WCMA bids adieu to “Graphic Design” with all-star symposium

In reviewing WCMA’s “Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age: Selections from the Merrill C. Berman Collection” last year, Record writer Dean Potter noted that “we are exposed to a constant flow of generation-X design.” It confronts us “when we watch the tube, surf the net, and pull from our SU boxes a steady diet of glossy flyers promoting VISA cards and Columbia House.”

Perhaps it is this ubiquity, felt not just by Williams students, but by anyone who has ever walked down a city street or read a magazine, that has kept graphic design from being justly recognized as a viable and, in fact, prodigious form of artistic expression in the post-industrial era. Since it’s virtually impossible to escape, it makes none of the claims to transcendence, confrontation or even uniqueness that have become fundamental to the 20th century handbook.

This was precisely why “Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age” was such a landmark, eye-opening exhibit. One of the most comprehensive explorations of the chronological and stylistic aspects of graphic design ever housed in a museum, it was in many ways every bit as challenging as WCMA’s current abstract expressionist show. Here was an exhibit that offered not just creative, well-crafted substance, but forced the viewer to reconcile commercialism and utility with the art gallery.

It wasn’t an easy task, but it was a rewarding one: “Graphic Design” was a much lauded, much attended success. It closed on Sunday, set to move on to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, but not before WCMA gave it a grand sendoff, bringing together a few graphic design cognoscenti for one final dissection of the collection. “Coming to America: Graphic Designer Emigrants and Exiles” was a generally elucidating symposium and a fitting farewell to one of WCMA’s most memorable recent exhibits.

The symposium took place Saturday in the Bernhard Music Center’s Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, running from 9:30 a.m. to shortly after its announced 12:30 conclusion. It attracted a considerable audience which left the auditorium almost packed before petering out in the late morning. Judging by the impressive attendance, which, unfortunately, featured precious few Williams students, the symposium was a strong and timely tactical move, providing a solid motivation for anyone who hadn’t yet taken in the exhibit to do so.

Even more carefully – and successfully – measured was the selection of the three-member panel that spoke at the symposium. Associate Professor of Design History Victor Margolin from the University of Illinois-Chicago program was the detached historian, Los-Angeles based Graphic Designer Lorraine Wild (as a graduate student, a crusader for wider recognizing of the graphic design arts) the first-hand observer, and New York-based Industrial Designer and Parsons School faculty member Constantin Boym the exemplary practitioner.

The symposium may have been cursorily concerned with the role of emigrants in the world of graphic design, but its heart lies in more universal concerns, a fact cemented by its progression from the topical history of Margolin to the more general crusade of Wild to the personal rumination of Boym. It’s a safe bet that a majority of the attendees left feeling they had a better grasp on the graphic design’s struggle for appreciation and the specific roles of emigrants in the whole process. But that’s no small service, especially considering the piquant commentary that the respective speeches entertained.

In her speech, “From Exiles to Main Street,” Wild helpfully laid out the many maladies of graphic design through a series of pointed observations. No laymen in the room, she challenged, could name five important contributors to the field. The art, thriving as a means of communication, is largely overlooked by the public and critics alike; when critics do lift their heads, they decided, as a New York Times reviewer did, that the Berman collection is “depressing” in commercializing its genre.

At the root of this problem is an uncomfortable dichotomy that Wild hinted at – artistry vs. commerce. Wild noted that the modern graphic designer has to portray himself as an “artist/businessman,” but how can this be accomplished? Extreme, but important, stereotypes depict the artist as a reclusive genius, the businessman as a social drone, and the reconciliation can be difficult. But it is by no means impossible, as Constantin Boym proved.

It was fitting that Boym’s lecture compared his work as a designer to the life of Curious George. Although he openly stated at one point that he had no interest in direct association with the Pop Art movement, the success of his best work lies in its ability to merge clever extrapolations of graphic design with Pop’s “low culture” obsession. Boym is particularly compelling in this regard because of his engaging sincerity: in more ironic hands, desk organizers modeled after cityscapes or miniature replicas of American landmarks would seem strained and trivial, but for Boym they make perfect, even essential sense. Boym drew uproarious laughter for his strongest project, in which he bought furniture parts from Sears and rearranged them in bizarre hybrids. But the laughs weren’t smug or superior; they were genuine.

Therein lies Boym’s great contribution to the tradition of graphic design: though not actually a graphic designer per se, he’s touched upon the heart of the reconciliation that graphic design deserves and needs, an intense humanism amidst intense mechanics. Boym also delivered the most telling commentary on the emigrant experience. His experience in the United States (he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1981), has instilled in him “a curiosity in conventional things which, for me, are not so conventional.” Treating pop culture as a sacred, foreign tract through the universal language of design, Boym is indeed an artist to watch.

In this light, the subsequent panel discussion/question and answer session moderated by exhibit co-curators Deborah Rothschild, WCMA curator of exhibitions and Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian, seemed almost anticlimactic in its retreat to analysis and response. No matter: the exhibit and symposium had made their point. Margolin spoke of graphic design as a key element in a “field of historical culture unaddressed.” The organizers of the exhibit and symposium deserve congratulations for taking steps to address it.

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