standard for judging posters. Therefore, qualities praised in posters were the clarity and economy of their shapes. These were, for example, the virtues highlighted in the work of Cassandre and Edward McKnight Kauffer, who were both honored in monographic exhibitions early in the Museum’s history, in 1936 and 1937, respectively. This painting-like understanding of posters may explain also that the Museum’s statements about quality in graphic design focused mostly on the “images” of illustrated poster, not on their “words.” The layout of the text and its typeface are never taken into consideration.[22]

In accordance with Barr’s idea that posters are an extension of modern art in daily life,[23] modern posters were valued according to the same categories; that is, with reference to modern painting movements. A History of the Modern Poster, a small circulating exhibition mounted in 1941, asserted:

The development of poster design reflects the movements which have revolutionized modern painting. The poster artist has borrowed from the Japanese print, from Impressionism, from Expressionism, Abstract Art, Dada, etc.”[24]

This reliance on art history as a model for studying graphic design history was set to remain long after Barr’s retirement in 1963.

Word and Image and the first outline of a canonical history

The weight of art historical criteria was to be absolutely patent in the Word and Image exhibition mentioned above. The show took place from January 25 to March 10, 1968, in the ground floor exhibition gallery. It displayed over 300 posters from the Museum’s collection, dating from the 1880s right up to contemporary psychedelic posters. The exhibition was curated by Mildred Constantine, Associate Curator for Graphic Design in the Architecture and Design Department of the Museum, who showed the results of her eighteen-year long acquisition policy,[25] and Alan M. Fern, Head of Prints and Photographs at the Library of Congress. The display was designed by Arthur Drexler, Director of the Museum’s Architecture and Design Department.

The Archives demonstrate the show’s widespread media coverage.[26] As many journalists noted, the topic of the exhibition echoed a contemporary revival of the poster, used both as decoration in apartments and in the framework of counter-culture protests. This awareness is also linked to artistic trends of the late 1960s, such as pop art and op art, that questioned a possible “reversal of the usual filtered-down process of form and style from the fine to the popular arts”[27] (“While in the past it was the painter whose work influenced graphic design… today’s posters, billboards and cartoons form such a large part of the visual environment that their elements—both in style and subject—are frequently used by painters.” [28]). At the end of its time in New York, Word and Image continued to resonate. A smaller version of the show was mounted by the Circulating Exhibitions Department, which toured the United States and abroad until the mid-1970s.

In particular, the history of the poster told in Word and Image was spread through its illustrated catalog. Gathering materials from multiple specialized articles and books (240 entries are listed in its bibliography), the book offered a first overview of poster history, highlighting some key periods and figures. Thus, it provided a scholarly significance to the show and a long-lasting fame to the body of posters it displayed. Despite the fact that the text was written by Alan M. Fern, who was not a curator at MoMA, it echoes in many ways Barr’s perspective. The social function and historical significance of posters are mentioned here and there, but posters are almost exclusively discussed in terms of esthetic quality. In his introduction to the exhibition catalog, Fern makes no secret of his intentions:

This book is a brief history of the modern poster… as an art form. The history of advertising is fascinating, but since it contains many chapters of negligible aesthetic interest, it is not my subject here. I have limited my investigations to those designers who have approached the poster as a means of expression as well as communication, and have explored graphic design and typography as a serious creative media.”[29]

Elsewhere, Mildred Constantine gives this definition of a “good poster”: “What raises the finest examples of posters to the level of art, is the magic of its elements intentionally simplified, summing up the aesthetic aspirations of the times, and even leading to new kinds of visual experience.”[30] The concepts of expression, creativity, novelty, and concentration of the visual experience are values attached to modern art; the same as those praised in MoMA’s early exhibitions and competitions.

The book reflects the principles at stake in the overall setting of the show as it was presented in New York. Word and Image tells the history of the poster as a succession of graphic styles referring to the trends of modern painting: “Movements in the arts—Expressionism, Constructivism, Surrealism—have all contributed to the forms and even the content of twentieth-century posters,” reads the introductory wall text.[31] One might well note that the exhibition reflects a post-Greenbergian interpretation of art history that enables objects and posters that were once judged to represent “bad taste” in design to enter the collection, such as the exuberance of Art Nouveau and its echoes in psychedelic posters: “The stylistic circle has come around, for ‘psychedelic’ poster designers such as Victor Moscoso, Peter Max and Wes Wilson… draw upon Art Nouveau for their adventurous designs.”[32] The installation photographs show them on two walls, close to each other, on either side of the gallery entrance. (fig. 3 and 4)

Fig. 3. Word and Image, Installation photograph. January 25 – March 10, 1968. Photo: George Cserna. Photographic Archives, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright SCALA.

Fig. 4. Word and Image, Installation photograph. January 25 – March 10, 1968. Photo: George Cserna. Photographic Archives, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright SCALA.

 The display by Arthur Drexler is a playful interpretation of the white cube model. Posters are mounted in frames and boxes projecting from the walls at various heights, materializing deconstructed perspectives. It increases the feeling of a series of masterpieces. They are grouped not by designer or date, but according to their stylistic characteristics. For example, a wall next to Cassandre’s Nicolas displays German typographic posters from the 1920s by Jan Tschichold, Herbert Bayer, Walter Dexel, and Joost Schmidt, together with a 1934 poster by American Edward McKnight Kauffer (Magicians prefer Shell). The consistency of the ensemble is based on the fact that these posters all feature dots or circles.

The overall setting was supposed to convey a sense of hierarchy among masterpieces and less important objects. According to the press release: “Key posters are mounted in boxes projecting from the walls at many levels in the central gallery, and a perimeter gallery around this core section supports and fills out the major periods for the visitor interested in studying particular periods more in-depth.”[33] Looking at the installation photographs, one understands clearly what the landmarks of poster history are according to MoMA: the early posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret, and Alphonse Mucha (and their echo in contemporary psychedelic posters); abstract and typographic posters in the wake of the Bauhaus by Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold, El Lissitzky, and the long-lasting favorite, A. M. Cassandre.

The Modern Poster: reaffirming the canon

In 1988, exactly twenty years after Word and Image, Stuart Wrede, Director of the Design and Architecture Department at the Museum of Modern Art, curated another poster exhibition: The Modern Poster. It was overtly announced as a sequel of Word and Image, whose seminal role was proudly highlighted in the Museum’s publicity communication materials surrounding the event. In fact, the context was very different. The 1980s, having seen the renovation of the historic 53rd Street building by Cesar Pelli, were a time when MoMA began to reflect on its own authoritative role in the writing of modern art history.[34] Interviewed during the show, Wrede declared it was time that “the Museum began to assume a more critical role, one of sorting out what was important from what wasn’t…. It is a very good time to re-evaluate, through exhibitions and books, the significance of the various movements.”[35] An application form sent by the Museum for an NEA grant sums up the intentions of the curator:

Since 1968, the Museum has been able to fill gaps in its Graphic Design Collection and strengthen its holdings of many important artists. … [The exhibition] will not only offer an update of international developments in graphic design of the last 20 years, but also provide an opportunity to re-assess earlier work as well.[36]

In actual fact, The Modern Poster did not so much reassess as reaffirm the canonical narrative outlined in Word and Image. It demonstrated the same art historical perspective on posters. Wrede writes: “The poster has always existed at the junction of the fine and applied arts, culture and commerce… Its approximately one-hundred-year history coincides with that of modern art itself.” [37] The Modern Poster thus intended to “present the finest examples of the art of the poster,”[38] and its display corroborates largely this “masterpiece approach” with the posters being framed and aligned along the walls as in a gallery of paintings.

Though the chronological scope of the exhibits was extended to encompass the last twenty years, a comparison of the checklists reveals that The Modern Poster displayed most of the posters shown in Word and Image. More than Word and Image, whose display allowed some audacious comparisons in the architectural perspectives of the gallery, the arrangement of The Modern Poster delineates more clearly the canonical segments of poster history. The René d’Harnoncourt gallery, where the exhibition took place, comprises a succession of rooms and corridors that metaphorically lead the visitor along the chronological span, making him/her see successively representative posters from the late nineteenth century, German Sachplakatten, Russian constructivist posters (displayed on scaffoldings to allude to a Russian revolutionary street), Bauhaus typographical posters, and works by Cassandre and Kauffer, to only note a few.[39] When it came to the more recent production, the exhibition presented various national trends offering a first mapping of the production of the 1970s and 1980s. The show allotted dedicated sections for Swiss, Polish, Japanese, German, and French posters. Most of them were posters designed for cultural events (theater, concerts, exhibitions), or for political causes (NGOs, French communist party), and express their designers’ strong personal style. Thus, it seems that The Modern Poster anticipated graphic design theorists’ later emphasis on public utility (as opposed to advertising)[40] and design authorship.[41]

Fig. 5. The Modern Poster, Installation photograph. June 6 – September 6, 1988. Photo: Mali Olatunji. Photographic Archives, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright SCALA.

Fig. 6. The Modern Poster, Installation photograph. June 6 – September 6, 1988. Photo: Mali Olatunji. Photographic Archives, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright SCALA.

In 2004, as the Museum reopened after renovation work, Paola Antonelli, Curator of Design at the Museum, proved herself aware of a thorny “magnet of the fine art,” as she calls it:

While our curators have always appreciated architecture and objects in strict design terms, by linking their aesthetic expression to their functional nature, our posters collection has not been able to assert the same autonomy from the fine arts. Rather, they stand as a quieter version of the same… We need to redirect our focus on graphic design.[42]

This vow did not remain unheeded. In the last decade, under the aegis of Antonelli, MoMA’s Design Department has presented design, be it graphic or industrial, as a problem-solving activity. How to create objects that “talk” to humans?[43] How to design books or objects for children,[44] or how to use a specific tool or technique?[45] These were some of the questions addressed in recent design exhibitions at MoMA. This approach of design enables objects other than posters to be considered. Books, magazines, subway signs, and logos were displayed with a focus on their typeface and layout.[46]

This new focus on the problems and processes also opened new, alternative paths in the history of design and graphic design. For instance, the Design Galleries recently highlighted the work of women designers.[47] A “graphics corner” in the Design Gallery now continuously displays posters together with smaller printed objects. Its installations seldom feature “authors” or “movements.” Rather, they seek to demonstrate the “variety,” “diversity,” or “plurality” in the graphic treatment of a single topic.[48] These kinds of transversal approaches appear as an efficient way to deconstruct canonical narratives and highlight what had been left in the shadow of the canon.

I have shown in this article how the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibitions, based on Barr’s appreciation of posters, have shaped the scope and methods of graphic design history, focusing on the designers as heroes and considering posters mainly through the lens of style. The idea of a “good (graphic) design,” which governed early poster exhibitions and competitions, faded with the end of the Second World War. The Museum left aside its partisan and prescriptive tone to assume the mission of writing the history of modern design, turning “good design” into “great design,” and the set of values into a list of heroes. Through its well-advertised exhibitions, and especially through its exhibition catalogs, the Museum of Modern Art has undoubtedly set guidelines for future generations of graphic design historians and curators, not only in the United States but also in Europe. For instance, in 1968, the same year as Word and Image, Dutch posters from the collection of the Stedelijk Museum were exhibited at the Museum Fodor in Amsterdam. A catalog was published tracing the first overall history of the poster in the Netherlands, its important stylistic trends and designers, as well as the history of the printing techniques.[49] Their authors, Dick Dooijes and Pieter Brattinga, both practicing designers, explicitly referred to Mildred Constantine’s understanding of the poster, quoting one of her essays for the MoMA Bulletin.[50] The main difference with MoMA’s doxa lies in the way Dooijes and Brattinga discussed the issue of quality in poster design. They mention the various social and critical debates surrounding the criteria for “good graphic design” at several time periods, allowing the manifold presentation of various concurrent styles.[51]

Together with Philip B. Meggs, one could answer Martha Scotford’s question (“Is there a canon of graphic design?”) with another question: “Is a Design History Canon really dangerous”?[52] The principle of selecting facts and artifacts is inherent to any attempt to write history, writes Meggs, but historians should beware of “elitism and exclusion, that pose serious hazards within a democratic and pluralistic culture.”

In recent years, the most influential exhibitions of graphic design did not take place in museums, but rather in festivals, galleries, design schools, or art centers, which operate without the weight of patrimonial collections. Most of them deal with contemporary graphic design, but sometimes also with some aspects of graphic design history, drawing, among others, from private collections. Far from the universal globalizing scope of Word and Image and The Modern Poster, they offer insights into lesser- or unknown episodes and figures. Most importantly, they attest to the importation of the notion of “curating” in the field of graphic design.[53] Facing the very nature of exhibitions as a subjective selection, and arrangements of works and artifacts, might well be the safest way to get out of the “canon” and the never-ending repetition of the same familiar story.