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Posts Tagged ‘history’

23 MAY, 2014

A Visual History of Typewriter Art from 1893 to Today

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How Victorian female stenographers pioneered a unique art form with newfound notoriety in the digital age.

“Art is not a thing — it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard observed in 1908 in what became one of history’s finest definitions of art. Hubbard was writing at the dawn of an unusual new art form, wherein artists were appropriating a new thing — a trailblazing technology — to find a new way of making art. The product and legacy of that is what graphic design scholar Barrie Tullett explores in Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology (public library) — a fascinating chronicle of “the development of the typewriter as a medium for creating work far beyond anything envisioned by the machine’s makers,” embedded in which is a beautiful allegory for how all technology is eventually co-opted as an unforeseen canvas for art and political statement.

What makes this unusual art form so enchanting is that it blends the compositional drama of drawing with the patterned precision of the machine. But what is typewriter art anyway? The definition, Tullett argues, is both very broad and very personal:

For some artists, it is an object to draw — from the machine itself, to the ephemera associated with it (typewriter oils, ribbon cases and so on) — or an object to make art from, whether that be the music of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, or sculptural pieces and explorations… For others, however, the typewriter is a tool to draw with; a means of making art.

'Looking Forward' by Leslie Nichols (2010)

Trained as a traditional painter, Nichols now combines texts with images to create mixed-media landscapes and portraits. Her typewriter text portraits are driven by a desire to understand different facets of women’s rights and identity as well as her place, and sense of womanhood, in her own community. Nichols creates large-scale text pieces with hand-stamped oil-based inks and stenciled graphite; smaller, more intimate pieces are produced entirely with a manual typewriter.

The first typewriter, the Hansen Writing Ball, made its public debut in 1870, but it was another four years until a commercially successful machine took off. Much like the bicycle, one of the most immediate and palpable roles of the new technology was in the emancipation of women — not only did the typewriter create a whole new sphere of female employment, but it also provided a medium of democratic political communication outside the patriarchal regime’s circle of censorship. It was, as Tullett notes, a revolution.

As is the case in any cultural revolution, artists were quick to appropriate its medium for their own message.

Untitled by Flora F.F. Stacey (1898)

For nearly a century, it was believed that the very first known example of typewriter art appeared in 1898, seventeen years after the first emoticon made its debut. It was a mechanical “drawing” of a butterfly by Flora F.F. Stacey — an English stenographer and, not coincidentally, a female artist. A short 1904 New York Times profile noted:

Some years ago, seeing a prize offered by a phonographic paper, [Stacey] entered for the competition, and has since applied herself enthusiastically to the idea.

Such competitions were not uncommon as manufacturers and early proponents sought to get the general public excited about and comfortable with the new technology — creative exploration, after all, is the greatest conduit to adoption. In announcing one such call for entries for “Fancy Work on a Typewriter,” a Syracuse paper cited Stacey as an exemplar for entrants:

Flora Stacey, an Englishwoman, has done some remarkable work at machine drawing, and out of her experiences, which have been without competition, some facts helpful to contestants … may be given.

Stacey, in fact, had been experimenting with “art-typing” for several years before her butterfly drawing catapulted her into international fame, as were other artists. The first edition of Pitman’s Typewriter Manual, published in 1893, included several examples of typed ornaments that a typewriter operator could use to embellish his or her work. Though Stacey may have well produced more typewriter art before her famous butterfly, none of it is preserved and the anonymous plate from the 1893 manual is now considered the first recorded example of “art-typing.”

Pitman's Typewriter Manual (1893)

Queen Victoria by an unknown artist (c. 1900), published in 'The History of the Typewriter' by George Mares (1909)

Otto von Bismarck, unknown artist (1898), published in 'The History of the Typewriter' by George Mares (1909)

But first, back to the basics: Lest we forget, the typewriter, like all technology, went from revolutionary in its heyday to sentimental monument of obsolescence in our era. For those born after its mainstream decline, Tullett offers a basic primer on how a typewriter actually works, complete with the proper terminology:

The typewriter is designed to be used in a very simple way. A piece of paper is inserted into the back of the platen (the roller). This then feeds around to the front so that the paper sits behind a colored ribbon, usually black, or black and red. As a letter on the keytop is pressed, a typebar is raised. This then strikes the ribbon to make the impression of a character on the paper behind it. The carriage return moves forward one space, then the typebar for the next character can be pressed. When the end of the line is reached, the carriage is returned (manually), the platen rotates to position the paper ready for the next line to begin and the process is repeated until the page is full.

Tullett notes the unconventional path taken by the early practitioners of typewriter art:

The surviving pieces from this period of typewriter art’s history were created by people with a background in secretarial studies rather than art. Although we have no historical detail about their lives, their artistic education would presumably have been limited to what they had been taught at school, and the representational vernacular.

Though early typewriter art made its mark, the golden age of the discipline was still decades away — it wasn’t until the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s–1970s, best described as concerned with “poetry that appeals to the eye and not the ear,” that the typewriter became a commonly embraced artistic medium.

'Whisper Piece' by Bob Cobbing (1969)

Originally a painter, Cobbing was famous for his sound, visual, concrete and performance poetry, as well as his role as a publisher for his Writers Forum press. In 1968 he founded the Westminster Group of experimental poets (WOUP). He created a link between the silent poetry of text on the page and the audioscapes of sound poetry. Cobbing’s work became more and more experimental as his career developed; almost any mark that could be made and any sound that could be heard were viable ingredients for his prolific creative output.

'Beethoven Today' by Bob Cobbing (1970)

'Textum 2' by Miroljub Todorovic (1973)

Politically active as a law student in Serbia, Todorovic participated in the student uprisings of May 1968; he founded the avant-garde artistic and literary movement Signalism a year later. During his career he worked as a journalist, teacher and magazine editor, and also worked for the Ministry of Culture. He retired in the early 1980s to devote himself to his literary and artistic work, including collages, drawings, visual poetry, mail art and conceptual art. His work has featured in a number of national and international exhibitions.

'O' from The Season Suite, a serial visual poem by Alan Riddell (1975–1976)

Although born in Australia, Riddell was bought up in Scotland and went on to live in Greece, Spain, France and Australia. Originally a traditional poet, he was introduced to concrete poetry by Ian Hamilton Finlay in 1963. A major figure in the promotion of typewriter art, Riddell organized two major shows of work in Edinburgh and London, as well as editing the book Typewriter Art (London Magazine Editions, 1975). For almost fifty years it was the only major publication on the subject. His opus, The Seasons Suite, remained uncompleted at the time of his death.

To be sure, the link between typewritten text and narrative form had been around since the dawn of the technology — it all began in the late 1800s when Mark Twain, a pioneer in more ways than one, delivered his first typed manuscript to his publisher, sparking the intimate relationship between literary thought and typed text.

'the words we use are lovely' by J.P. Ward (1973)

Both a traditional and concrete poet, Ward firmly believed that the old-fashioned typewriter poem (c. 1960–80) should exploit that machine’s nature, rather than what is handwritten or printed. His work thus evinced a fascination with geometry, abstraction and the search for a deeper truth that goes beyond surface detail, looking instead for ‘more elaborate patterns, including semantic ones, requiring only the poets with the patience to find them.’ In the 1990s came the digital word-processor, taking him to different approaches.

Panel from 'Carnival' by Steve McCaffery (1970–1975)

McCaffery’s experiments with the disintegration/reintegration of language began in the mid-1960s. In the 1970s he formed the sound poetry group the Four Horsemen with three other poets. The two panels of Carnival, produced between 1967 and 1975, are among the most significant pieces of typewriter art/concrete poetry/sound poetry ever produced. McCaffery saw it as ‘essentially a cartographic project; a repudiation of linearity in writing and the search for an alternative syntax in “mapping”.’ The work developed and grew throughout the two panels to gain typographic complexity, moving from the simplicity of the red and black masks of a typewriter ribbon to include colored rubberstamped letterforms, carbon-paper frottage, wet-feed electrostatic disintegrations and holograph. A third digital panel was conceived in 2012, comprising a superimposition of the earlier two panels and has been published (in reduced size) as a poster.

Shortly after the golden age of concrete poetry, the punk movement saw in the typewriter a creative intersection of the practical and the political — a medium that enabled the cheap production of texts that could be printed and photocopied for wide dissemination.

'Unusual Love Poem' by Andrew Belsey (1987)

Today, as the typewriter’s sun sets over the horizon of practical utility, what remains is its aura of nostalgic obsolescence — something that imbues contemporary typewriter art with a whole new cultural sensibility that weaves the medium’s nostalgia into the conceptual message.

Selection from 'Typewritten Portraits' by Nadine Faye James (2007)

A British illustrator, James produces work in a variety of mediums, including pen and ink, photocopies, Omnicrom, letterpress, Letraset, typewriters and the occasional screenprint. Her witty and economical type portraits connect her with the earliest typewriter artists and the work they produced over a hundred years ago.

'The Pattern Series' by Vickie Simpson (2012)

Simpson investigates the aesthetics of the handmade. For her, inspiration cannot be found on a screen but only in the physical exploration and making of tactile forms. The Pattern Series asks the viewer to consider the physicality of manual mark-making in our increasingly digitized world.

'Barcelona Love Letters' by Keira Rathbone (2012)

Typewriter Art goes on to illustrate the history of the genre through ample artwork spanning nearly 130 years as well as a handful of interviews with some of the most prominent artists in the field today. It comes from British publisher Laurence King — the indie powerhouse behind the magnificent Saul Bass monograph, the graphic biography of Dalí, and the series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Images courtesy of Laurence King

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22 MAY, 2014

How Diego Rivera Met the Fierce Teenage Frida Kahlo and Fell in Love with Her Years Later

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“I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died…”

There is something singularly mesmerizing about the fateful encounters that sparked epic, often turbulent, lifelong love affairs — take, for instance, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. But one of modern history’s most vibrant, passionate, and tumultuous loves is that between legendary artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the unusual and enchanting beginning of which is recounted first-hand in My Art, My Life: An Autobiography (public library) — a rare glimpse of Rivera’s inner life posthumously published in 1960, based on the interviews Gladys March conducted with the artist while shadowing him between 1944 and his death in 1957. March describes the book as “Rivera’s apologia: a self-portrait of a complex and controversial personality, and a key to the work of perhaps the greatest artist the Americas have yet produced.”

In a section titled An Apparition of Frida, Rivera describes his first encounter with the fierce teenage Kahlo while painting his first significant mural, Creation, at the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City in 1922. Kahlo was one of only thirty-five female students at the prestigious institution.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1933 (Photograph by Martin Munkácsi)

While painting, I suddenly heard, from behind one of the colonial pillars in the spacious room, the voice of an unseen girl.

Teasingly, she shouted, “On guard, Diego, Nahui is coming!”

Nahui was the Indian name of a talented woman painter who was posing for one of the auditorium figures.

The invisible voice continued to play pranks on Rivera until it finally presented itself in the mischievous flesh: One night, as Rivera was painting up on the scaffolding and his then-wife Guadalupe “Lupe” Marín was working below, they heard loud commotion coming from a group of students pushing against the auditorium door. Rivera describes the moment, which he would only later, in hindsight, come to recognize as pivotal in his life:

All at once the door flew open, and a girl who seemed to be no more than ten or twelve* was propelled inside.

She was dressed like any other high school student but her manner immediately set her apart. She had unusual dignity and self-assurance, and there was a strange fire in her eyes. Her beauty was that of a child, yet her breasts were well developed.

She looked straight up at me. “Would it cause you any annoyance if I watched you at work?” she asked.

“No, young lady, I’d be charmed,” I said.

She sat down and watched me silently, her eyes riveted on every move of my paint brush. After a few hours, Lupe’s jealousy was aroused, and she began to insult the girl. But the girl paid no attention to her. This, of course, enraged Lupe the more. Hands on hips, Lupe walked toward the girl and confronted her belligerently. The girl merely stiffened and returned Lupe’s stare without a word.

Visibly amazed, Lupe glared at her a long time, then smiled, and in a tone of grudging admiration, said to me, “Look at that girl! Small as she is, she does not fear a tall, strong woman like me. I really like her.”

The girl stayed about three hours. When she left, she said only, “Good night.” A year later I learned that she was the hidden owner of the voice which had come from behind the pillar and that her name was Frida Kahlo. But I had no idea that she would one day be my wife.

'Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days…' A page from Kahlo's handwritten love letters to Rivera. Click image for more.

It wasn’t until several years later that the two crossed paths again. In another section of the book, titled Frida Becomes My Wife, Rivera recounts how their passionate epic, in the true sense of the word, love affair began:

I was at work on one of the uppermost frescoes at the Ministry of Education building one day, when I heard a girl shouting up to me, “Diego, please come down from there! I have something important to discuss with you!”

I turned my head and looked down from my scaffold.

On the ground beneath me stood a girl of about eighteen. She had a fine nervous body, topped by a delicate face. Her hair was long; dark and thick eyebrows met above her nose. They seemed like the wings of a blackbird, their black arches framing two extraordinary brown eyes.

As he climbed down the scaffolding, Frida made no attempt to conceal her spirited attitude and fierce ambition, telling Rivera:

I didn’t come here for fun. I have to work to earn my livelihood. I have done some paintings which I want you to look over professionally. I want an absolutely straightforward opinion, because I cannot afford to go on just to appease my vanity. I want you to tell me whether you think I can become a good enough artist to make it worth my while to go on. I’ve brought three of my paintings here. Will you come and look at them?

Rivera agrees and follows her into a cubicle under the staircase, where she has stowed her paintings. His recollection captures the ineffable magic of a rare occurrence — that priceless precipice of creative communion where one artist is humbled by another, a recognition that inevitably blossoms into love:

She turned each of them, leaning against the wall, to face me. They were all three portraits of women. As I looked at them, one by one, I was immediately impressed. The canvases revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity. They showed none of the tricks in the name of originality that usually mark the work of ambitious beginners. They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own. They communicated a vital sensuality, complemented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation. It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.

Kahlo, however, having been warned of Rivera’s reputation as a ladies’ man, is skeptical of the noticeable enthusiasm in his face and immediately scolds him “in a harshly defensive tone”:

I have not come to you looking for compliments. I want the criticism of a serious man. I’m neither an art lover nor an amateur. I’m simply a girl who must work for her living.

Rivera is smitten — intellectually, creatively and, though he doesn’t yet realize it, romantically. He simply notes:

I felt deeply moved by admiration for this girl.

'Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain…' A page from Kahlo's handwritten love letters to Rivera. Click image for more.

So when she insists on his honest opinion regarding whether she has what it takes to become a professional artist or whether she should pursue another line of work, he answers resolutely:

In my opinion, no matter how difficult it is for you, you must continue to paint.”

Vowing to follow his advice, Kahlo asks him one last favor — to come to her place the following Sunday and look at the rest of her paintings. It is only after providing her address that she tells Rivera her name — a revelation that stops him dead in his tracks as he remembers two important pieces of information about how he had come to know that name. The first was relayed to him by a good friend, then-director of the National Preparatory School where Kahlo went, who had identified her as the leader of a “band of juvenile delinquents” and had even considered quitting his job out of frustration with Kahlo’s mischief. The second is the memory of their first encounter at the Creation mural years earlier, that brave twelve-year-old girl who had stood up for herself without a shadow of fear or self-doubt. Rivera describes the exhilarating exchange that followed:

I said, “But you are…”

She stopped me quickly, almost putting her hand on my mouth in her anxiety. Her eyes acquired a devilish brilliancy.

Threateningly, she said, “Yes, so what? I was the girl in the auditorium, but that has absolutely nothing to do with now. You still want to come Sunday?”

I had a great difficulty not answering, “More than ever!” But if I showed my excitement she might not let me come at all. So I only answered, “Yes.”

Then, after refusing my help in carrying her paintings, Frida departed, the big canvases jiggling under her arms.

The following Sunday, Rivera promptly presented himself at the address Kahlo had given him, only to find her engaged in an appropriately fearless and mischievous activity:

In the top of a high tree, I saw Frida in overalls, starting to climb down. Laughing gaily, she took my hand and ushered me through the house, which seemed to be empty, and into her room. Then she paraded all her paintings before me. These, her room, her sparkling presence, filled me with a wonderful joy.

I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died, twenty-seven years later.

'I ask for it, I get it, I sing, sang, I’ll sing from now on our magic — love…' A page from Kahlo's handwritten love letters to Rivera. Click image for more.

A few days later, the two kissed for the first time and Rivera “began courting her in earnest.” Although she was eighteen and he twice her age, neither of them “felt the least bit awkward.” Four years later, on August 21, 1929, they were married in a civil ceremony by the Mayor of Coyoacán, one of Mexico City’s sixteen boroughs, who proclaimed the merger “an historical event.” Kahlo was 22 and Rivera 42. They remained together until Kahlo’s death in July of 1954. Despite having an open marriage where each had multiple affairs — for the bisexual Kahlo, the most notable were those with French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky — both Kahlo and Rivera maintained that they were the love of each other’s life.

My Art, My Life: An Autobiography is a fascinating read in its candid, often scandalous entirety. Complement it with Kahlo’s exquisite handwritten love letters to Rivera.

* In factuality, Kahlo was two weeks shy of her 15th birthday

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06 MAY, 2014

A Graphic Biography of Warhol

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Who shot Marilyn, and other illustrated anecdotes of Warhol’s fallible humanity.

As a lover of graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and the human brain, I was delighted for the release of This is Warhol (public library | IndieBound) — the first installment in a new series of graphic biographies of thirty famous artists by Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram. What makes the concept especially appealing is that, unlike most art history books, which tend to be either dry textbooks to be studied or lavish monograph-artifacts to be owned and admired, Ingram’s approach embodies Tolstoy’s assertion that art is about emotional infectiousness. She tells a living story, at once illuminating and vibrantly human, rather than weaving a static tapestry of facts. The result is a book that’s inviting without compromising its intelligence.

Alongside Ingram’s exploration of Warhol’s life and times — from his upbringing to the founding and denizenry of the Factory to how the “electric information age” shaped his aesthetic — is appropriately poptastic artwork by British illustrator Andrew Rae.

One of the most amusing anecdotes bespeaks how fluidly Warhol moved between art and life — how swiftly he integrated the two and how he experienced the latter as a smaller concentric circle that belongs, always and at all costs, inside the latter — but also how profoundly the backstory affects the way we confer value on art:

Four Marilyn silkscreens feature bullet holes through the idol’s forehead. How this came about is related by one of Andy’s groupies: “One day, Dorothy arrived, dressed in leather, with several friends in leather, and a Great Dane in his natural leather pelt. She peeled off her long leather gloves, pulled out her pistol, aimed at Warhol. Then at the last split second she shifted her aim to the stack of Marilyn Monroe portraits against the wall and fired.”

“Dorothy” was Dorothy Podber. When she left, Warhol turned to Billy Name, and said, “Please don’t let Dorothy do that again.” Once described as a “marvelous, evil woman,” Dorothy had a serious drug problem, and for a while she ran an illegal abortion clinic. She was banned from the Factory. The incident was a foreboding warning — four years later Factory-goer and feminist Valerie Solanas would enter the factory and shoot Warhol in the chest. Warhol decided that the damaged canvases should not be repaired. Sold as “The Shot Marilyns,” they raised the highest prices of all the Marilyn portraits.

Many of the stories, besides satisfying an art-lover’s craving for trivia factlets, speak to larger truths about the creative process — both Warhol’s own and in a general sense. For instance, the impetus for his famous 1966 Silver Clouds installation is a testament to the “slow churn” of creativity and the subconscious, long-term incubation of ideas: The idea for the show came to Warhol from a tea party he had attended at Salvador Dalí’s hotel suite a year earlier, where he had seen silver balloons floating around the room. Ingram, with her gift for metaphoric thinking that runs throughout the book, brings this back to Warhol’s biography:

There is an inherent fragility about the [Silver Clouds] installation: some balloons burst, all of them eventually deflated. The scene at the Factory was another silver bubble waiting to burst. For years the silent Warhol had held everyone’s attention. However, by the mid 1960s, as one reporter tells, “The waspish, silvery-haired Maharishi was in trouble, deep trouble. His world suddenly stopped caring, stopped knowing.”

Alongside Warhol’s ample commercial work are some of his side projects, such as Wild Raspberries, the little-known illustrated cookbook on which he collaborated with his mother and the legendary interior decorator Suzie Frankfurt.

Warhol’s world was the original golden age of the selfie, and the artist was among the first to embody what Susan Sontag would later call the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography. Ingram writes:

The self-portrait is a radical piece of art that embraces popular culture. Warhol uses a photo booth — the public camera found in railway stations and shopping malls that delivers cheap photos, “four-for-a-quarter” — and finds beauty in the throwaway, the intense, almost square frame and the sequence of stills, depicting a development in time.

Warhol promises nothing more than what the photomat delivers: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” However, that glossy surface is provocative. Described by many as a mirror, Warhol reflects the vacuousness of modern society in high resolution.

This is Warhol comes from British independent publisher Laurence King, who previously gave us the magnificent Saul Bass monograph and the fantastic series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Illustrations courtesy of Laurence King

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