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Sometimes Books Should Be Judged by Their Covers
By David Brickman

Roy Kuhlman and the Grove Press Covers
Opalka Gallery, Sage College of Albany, through Dec. 10

You’ve seen the book cov- ers: striking, almost minimalistic visual designs in rich, pure colors. You know the authors: Samuel Beckett, Henry James, Simone de Beauvoir, Jack Kerouac and Marguerite Duras are just a few. You may even know the publisher, Grove Press, but the chances are slim that you’d recognize the name of the man behind the distinctive look of this cultural icon from 1951 to 1971: Roy Kuhlman.

In a gem of a show at Sage College of Albany’s Opalka Gallery, titled Roy Kuhlman and the Grove Press Covers, 188 designs are on display. In addition to the covers, all presented unadorned in white-backed clip frames on white walls, there are two small display cases of actual books; a wall panel featuring eight black-and-white photos of Kuhlman at various ages, presented in cheap plastic box frames (probably his own); a diorama-like set-up of a drafting table holding the tools of the trade, with works in progress strewn about and sketches pinned to the wall above; and a computer table with mouse and monitor where visitors can scan hundreds more covers from this prolific creator.

Organized around the three main stylistic themes of his work (abstract, typographic and photographic), the installation is spare and rhythmic—just like the work of Kuhlman himself. And, in the same way that his work may not at first seem particularly impressive, but builds power with increased exposure, the gallery seems a bit uninviting from a distance, but the show becomes addicting as soon as you start to look it over.

With just enough wall text to orient, the installation carries you like a river through the three subgroups, each organized chronologically from right to left. The clean design of the show blends seamlessly with that of the artist, allowing the viewer to simply take it in. For those old enough to remember, the books will evoke waves of nostalgia—not to mention stunned amusement at the prices (they start at 25 cents). For everybody else, the show is likely to evoke awe.

Emerging out of his art training as a painter in California, and his fascination with abstract expressionism after moving to New York, Kuhlman’s distinctive style relied on strong shapes, extremely limited but eye-catching color combinations, and deceptively complex typography. This last is strictly in the realm of graphic design, and a bit of a mystery to me: While it appears that Kuhlman used only a few select fonts, in fact he used a great many, but in such a way that they are all so compatible as to seem nearly the same. It is perhaps akin to a musician’s signature tone or a painter’s way with the brush—Kuhlman’s typography is instantly recognizable.

Another signature of his style is the color. Most often employing two colors plus black (sometimes just one color plus black, other times with more colors), Kuhlman’s designs made the most of a limited printing budget. Nowhere is there four-color reproduction; the photos used are low-end halftones (black dots like in a newspaper); and the ink colors are used pure—occasionally overlapping each other or the black to yield additional colors, but usually not.

Kuhlman’s color choices are odd—his color combinations are even more odd—yet they work. He favored pinks and yellows in queer shades, sometimes almost neon bright; he also played nicely with cool greens, blues and purples; and, of course, he knew the power of red. His shapes were more often cut with a scissors or a hole puncher than painted, like Matisse in his later years. Combined with the ever-present inky black and the white of the paper, these colors and shapes took on a life of their own at Kuhlman’s table.

Kuhlman’s approach to photography was also unique, borrowing found images from engravings, shooting in a studio or the street to get an image and experimenting with graphic processes such as dot enlargement and repetition to create a surreal effect. In this section of the show there is less pure color and more black-and-white halftone work; I found these designs at times more direct but less fascinating than the more abstract ones.

While this show is a must for students or fans of graphic design, it is really for anyone who enjoys art, and would be of great interest to the folks who would have bought Grove books—that is, anyone who read poetry, plays, novels, psychology, sociology, philosophy or criticism in those turbulent, heady decades.

Kuhlman’s accomplishment at Grove was a tour de force of graphic design. I don’t know if the term “branding” existed in those days, but that’s what he did for Grove. His design quality and consistency gave the publisher a visible look that told the buyer what they’d be getting—if they liked something else from this press, they’d like this new book. It didn’t sell by revealing the contents of the book but by associating the Grove collection under a sensibility that sold itself.

And, like all the best commercial artists, he made it look easy.

It should be noted that Roy Kuhlman and the Grove Press Covers was curated and installed by Barbara Rietschel, who also wrote the text for an excellent small catalog that accompanies the show and is available free at the gallery.

 


PERIPHERAL VISION

The Face of Alzheimer’s: Photographs by Mark McCarty
Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak Station, through Nov. 30

Supported by a small NYSCA-sponsored grant administered through the Arts Center of the Capital Region for community-oriented art, Rensselaer County photographer Mark McCarty has begun a long-term project involving portraits of elderly residents of two Northeast Health Foundation facilities, specifically those suffering with Alzheimer’s disease.

The work recalls similarly sensitive portraits done some time ago by Boston-area photographer Nicholas Nixon, who focused his lens on the extremely old in nursing homes. But, whereas Nixon’s work emphasized the fragility of his subjects, McCarty finds and brings out his subjects’ strengths.

These medium- and large-format black-and-white images, greatly enlarged or grouped to gain purchase in the noisy and utilitarian space of the train station, have the clients’ first names and short quotes from friends and loved ones printed right on their borders using digital technology. This social work-y step in the direction of education doesn’t take away from the artistic integrity of the images; rather, it makes their message more accessible to the masses who make up the audience in this very public setting.

McCarty, who earns his living as a commercial photographer, has always had a very compassionate personal vision, and consummate technical control—here, both have reached new heights.

John Hampshire: 96 to Now
Fulton Street Gallery, through Dec. 11

If you’ve yet to see the intriguing work of Troy painter John Hampshire, this nine-year retrospective will be the perfect introduction to his unique labyrinthine style of portraiture. For those of us who know his work, the numerous drawings and paintings on view do contain a few surprises.

Most noticeable due to scale is an enormous, monochromatic piece in Sharpie on canvas depicting Hampshire’s wife and favorite subject, MB. Nearby is the much smaller drawing on which it is based—one can decide whether the enlarged version is an improvement. Another 2004 portrait of MB in his usual scale (about 18 by 24 inches) features lush layerings of colorful hash marks in a new technique with acrylic that adds depth and softness to Hampshire’s chaotic, somewhat psychedelic vision.

Also a treat is a small group of small paintings not of people—these depict industrial subject matter and represent a very promising road not quite taken. It will be fun to see whether Hampshire pursues this variation further in the future.

—David Brickman


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