A New Poster Museum Tells the Story of Pop-Cultural New York
A new museum in Chelsea devoted to the ephemeral art of the poster is plastered with collectible gems. Touring a pop-up preview show in advance of next year's opening, GARAGE found even the building steeped in New York nostalgia.
Barry White, 1979. Courtesy of Poster House, New York
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Nostalgia manifests in many forms. Every New Yorker—native or adopted—has her own sob story (stories more likely) about this bar or local diner, that club, or a long-loved and lost bookstore, the imprint of which is merely ephemeral. If more than just a memory exists, it takes as its most common form the shape of a stained coaster, an empty matchbook, a creased bookmark, or—if one is lucky or particularly bent on hoarding paper—a poster backed with glue or pocked with staple holes. As teenagers in New York City, collecting club flyers was as close to sport as many of my friends and I got.
Not strictly art, the poster's purpose is by definition a temporary one. The first "posters," while not of the paper variety, can be dated to antiquity. Getting a message to as many people as possible all at once was vital to politicians and kings (see the Hammurabi Code), Roman politicians (Italian dipiniti found in the ruins of Pompeii), and local governments and churches announcing marriages (banns)—if largely a static pursuit before the age of duplication. The advent of printing changed this, of course. The ability to copy and disseminate at (even limited) quantity became so common that King Frances I of France can be blamed for the first anti-wheat-pasting laws, established in 1539.
Largely informational and usually typographically led, it wasn't until the late 18th century with the invention of lithography (and chromolithography about thirty years later) that posters became the colorful, illustrated advertising dispatches we now associate with great steamship lines, train companies, and liquor brands of the early 20th century—the backdrop of choice for every mid-range furniture catalogue through the early '00s. Interior decoration choices aside, the medium also gave voice to some of the greatest designers and illustrators of the 1900s: Abram Games, the staunchly ideological British designer of war and transport posters; the Swiss Ernst Keller, whose elegant work supported his ideal that every piece of graphic design should improve its environment; and Josef Müeller-Brockman, father of the Swiss International Style, whose graphic association with the Zurich Tonhalle was just one of many fruitful and sustained institution-designer collaborations (think Heinrich Steiner and Bally; Zero and the London Underground during the war years; Raymond Pettibon and Black Flag; and Pentagram's Paula Scher and the Public Theater more recently).
Poster House, a new endeavor from director Julia Knight (formerly of apexart), curator Angelina Lippert, and a board that wisely includes design historian Steven Heller seeks to fill a hole in New York's art and design arena with a museum dedicated solely to the poster. It won't open until 2018, but in September the organizers opened a small teaser show, Gone Tomorrow, in the shell of its future home, the 23rd Street building that formerly housed Tekserve; a place that, for New Yorkers of a certain age, evokes the essence of being a pre-Apple Store early adopter. I mention this for a reason: Tekserve closed a mere month after its demise was reported by the Times. The show's title, then, is double-edged, hinting not only at the fleeting nature of the poster itself, but that of many of the venues highlighted in the exhibition.
The posters collected here are shamelessly New York-centric. The labels for each say less about the artist, even in the rare cases where this information is known, than the locale: "213 Park Ave. [formerly Max's Kansas City] is currently Bread & Butter, a sandwich shop, with psychiatry offices upstairs"; "Closed when one of its owners was indicted for racketeering, 100 Fifth Ave. [former home of the Peppermint Lounge] is now an Eddie Bauer"; 30 West 21st St. [Danceteria] was converted into luxury lofts in 2009, the ground floor of which is a high-end granite and marble showroom." I could go on. In the same way the contents of the posters (concerts by The Misfits, the English Beat, and a New York Rocker re-launch party, respectively) tell the story of the dynamism of downtown Manhattan in the '80s and that darkly joyous, unbound, and slightly anxious time, what these places have transformed into says all one needs to know about New York today.
But New York, of course, wasn't all dance clubs and punk shows. Wildly sentimental visitors must have swooned at Joe Eula's 25th anniversary poster for Elaine's; a photocopied calendar for Ann Magnuson's Monster Movie Club on St. Mark's Place; a colorful and spirited New York Harbor Fest poster form 1977 by Letizia Pitigliani, featuring the intact Twin Towers; a poster featuring one of the best ad campaigns of all time, for (You Don't Have to be Jewish to Love) Levy's Rye; and a 2002 Tamara Shopsin piece advertising a Ping Pong tournament at Shopsin's when it was still on Carmine Street.
Admittedly, there isn't a whole lot of complexity in mounting a tear-jerking walk down New York's memory lane. Gone Tomorrow is effective, and as a paean to a disappeared New York in the remains of a departed institution is bittersweet and clever (and perhaps appropriately enough, only temporary), but it allowed only for a limited perspective on the larger goal and potential success and contribution of the institution. In an interview, Knight said that upcoming exhibitions will focus on everything from handpainted movie posters from Ghana to political resistance posters from Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, which bodes well for a thoughtful and balanced programming.
Posters are perhaps the most egalitarian communication method out there. They are democratic by nature and have the potential to speak to and draw from the most diverse corners of a culture through words, color, and pictures. It's arguable whether they're high art or should be treated as such, and perhaps the success of Poster House, what will distinguish their efforts from poster exhibits from design collections around the city—indeed the country—is the promise of an approach that, as in Gone Tomorrow, keeps the poster out of the privileged milieu and in one that is all-embracing: one that approaches history, society, and design in equal measure.
New York-based Eugenia Bell, the former executive editor of Design Observer and design editor of Frieze, is the editor of the Peabody Essex Museum's Playtime initiative.