In the midst of the current operatic upheavals at the Los Angeles County Museum — the abrupt departure of president and director Andrea Rich and the not-unrelated power plays of billionaire collector and perennial art-building donor Eli Broad (I am shocked! Shocked to learn that wealthy patrons are trying to influence the curatorial direction of public museums!) — it is reassuring that during the lull before the multiple whammies of the King Tut show (another scandal) and the Tim Hawkinson retrospective (a coup), LACMA has mounted a pair of shows exploring the relatively un-self-important phenomenon of art posters. Although “Rauschenberg: Posters” and “German and Austrian Posters — War, Revolution, Protest” are both made from single private collections recently donated or promised to the museum, they could easily be the result of deliberate curatorial selection. The Rauschenberg show is comprehensive and explores an overlooked (even disdained) aspect of his oeuvre, while the German collection is extensive, carefully notated, and follows a narrative historical curve from the yearning utopianism of the late-19th-century Jugendstil (the German version of the Arts & Crafts movement) through the socialist upheavals of the early 20th century, the First World War, the swingin’ Weimar era and finally the rise of Nazism. Layered on top of this arc is the history of early-20th-century visual-art styles,
and their particular translation into the ephemeral medium of street posters.
After the invention of multistone color lithography by French artist Jules Cheret
and the subsequent explosion of belle époque posters (think Toulouse-Lautrec),
the technology and sudden transformation of public space into a de facto gallery
spread swiftly through the industrialized world. The earliest works in “German
and Austrian Posters” share the same curvilinear graphic style and nature-loving
medievalism as the contemporary Art Nouveau masterpieces that were the peak of
the Parisian poster craze. Not that it’s all peace and love. Works like Thomas
Theodor Heine’s Simplicissimus 10pf (1896) — advertising a satirical
Jugendstil magazine with a startling image of a red bulldog that’s broken its
chain — prefigure the angst and graphic immediacy of Expressionism, the style
that would soon come to dominate German poster design. And as the Art Nouveau
style began modulating into the more geometric Art Deco, startling hybrids like
Franz Ritter von Stuck’s hovering gold-and-blue all-seeing eyeball promoting the
1911 International Hygiene Exhibition began to appear.
While many of the works in “German and Austrian Posters” are advertisements for cultural events or products, at least as many are politically motivated. Possibly the most intriguing historical aspect of the show lies in the fact that the most avant-garde visual styles aren’t necessarily associated with the most leftist political agendas. In fact, there seems to be little or no correlation until the snap-sphinctered Hitler cracked down on abstraction and other insidious “Judeo-Bolshevik” art trends — most famously in the “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) exhibition. Rudolf Herrmann’s 1938 poster for that linchpin show is the second-to-last work in “German and Austrian Posters,” leaving us on the brink of WWII and the era of the European Modernist as political refugee. America and Europe’s subsequent erroneous equation joining avant-garde aesthetics with progressive politics would not have been plausible if Hitler hadn’t made the connection first. The advent of cheap photo-offset technology revolutionized advertising posters and magazines, and brought about the displacement of the subtle analog color inflections and hand-rendered graphic design of lithography by the photo-heavy digital dot-matrixes that still dominate ads today. By the early ’60s, printmaking in general had lost much of its art-world cred, and lithography in particular was almost a forgotten medium — at least in the U.S. Two women — Tatyana Grosman in New York and June Wayne in L.A. — turned that around, starting bicoastal lithography workshops that spawned a fine-art printmaking renaissance. Also deserving some credit for this revival is none other than Robert Rauschenberg, whose devotion to lithography (as well as his extensive use of silk-screens in his works on canvas) produced a torrent of high-quality — and highly collectible — editions through the ’60s. Rauschenberg’s politics (and compositional structures) have always been egalitarian if not anarchistic, and it’s probably the fact that the offset poster had replaced the litho as the commercial medium of the masses that led him to explore its potential as an art form. In a sense, the works in LACMA’s “Rauschenberg: Posters” represent the completion of a cycle in the artist’s process — many of his source images were originally appropriated from offset-printed newspapers and magazines, and his offhand re-insertion of them into the same mass medium undermines any divisive notions of high and low visual languages. And Rauschenberg being Rauschenberg, they rock.
Opening with the re-oriented (it’s supposed to be stacked vertically) 1968 cryptic triptych Autobiography and the luscious Matissean poster for his November 1977 show at Ace, “Posters” offers a précis of Rauschenberg’s endlessly experimental engagement with the semiotics of gorgeousness. The seemingly effortless quality of his collagelike compositions belies the carefully honed improvisational instincts necessary for such a surfeit of eye candy. The very fact that his work is so obviously beautiful to the 21st-century eye is, in fact, testimony to Rauschenberg’s impact “in the gap between life and art”; specifically regarding the expansion of the public’s definition of beauty. And in the case of “Posters,” what constitutes a graphic message? Crushed beer cans, news images, scraps of paper and cardboard, bits of fabric, hairbrushes, color wheels and drafting rulers, the artist’s own photographs, and large painterly brush strokes are arrayed in lyrical rebuses to signify everything from the predictable exhibitions of Rauschenberg’s art to a host of cultural, environmental and global political causes. On close inspection, they aren’t so difficult to parse. A 1983 B&W poster titled World Artists Against Apartheid, for example, pairs photos of hand-painted South African billboard depictions of basketball players — one black and one white — separated by an image of gathering storm clouds. But the predominant message of each piece is undeniably the artist’s own signature visual syntax. By the time Rauschenberg began making posters, the political allegiances of successful
mainstream artists were a given — leftist, unionist, ant-racist, anti-nationalist,
anti-war, etc. So why bother spelling it out? On a deeper level, though, Rauschenberg
seems to have been responding to the public’s hunger for a less hierarchical,
less propagandistic visual discourse. Undoubtedly influenced by his transparent
layers of brightly hued found imagery, the late-’60s psychedelic underground gave
birth to the most globally distributed — and visually convoluted — outburst of
art-poster design since the days of Art Nouveau and Jugendstil. The anti-hierarchical
thing hasn’t really caught on, either in advertising design or in museum politics.
Still, whatever their drawbacks, we’re lucky to have museums, which at heart —
as Rauschenberg, in a typically optimistic text on his 100th-anniversary poster
for the Met, points out — exist to “concertise a moment of pride serving to defend
the dreams apolitical of mankind.” You listen to Bob, now, Eli.
RAUSCHENBERG: POSTERS | GERMAN AND AUSTRIAN POSTERS — WAR, REVOLUTION, PROTEST | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles | Both through June 12