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Graphics: Commercial Graffiti

3 minute read

When Pop Artist Andy Warhol copied the Campbell soup can and made commercial art respectable, he set off an explosion in the poster world. Among the first to get the message were the commercial artists who had developed their basic skills in the wars of advertising. Their four-color graffiti are now being enshrined in the museums and tacked up on student and highbrow walls (see color opposite).

The man making the biggest mark is a moonfaced, bespectacled six-footer named Milton Glaser, 38, head of Manhattan’s influential Push Pin Studios, which drafts advertisements and designs such things as book jackets and record covers. Glaser initially developed a pseudo-rococo style, inspired by the 18th century etchings that he had studied on a Fulbright scholarship in Italy. When that was widely imitated, he shifted to what might be called silhouetch, with shadows reverberating outward and often colored with brilliantly acidic hues. Of late, with silhouetch being copied in scores of advertisements, Glaser has been bearing down in the clean linear style seen in his ebullient Big Nudes, designed for an exhibit at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. “The funda mental problem,” he says prosaically, “is like the clothing business. You have to know what’s happening to respond, to understand what forms mean at a given point in time.” On a more elevated level, he adds: “You have to find new ways of saying what you want to say. All art is a wrenching apart of previous visual experience.”

Rising Sun & Beatle Blood. The most celebrated Push Pin alumnus is Peter Max, 28, a walrus-mustached native of Berlin. Max likes to explain that his flair for star-crossed psychedelic patterns was instilled during his boyhood days in Shanghai, where he watched Buddhist monks painting at a nearby pagoda. Max’s designs, exploited through corporate tie-ups with half a dozen companies including General Electric, and emblazoned on posters, cups, plates, decals, and medallions, make him the grooviest thing going. He zaps about Manhattan with his blonde, beret-crowned wife in a decal-covered 1952 Rolls-Royce with a liveried chauffeur. What will he do for his U25 (under 25) audience, when the psychedelic fad fades? “Something like what I’m doing now, but more cosmological, a blending with outer space,” explains Max. “But I don’t want to bring out my ideas for the 1970s before the public is ready for them.”

Despite all this, when Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art this winter staged “Word and Image,” a poster survey, the artist selected to design the show’s theme poster was neither Glaser nor Max. Instead, the museum commissioned a fragile, mop-topped Japanese named Tadanori Yokoo (pronounced Yoko-o), 31. Yokoo’s scathing, intricate posters evoke gusty sighs of adulation from Japanese teeny-boppers and relentless demand from ad agencies and art galleries. Yet their themes, while gay, are also brutally nihilistic; they juxtapose Nippon’s rising sun and foamy waves with grinning faces, mechanistically bloated nudes and portraits of the Beatles drooling blood. “There has to be a touch of madness and a shadow of death in whatever I find beautiful these days,” says Yokoo. “In my mind, the question of what God is and what its relations are with science keeps right on growing.”

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