What We Talk About When We Talk About Exhibiting Graphic Design
Art belongs, as it is made purposely for the gallery, but graphic design feels out of place precisely because it is not.
If it’s true that exhibitions are the medium through which most art becomes known, the opposite might be said for graphic design.1 Posters, books, film titles, signs, magazines, and packaging to name only a few, are all encountered regularly in the context of day- to-day life. In contrast, exhibitions on the subject are rare—including 2011’s “Graphic Design: Now in Production” at the Walker Art Center, there have been only threemajor shows in the United States over the last twenty-five years—but this is changing. Designers, who have often been critical of the ways in which their work is removed from its cultural or commercial context when exhibited in museums and galleries, are now frequently engaging the exhibition space as part of a diverse practice. As new challenges to the white cube are considered, is it time for us—as designers, curators, and critics—to rethink how we approach exhibitions of graphic design?
At first it seems that typographer and designer Peter Bil’ak is being overly provocative. “Presenting design in an exhibition space… is akin to looking at a collection of stuffed birds in order to study how they fly and sing,” he writes in the essay “Graphic Design in the White Cube.”2 Although the jacket of a book, or the gridded layout of a magazine don’t immediately evoke the flight or melodies of a songbird, the line still resonates. While Bil’ak’s larger argument centers around the cultural, commercial, and historical framework he believes essential to understanding a work of graphic design, it is his choice of metaphor that reveals deeply held beliefs about the practice.
Wildlife, not to mention death and imprisonment, are often invoked in reviews and commentary around exhibitions of graphic design. “Seeing it in captivity felt wrong,” wrote critic Karrie Jacobs, after viewing the field’s first major exhibition in 1989.3 “Exotic specimens caught under glass,” wrote historian Bridget Wilkins in an article for Eye.4 Last year, in a review for Architect’s Newspaper, critic Alice Twemlow categorized the hundreds of objects on display during Graphic Design: Now in Production as, “captured like so many vividly patterned butterflies in frames and cases and on monitors and walls.”5 Language of this kind reinforces the idea that these objects were once living creatures, whose life as measured by freedom from a vitrine or frame is temporarily snuffed out within the confines of a museum.
“Most graphic design is created to live in some sort of real world context. To then take it and put it into a gallery … it’s not without interest, but this act turns graphic design into anthropological objects taken out of their original context of usage,” says Prem Krishnamurthy, a principal at multidisciplinary design studio Project Projects.6. Here the “real world” is used in contrast to the unnatural environment created by the museum. Art belongs, as it is made purposely for the gallery, but graphic design feels out of place precisely because it is not.
Among designers, there is a strong conviction that this is true. Graphic design in the everyday, in use, is where it belongs. “What happens when it shows up in an exhibition, in a gallery? I do think some of the life gets sucked out,” explains Walker Art Center design director Emmet Byrne.7 For Byrne, and designers like him, the loss of functionality when a piece exits daily life and enters the museum seems personal. And to some extent, it is. Designers are especially sensitive to context. They are by some accounts “professional mediators” whose daily task is to frame and translate content with particular attention to its medium.8 The gallery upends that careful framing. But it also taps into something much deeper, and more visceral. David Reinfurt, of design-based workshop Dexter Sinister, finds the experience equally confounding, “It can be difficult to see a lot of design work all in one place, because you feel the violation. What’s the context of this thing? How did it really work? It can feel not so good to see these things contained.”9
Art is often held up as the counterpoint to design in these examples. But according to Krishnamurthy, to assume art simply belongs in the gallery without question, is a reductionist reading of a much more complex system. “Contemporary art has been in a continuous discourse about its context or representation, self-consciously since the 1950s or ‘60s,” he says. “Graphic design has never done that.”10 Works by conceptual artists like Frank Stella, Joseph Kosuth, and William Anastasi were often self-referential, questioning the condition of the wall as well as their own representation.11 In a widely circulated three-part essay written for Artforum in 1976, artist Brian O’Doherty questioned the “unshadowed, white, clean, artificial” modernist gallery in relation to the art it holds.12 Exploring context as a thing unto itself, O’Doherty also emphasized the lifelessness of the white cube. “Art exists in a kind of eternity of display. There is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there.”13
Perhaps this proximity to death, tangible in the exhibition space, is what gives designers such pause when contemplating their work within it. The museum’s primary function is ideological, but its history is often rooted in the architectural tradition of funereal and religious building types.14 These conflicting elements of devotion and loss, confounded by the separation of work from its social component, trigger deep emotional responses. Surprisingly, designers aren’t abandoning exhibiting practice altogether, but instead are engaging it more frequently both as exhibitors and curators.
- Ressa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, eds. Thinking about Exhibitions (New York: Routledge, 1996), 1. ↩
- Peter Bil’ak, “Graphic Design in the White Cube,” Typotheque, 2006, http://www.typotheque.com/articles/graphic_design_in_the_white_cube. ↩
- Karrie Jacobs, “Prototype: first impressions + second thoughts,” Metropolis, May 1990, Walker Art Center Archives, Minnesota. ↩
- Bridget Wilkins, “Why is design history so obsessed by appearance?” Eye no. 6, 2 1992. ↩
- Alice Twemlow, “Review: Taking The Pulse,” Architect’s Newspaper, July 4, 2012, http://archpaper.com/news/articles.asp?id=6179. ↩
- Prem Krishnamurthy, interview by Bryn Smith, December 12, 2012, Project Projects, New York, NY. ↩
- Emmet Byrne, interview by Bryn Smith, December 21, 2012, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN. ↩
- Project Projects, “Close Encounters,” The Way Beyond Art: Wide White Space, (California: California College of the Arts, 2012), 53. ↩
- David Reinfurt, interview by Bryn Smith, January 29, 2013, Dexter Sinister, New York, NY. This comment is in reference specifically to the exhibition Graphic Design: Now in Production. ↩
- Krishnamurthy, interview. ↩
- Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, The Ideology of the Gallery Space, (California: University of California Press,1999), 29-34. ↩
- Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, 15. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, The Universal Survey Museum, Art History 3, No. 4 (1980): 449. ↩