Identity and the arts: A talk at Artists Space

Later this month, Dexter Sinister will present “Identity,” an exhibition that, in the words of its description, “charts the emergence and proliferation of graphic identity since the turn of the twentieth century, with particular reference to contemporary art institutions — museums, galleries, and so called alternative spaces.”

Initiated by Artists Space, the project has been run by Dexter Sinister in cooperation with a variety of colleagues for over two years. In the fall of 2009, I was asked by Dexter Sinister and Stefan Kalmár of Artists Space to give a talk to an invited group of 20 or so guests. Part of a series of informally titled “How do we look?”, this initial lecture carried an aim that was deeply reflexive, examining the history of the organization’s own visual identity in the context of both arts-related identities and the somewhat woolier world of branding and visual culture. To facilitate the talk, I was given special access to Artists Space’s archive of printed ephemera — my thanks to Amy Owen and Jessica Wilcox at Artists Space for their help and guidance.

The tone was informal, with people asking me to expand upon one point or another, as we sipped some whiskey with conversation. Rather than adhere to a strict chronology of Artists Space’s identity development, I chose to group its marks around a loose taxonomy that included IMPRINTS, SYMBOLS, MONOGRAMS, LANDMARKS, and LOCKUPS so that perhaps a new story could emerge.

The talk was, for me, foundational to many projects and assignments that followed and informed both the structure of my SVA course and our recent identity work for SALT Istanbul at Project Projects.

The writing below is loose and rough, assembled from my notes and fuzzy memory of the evening — but, truth be told, it’s a story better told through visuals, anyway. Even if the below serves as nothing more than a prompt to visit David and Stuart’s smart and inventive show, then I’m glad to have shared it here. — RG


I thought I’d start out tonight with one of Artists Space’s most important early shows, the Pictures exhibition from 1977. And if you look at the booklet of the show here, you’ll see that at the bottom the name Artists Space has been typeset to match the look of the overall booklet. No standalone mark, nothing too systematic — in the early days things changed a lot from one exhibition to another. Reading this, the analogy seems to be that the gallery thought of itself as a kind of publisher. It’s presenting these things, but it’s not imposing its own external identity on anything. It’s initiating creative projects and then allowing its own identity to be mutable, to change with those projects.

And so with that idea in mind the first group of marks I’d like to look at is IMPRINTS. Imprimatur means “to sanction” or “to give formal and explicit approval,” and this is what I was describing before. Rather than a visual identity the emphasis is on the provenance: on where an exhibition came from and who initiated it.

Publishers have long relied on this mutability. Most famously and illustratively, Knopf has a whole broad set of Borzoi dogs that change to compliment a book’s cover design, tone, and setting. There is no single Borzoi. Instead, there are many simultaneous possibilities. It’s almost Platonic: it’s not a specific book with a specific dog but the idea of a book with a dog on it that assigns the book as a Knopf book. It’s more descriptive, really, than symbolic.

This website for White Columns, designed by Project Projects, works in much the same way. When you reload a page the style sheets refresh, and the site goes from serif to sans and back again. So it’s like the Borzoi dog, in that it opens up the possibility that White Columns can take on a variety of formal details but still remain, essentially, itself. The formal “idea” of the site doesn’t change, just its visual expression.

The more you rummage around the archives, the more you see a range of materials in which the Artists Space identity acts in this way. Here is a a flyer for some film programming from the mid-’80s, looking very theatrical indeed. And this strategy wasn’t continuous, either — between the Pictures show and the design of this flyer different, more formalized marks emerged and were then discarded.

Sometimes there was even variance within a given piece. Here’s a great example from 1988 for a show called Telling Tales. There’s literally one “super” logo, which is set in one typeface, and then there’s a smaller “logo-sized” logo in another typeface.

By the late ’80s the impact of design’s postmodern tastes were readily apparent, and the hybridity of a given graphic system set to the max. Even within the artists’ own first and last names there is variance and expressivity. This piece is from 1989.

At other points around this time, zine culture and DIY publishing became more apparent, as in the booklet design for this Robert Gero show from 1990. Here Artists Space acts as the publisher once again, with the form of its name subordinate to the larger aesthetic system of the booklet.

Here, too, in this small photocopied pamphlet from the ’90s, this vibe is apparent. What’s important to understand here is that imprints don’t need to be large or institutional in tone — they can be homemade, grassroots, inventive, and unmonolithic. Quite casual, really.

And in this casualness I’m reminded of Ed Fella’s wonderful posters for the Detroit Focus Gallery, made over a number of years with great inventiveness. Each poster treats the logo differently, and yet the set is coherent and identifiable, offering a kind of aesthetic consistency that supports the range of activities housed at the gallery. Willi Kunz’s ongoing posters for Columbia’s GSAPP program are another example of this kind of identification strategy. Rather than impose a system that can be executed by anyone, they create a highly particular set of responses that can be recognized without being formulaic.

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Being available in response

Frank Chimero, a man full of good ideas, shared another one recently: a text playlist. Basically, it’s a selection of readings that he revisits on a regular basis, “almost a pep talk in text form,” as he describes it. Frank’s list included a ton of good stuff (I’ve done some thinking about “stock and flow" myself), and the wonderful Liz Danzico responded in kind with a great list of her own.

I’m still working on my list, but while I’m in the process of pulling it together I decided I had to share one reading that I’ve been revisiting a lot over the last few days. It’s from Lawrence Weschler’s incredible book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is about the artist Robert Irwin. Chapter 15 is called “Being Available in Response,” which is also the name of a project initiated by Irwin.

The first time I read this chapter I nearly lept out of my chair — I got so excited I reread it three or four times right away.

Rather than trying to explain the project too much, though, I’ll let Irwin (and Weschler) tell you about it as they do in the book. Here’s Irwin:

"I just sort of let it be known that I was available, in a way like I’m saying it to you. I mean, I didn’t put out any ads or anything, but word got around. And you could be, let’s say, up at UCLA, and you’d say, ‘Well, let’s take advantage of that. We’ll have him come up and talk to the students.’ And that’s what I’d do. Or, ‘We’ll have him come up and do a piece on the patio.’ And I would just come up and do that.

"There’s an important distinction to be made here," [Irwin] continued, "between organizing and proselytizing, on the one hand, and responding to interest, on the other. I was and continue to be available in response. I mean, I don’t stand on a corner and hand out leaflets. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not trying to sell anything. But on the other hand, if you ask me a question, you’re going to get a half-hour answer.’”

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2008

Art / Walk

This weekend we went on a tour of Chelsea’s galleries led by very special guide. David Platzker is the director of Specific Object, an innovative gallery, bookshop, and storehouse for a range of items from artist’s multiples to unique works of literature, music, and sound. Prior to founding Specific Object, Platzker was the executive director of Printed Matter, a non-profit institution dedicated to the promotion of artists’ publications from 1998 to 2004, and he has curated exhibitions for artists including John Baldessari, Marcel Duchamp, Ed Ruscha, and Claes Oldenburg. Rob Giampietro chaired the event for AIGA/NY. Stops on the walk included David Zwirner, Alexander & Bonin, Murray Guy, Honey Space, Yvon Lambert, Gagosian Gallery, Luhring Augustine, Mary Boone, and Susan Inglett.

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Tauba Auerbach’s recent show at Deitch Projects completely took my breath away. Update: Auerbach now has her own site that’s well worth checking out.

2006

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To my growing set of gridded notebooks I will now add Astrid Stavro’s Grid It! notepad family (via Apartment Therapy).

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An ever-growing and wonderful archive of artist and designer interviews at the Walker Channel.

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"I like art that allows its audience to exist in the space opened up by it. For me, art is a space of images, objects, and human beings. Relational aesthetics is a way of considering the productive existence of the viewer of art, the space of participation that art can offer." Interview with Nicolas Bourriaud, who coined the phrase “relational aesthetics” to describe much of the art he encountered in Europe in the early to mid-1990’s.

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In one of the more interesting quotes about my generation that I’ve read recently, art dealer Daniel Reich observed to NYT that “My generation grew up in a time when we didn’t have heroes. You grew up believing you were being hoodwinked and manipulated—and knowing you were, but learning to enjoy it because it came in fun colors or was on MTV.” More of the article here. Visit Reich’s gallery here. Visit Becky Smith’s gallery Bellwether here.

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When it opened at the Walker Art Center in 1989, "Graphic Design in America" was one of the first serious surveys of its kind. It’s tempting to say it was ahead of its time, but I think it was probably more like a little bit late. The relationship of design to art has always been a difficult one, and displaying design in a contemporary art museum didn’t simplify things much. Here’s what NYT thought back then, which makes for interesting reading now (via Unbeige).