Oakland Museum of California

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Posters American Style at the Oakland Museum of California

One hundred years of poster-making in America is celebrated in Posters American Style, a major exhibition of 86 compelling images by American graphic designers and artists, at the Oakland Museum of California June 26 - Aug. 29, 1999. The exhibition includes colorful circus and literary posters of the 1890s, government-sponsored posters from World Wars I and II, psychedelic rock concert posters of the 1960s, protest images of the 1970s and new designs of the 1990s.

The exhibition brings together some of the great graphic images made in the United States over the past century and offers an overview of graphic design in the U.S. since the late 1800s. To be selected for the exhibition, says guest curator Therese Thau Heyman, curator emeritus of prints and photography at the Oakland Museum of California, "The image had to be strong enough to carry the message, and it needed to be a message that could be readily understood today. We chose those posters that represent the most remarkable use of graphic art."

To recall the ways in which posters are usually seen, the installation design is evocative of a "Main Street," with a central corridor introducing exhibition highlights. In adjoining sections, posters are grouped according to four broad themes: "Designed to Sell," "American Events and Entertainment," "Advocacy and Advice," and "Patriots and Protesters."

Posters advertising literary publications are among the earliest examples included in "Designed to Sell." With the proliferation of new magazines -- spawned by rising literacy rates in the 19th century -- posters were designed to encourage more subscribers. Arthur Wesley Dow's elegant poster design promoting the journal Modern Art (1895), for example, appealed to the refined tastes of its audience. More recent works in this section, however, reveal a different advertising approach. William Taubin and Howard Zieff's "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy's" (1967), promoting Levy's rye bread, features a Native American spokesperson. It's meant to surprise.

Throughout history, posters have been an important vehicle for the promotion of leisure activities. In "American Events and Entertainment," a wide range of interests -- movies, art exhibitions, sports -- is vibrantly featured. The circus and the 1960s psychedelic rock concerts have inspired particularly raucous poster designs. For example, in "Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows/Seals that Exhibit Intelligence" (1924), the loud imagery screams while key information -- date, time, name of event ~ reads as subtext.

The use of posters as promotion was never more palpable than just before our entry into World War I, when some of the best-known American illustrators were recruited by the U.S. government to produce graphic designs promoting the war effort. The most famous in this genre, included in "Patriots and Protesters," is James Montgomery Flagg's "I Want You for U.S. Army" (1917). The poster was so effective that it was recycled 23 years later for use in World War II. In "Boycott Grapes: Support the United Farm Workers Union" (1973), Xavier Viramontes chooses an Aztec warrior, squeezing "blood" out of red and white grapes, to heighten awareness of working conditions endured by Mexican-American farmworkers.

California artists are strongly represented in the exhibition, from 1895 posters by Maynard Dixon and Florence Lundborg to recent work dealing with such social concerns as labor organizing (Ester Hernandez) and AIDS prevention (David Lance Goines). The Bay Area counterculture of the 1960s provided the impetus for a new genre of rock and psychedelic posters, represented in the exhibition by works by Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse, David Singer and Wes Wilson.

The popular art of poster-making has its origins as a tool for advertising, promotion and advocacy. Advances in printing technology in the late 1800s allowed for production of large-format, full-color pictures in great quantities at low cost. In being attached to a specific event or cause, posters are intentionally ephemeral, and as a means of immediate, local communication, they are fundamentally democratic. Heyman writes, "...the most significant thread in our response to posters of all periods is a willingness to accept the disappearance of the distinction between high and low art."

A fully illustrated catalog with 141 color plates, co-published by the Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams Inc., accompanies the exhibition. An essay by Heyman discusses the elements of American poster style; biographical information about the artists and a concise guide to postermaking terms are also included. The catalog is available in softcover

The exhibition was organized by the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and was made possible by a generous gift from Helen and Peter Bing, with additional support from Steven Schmidt and the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program.

Images from top to bottom (click on thumbnail images to enlarge them): Ivan Chermayeff/Chermayeff & Geismat, Posters American Style, 1997, offset lithograph, 24 x 36 inches, National Museum of American Art, © 1998 Smithsonian Institution; John Sloan, Copeland and Day, Boston, Cinder-Path Tales, 1896, color lithograph; Maxfield Parrish, The Adlake Camera, 1897,color lithograph; James Montgomery Flagg, I Want You for U.S. Army, 1917, chromolithograph; Norman Rockwell, Save Freedom of Speech, 1943, color lithograph; Xavier Viramontes, printed by striking farm workers, Boycott Grapes/Support the United Farm Workers Union, 1973, offset lithograph; Roy Lichtenstein, H. K. L. Ltd., New York and Boston, Save Our Planet/Save Our Water, 1971, screenprint on photo-offset lithograph; Victor Moscoso, Neon Rose, The Chambers Brothers, 1967, color lithograph.

See the Resource Library article on the Norton Museum of Art's exhibition of Posters American Style

Read more in Resource Library about the Oakland Museum of California.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/18/10

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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