The Art of Posters

Brian T. Allen

Last week, I pledged I’d write more about art shows outside New York. I’m making progress and at least moving west. This week, I saw three shows in Chelsea, in the West 20s, signaling my aspirations to highlight the art of our great country between the coasts. I’m getting there, in baby steps.

Poster House, a new museum; the FLAG Foundation, an art space; and the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum comprise not the Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue but an idiosyncratic, deeply satisfying museum quarter. They promise great art, highly personal approaches, and no crowds. Each show explores a narrow, distinct, and usually sidelined medium: pastels, textiles, and posters.

I was going to cover all three spaces in one story, but I got so absorbed in Poster House — for better or worse — that I’ll focus on this new museum on 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue only. It opened last fall and is the only museum in America devoted to poster art. Early next week, I’ll write about the FIT show, “Power Mode: The Force of Fashion,” on Seventh Avenue and 27th Street, and FLAG’s show, “Nicolas Party: Pastels,” on 25th Street near Tenth Avenue.

I love posters — not posters that reproduce paintings in museums for dorm-room decoration, but posters that combine words and images to promote a cause or sell a product. They could be the best art — Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre dance-hall posters are an example — but they could also be straightforward advertising, with rudimentary design and production values, conveying a trite message and meant as ephemera.

Most billboards fall on that end of the spectrum. These are less art than artifacts, mostly the province of low-end commerce and usually trashed and forgotten. The curator at Poster House defines a poster as “a temporary promotion of an idea, product, or event put up in a space for mass consumption.” Fair enough. Posters have some design sense, they’re ephemeral, they’re mass-produced, and they’re promotional.

Design, ephemerality, mass production, an alliance of word and image, and calls to action govern the aesthetic. Posters are usually one-idea propositions as well. They’re meant for fast digestion, and that’s the quality of a billboard, though posters are human-scale. Think “Uncle Sam Wants You,” James Montgomery Flagg’s classic poster promoting enlistment in the military during World War I. Authority, command, the weight of history, and the demands of manliness rush at us like a mighty river. There’s no sfumato veiling its meaning. It’s not cryptic. There’s no squish. It can’t be parsed ad infinitum in the faculty lounge. Mass production molds the aesthetic. Technology tells us the possibilities. Advances in commercial lithography and printing presses in the 1850s allowed a more complex palette. Posters are among the flattest of flat art. Depth and subtlety are distractions. Words and image are mutually supportive. With the right typeface, and they come in a million styles, images soar higher.

Posters don’t draw you in with nuance. They slap you in the face, or at least pinch hard.

Poster House’s new space is well designed. There are two spacious galleries for exhibitions, a nice shop, a comfortable, cheerful cafe, classrooms, and a party space. I think it’s inviting and welcoming. I look forward to many visits, and I’m thrilled it’s there. The museum collects but also gets loans. Though posters over the past 200 years were usually discarded, hundreds of thousands survive, most in so-so condition, given the low-grade paper and ink.

I think what’s missing is an introductory art space defining “what is a poster,” specifically the medium’s trajectory from handbills with text only to circus posters in the 1850s, the distinctly different American and French poster movements, and the dynamic genre of movie posters, to today, when posters can be made — and gussied up — by individuals using canned graphics on the Internet. Thus, the basic messaging of posters today can be mass-produced but tailored to suit its individual producer. This dilutes the wide, promotional aspect of the poster. It’s a medium suited for mass communication, where everyone gets the same message. Individual tweaking can shade the storyline.

Its premiere show, “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau / Nouvelle Femme,” was more disjointed than outright bad. You can’t go wrong with Mucha (1860–1939), one of the most creative and distinctive image-makers of the fin de siècle. His beautiful women are less flesh and blood than a waltz of curlicues conveyed in a palette of greens, peach, and ocher — nature’s colors. High society and cultivated beauty, what my grandfather called “supreme flowers of female pulchritude,” seem to grow from the earth and ripen in hothouses but stay abstract at the same time.

The show had passages of incoherence. Was it a retrospective? Sometimes. Mostly, and circuitously, it was a show about Mucha and Sarah Bernhardt, the actress and his mentor and patron. Haphazardly tackling the relationship between the two giants, the show lacked focus and seemed mismarketed. There also was plenty of extraneous and redundant art taking space that could have been better used. The exhibition pushed a storyline linking Mucha to a view of women as more assertive and autonomous, but I thought that was contrived. Mucha’s women are tantalizing but sedentary. Tendrils and swags lock them in space. Their lusciousness becomes a pretty prison.

I didn’t review the show because it was the museum’s first. Why knock the place out of the gate? Besides, the museum serves an essential purpose as the only art space in the country exploring this narrow medium. The staff can’t be nicer or more welcoming to visitors. Production-wise, it’s top quality. Posters are meant to have broad appeal. They’re neither pretentious nor august. That helps fashion a friendly atmosphere, a place for serious yet relaxed inquiry and pleasure. I saw two shows there this week, one I loved and another I loathed.

Posters from “Baptized by Beefcake: The Golden Age of Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana.” Left: Freejack, 1992, by Alex Boateng. Right: Kick Boxer, 1994, by Muslim.

“Baptized by Beefcake: The Golden Age of Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana” is great fun. Ghana was the first African colony to win its independence from Britain. It was freshly liberated and unusually prosperous — 10 percent of the world’s gold was mined there — but its aesthetic was fledgling, part indigenous and part English. Amid ethnic and political divisions, American adventure and action-hero movies provided a unified national vernacular.

The Ghanaian movie business thrived. The posters in the show, big and brassy, are spinoffs of American mass-produced posters but they’re individually hand-painted, a striking mix of Hollywood tinsel and folk art. Movie promoters — really, traveling salesmen — would go to small towns that had cinemas or even spaces such as churches that could be converted to pop-up theaters. They’d hawk upcoming features, using the posters as marketing material or, in the 1970s and 1980s, market films at video stores.

These spinoffs of Hollywood studio posters have a local touch. Figures, whether they’re Rambo, the Terminator, King Kong, or Dracula, are huge and muscular. I’d diagnose the native aesthetic as having a surfeit of testosterone. Painted in lurid colors, they hold the eye for their extreme quality. Ghanaian taste demanded that no surface, in a home, a building facade, a sidewalk, or a bus, go undecorated. No white space allowed. Christianity in Ghana veered toward Pentecostal and Charismatic movements whose church art emphasized the big, in-your-face icon, whether of Jesus or the saints. Ghanaian divinities don’t sit still. They’re on the move, saving lives and besting Satan.

Were they mass-produced? Yes and no. In the absence of advanced printing presses, advertising in Ghana was often handmade, but in workshops, using templates for assembly-line production — in the case of movie posters, the poster from Hollywood made by the producers for nationwide distribution. Each poster is different, but mostly around the edges. The Ghanaian posters were painted on cheap canvas. They focus on the main characters and the stars, dropping extraneous names like those of the “back of house” people and omitting sex and romance.

I think the exhibition is great and immensely enjoyable, however quirky. The art’s dynamic, the interpretation to the point, and it looks fantastic. I learned a lot about Ghana and its postcolonial culture. The classic 98-pound weakling, I now also realize I’ll need to bulk up if I want a movie career in Ghana.

Posters from “20/20 Insight: Posters from the 2017 Women’s March.” Designers Unknown, 2017.

“20/20 Insight: Posters from the 2017 Women’s March” put me in a questioning state of mind. At least it’s upfront in its interpretation. No incoherence here. The January 21, 2017, marches across the country “brought together people of all types for a demonstration in response to the election of a President Trump.” It’s an explicitly anti-Trump show that also pushes abortion rights, Black Lives Matter, climate alarmism, gay rights, and the open-borders movement. The show’s brochure tells visitors how to register to vote. I wonder whether the museum just barely skirts the federal government’s 501(c)(3) ban on direct political activity by not-for-profits.

The art, inasmuch as I can call it art, is unusually bad. Each object is designed, to be sure. It’s designed to look handmade but in the most charmless, simple-minded, one-dimensional way. There’s a difference between “from the heart” and “from the HP inkjet printer,” even though many of the basic graphics were designed by Shepard Fairey, who did the 2008 Obama “Hope” poster. Fairey’s designs could be — and were — printed at home moments before pussy-hatted protesters headed off to the festivities. Imagination and creativity were less than low-octane; they sputtered on fumes. Hence the deeply uninteresting art. There’s a difference between art that’s hard hitting and art that merely screams in your ears.

What I saw was witless, lowbrow, predictable, and altogether lame. The posters in the show are word-heavy, which makes them seem bossy. They nag. Words can be noisy, too, and noise is too annoying to truly bore. Rather, the uncleverness of it all made me want to press the off switch.

I don’t mind disputation, and where’s the zip in civil strife if there’s no barricade-storming? Still, a little flair and style are always nice to see. I’m talking about protesting with panache. What happened to “Make Love, Not War,” “I Am a Man,” “Gay Sex Is Sinsational,” or even “Jesus Had Two Dads and He Turned Out Fine”? Instead, we get insipid fare such as “Pussy Power,” “Don’t Grab My Pussy,” “The Future Is Female,” which is a hoot since without men and women occasionally acting in amorous concert, there’s no future, and, of course, “I’m With Her,” a proven anticlimax.

There were indeed some good posters for the Women’s March, but they’re not in the show. The objects list is drawn from a gift the museum received, mostly of dregs, it seems. The lesson for Poster House: If you’re going to do a show, any show, use the best of its kind. Personally, my favorites from watching part of the 2017 march were “Keep Your Paws Off My Silky Drawers” framing a photo of Stockard Channing playing Betty Rizzo in Grease, and “Grandma’s Finally Pissed Off,” showing an elderly matron in glorious indignation. Both were clever and spunky. Phallic images are standard in Western art. The best Women’s March posters broke new ground in what I call vaginal iconography, but these aren’t in the show, either.

There are-gay rights, Black Lives Matter, and global-warming posters squeezed in the show. These are irrelevant and took space from what might have been some art that was actually topical and actually good. After a few minutes, though, I understood that the show celebrated the intersectional privileged few, cahooting movements that toe the line. The museum’s brochure conveniently gives the contact information for Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, and the scandal-fraught Southern Poverty Law Center. This was a bad idea, if for no other reason than that these groups clutter the theme, which is advocacy for women, not sideshows like glaciers that are supposed to be melting but never do, or Trayvon Martin. I also think any show on the Women’s March needs to address, somewhere, the anti-Semitic views of some of its founders, who were forced to resign, and the deep involvement of the Nation of Islam.

The 2017 march was hardly inclusive. Pro-life women’s groups, Republican women’s groups, and Evangelical Christian groups were emphatically barred. This made for a dodgy, warped event. An anti-Trump rally, with most of the art Trump-themed, it obscured and cheapened the movement for women’s rights, which isn’t a one-candidate or one-election proposition.

A more incisive show would have reached to the women’s-suffrage movement (timely since the right to vote is 100 years old this year), the Rosie the Riveter genre, Women’s Lib posters from the 1960s and 1970s, the annual pro-life march in Washington, held annually for nearly 50 years and spawning powerful posters, and the 2017 Women’s March. A show with this breadth and depth, intellectually and aesthetically, would have been a winner rather than the irritating, blinkered rant we got.

I like the museum’s mission, space, and commitment to variety. Since poster art is tied to promotion and selling, it has plenty of sweep. Poster House is showing Chinese posters from the Maoist era starting in February. I’m skeptical but will visit the show. The teaser on the museum’s website suggests we’ll see “Socialist Realism” visualized via posters of smiling Chinese men, women, and children waving Mao’s Little Red Book. Posters sell products and ideas, the best posters deploying art with great efficacy. Some of the ideas are good and some very bad. In Maoist China, state-sponsored posters marketed the annihilation of freedom and the individual. Posters can be frothy and fun, but it’s the art of manipulation and deceit, too. Another show is on the revolutionary 1960s Swiss Grid movement, which gave advertising a sleek, ordered look. I think this will be a great exhibition.

I’m high on Poster House. It needs some intellectual push-ups, and it shouldn’t be a space where staff or trustees indulge personal political views. The art’s too good, and the endeavor of “this” poster museum too overdue and too promising.

I’m in Montreal this weekend to visit a new show on Egyptian mummies at the always smart and intriguing Museum of Fine Arts.

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