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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
Sketches and silkscreens of some of Sutnar's stripper
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
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.
In case you didn’t notice, we’re already halfway through 2014. It’s time to turn and face the future—and design the one we want.
David Brin, the noted science fiction writer (and one of my favorites) wrote an article for Bloomberg six months ago describing how a new century doesn’t get started until about year 14. Brin and I must be on the same wavelength. A year ago, I asked AIGA’s executive director Ric Grefé...
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