“Kenny, it’s the first time I haven’t seen you all in white,” one of the students says.
“The seasons are changing,” Kenny replies. He’s wearing a madras shirt and a spotted bow tie as he leans over the conference table answering questions about his recent trip to Shanghai.
This is English 165: Writing through Culture and Art, a collaboration between ICAand Penn’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. Every other year, poet, critic, and Ubuweb editor Kenny Goldsmith teaches this unique seminar for Penn undergraduates, giving them the opportunity to spend a year investigating a topic related to an upcoming exhibition at ICA. This year the topic is Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer known for his work with Lou Reed, The Talking Heads, The Rolling Stones, and others, and for his innovative work with typography. As Kenny says in his course description, “Sagmeister has pioneered the concept of graphic design as a way of living a free, happy, and creative life, providing a new take on the 20th-century idea of the intersection of Art and Life.” Sagmeister will design a new project at ICA in spring 2012. He envisions the exhibition, titled The Happy Show, as the culmination of his ten-year investigation of happiness.
Last week, while Kenny was in Shanghai, ICA Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow Jennifer Burris gave the students in English 165 a primer on body and performance art. She taught them about Tania Bruguera, a Cuban artist who played Russian Roulette in front of an audience with what was said to be a loaded gun; about Teresa Margolles, a Mexican artist whose work, which is engaged with her country’s drug violence, uses material traces of corpses and morgues; about Catherine Opie, a lesbian artist who has an image of two women holding hands in front of a childlike depiction of a house carved into her back—a gesture Sagmeister says helped inspire one of the works he is best known for: a posterfor a lecture he gave at AIGA, the professional design association, which consisted of a photograph of his naked torso with advertising text carved into it.
The students loved Jennifer’s class, and they were clearly haunted by the art she talked about. They were eager to tell Kenny about it, but they were also troubled. What was the relationship between an artist bearing a deeply personal and political image on her back as Opie did, and a designer having an advertisement for a lecture cut into him? What is the relationship, exactly, between art and design? And furthermore, what does it mean for an art museum to present design work? Is art about passion and design about money? If so, what to make of an artist like Takashi Murakami who staged a Louis Vuitton boutique inside his 2009 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles? The students struggled with these questions, framing and reframing them, while Kenny nudged them deeper. One of the students, who had initially asserted that art and design were interchangeable, seemed to shift her stance, suggesting that art was perhaps one of many tools a designer like Sagmeister keeps in his toolbox. Kenny seemed to agree: “The thing that’s great about Sagmeister is we’re jumping off into so many places: typography, process art, concrete poetry.”
He also said, “Art almost always admits ambiguity, whereas a designer needs to eradicate ambiguity…I think art has the power to transform lives, as Sagmeister is always saying he wants his life to be transformed.”
It’s extraordinary, in fact, the extent to which Sagmeister has embedded his personal quest for transformation into paid design work, which for years has featured creative and poetic typographical settings of sentences culled from his diary: “Everything I do always comes back to me;” “Trying to look good limits my life”; “Obsessions make my life worse and my work better”; and many others.
One of the purposes of today’s class is to hone questions the English 165 students have been preparing for Sagmeister, some of which will get asked by Claudia Gould, ICA’s curator for the The Happy Show, at a public conversation with Sagmeister in December. In case Stefan is reading this, I won’t give away the actual questions, but I was extraordinarily impressed at how thoughtful, smart, and informed they were, addressing not only these issues around art and design, but also those of self-portraiture, image, integrity, vulnerability, gender, and national culture. Kenny commented on each question as we went around the table, helping the students refine them. Some of the questions were pretty tough, but Kenny was pleased. “I think Sagmeister will appreciate the challenge,” he said.
I have to think this is true. Challenge seems to be central to Sagmeister’s project—to publicly commit himself to going farther than he otherwise might. He seems to me to be a man deeply familiar with his own shortcomings and always on the lookout for new ways to circumvent them. I think of him as a kind of trickster figure, crossing and recrossing the boundaries between art and design, the personal and public, the ironic and the sincere—and in the process calling the very existence of these boundaries into question in a way that often strikes me as more art-like than design-like—that is, admitting a great deal of ambiguity. At the same time, he has found a way to make the commercial world we’re all swimming (or drowning) in more lively, attractive, and engaging than it would otherwise be, and at the same time earning a living.
Still, as Sagmeister himself points out in one of his sentences, “I can’t please everybody.” This sentence is slated to be spelled out on a magnetized wall at ICA next April in cascading, dancing iron filings. I won’t venture an opinion as to whether this is art or design, but I will say this: you won’t want to miss it.
Broken up into 5 parts Trying/to look/good/limits/my life and displayed in sequence as typographic billboards, these phrases work like a sentimental greeting card left in a park north of Paris.
Design: Sagmeister Inc., New York
Art Direction: Stefan Sagmeister
Design: Stefan Sagmeister, Matthias Ernstberger
Photo: Matthias Ernstberger
Client: Art Grandeur Nature
The Happy Show opens at ICA on April 4, 2012.
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