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  • Another Side of Ladislav Sutnar

    When Ladislav Sutnar emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1940, the avant-garde designer who brought Constructivism to American corporations, lived on 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. He rented a one-room apartment on the third floor of a converted town house, in an oak-paneled former library with a large French window overlooking the street. On his first night, after going to bed at 11:00 p.m., he was suddenly awakened “to the realities of where my ignorance of native custom had led me,” Sutnar recalled in a brief essay titled “The Strip Street,” which he wrote to accompany a portfolio of racy images that have been more or less ignored since his death in 1976.

     

    Silkscreens from Ladislav Sutnar's Strip Street series (1963) and more, inspired by New York after dark.

    What was ordinarily a quiet midtown street during the day would transform every night into “the famous strip street known far and wide as the sexiest place in town,” Sutnar wrote. “It was never charming or neat, but the embodiment of the shrewd business of pushing the sale of liquor with attractions of the flesh under bright colored lights. In the grab for the fast buck, tawdry physical vulgarity, obscene language and a close low view of human behavior unmasked in a quest for a variety of temptations, were the predominant attributes of the street's world of dubious entertainment. Intangible, perhaps, yet the phenomena expressed itself distinctly by its own strong and indescribable mood.”

    Abstract Venuses by Sutnar.

    During the hot summer, a shimmering purple-red neon glow projected from the street high into the dark skies, and it was against this view that Sutnar was introduced to what he called an “exotic shadow-play, moving to the swinging beat from the clubs.” During the 1960s the street was transformed by the city's building boom. The steamy and tawdry urban lifestyle was bulldozed under and would have been forgotten, had Sutnar not decided to celebrate his early New York experience in paintings and prints that he alternately called “posters without words,” “Venuses” and “Joy Art.” This series of flat, brightly colored canvases, somewhat resembling Saul Bass's expressionist movie graphics wed to elements of Pop Art, “offers my personal comments on the old times and the shapely disrobing ladies who were so essential a part of the strip street scenery,” Sutnar wrote. Tomas Vlcek, who has written about this relatively forgotten aspect of Sutnar's work, suggests the influence of Pop, yet also notes that the artist hated Pop and Op Art.

     

    Sketches and silkscreens of some of Sutnar's stripper subjects.

    Sutnar began making these paintings and prints in 1960, the year he left his fruitful and influential consultancy with Sweets Catalog Service, where for around a decade he altered the look of industrial catalogs through modern typography and raised the bar on information design through precise pictorial systems. What was a totally alien style for Sutnar, and in retrospect look doggedly derivative of contemporary art trends, was a means of combining his design and narrative concerns into seamless imagery. What's more he viewed these works as representations of the strippers' “unpredictable, mischievous, and sometime hilarious exhibitions ... as they were often seen through the open doors of the clubs, to dazzle passer-by.”

    Venuses in close-up.

    The Venus series (which were shown in a few New York galleries between 1966 and '69 and at the Art Directors Club in 1975) in the private edition of 12 silkscreened prints (January 1963) interprets the impact of the swift “passing glimpse in the dim, murky, aphrodisiac atmosphere of female bodies in movement, shaking, swinging, quivering, twisting, rolling and jerking. Or, maybe just an arm loosening the hair reflects the vivid, live and lasting echo of the experience of living on the street.” The accented silhouette with its emphasis on the simplified form of the figure in action together with the contrast of the flat, unshaded colors laid out one next to another were the visual techniques he borrowed from his graphic design and used to make dramatic impressions. His visual shorthand resulted in bold, simple patterns. The term “posters without words” refers to Sutnar's distinct poster-like design that characterizes the individual prints of this series.

    Venus silkscreen by Ladislav Sutnar, 1963.

    After 1960 Sutnar's commercial work was fading fast. These paintings and a series of retrospective design exhibits were an attempt to revivify his business. Not surprisingly, as the graphic design dried up, he devoted himself more prodigiously to these lesser known paintings and prints. His career languished nonetheless. He died a year after his Art Directors Club exhibit believing he had been forgotten by the field.

    He may have been forgotten then, but today his Sweets Catalog work is hailed as prefiguring information architecture. Maybe his paintings will excite renewed interest as well.

    Thanks to Radislav Sutnar, Petr and Iva Knobloch for their help with this essay. 

    About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com
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