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I Saw Jefferson Airplane—and Santa Played Lead Guitar!

4 Feb

The Columbia Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition of classic height-of-hippiedom posters by the likes of Victor Moscoso and Bonnie MacLean. The designs are supposed to be promoting the psychedelic music of Moby Grape, The Grateful Dead and other luminaries of the tripped-out late-Sixties scene—so how come Edgar Allan Poe and Santa Claus make an appearance? We asked the eminent design historian and serial collector Mel Byars to explain.

The trippy, elaborate design of the posters, which you collected and donated to the Columbia Museum, is at odds with the slick output of Madison Avenue in the same years—a countercultural West Coast riposte to East Coast consumerism. You were working in New York in the late Sixties. What did you make of these psychedelic designs at the time?

I didn’t and still don’t like rock music. I only listened to 30s and 40s music and didn’t know about the posters at the time. It was a West Coast, particularly San Francisco, phenomenon. Living in New York City at age 30 in 1968 and working for book publishers and advertising agencies, I was only interested in Swiss design. The idea of words in advertising or posters that people cannot read would have been absurd to me—just as today. The rock-music artists were drugged hippies. Only one was female, the wife of the Fillmore Auditorium’s Bill Graham. They were not selling anything. They were not propagandists. The images included are dotty, having no relationship whatsoever to the musicians—Edgar Allan Poe, Gloria Swanson, Santa Claus with horns, the Taj Mahal and Jesus.

Does Sixties psychedelia have much importance for today’s designers?

I am trusting that those like me—teachers and historians—don’t decide what designers should think or what is important. At least I hope not. I only report. The importance for today’s designers is to think for themselves, watch TV news, read newspapers and, in fact, read. Most graphic design today and in the past is shit. Look at adverts in newspapers. Who is executing that stuff? Graphic designers will be well served to acquire an in-depth education in the humanities first.
As an aside about psychedelic posters, I had a dream a few days ago that made me aware that they are all positive—no matter how silly—nothing dark. Yet they were being created as the same time (late 60s) as the morass of youth protests in the US and Europe.

As promotional tools, the posters could be said to fail in one very important respect. That is, the text is so hard to read it’s difficult to know what they’re advertising. Why is that, do you think?

The claim that they failed is your assertion. One of the two most prominent designers, Victor Moscoso, who studied with Josef Albers at Yale University, said he didn’t care if his posters were readable. (The other most prominent designer was Wes Wilson.) There are more peculiarities such as the poster for two- to three-day venues only; the designs are intricate in most examples, and the printing is complicated. But only a handful of printers produced the posters. If you think that the phenomenon of the unreadable died after the 60s and early 70s, you are forgetting April Greiman’s messy scrapbook aesthetic and David Carson’s intentionally unreadable work, such as his so-called deconstructivist pages for Ray Gun.

You’re a serial collector. What else have you collected and where did it all begin? (Tell us about your childhood.)

Serial collectors are strange people. I don’t think that I and other obsessive collectors can explain ourselves.
About stuff: I don’t have much left except 100+ examples of Navajo blankets that I am wishing to grant to an as-yet-undetermined institution. (If there is a curator out there interested, speak up.) I have donated large numbers of design and anthropological objects to museums around the world—New York City, Prague, Paris, Israel—and the rock posters in my hometown, Columbia, South Carolina. The most rare, most interesting gift I have made—at least in my opinion—is probably a quipu to the Israel Museum of Art.
You ask about my childhood. I was bullied almost to death, being beaten up by school bullies at least once a week in a lower-class neighbourhood. Skinny. A loner. Angry. Lived with mother and aunt. A lovely black woman (I’m white) took care of me when my mother, a perfectionist, was at work as a secretary. Had one friend at a time, usually a loser like me. Father was a mess; he didn’t live with us but did live in the same town. Saw him fairly often. Was forced to go to Sunday church services—the most boring times of my life. Have been writing at least since 8th grade when I received a little trophy for a school-newspaper article. Highly influenced by Hollywood films that were, due to the times, absent of violence and sex. Good thing because I might have become a serial killer. Was normal in other ways, such as collecting insects, raising tropical fish, building models. And was abnormal in that I read and reread every page of the fifteen volumes of Compton’s Encyclopedia—must have cost my mother a lot of money. However, if a model kit was too advanced for my age and it didn’t turn out perfectly, I would smash it into a zillion pieces. Some of my mother’s friends told her that I needed to see a psychotherapist. I’m not sure that there were any in town—the same city to which I have retired now and the same city in which the museum to which I donated the rock posters is located, and the same city where there are now more than fifty psychotherapists. What goes around comes around.
Yet, memories are memories of memories. All change with time. I have discovered in my dotage that some proved to be inaccurate.

You’re also the author of perhaps the most comprehensive design encyclopedia ever published (The Design Encyclopedia, published by MoMA and Laurence King Publishing). How long did it take you to write it, and what is the biggest lesson you learned from doing it?

This question from you is covert because you, Robert Shore, were the editor of the second edition and worked with me on it almost daily. It took eight years to write it. The first four were on the first edition (1994), about which few people know, and the publisher assigned the same title to the second edition as to the first edition. Thus, confusion has been created. The second edition took another four years; however, the seeds of the first were used as a foundation for the second. For the first edition, there was no significant internet available to help me appreciably with the research; therefore, much of it was garnered from books in a range of languages. Only an insane person like me with no advanced degree in the subject and no prior books published would attempt to write an encyclopedia. Laurence King, the publisher, has claimed that he recognized that I was nevertheless capable. It is possible that he used a divining stick or witching rod. I was fifty years old at the time. The second edition, ten years later, and which included the Museum of Modern Art as the publisher, is more thorough and accurate due to internet support and a group of fact-checkers, whose expertise and energy greatly varied.
I learned that writing nonfiction books will not make me rich; in fact, will make me poor. I learned that without a patient editor, like you, Robert Shore, it might not have been possible. I learned that serendipity plays a big role in everyone’s significant accomplishments: I was relatively free at the time of the second edition, lived in Paris with a garden (the garden helped), and was meagrely supported by money bequeathed to me by my stepfather. Possibly the biggest lesson I learned is that, because I become bored easily, I have quit a number of projects in midstream in my past—the cause of great but secretive shame, if one can be secretively shamed. The fact that I persisted with the first and second editions of the encyclopedia to their very end—and I emphasize “very end”—absolved me in my mind. And when, in the introduction to the second edition, Terence Riley, the head of MoMA’s design and architecture department, called me the Diderot of design, he closed the door on my quest. Being awarded the Besterman/McColvin Gold Medal for the best reference book was momentarily thrilling, but the excitement soon faded. And, by the way, I have lost the medal—cannot find it anywhere. Besides, what would I do with it? Certainly not wear it or place it on display.

“Psychedelic Design: Rock Posters from the Mel Byars Collection, 1966–1971” continues until 12 March


Abigail Reynolds: Cuts in Time

24 Feb

greenwich 71 50 copy ‘London is this dynamic, constantly shifting swirl of people and movement,’ explains Abigail Reynolds. ‘But the monuments don’t fundamentally change.’ It’s this simple but potent insight that endows Reynolds’s The Universal Now series with its quietly uncanny, subtly mythic quality. The works are created by splicing together photographs of the same London monument taken from the same place by different photographers at different times – often decades apart. ‘I think it’s quite a beautiful idea that there are these people who have stopped and placed this little circle of glass in the same spot in front of these monuments that we’re constantly passing by without really looking at them,’ says Reynolds, who grew up in London but is now based in Cornwall. ‘The buildings are the overt subject of The Universal Now but the real subject is time. We’re in this fluid river of time which is unstoppable but through photography you can have these frozen moments. When I started the series I was looking at the Lorenz Attractor and ideas about how time could be folded, about wormholes in time and how you could get loops and things could be folded back over one another.’ Alb Hall 48 85 She describes her temporary move from London to New Mexico some years ago as a formative experience in her practice. ‘Albuquerque is a place where there is only one moment. Stuff is built and it’s never demolished because it doesn’t rust, and because there’s other land you don’t pull it down, you just build on other bits of land.’ Exposure to the more expanded New Mexico architectural horizon triggered a recognition of the palimpsest-like quality of the London landscape. ‘I’d never previously really appreciated the intense layering that’s been going on in London since pre-Roman times. It was only after I’d lived in Albuquerque that I understood how I’d been living inside this extreme compression of time and detail in London.’ With its folds and careful layering, The Universal Now is a photographic-sculptural rendering of this temporal compression. Reynolds has a collection of 300 or 400 London guidebooks that serve as her principal source material. ‘I use a lot of photographs from the Fifties because they are very well crafted. They were taken by serious photographers at a moment when photography was really doing well. Cameras were very good and people took it seriously as a documentary medium. From the Thirties on, a lot of documenting was happening because there was an awareness that London, and Britain in general, was irreparably changing and it needed to be photographed pretty quickly. So there’s an urgency and a formal clarity in those photographs that I’ve always liked. ‘I’ve always looked for photographs that are formally strong because otherwise I can’t cut them together. All of the photographs of London I use were taken by photographers working to a clear commercial brief to photograph the monuments in the accepted way or in a way that’s objective. They’re not meant to be very personal musings on St Paul’s but rather THE image of St Paul’s that people instantly recognize. So I’m looking for photographs where the photographers will have stood in the same place, where the camera lens will have been in the exact same spot in space. Then they’ve printed those images at the same scale.’ The self-effacing nature of the source photographers’ style is important. ‘The fact these photographs are not strongly authored is useful to me,’ Reynolds says. An image bearing the clear visual signature of an Avedon or Cartier-Bresson would interfere with her process. ‘It would be like there’s another person in the room. I feel I just have more space to fabulate with [more anonymous photographs].’ Reynolds’s working method is rigorously precise. ‘Imagine a chessboard. Now, if you cut all the black squares into an X – you slice them all straight across – and you fold out the flaps you would exactly cover all the white squares. If you do that to two chessboards and merge them, you could have an entirely black chessboard, but if you folded the flaps the other way it would be entirely white. Both chessboards are present simultaneously.’ This simultaneity is key to the impact of The Universal Now. ‘In cutting and folding these images, I’m not privileging one moment over another because they’re both simultaneously present, and though as a viewer you can’t actually fold down the flaps, you can move in relation to the image and see what’s there, so in a way you are in two moments – your present moment of looking contains these two photographic moments. ‘Initially that can be quite confusing. You have to puzzle the folds out and work out what belongs to what, which really slows you down. For me that’s a way of prolonging the moment of looking, where you lose your sense of time. That’s why I want the works to be slow or puzzling – so that time expands a bit.’ Peter Pan 19+23+99 copy Take Peter Pan 1919 | 1999, 1923 | 1999 (2013), for instance. ‘The black and white images are taken from two editions of the same book. That’s why the page numbers differ, and the rounded-off corner is to the other side,’ Reynolds explains. ‘I returned to this image twice because I like the print very much. There’s something very strange about the tree in the background. It can’t be throwing that shadow to the side/in front of it, and there are two printing pops across the trunk like a ghost form. The grass that holds the statue does not seem to connect at all to this background, nor that to the right, which is carpeted in white flowers. It’s surely been worked on in the dark room pre-1919 very thoroughly by Mr Rischgitz [the photographer]. It feels redolent of the “faeries at the bottom of the garden” photographs from the 1900s, which is entirely suitable to Peter Pan. It might be that the photographer felt that the black column of the statue needed a black column continuing the tree ­– so there is a sense of doubling already in the original photographic print. The double/doppelgänger I extend in the cutting, which gives the viewer a shifting sense of the visible/invisible as different glimpses of Peter are offered in each part of the diptych. The cut form has three tiers because the original has three tiers – three lines of disconnected ‘ground’: grass, grass, shrubbery.’ Though her art practice is distinctly analogue, she describes her role in the language of the Digital Age. ‘I suppose I’m a content manager. It doesn’t interest me to take my own photographs. The focus for me is on a sort of recomposition. ‘We live in a world with enough stuff in it. I don’t feel like contributing to that pile of crap. I feel like sorting through the ruins and picking stuff up. I feel very akin to T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, picking through the rubble and reconstructing. I usually work with narratives that I already pretty much subscribe to, but where I want those narratives to become larger. I don’t deface images, I resuscitate them. Or at least that’s my intention. ‘The craft of photography is on the way out. Our interest at the moment is in the fluidity of photographs, how quickly they can be passed around. But with that increased speed there’s the loss of a certain formal beauty or clarity that’s just inevitable. In the same way if you want an image to move quickly down through the internet, it gets compressed and is kind of junk-y when you get it down the other end. That’s just the way it is. The whole thing is under a lot of pressure at the moment. I’m working on that closing margin of these ways of representing.’ Article taken from Elephant magazine, winter 2015. All images © Abigail Reynolds.

Christy Lee Rogers: Élan

16 Jun

ImageUS artist Christy Lee Rogers grew up by the sea in Hawaii, so perhaps it’s only natural that she chooses to work in water. With their sensual rendering of flesh, use of bright colours and dramatic lighting effects, Rogers’s photographs are most obviously reminiscent of Baroque art. Shot at night, no digital trickery is used in their making. ‘I love what I get naturally and don’t want to alter my expression in Photoshop. My intention is to create something magical that could exist, not something that I feel people will think is fake or false,’ says Rogers. ‘I want people to know that what they see is possible and for them to connect with it because of that.

‘Every shot is an experiment and sometimes you get something unexpected, like the wind blowing across the water, which produces a fantastic effect. Even the moon can change the lighting in beautiful ways.I keep notebooks with thousands of ideas. During the initial idea phase, there’s usually a feeling of overwhelm because the collection must be profound in my mind and very precise.


‘Water can become quite chaotic, especially with choreographing many subjects together, so we practise one by one. I teach each person my style and how to position themselves in relation to me and in relation to the lights. There are key points that they have to practise and hopefully master. Posing is not something that I feel works for real expression so I have my subjects stay in constant movement.’


Her new collection, Élan, draws inspiration from the 1920s Parisian circus and the romantic wonder of the Moulin Rouge. The extravagant scenes, captured during a shoot in Las Vegas, benefited from the participation of some of the world’s premiere performance artists: dance masters, synchronized swimmers, aerialists, pole dancers and actors.

On show at The Outsiders, 8 Greek Street, London W1, until 19 July. Images copyright the artist.


Interview with photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia in Elephant magazine

15 Jan

Interview with photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia in Elephant magazine

Angelo Musco’s Brave Nude World

4 Oct


‘OVUM’ by Angelo Musco. Image courtesy the artist

Given that his photographic bodyscapes can stretch to a length of up to 20 metres, it’s hardly surprising that the shooting and post-production process necessary to create Angelo Musco’s works of vast and surreal beauty should be pretty epic too. Hailing from Naples, Musco was deeply marked by the trauma of his birth. Having spent 11 months in the womb, he suffered paralysis in the right side of his body for the first years of his life; it’s an event that has had a powerful impact on his art making. He is now based in New York, where he makes works of increasing visionary intensity and immense physical and artistic ambition, using the naked human form as his basic brush stroke.

To find out more about Musco’s work, you have some exciting possibilities:

1)   Go and see the premiere of Robert Jason’s documentary about him, Conception, on 14 October at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, New York City. You can watch the ‘sizzle’ here.

2)   Get hold of a copy of the new issue of Elephant, which features an interview with the Italian maestro.

Musco will also be in London for Frieze and will be shooting a brand-new work at Sunbeam Studio on 19 October.

Martina Bacigalupo: Gulu Real Art Studio

20 Sep


Found imagery isn’t traditionally the domain of the photojournalist. But when prize-winning Italian photographer Martina Bacigalupo was working on an assignment for Human Rights Watch in war-torn northern Uganda, she made an unusual – and entirely unlooked-for – discovery that made her think afresh about her approach to her chosen subject matter.

While waiting for some prints to be made in a small studio in Gulu, ‘I noticed an unusual object on the desk – an ordinary 10 x 15 cm photograph of someone posing for a studio portrait, but with the face strangely missing, leaving a square hole where the head had been,’ she recounts. ‘I asked what this was, and the woman at the counter said she had forgotten it there and proceeded to discard it. When I told her I would like to see her trash bin, people around us laughed, but a man [named Obal] who was part of that crowd, amused like the others and yet, I think, more curious, told me that if I was interested he would be happy to show me more.’

What she discovered was an extraordinary cache of headless portraits. ‘The portraits were well composed, with subjects seated on a chair or on a bench, with a blue, white, or red curtain behind them, in various poses and modes of dress. Obal, who was running the oldest photography studio in town with his father, told me the secret behind those pictures: he only had a machine that would make four ID photos at a time, and since most of his clients didn’t need four pictures, he therefore preferred to take an ordinary photograph and cut an ID photo out of it. This was common practice in most of the studios in Gulu. Captivated by the eerie result, I asked Obal if he wouldn’t mind putting aside all the leftovers he was going to produce that day. When I went back in the evening he gave me a little box.’

The contents of that box provided the seeds for Bacigalupo’s new book, Gulu Real Art Studio (Steidl), and an exhibition of the same name at the Walther Collection Project Space in New York. The images present a cross section of Gulu society – children, soldiers, farmers – at a moment of transition. The ravages of war are evident, not least in the fact that the portraits are mutilated leftovers, but they nonetheless manage to tell a bigger, more rounded story of lives lived.

‘I love these pictures because they’re not mine. I’m an editor basically,’ says Bacigalupo, who has been resident in the region for several years now. ‘You see journalists coming in and out, looking for tragic news. But by reporting events in Africa in that way, we are perpetrating a way of looking at it as a continent of misery. This project has been a way of talking about things – including the war in northern Uganda – in a more everyday way. The child who is sleeping on the lap of his mother while the picture is taken – it’s something we can all relate to. It’s lighter. The pictures are funny at times.’

‘During the editing process I went over hundreds of leftovers, where small details – a hidden sign, a comic posture, a bitter aspect – were revealing different stories,’ writes Bacigalupo in the introduction to the Steidl book. ‘I remember the clumsy pose of the man wearing a too-large jacket – a jacket lent by the studio to those sitters who didn’t have one (I would find a whole series afterward): he was holding the jacket closed with his hands while still wearing his muddy boots… I was always struck by the ravishing traditional robes of the Acholi women, who would wear their best clothes even though their dresses would not show in the final print. I knew these photographs carried burdensome stories, and yet those details were portraying something else, something about the daily life we all share, besides time and space, with its common worries and hopes.’

The images transcend the merely documentary too, taking on a more surreal or symbolic aspect. ‘There’s a descriptive part in the portraits, which ties them into journalism, but then there’s the hole, which calls the viewer in and makes them fill in what’s missing,’ says Bacigalupo. ‘That’s an essential quality in all photography.’

She adds: ‘Photojournalists are looking for a new way of talking about Africa especially, but the global south in general.’ The images in Gulu Real Art Studio – surreal survivors of a society undergoing swift and sometimes violent change – offer one such new way of talking.

Gulu Real Art Studio is at the Walther Collection Project Space, 508–526 West 26th Street, Suite 718, until 8 February 2014 and is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 12pm to 6pm

Interview: Artist duo Davy and Kristin McGuire

4 Jul

05.The Paper Architect ¿ Davy & Kristin McGuire.JPG