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Ameridam:The Dutchification of America
I was invited by Jan van Toorn to contribute an essay for a book he was organizing on the great Dutch designer Anthon Beeke. Jan asked me to provide the foreign eye, to evaluate the work from the outside. To the best of my recollection, I met Beeke twice: the first time more than twenty-odd years ago in Providence, Rhode Island, and the second time in the spring of 2010 in Amsterdam in preparation for the following text.
As most of his Dutch books and magazines have never been available in America or translated into English, Beeke’s remarkable early work is practically unknown in the U.S. And to the American eye, his work after 2000 became less distinct — competent, even elegant, but not as wildly original and emblematic — and therefore less relevant. As a critic, as always, I must deal with the designer through the design. Therefore, I confine myself to a sliver of time starting around 1980 and ending in the early 1990s — the period during which he produced his major work, work that established his international reputation and for which he is primarily known in the U.S. And it was on the strength of this work that he was invited to America as one of the early ambassadors of Dutch design.
Beeke is not my peer — he’s a generation older — and he’s not exactly my subject either. In fact, this is not so much an interrogation of Beeke as it is an eyewitness account of a distinctly American attachment to European design (and how that attachment shifted focus in the late 1980s), how modernism was understood and extended, and how Beeke’s oeuvre fits perfectly into this realignment.
Ancient History: The Europeanization of the American Design Academy
Time: Sometime in the early ’80s.
Location: Art-school auditorium, Providence, RI.
Wolfgang Weingart, then distinguished professor of typography at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel, is in the middle of a lecture (or maybe “demonstration” would be a better term), titled “How to design a Swiss poster.” He is a hulk of a man, bristling all over with stubble. Is he really wearing a smock or is it some kind of Swiss tradesman’s uniform? He has an overt disdain for us, although I may be imagining that he often starts his sentences with the phrase: “You Americans …” There is not much evidence to go on. He hardly says anything. He is hunched over an overhead projector placed in the middle of the audience, cutting litho-film — fragments of typography, half-tone images and Ben-Day dot-screens — creating ovelays and manipulating moiré, the tedious, painstaking work broadcast on a humongous screen. When he finds a composition he likes, he signifies the victory with a small grunt of satisfaction and fixes it with Scotch tape. This seems to go on for hours. We are rapt.
Our American design world of the early ’80s breaks down into crudely drawn camps. If you want to know which camp you’re in, the simplest test of allegiance is your position on the quintessential New York designer Milton Glaser. If you are in the camp that reveres Weingart, it follows that you must despise Glaser, and vice versa. For all of us on that side, Weingart represents a direct, unbroken lineage from the heroic and historic avant-garde: Vhutemas, revolutionary Constructivism, Dada, De Stijl, Bauhaus,Ulm, Basel, us. Our design canon, reinforced by our design-history classes, is peopled almost exclusively with Europeans and Americans who pretend they are Europeans.
The great American champion of the Swiss is the belligerent modernist Paul Rand, the preeminent corporate designer and polemicist of his generation. “When I first became aware of the work of Swiss graphic designers in the late forties,” he says, “I used to ridicule it. I would yodel and say, My God, here they come again! I really thought the stuff was awful, cold — all the clichés that are used to describe Swiss design. But then I realized that nobody had come up with anything better or even as good.”1
Rand and Glaser 2 have similar backgrounds but they represent two sides of an essential battle in American design: i.e. how European it would be. Rand increasingly sees his work as akin to an abstract art and positions himself as the inevitable successor of the towering figures of European art and design. He brackets his canon “from Cimabue (1240–1302) to Cassandre (1901–1968).”3 Although Glaser spent a formative Fulbright year in Italy, his work draws from an entirely different set of American references. His work is eclectic, playful, vernacular and popular. We dismiss it as kitsch.
By the time I meet Rand, around 1990, the jaunty adman of the 1940s known for his goofy collages hawking cigars and cordials is a distant memory. He is the adamant, unyielding defender of the modern (read: European) orthodoxy. In his mid-70s, he’s hunkered down in a stark modernist house in leafy Weston, Connecticut, from which he decries the post-modernization of American design and all the attendant “squiggles, pixels, doodles, dingbats and ziggurats; boudoir colors, turquoise, peach, pea green and lavender; corny woodcuts on moody browns and russets; Art Deco rip-offs, high-gloss finishes, sleazy textures; tiny color photos surrounded by acres of white space; indecipherable, zany typography with miles of leading; text in all caps [despite indisputable proof, he says, that lowercase letters are more readable]; omnipresent, decorative letterspaced caps; visually annotated typography and revivalist caps and small caps; pseudo-Dada and Futurist collages; and whatever ‘special effects’ a computer makes possible.”4
We are sitting in his studio room — underneath a bright CYRK poster by Tomaszewski — on a sunny New England autumn afternoon. Rand leans back in his work chair, fixes us in his goggled stare. “Did you bring any work?” he barks in his old-school Brooklyn accent. “N-no,” we fumble. “This is just kind of a social visit.” “You should have brought work,” dismissing us. “How else can I figure out what side you’re on?”5
To be on Rand’s side is to believe in the game of design as a closed system: structures are devised and the designer plays all available games possible without betraying those self-imposed limits. Above all else, Rand’s mid-century European modernism represents the elimination of attachment, the stripping away of associative meaning outside the system in the name of direct expression and hierarchy. The work may not refer: it is what it is. Everything else is cloying novelty.
To those of us on the Swiss side, Rand’s exhaustive list may as well be a comprehensive inventory of Glaser’s toolbox. The now universally acclaimed I NY is the perfect emblem of this American depravity: lowbrow novelty font, cutesy dingbat, corny visual pun, all tied up in a neat package and accompanied by a catchy jingle. American design has no rigor, no taste, no RULES. It is essentially Victorian in its attachment to novelty, humor and the tackily referential. But the dynamic between Rand and Glaser is not the equivalent of the much publicized Wim Crouwel/Jan van Toorn debate. Glaser does not, in the way van Toorn does, offer a political resistance to Rand’s formalism.6 Both are extremely successful corporate designers working deep inside the system. We are offended primarily by style, not politics. Those on the other side decry Swiss design as cold and emotionless. Our slavish devotion to Europeanism reads as academic, overly intellectual or simply snobbish. But they all miss the point: that coolness is the attraction. We love being aesthetic snobs; it makes us feel less American.
By the 1970s, the first of a cadre of graduate students indoctrinated into the European religion at Ulm and Basel — and at their American outposts such as the Yale School of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design7 — fan out across the academic design landscape sowing the Helvetican seed, painting silhouettes of keys and letters and ruling pens in black plaka and extolling the virtues of Raster systeme für die visuelle Gestaltung.8 To complete the effect, it is not uncommon for born-and-bred American students to return from their forays in Swiss graduate schools sporting shapeless jackets, a copy of Typografische Monatsblätter 9 under their arms and speaking in weird, quasi-German accents, artlessly struggling to remember their native words for common objects. “In English, how do you say …?”
By the time we come around, giants like Emil Ruder, Armin Hofmann and Josef Müller-Brockmann have a little too much monumentality for us to relate to. And the relatively youngish Weingart is too prickly to embrace. On our side of the Atlantic, the Americanization of Europeanism comes through a bicoastal channel: the briefly married but spiritually connected couple Dan Friedman and April Greiman.
An innocent Midwesterner, Friedman makes a daring move and attends the design academy in Ulm before moving on to Schule für Gestaltung, Basel. There he meets young April Greiman at the temple of Hofmann and Weingart, and they go on to transform their adopted methodology into a double-pronged injection of what would later become known as New Wave Design.10
Returning stateside, the couple splits: Friedman goes East, teaches at Yale, shaves his head and then slides into New York’s emerging East Village art scene, hooking up with Keith Haring along the way. He works for AGP and Pentagram by day — applying his Basel-trained precision to the Citibank account — but by night his apartment becomes a site for constant visual exploration of lurid colors, drop-shadowed triangles, squiggles and dots: a New Wave merzbau. His work starts to veer away from European orthodoxy into an area dangerously close to the depravity described by Rand a decade later. Greiman heads west to preside over her own grapho-cyborgian, sybaritic California hybridization, including innovative publications such as WET, provocatively subtitled: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing and Beyond.
Greiman and Friedman don’t dismantle their masters so much as add another layer — replete with drop shadow — of compositional articulation. (Later they would both become more complex figures, Greiman with her prescient foray into technology, Friedman with his immersion in Queer politics.) The sides are clearly delineated: Europeanism represents the tendency of a certain class of Americans to express disdain for the very culture from which they emerged. It is, of course, an illusion. Both Glaserism and Europeanism are highly historical: if Europeanism is built on the radical elimination of attachment and the strict adherence to the closed system, that position is deeply embedded in a long tradition of the radical elimination of attachment, from the historical avant-garde forward. Hence the question is not historic vs. ahistoric but, rather, which history will prevail or, more precisely, which history is valid and usable. In other words, whose side are you on?
1982: Greiman is appointed head of the design department at the California Institute of the Arts. In a remarkable moment of aesthetic alignment and homogeneity, the four major highbrow design schools in the United States are all led by direct disciples of one European system: Rand and Hofmann at Yale, Tom Ockerse (ex. of Yale) at RISD, Katherine McCoy (alumna of the high-Euro studio Unimark) at Cranbrook, and Greiman at CalArts. In addition, important schools from North Carolina to Cincinnati to Chicago preach the Swiss religion. We are all Euro now.
How the Dutch Drove the Swiss from the New World
Place: Art-school party, Providence, RI.
The ballroom is dark wood festooned with gold, a New England mansion built by some 17th-century slave-trading Unitarians now serving as gallery, presidential palace and site for occasional debaucheries marking some scholastic event. The huge French doors at one end are thrown open to a glorious manicured garden. From outside, the room seems to move in one pulsing block of bodies, festooned in black and white and occasional bursts of outrageous color. The pounding music shifts into New Order’s “Blue Monday,” with its spare opening drum, machine ticking, sketchy, jumpy beat that slowly fills in with the synchronous lower tones of the synthesizers and then Bernard Sumner’s low groaning, “How does it feel / To treat me like you do …” The ballroom is filled with beautiful children in their late teens, each with a certain flair: an outrageous dress, a campily serious white-tie-and-tennis-shoe combination, a tulle confection. Girls dance, throw their heads back, close their eyes, raise and cross their thin, pale arms overhead. In the middle of this sea of powdered white gothic faces appears a bright pink bubble. It’s the glistening, ecstatic face of a tottering giant. A crown of golden curls is plastered to his forehead. He moves like a great bear, his arms outstretched, the crowd parting as he wades through it. He is dressed in a kind of shapeless smock that exaggerates his bulk. One stout arm encircles the waist of the closest teenager. He pulls her close and plants a big baby kiss on her cheek. She pulls away with a laugh as her friends gather around tittering. He takes the next in two thick hands and attempts a jitterbuggy twirl. He spins another girl round and round and round, clears a hole in the dance floor. The girl, slight, practically swings off her feet. Morrissey drones: “I am the son and the heir / Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar / I am the son and heir / Of nothing in particular …” and the beat is driving everything forward and the big pink baby of a man throws his head back and sings out with glee. Beeke is in the house.
The design world that Anthon Beeke wades into in the mid-to-late ‘80s is on the verge of a massive shift. The symbolic arrival of Dutch design — in the form of a posse of high-profile visitors making their rounds through various art-school studios — coincides perfectly with the exhaustion of the Swiss methodology. New Wave temporarily provides a welcome injection of fun, unserious, DIY sensibility — but the movement lacks both theory and gravity. Friedman and Greiman’s exuberance settles into a predictable genre of graphic tricks. (See Rand’s rant.) New Wave has no political substance beyond the personal joy of the designer. The Swiss can’t sustain us anymore. New Wave is sweet but empty calories.
We know almost nothing about the Dutch, less about their designers. We know Rietveld because his chair keeps popping up in our art-history surveys. We know a little of van Doesburg and a few of the iconic elements of De Stijl. We know nothing about Piet Zwart or Paul Schuitema or Willem Sandberg or Otto Treumann, never mind Crouwel or van Toorn. Our History of Graphic Design 11 makes only a low pass over the low countries. Total Design is on our radar mostly because it extols Swiss virtues and because Benno Wissing, late partner thereof, is on the faculty of RISD and occasionally dusts off some ancient slide presentation about de Bejinkorf, PAM or PTT. But Wissing is already a dinosaur. His eyes are clouded, he sports a fluffy mustache and safari jacket, and he speaks with some kind of quasi-Afrikaaner drawl punctuated by long eeeeeerrsss and aaaaaahs between short bursts of word fragments. (We discover only years later the breadth of his early work.)
All that changes. The successful infiltration of the Dutch into the American academy can be traced largely to two educators: Katherine McCoy at Cranbrook and Tom Ockerse at RISD. McCoy is solidly American: a warm, open, bespectacled Midwesterner, hair in a thick braid, who speaks with the broad vowels of her native Michigan in the tone of a cheery mom bucking up a reluctant teenager. She is also a leading Europeanist. She comes to Cranbrook from Unimark, the bastion of high European design based in Chicago, where Massimo Vignelli was one of the founders and Herbert Bayer sat on the board of directors. Like most young Eurocentric designers she is under the sway of the Wiengart/Greiman/Friedman axis. On sabbatical from Cranbrook in 1983, McCoy spends a year in Eindhoven on a Phillips residency and finds herself in the position to “zoom around Holland” immersing herself in Dutch design culture. She visits all the major studios and returns to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, with a huge roll of posters under her arm.12
The work she encounters during that Eindhoven period is a revelation. “I immediately felt that this was something different,” she remembers later. “The best of New Wave was playful, arty, experimental, spontaneous, irreverent and fun, which was quite welcome after Swiss Modernism’s serious, systematic, austere corporatism. To me, the Dutch work had those same positive qualities and was somewhat related to the American New Wave in the international graphic-design lineage. But the Dutch work of the 1980s had more roots and cultural integrity, and less superficiality. It also seemed more closely related to the Dutch art world than American New Wave was to the American fine-art community. Here was a body of work built on the same Constructivist foundation but with an entirely different expression.”13 While Swiss design morphs seamlessly into the modular requirements of corporate identity, Dutch work offers an alternative way to interpret modernism.
Her visit to Studio Dumbar is transformational, not only for the striking work she encounters, but for the method of working: “Studio Dumbar is like a grad studio, a real atelier.”14 McCoy is in charge of a pretty great atelier herself — the design studios at the Cranbrook Academy — so it’s natural that she becomes close to Gert Dumbar and ends up inviting him for the first of many visits to the school. In Dumbar, she sees a designer for whom historical references are a lived relationship: “Their history is alive. They all knew Zwart personally. He isn’t an abstraction.”15 It is the beginning of a vital cross-cultural exchange between the two studios. Dumbar draws some of its most important image-makers — Robert Nakata and Allen Hori, among others — from the Cranbrook graduate studios as the experimental work just starting to emerge there finds a more receptive audience in Holland than at home. Later Anthon Beeke will write: “At Studio Dumbar, Cathy [sic] McCoy’s talented students were given a degree of freedom that was then inconceivable in the United States.”16
Upon returning from Holland she pens an article for I.D. Magazine— the American design magazine, not the London style guide —titled “Reconstructing Dutch Graphics.” It is perhaps the first critical assessment of contemporary Dutch design from this side of the Atlantic. She writes, “At a time when American graphic designers are searching for ways to expand on the ideas of the Swiss School, itself a culmination of Modernist Bauhaus ideals, the Dutch offer a refreshing insight into how designers of all types might synthesize a number of diverse elements appropriate to their audience and context. In our efforts to warm the rationality and coolness of the Swiss approach with some emotion and flexibility, our own American New Wave design solutions often deteriorate markedly.”17
She goes on to show a number of examples from van Toorn, Studio Dumbar, Ko Sliggers and Wim Crouwel/Total Design — implying they are more or less unknown to her audience — and includes two works by Anthon Beeke. In the caption for his “Marilyn” poster (1982) she makes perhaps the first analysis of his work in a U.S. forum: “Anthon Beeke uses many elements found in Swiss-derived New Wave graphics seen in the U.S., yet remain [sic] distinctly Dutch. Letterspacing, a wide variety of type sizes and typefaces, handwritten words, background patterning, fifties nostalgia and the nongrid composition are all American New Wave but the sensibility is tougher and more acerbic, with less hedonism and more social consciousness.”18
She returns to Beeke with a brief assessment of “Kunstscrift” (1982): “Anthon Beeke of Amsterdam is another new Dutch master of typography and image whose covers for an art magazine employ color bars, grids, information forms and typewriter type. These unassuming elements combine to form an elegant pattern.”19 In this work McCoy finds an oeuvre reacting to the same set of historical constraints that she and her students rebel against. But in Dutch design she finds a deeper level of commentary, even parody, a “toughness that borders on perversity; beauty is not the goal.”20 She concludes: “Their synthesis of rationalism and ambiguity, international art influences and Dutch vernacular, refined typography and commercial culture provides us with an energetic model of what Charles Jencks calls ‘double-coding.’”21
It’s telling that she concludes by “theorizing” the implication of the work, because Dutch design at this point seems to happen in an almost theory-free zone — van Toorn being the notable exception. Dutch work develops as a series of actions and reactions played out on a visual field. Beeke writes: “Dutch design was enriched with the Cranebrook [sic] philosophy,”22 suggesting it lacks a philosophy to describe itself. Lucky for the Dutch, we are ready for them. If America isn’t necessarily creating groundbreaking visual work in the ’80s, there is one area in which we excel: the construction and assimilation of theory. The synergy is perfect — the newly emerging Dutch approach supplies the rich visual examples on which the newly emerging American theory plays out. It’s as if we have been developing all these amazing new weapons and finally we have something to shoot at.
That McCoy ties this work to architectural historian Charles Jencks’ “double-coding” is also revealing. Double-coding incorporates high and low — popular and esoteric, visceral and intellectual, amateur and professional — simultaneously. In other words, the game can be open, played on many levels at once, full of sly references, inside jokes, parodies and intentional faults. The design object could become, to use Barthes’ phrase, “A tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”23
The same year McCoy invokes Jencks, Umberto Eco publishes “Postscript to The Name of the Rose,” with his elegant definition of double-coding: “I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly,’ because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.’ At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”24
This inchoate longing for a usable design theory is becoming tangible, and nascent attempts are sprouting out of diverse traditions, borrowing freely from semiotics and semiology, literary criticism, deconstruction and psychoanalytic and feminist criticism. Of all the design pedagogues in the ’80s, there may be none as committed to a rational, theoretical discourse than the soft-spoken chairman of RISD, Thomas Ockerse. A transplanted Dutchman, the tall, enigmatic Ockerse is an early product of Yale (MFA ’64) by way of Indiana University. In an article titled “Teaching Under the Influence,” he cites as mentors Rand, Matter, Walker Evans and Eisenmann (but interestingly no compatriot Netherlanders).25 Having left Yale formalism behind, Ockerse is attempting to recast his own education in a new, more theoretical language. He is searching for a reasoned, professional approach to the construction of visual message in the somewhat arcane semiotics of the American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and coupling it with a studio program deeply rooted in Hofmann and Weingart. His youthful faculty is increasingly drawn from direct or second-generation descendants of Swiss modern, but this injection of theory adds a level of complexity and (some would say) perversity to the process. It is interesting to note that so-called theory driven design often elicits an agitated response from more traditionally minded designers who reject the attempt to quantify what they see as a more or less intuitive act of aesthetic inspiration.
In parallel to Cranbrook’s growing affinity with Studio Dumbar, Ockerse organizes a special class titled “Visiting Designers,” and stocks it with some Dutch heavy hitters. The first semesters include masters Ootje Oxenaar and Jan van Toorn and upstarts Anthon Beeke and Gerard Hadders. The impact of the Dutch contingent is powerful and immediate. Each visitor brings an alternate model of critical practice: van Toorn, a probing investigation of social conditions and a strong affinity with Lissitzky; Oxenaar, a long tradition of illustrative modernism and design for the Euro-modern state; Hadders, a brute visuality and refreshing DIY sensibility; and Beeke, a parodic, hyper-sexualized image-based production that seems outside of the Dutch compositional tradition. In the studio their critique is rough, crude, sub-lingual. As a foil to the hyper-intellectualism of coolly rational Ockerse, the young Dutchmen offer a highly seductive, sometimes juvenile, always passionate model of design-by-sensation.
At the end of his stint at RISD, Hadders reveals his ulterior motive: “I had a secret mission — I wanted to let something happen that was not the regular thing. I hope that I succeeded in showing students that they could make very fine design using a different method from what they’re used to. There is a constant bombardment of certain methods in this school — the Basel influence … I would rather have people imitate something else, if they are going to imitate.”26 The work Hadders is showing, and encouraging his students to imitate, has the potential to reconcile the dissonance between the austerity of the Basel-influenced work and the potential richness of a semiotic approach. The work of these visitors, van Toorn and Beeke especially, provides a subject with complexity and substance equal to the theoretical models we are trying to build. But while van Toorn is clearly working from a critical, dialectical position — his work poses and engages specific conditions — Beeke’s position is almost antithetical. He presents himself as a brutish savant, a cipher through whom ideas flow without filter and repeatedly cites his lack of formal education and solidly proletarian roots as anti-intellectual bona fides.27 “His work isn’t about design,” notes one of his students. “It’s all about him.” But it is precisely this un-theorized stance, and because he has such a seemingly straightforward and un-nuanced reading of his own work, that makes him open to such diverse critiques.
Beeke’s work of the period is perfectly emblematic of the post-modern embrace of the referent. While Crouwel builds on the modal structures of Müller-Brockmann, and Dumbar extends the long Dutch compositional tradition of a highly dynamic Constructivist composition, Beeke flaunts both positions. His work is often intentionally lowbrow and anti-compositional. Rather than refer to his fellow professionals, he draws from the butcher shop (from which he proudly emerged). In that way he plays the game of convolution: if you know your audience is expecting something, you do the opposite; if you know they expect you to defy their expectations, you do the expected thing, ad infinitum. Thus his famous poster for the Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht, produced by dictating the design over the telephone to the printer, a classic Fluxus trick that undermines the authority of the author, displaces the act of the designer and questions the value of things like taste and expertise. Such a highly choreographed “mistake” and provocation is performed by someone acknowledged, even lauded, as one of the most knowing, skilled designers of his generation.
In mocking the traditions and skills so carefully guarded by an emerging professional class, Beeke sets himself apart. His work is parody as it assumes and dashes the obsessions of his predecessors. How can you simultaneously engage with and critique the profession of education by your very presence? How can you care LESS for form than by leaving it to your printer? If post-modern externality — that is, the referent — reveals a political alignment between the contemporary maker and his/her usable past — as it does with Jan van Toorn’s explicit citation, even reproduction, of ill-fated Russian Constructivism — what kind of allegiance can be gleaned from Beeke’s evocation of the supermarket circular in his Mickery Theatre poster? Beeke performs Eco’s notion of “false innocence.” By employing the slipshod reference, rather than the intellectual, highfalutin’ one, he is able to both accomplish his typographic task — an ugly drop shadow or elaborate script face works perfectly well in his information hierarchy — while indicating he has no interest in participating in the values of taste and style held in polite (design) society. Thus he can say, “I love you madly,” and still acknowledge the impossibility of anyone taking such sentiment seriously.
The notorious large-scale photographic posters of the early 1980s are the clearest example of Beeke’s provocation strategy. By eliminating composition — in the Constructivist/Zwartian sense — he breaks with the Dutch tradition. These posters, many accomplished for the Toneelgroep, align more closely with the work of photo-allegorical art directors such as Americans Henry Wolf or George Lois at Esquire, Willy Fleckhaus at Twen, or typical “low” advertising layout with its emphasis on the eye-catching image with limited copy or overt design.28 The explicitly sexual nature of these images only exaggerates the essential rule of advertising: Sex Sells. At the same time, they reinforce the message that he is working without constraint, beyond the restrictions of social mores, professional decorum and personal reserve. The charged images bubble to the surface from some primordial part of his unreconstructed brain stem.
Beeke’s use of genitalia secures his reputation as professional libertine and he offers vivid descriptions of the obstacles he overcomes in order to broadcast his images. But his use of sex stands in stark contrast to the soft-porn eroticism of Fleckhaus or sly suggestion of typical “sexy” advertising. Beeke wields the phallus like a cudgel. The sheer frontality of his nudity has the blatant sense of assaulting the passersby. The frontal demands affront. There is no suggestion in his imagery; in fact the images are designed to flaunt the idea of the suggestive. If sexualized advertising deploys displacement — the penis and vagina are symbolized as in Rand’s famous images for El Producto cigars — Beeke mocks such modesties. The “innovation” of his poster for “Troilus en Cressida” is his rejection of metaphor — i.e. to show that which is usually hidden in a trope, in this case the leather strapped buttocks and exposed vagina of a model shot from the rear — while supposedly working metaphorically. He works in plain sight: Phallus est phallus, pudendum est pudendum.
These Dutch provocations provide us with an alternate future, a new way to re-imagine the modern legacy. By example they present an aesthetic position that is at once playful and political: playful in the way the design refers to and builds on essential modern forms and figures; and political in that it takes on, in highly provocative ways, issues such as class, sex and social condition. But while these images clearly have their roots in the sexual liberation movement of 1960s Amsterdam, they have a radically different reading in late 1980s America.
Visiting American universities, Beeke gives his standard slide presentation peppered with pricks and pussies. The students (especially the women) sit tight-lipped and fuming, burning for a chance to voice objections. As soon as the lights come up, hands shoot up begging for a chance to interrogate. Their reaction triggers an escalation of belligerence on both sides. At Cranbrook McCoy watches with a modicum of pride as her increasingly politicized students grill the designer on his use of the female body. Beeke refuses to concede possible inverse readings of his stated intention. He dismisses critique of his work as misguided delicacy and American prudishness. The scene plays out again and again with each lecture. He is vehement in his claims of un-intentionalism: he is, he insists, on their side! He’s a feminist! Why can’t they see that? He designs to provoke. “As long as it affects them it will start them thinking, which will lead to discussion. They have to think about the real situation.”29 “But,” counters an avid student, “isn’t that like saying ‘I beat my wife to make people aware of wife-beating’?” On and on ad infinitum. And so Anthon Beeke delivers himself, one lecture at a time, as the perfect subject of another prong of burgeoning American theory.
Hell Hath No Fury Like….
Time: Around 1990.
Ellen Lupton is a rail-thin twenty-three-year-old with an infectious, toothy smile. She speaks with a slow drawl, an almost Southern inflection, and she propels her drawn-out syllables with a repetivive circular hand gesture, as if waving a soft flag to keep an idea running. Twenty years her senior, designer Keith Godard is a bluff and dapper Englishman, snaggle-toothed and wild-eyed, often sporting a silk ascot knotted jauntily around his throat. This unlikely couple joins forces to facilitate Beeke’s introduction to New York.
Fresh out of design school at the Cooper Union, Lupton assumes the position of curator at Cooper’s Lubalin Center, a nascent exhibition space named for Herb Lubalin, the urbane and slightly corny American typographer. (Soon to be relevant side fact: One of Lubalin’s early jobs was the design for EROS magazine, devoted to “the beauty of the rising sense of sexuality and experimentation,” which folded after being sued for obscenity by the U.S. Postal Service.) Lupton establishes herself early on and continues to prove herself as one of the most innovative design curators in America, a feat tempered in glory only by the fact that she is, in fact, one of the only design curators in America. She is approached by Cooper professor Godard with the idea of exhibiting the posters of Anthon Beeke.
By this point Beeke is one of a handful of familiar Dutch designers on the circuit, but his work still stirs controversy. Lupton and Godard organize a tightly curated show of work from the mid-’70s to the present: “‘Anthon Beeke’s Stage: Holland’s Illusionist Poster Designer, Posters, magazines, and other graphics from the 1970s and 80s.”30 She has, however, misgivings about displaying the aforementioned “Troilus en Cressida” poster and leaves it out, not out of prudery but because she is discomfited by the gender-representation questions stirred by Beeke’s image, which portrays, she tells a reporter from the student newspaper, “one group of society in a position of inferiority, and another group in a position of power.”31 At a lecture in Cooper Union’s Great Hall introducing the exhibition, Godard flashes a teasing image of “Troilus en Cressida,” piquing interest in its unexplained absence. Long conversations ensue, with the middle-aged males predictably missing the point. Despite the fact that Lupton has clearly stated her position directly to Beeke early on, during his appearance at the Great Hall he complains that his work has been censored and launches into a diatribe against the curators, the school and lily-livered Americans in general. After intense pressure from both students and peers, and pointed accusations of censorship, Lupton ends up acquiescing and including the poster, accompanied by a wall text that frames the curator’s objection to the work.32
Jump to North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina. A young RISD graduate, Adam Kalish, approaches the newly appointed graphic-design department head, Meredith Davis, and proposes an exhibition of Beeke’s major posters. Gallery space is limited and the posters are huge. How, asks the young assistant professor, shall we cut this exhibition to fit the space? An administrative council is convened. Given the explicit nature of the images, the council suggests moving the exhibition to a gallery away from the main entrance and thoroughfare, but with full public access, and grants the curator free rein to hang the show as she sees fit. Shortly after, however, the Chair of the Faculty, Denis Wood, inexplicably announces the show has been self-censored. Despite the uproar, the exhibition opens — including “Troilus en Cressida” and other challenging pieces — without incident, and the school organizes a major symposium to discuss issues of academic freedom and sensitive speech: the classic “teachable moment” on the American campus.33 But when recounting the incident in print, Beeke represents the facts in a different light. “In America where I have a traveling exhibition the shit threatens to hit the fan again every time the poster is displayed. In North Carolina a Dean of the State University resigned because the institute refused to hang this and other posters.”34 (Wood had subsequently been removed from office but over an entirely unrelated issue.) Years later the inaccuracy is still peddled as truth. Willem Ellenbroek misreports, “An exhibition of his work later at the North Carolina State University was cancelled because this poster was too SHOCKING for the curator.”35
Why the disconnection between the way each side remembers these incidents? Why is Beeke so invested in the idea that his work has the power to shock and repel? 36 And, more important, why did these particular images create such a stir? Godard claims “one design, which totally offended the woman’s movement in the 1970s, is too ‘bad’ to show even behind darkened curtains.”37 Again the issue comes back to a theory gap between America and Holland in the late ’80s. It is not uncommon for young, almost exclusively male, Dutch designers to spice up their presentations for American college students with a few naughty images to make explicit the liberalization differential and add a little shock value to their work. The designers generally misunderstand the nature of the critique coming from their American audiences. In his aforementioned defense of the “Troilus en Cressida” poster, for instance, Beeke declares that he intends it, in fact, as a feminist tract: he is attempting to depict a state of subjugation. Once again, the weakly theorized “naturalistic” Dutch work — proposed as the unaffected product of individual genius — falls into place as the perfect clinical subject for over-theorized American minds, who tend to see work as a product of certain social and historical conditions over which the individual designer has only minimal control.
To understand this gap and seeming disconnection between the Dutch and American positions, it is important to understand the context in which we are reading Beeke’s work. By the late 1980s, almost any female graduate student (and most males) involved in the visual arts is well acquainted with, if not deeply influenced by, a burgeoning body of feminist theory. This work is highly influential across media: painting, sculpture, design, architecture, and especially film and photography. (At Cranbrook, design and photography share a building and much of the interest in the theory is generated by the photographers.) Almost every young designer in Beeke’s audience has read Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” originally published in 1973 but republished in 1987 and often anthologized and included in the course packets of numerous Film Studies 101s and Women’s Issues seminars. Working from a highly politicized, psychoanalytic foundation, Mulvey reasons that the apparatus of Hollywood cinema creates a dynamic between the gaze of the spectator, who is necessarily masculine, and the subject, inevitably the female object of desire, turning the women’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” into the spectacle of the cinema itself. The film itself incorporates the viewer into the male role through identification with the protagonist.38
Imagine how this analysis of the “voyeuristic-scopophilic look”39 can be applied to work such as Beeke’s “Penthesilea” posters. This series of three posters — designed to advertise the performance by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, based on the story of murderous, man-slaughtering Amazons who use men solely for procreation — features photographs of characters holding photographic images of eyes that gaze between the posters as we observe them from the street. (We watch the photographer watch them watch each other.) The one unmasked woman — wild-haired, tongue protruding, body smeared with some ancient woad — holds a framed image of an erect cock as she leers across at the lone, somewhat worried, male figure. Note the play ends with Zeus seducing Penthesilea against her will and gaining her ultimate submission before, in his typical Zeusian way, abandoning her, a fact to which Beeke responds: “Woman can do that, women want that, that makes them so strong, that makes them so vulnerable.”40 (These types of pronouncements complicate his self-proclaimed feminist bona fides.)
Mulvey posits the designer/photographer is an unwitting subject in this loaded relationship, fated to reproduce the deeply embedded codes in which he is immersed. “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”41 She calls on her readers to actively undermine and overturn this patriarchal relationship. “It is said that analyzing pleasure or beauty annihilates it,” she famously states, adding that that is exactly what she wants to do. Those enraged students, grilling Beeke during his obligatory Q+A, are finally getting to employ the tools they have been so assiduously trained to use.
This kind of analysis is essentially different from what Ockerse is attempting at RISD. Ockerse’s semiotics is a generative device, more akin to a poetics than a theory of reading. Mulvey is part of a broader tendency to focus on how the audience constructs a text and less on what an author is attempting to say. (What Beeke thinks his work means is neither here nor there.) It also falls in with a broad-based social reevaluation of the representation of women. This shift is manifest when, upon the retirement of longtime department chair Alvin Eisenman, the Yale School of Art takes a radical turn and appoints Sheila Levrant de Bretteville as his replacement at the helm of the design department. The high throne of modern design in America transitions to one of the most outspoken feminist voices in the design community. In protest, uber-modernists Rand and Hofmann tender their “resignations” shortly after her appointment — a protest conveniently timed to coincide with their planned retirements.
The movement is developing on both the right and left simultaneously. Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, America has taken a hard right turn. In 1986, the Reagan administration releases the 1,960- page Meese Report, which posits commercial pornography — expanded to include almost all contemporary art showing the human body — as a major assault on conservative American values. The situation peaks in 1989 with the furor over the exhibition of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photograph depicting a crucifix immersed in a vial of urine, which erupts almost simultaneously with Beeke’s show in Helms’ home state of North Carolina.
On the left the pressure is just as intense. While much of the liberal community rallies against the chilling effect of the Meese Report and rejects Helms, there are notable exceptions. Women Against Pornography (WAP) is formed in the late ’70s and grows as a movement throughout the ’80s. Founder Andrea Dworkin and prominent lawyer Catherine MacKinnon stage a march on Times Square — then New York’s red-light district — and actually testify before the Meese Commission in support of the Commission’s position. The movement creates an extremely broad definition of violent pornography, arguing that almost any commercial use of women’s images constitutes a form of usury and a “system of prostitution.” WAP tours the country delivering slide shows on college campuses and community centers critiquing all manner of cultural production, especially album covers, such as the Rolling Stones “Black and Blue.” These slide shows again imply subversion is inherent in the system itself, regardless of the author’s intention. The author is fated to constantly reproduce the rules of hegemony.
Beeke’s protestations, then, only seem to underline his state of false consciousness. The author and his audience exist in different worlds. This must be especially frustrating to Beeke, whose own lived experience suggests a different reading of the sexually explicit. From his days with Willem de Ridder at Hitweek and later working together on SUCK magazine, the explicit/subjugated image suggests its opposite: Liberation. In the late ’60s, SUCK pushes the boundaries of the public and the private when de Ridder famously publishes — against her wishes — a nude portrait of feminist icon and SUCK board member Germaine Greer in full spread eagle. It is an early experiment in user-generation. It is not subjugation, de Ridder insists. To generate your own porn suggests you have control over your own erotic representation.42
Sitting awkwardly in his apartment, I ask Beeke about life in Amsterdam in the late 60s/early 70s. What did he do for fun? Since his stroke he struggles with English. You can see his sheer frustration at his inability to connect thoughts and words. But with this question his face illuminates, his eyes blaze sharp and blue: “FFFFFucking!”43
The use of the body or, more explicitly, the use of the pseudo-pornographic image, represents a different kind of resistance. Years later, in a retrospective interview, Hugues Boekraad asks a leading question — or something like a statement posing as a question — that basically sums up the operational nature of the liberatory use of the body images in the city, deeply rooted in the culture of Amsterdam in the ’60s: “Your definition of the role of the poster in public space indicates that you regard yourself partly as a political designer. Not as a partly political designer, but as someone who provides a picture of freedom in the city. The language and visual language in the public space are an indication of this. What can be said and shown? You were born in 1940 in Amsterdam and lived through the 1960s in the same city. So you know what provocation means, challenging authority and pushing back the boundaries of what is permitted. Your work is provocative, right up to the present. In this respect, you are someone from a specific generation.”44
And so the body question reaches a generational divide. Is it liberation or oppression, an urban act of resistance or a patriarchal act of symbolic abuse? But the underlying issue is not, as Beeke often casts it, a gap be-tween liberal, enlightened Amsterdam and rigid, prudish everywhere-else. As he puts it: “Posters such as that for ‘Troilus en Cressida’ which are displayed at official locations in the Netherlands, would never be displayed at comparable sites in ostensibly progressive cities such as New York, Paris and Tokyo. Of course we know that this is not so much a question of morality of shifting norms as it is a production of petty bourgeois propriety and trepidation.”45 (Note that he equates the progressive with the permissive.) It is, in fact, a battle over where the meaning of work resides. Beeke refuses to concede that the meaning of his work may be out of his control; he suffers from the so-called intentional fallacy. It is perfectly emblematic of this moment, a battle between an author and his readers over the ultimate ownership of the text.
On Being Bad
Time: Early ’90s.
Upstart American designer Tibor Kalman is presenting the work of his now famous New York studio M&Co to a group of Dutch designers. The presentation starts with an empty stage. Out of the darkness rumbles the crackly thump of an electronic beat machine, De La Soul’s wry, ironic, sing-song Brooklyn accent stamping out: “Mirror mirror on the wall/Tell me mirror what is wrong? Can it be my De La clothes/Or is it just my De La song/What I do ain’t make believe/People say I sit and try/But when it comes to being De La/It’s just me myself and I.” Kalman spends the next hour puncturing any remaining self-importance clinging to the design profession. His slides are drawn almost exclusively from NY street scenes, found typography, graffiti, vernacular signs, scrawled handbills. His message is that in cloistering themselves as professionals working from an obscure (European) tradition, designers have lost touch with the vital energy of the youthful street. Kalman’s work is designed to intentionally mock anything held sacred in the designer pantheon.
In the broadest possible sense, design can be broken down into two styles with almost everyone falling in the middle: the Super-egos and the Ids. (Of course, these are an assumed presentational dialectic, not “natural” states.) The Super-egos have utter faith in the system as the defining feature of design. The identification or construction of an underlying order becomes the generative device that gives rise to the form itself. And since that underlying system is usually a highly rational form, such as a regular grid, the designer is not so much an originator as an implementer. A grid is eternal; no one can claim to have invented it. Super-egos believe their position is quantifiably right. (Remember Rand’s line, “indisputable proof that lowercase letters are more readable”?) The Super-egos believe in science and slide easily into commercial success because such rationality meshes perfectly with the demands of corporate capital for constant replication and expansion. The same ordering methodology can be applied to ordering typographic information or organizing a design studio.
The Ids, conversely, see their work as a direct expression of their inner state. (Remember, “His work isn’t about design, it’s all about him.”) The closer their work comes to a direct, unmediated manifestation of some primal condition, the more powerful it is seen to be. The Ids eschew regularity, order and self-replicating methodology as the external suppression of unfettered self-expression. Their work changes style from one moment to the next because style is not ideological but temperamental. To work against order is a sign of authenticity. Rejection of constraint implies honesty. Descending directly from May 1968, their motto is: “Sous les pavés, la plage!” Under the ordered pavement stones of authority lies nature. Tear away the constraints of society, and discover freedom. Beeke counters Crouwel’s highly rational gridded alphabets with one of his own, the letters formed by intertwining nudes.
The Super-egos are both disdainful and slightly envious of the Ids. They envy their sense of abandonment, their freedom. The Ids are popular on the lecture circuit because frustrated designers laboring under the petty constraints of their clients can live vicariously through their license. The Ids ride their “individuality” to international fame. At the same time, Id studios always seem to flounder: they can never grow beyond the limits of their leader.
The Super-egos are a distinguished lot: Ruder, Crouwel, Müller-Brockmann, Hofmann, Bill, Vignelli, Treumann, Tschichold. In many ways, their influence is more profound exactly because their methods are so fungible. But the profession is enamored of its Ids: Beeke, Brownjohn, Bernard, Saville, Sliggers, Van Stolk, Victore, Sagmeister.
Between the two camps, another style emerges: the Jester. The Jester is cynical and mocks both sides. Kalman is the model. The work from M&Co is parasitic: it cannot survive without an object of parody. Max Bruinsma suggests Dumbar creates this synthesis: “If Dumbar has to be credited for anything, it is for his re-introduction of playfulness and irony in Dutch graphic culture … Studio Dumbar’s work transformed the official face of the Netherlands, building an effective bridge between the playfully anarchic trait that is deeply embedded in the soul of Dutch avant-garde design, and the down-to-earth Calvinistic rationality which characterizes official culture in the Netherlands.”46 It is the perfect model of Eco’s postmodern condition. There is still a need to speak, but honest speech is impossible in the age of false innocence.
All three styles, however, are trapped in a reactionary state. The positions only hold in opposition. The basic and irreconcilable paradox of modernity is to be both of the moment and clearly severed from the past. The obsessive desire to eliminate all attachments, to be contemporary, is stymied by the fact that modernity needs a past to be broken from, and thus reinforces the presence of the very past it works to obliterate. Modernism is defined, and undermined, by its emancipatory mission.
Bruno Latour develops the logical extension of the paradox: “What is a style — in the largest civilizing sense of the word — that would at last be contemporary in and of itself? That is, a style … that would internalize that which the modern styles had always externalized, so hurried were they to ‘get rid of’ the externalities? Contrary to what postmodernists imply, modernism is not something of the past that should be overcome, deconstructed or simply abandoned. The problem of the first modernism is its obsession with the past. It might be time to consider, at last, the future. Provided that it can catch up with its time — obviously the most difficult task for modernists.”47
In the course of writing I speak to dozens of designers from many generations and nationalities: Dutch, English, American, Swiss and others. All know of and admire Anthon Beeke, but not one confesses to being directly or visually influenced by his work. (On the other hand, many feel deeply influenced by van Toorn or Crouwel.) Why?
It is perhaps due in part to the peculiarly Dutch discomfort with influence. But when I pose the question to the celebrated book designer Irma Boom, who closely followed Beeke early in her career, she admonishes me: “Je doet hem te kort!”48 Boom explains: “In Anthon’s case it is important to understand he liberated Dutch design from too much Calvinism. The way he worked, his mentality even, was very important for a whole generation of designers. I see Anthon as a conceptual designer. He was fearless, and never afraid to take great risks. The visual results of that fearlessness could be erratic, but at least he tried. He was always trying to explore and searching for new approaches for each new problem.”49
Perhaps in the well-worn 20th-century dichotomy, Beeke is Picasso to van Toorn’s Duchamp. Picasso was a giant but his work was ultimately charting himself. Duchamp changed the practice of art in ways that affected all artists in every field. For a long stretch of his career, Beeke seems to be entirely in his own present, free of reference or ideology. “Anthon’s work appears in some ways foreign to Dutch design,” notes Godard, “He might seem at first glance to be a solitary figure divorced from any known school or trend.”50 In this way, in his best work, for a brief moment, he achieves a difficult state — that of the non-modern, the eternally present. The ultimate Id, he constructs a communication that is unhinged from place or time, which seems to come out of some deep recess of the human psyche. Perhaps the device is overused, but he understands, implicitly, the eternal efficacy of the cock and the cunt.