Concrete Serengeti

A few nights ago, something inspired me to google the name of a sorely-missed friend of mine who’s been dead for 10 years, a guy named Joe Schactman. Joe was a serious artist and a big influence on my decision to get into graphic design– hell, when we first met, he was about the only person who could tell me anything about graphic design. The nascent internet sure didn’t have much to say, and you couldn’t find anything of note at the public library. I keep a photo on my desk of him sitting in our backyard, focussedly whittling away on a tiny bit sculpture in his hands– Joe was always working on something, so I try to leverage my memory of his industriousness to remind myself to stop procrastinating and get back to work.

Fortunately, the internet has come along way in the last decade, so my google search of two nights ago led me right away to the Flickr page of another old friend of his who has posted this Schactman drawing ‘PAIR OF LIZARDS’:

One fun thing that Joe would talk about from time to time was the various bizarre live-work spaces that he inhabited as a rag-tag artist in New York City in the late 70s and early 80s. One place, in particular, that he lived in was a giant abandoned factory building somewhere in (if I recall correctly) Williamsburg. Space was rented out for a song to artists, who had all the room they could possibly need there, but the problem was that the place was so vast that you couldn’t realistically heat it in wintertime. So, everyone who lived there would make some kind of teepee-like structure, a tiny sub-unit that they could sleep in and afford to heat. The overall effect, as Joe described to me, was like living in the Serengeti, except you’re also in a giant factory building. In the morning, you would creep out of your tent and start making coffee outside, and then gaze across the vast cement expanse to watch another groggy nomad emerging from his or her tent as well at some great distance. Perhaps friendly salutations would be exchanged or (I like to imagine) some hostile fist-shaking if neighborly relations were momentarily strained. This idea of recreating these kind of primitive tribal patterns within a giant cement enclosure entertains me to no end.

Something about Andy Warhol

These are two very well-written paragraphs, in my opinion:

“The essence of Warhol’s genius was to eliminate the one aspect of a thing without which that thing would, to conventional ways of thinking, cease to be itself, and then to see what happened. He made movies of objects that never moved and used actors who could not act, and he made art that did not look like art. He wrote a novel without doing any writing. He had his mother sign his work, and he sent an actor, Allen Midgette, to impersonate him on a lecture tour (and, for a while, Midgette got away with it). He had other people make his paintings.

And he demonstrated, almost every time he did this, that it didn’t make any difference. His Brillo boxes were received as art, and his eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building was received as a movie. The people who saw someone pretending to be Andy Warhol believed that they had seen Andy Warhol. (“Andy helped me see into fame and through it,” Midgette later said.) The works that his mother signed and that other people made were sold as Warhols. And what he made up in interviews was quoted by critics to explain his intentions. Warhol wasn’t hiding anything, and he wasn’t out to trick anyone. He was only changing one basic rule, the most basic rule, of the game. He found that people just kept on playing.”

This is from Louis Menand’s article in last month’s New Yorker (subscription required), which also does a nice job taking on the annoying conceit that Pop Art was an entirely American idea. As I drone on about at length in my history lectures, the U.S. was a pathetic nowhere in terms of creating abstract visual ideas until a herd of Bauhaus-era designers and artists came flooding over from Europe during World War II. Rothko? Russian. De Kooning? Dutch. Gorky? Armenian. DuChamp? Not a chance. Maholy-Nagy? No way. Mondrian? I won’t even dignify that with a response. And so on. If Pop Art needed American consumerism to supply its subject matter, it also apparently needed a foreign observer to make sense of it.

This brings us to the subject of Warhol’s ancestry, which confused the hell out of me for a long time. In the U.S., you generally hear him referred to as Polish. But once I started teaching at Prague College, however, my Slovak students were quick to inform me that he’s actually Slovak– and indeed he was born in an area that now belongs to Slovakia. But, it turns out that his family was in fact Ruthenian– the Ruthenians being a teeny distinct Slavic people whose homeland was absorbed by what are now Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. So here’s to you, Ruthenia– today I salute you. I like to imagine that when you did still exist, you were a fine destination to hit for a bit of the old orientalism.

On a personal note: back in the 50s, my grandmother was an account manager with Ogilvy (something I think about a lot as I watch Mad Men, as it’s fair to presume that she probably faced a lot of the same institutionalized hurdles and general BS that Peggy faces in the show, and was probably kind of a cool, ahead-of-her-time lady). Anyway, she apparently knew Warhol back when he was a commercial artist and bought some of his sketches back then, which now must be worth a fortune. I wouldn’t know, because they were somehow stolen from her home in a manner that no one can exactly pinpoint (probably happened during a brief point when she was renting her house). So, that stinks.

Mad Men and Doyle Dane Bernbach

Believe it or not, I’ve just started watching Mad Men. I’m all the way back at Season 1, Episode 4– so far behind that I can read TK’s posts on the current episodes without spoiling anything for myself as the plot has moved on to completely alien terrain from what I’m familiar with.

I was delighted to see Episode 3 open with Don Draper looking at the Volkswagen ‘Think Small’ ad— a campaign that changed advertising to the degree that I show it to my graphic design history students— and thought that the campaign was cleverly used in the episode to amplify some of the larger points of the show. I should hedge this last comment by saying that I haven’t really seen enough of the show to weigh in authoritatively yet on what the larger themes of the show actually are, but so far I take it as a snapshot of the last days of trying to have a top-down, hierarchical society in America before pluralism stepped in and turned everything on its head. If you accept that as an underlying theme of Mad Men, you can definitely say that the appearance of Doyle Dane Bernbach– the agency behind the VW campaign– marked a tipping point in the real-life narrative.

Doyle Dane Bernbach opened its doors in 1949 and became known for its determination to ‘take the exclamation point out of advertising’– meaning, among other things, less nuptial script, grinning Stepford wives and long-winded copy stuffed full with promises (1940s ads were really, really long on copy). By the early 1960s, removing the exclamation point had become imperative: the murmurs of a civil rights movement and engagement in Vietnam increased the public’s appetite for real reportage and decreased its tolerance for Eisenhower-era fluff. TV revenues, meanwhile, had cut into magazine revenues to the point that budgets and physical formats were smaller, meaning the exclamation points couldn’t ever be as large or glamorous again as they had been in the past. Finally, I imagine that TV, by the nature of its very medium, probably inspired a move towards intelligent advertising: in print, you can keep making the same corny over-promises over and over again and never get called on it. But, in the world of TV, you have to have an actual live person making these claims (‘gum that cleans and straightens your teeth!’). I’m guessing that the humiliation gleaned from this experience- for all parties involved- partly inspired a move towards more intelligent advertising on some psychological level.

DDB was the first agency of note to try selling stuff by leveling with the audience and appealing to its intelligence. The ‘Think Small’ ad spoke directly to a potential product liability and used a white space in a surprising way to stand apart from the crowd:

Subsequent ads in the campaign– which I just noticed was voted best of the century by something called– included the car with a caption ‘Lemon’:

… and a play on the homeliness of the lunar module:

I loved the verdict delivered in the Mad Men episode, where all the characters basically dump on it (‘They only used a half-page ad for a full-page buy… you can’t even see the product!’) but then Draper points out, ‘Love it or hate it, we’ve been talking about it now for 20 minutes’.

The corporate structure in Mad Men was also typical of most ad agencies of the day: as is shown several times in the first few episodes, account execs and writers develop the concept, then hand it off to the art department which is responsible for bringing it to life without any creative input. Again: top-down, hierarchical. DDB pioneered what became known as the ‘creative revolution’, where project teams including an art director and writer would brainstorm together to develop the idea, effectively forcing a synergistic relationship between word and image.

My favorite DDB campaign is one they did for Levy’s, an account they had held for several years without highlighting the ethnic angle until this poster appeared in subways in 1961:

Update: for serious type nerds, reader MM passes on this typo analysis of Mad Men from Mark Simonson’s blog.

On the Old Apartment Rule

I wholly support the Old Apartment Rule, partly because I’ve had the good fortune to experience it.  For about half of the decade that I lived in New York City, I made my home in a tiny sixth floor tenement walk-up on Houston Street.  I first lived there for four years from ’95 – ’99, and in ’97 I got a roommate named Slink from Chicago.  I got him on the lease after I moved out, and he has stayed there ever since, although he now uses it for only a few nights a week when he commutes in from a home in upstate New York.  (It’s behind the two top left windows in the building on the right below.) The Pad

Thanks to Slink, I have continued to return to this apartment on periodic trips to New York, including a year-long stint living there again in my final year in NYC (during this year we formed a band called The Pad whose entire repertoire was songs about the apartment), and I’ve seen it go through a remarkable number of manifestations: as an art gallery, a fashion designer’s studio, a recording studio, a go-go dancer’s lair, etc.  (Just your typical Lower East Side progression — remember that we’re talking about 400 square feet here at best.)  I am always extremely grateful at the opportunity to return, and particularly to get onto the roof and see Manhattan through 20-something eyes again.

The High Line

When I was living in New York City in the mid-90s, I’d occasionally go dancing in clubs on the West Side of Manhattan.  One morning as I exited one such club in the dawn light, I noticed something strange: an abandoned elevated railway line, with rusted and ornate ironwork and little patches of grass and shrubbery peeking out from beneath its tracks.

High Line 1

High Line 2

As I walked downtown on 12th Avenue, I realized that I was following its path.  It actually ran through buildings that were in its way, and some sleuthing helped me determine that although it appeared to end at 14th Street, there was evidence (mostly in the form of remnants of its entrance and exit from buildings) of it well into the Meat Packing District.

I learned that it connected to rail yards around Penn Station, and that ships carrying railcars used to dock and slide them right onto the rail line, where the cars would ride downtown (and into the buidlings in its path) to deliver cattle or other 19 Century style deliveries.

I also learned that, predictably, the city had been trying to demolish it for years, but that it was hung up in various legal battles.  Imagine my surprise to learn, a few years later, that there was a viable public movement to refurbish it and turn it into a park (the obvious thing to do with it, from my perspective at least).

And now, lo and behold, it’s opened to the public.