The punk graphics show “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976—1986,” at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) is so vibrant the building could shake. Its 400 graphic items (flyers, posters, album covers, promotions, zines, and other ephemera) had many of the older, well-dressed visitors (who still had pink hair and earrings, and that was just the men) smiling and pointing, while younger people hit the turntables. And that’s just the way the curator wanted it.
“The time seemed right” said exhibition curator, Andrew Blauvelt, “enough time had passed to make it more historical, but not too much time so that there would be an audience who would have lived through the era.” Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, was recently appointed Curator-At-Large for Design at MAD.
The exhibit originated at Cranbrook, and is almost completely derived from the collection of New Yorker Andrew Krivine. The show is just a fraction of his collection.
The exhibit, some three years in the making, is a two-floor mashup of color and form that feature the art and the milieu that spawned it. You see the big guns as soon as you step off the elevator: huge posters, vivid colors, bold typefaces that command attention. David Bowie looks positively sedate near The Slits, topless in full jungle gear, Devo and the aggressively suited Kraftwerk.
The Visual Language of Punk You’ll want to pull out your old vinyl, but the exhibit spares you the effort. There are turntables on each of the two floors of the show, with bins of vintage vinyl to flip through: The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Blondie, the Ramones ... you’ll probably find the album you used to roll your joints on in the dorm. The Elvis Costello fan I went with was ecstatic.
The show is divided into nine sections that Blauvelt said “represent different ways of understanding the visual language of punk and the kinds of strategies used by designers to communicate to this new kind of audience: techniques such as collage, or attitudes such as irony, or pop culture influences such as comix and sci-fi and horror, for instance.”
The flavor of the show is driven by the energy and pushback against a formulaic rock industry and a society that had become increasingly complacent. The show is laid out by visual strategies and design techniques (cut and paste, or typography) and outsider influences like comics, horror movies and ironic takes on ‘modern’ art. Subversion was the driving force and no subject was sacred: not even the Queen ... or the American Express card.
The section “From NYC” tugs at the heartstrings. The art is held to the walls by magnetic pins similar to the pushpins that secured the originals to the walls of Tower Records, J&R Music World, and the bulletin boards of The Mudd Club, CBGB’s and other clubs and dive bars. Visitors of a certain age will enjoy seeing posters of the concerts and shows they attended hanging in a museum; the vibrancy of the time and the performers lingers. The effect is not unlike Proust’s Madeleines, and sets a mood simultaneously distant and immediate.
Patti, Frank and Some Rats The show moves into its own with “Agitprop: Power to the People,” addressing the subversive quality of punk. Here the bold graphics deliver a startling message and the Clash pretty much owns the room. Their art uses Communist flags, provocative graphics and photos with in-your-face messages. The “Atlas of Give ‘em Enough Rope” is a world map with arrows to selected hot spots.
“For Arts Sake” seems the most focused of the sections. The amount of art in the other rooms offer so much competition for the eye that it is almost too much to take in at once. This room focuses on large, single works — the iconic black and white photo of Patti Smith from the “Horses” album (doing her nod to Sinatra with a coat casually flung over one shoulder).
The showstopper, though, is a series of huge, glorious photo portraits in simple colors of punk icons like Ian Dury, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello by Barney Bubble (aka Colin Fulcherry). The neat graphics and clean bold colors in these huge, sharp and well detailed portraits show the range of skill by this graphics artist, whose work is peppered throughout the show.
Not all the art in this room is tied to music or performers. Running along the wall, near the floor, is a disturbingly realistic photo series of rats. The work, “Rats” by The Rat Patrol, was a commentary on downtown’s vermin infestation in the wake of the 1979 garbage strike and the authorities’ apathetic response.
The Sex Pistols’ famous reworking of Queen Elizabeth II’s 25th anniversary portrait is naturally in The Appropriated Image section, but familiarity dulls its impact.
The Finishing TouchThis show is almost too much to take in at one go. The wit and creativity of the Comics section will resonate for anyone who collected Zap Comics (or anyone who loved the Ramones), Scary Creatures and Super Creeps, is best saved for a visit after lunch. Cut & Paste, Collage and Bricolage and Riding a New Wave all demonstrate the willingness to borrow from wildly diverse influences — public domain images (the statue of liberty) or randomly placed geometrics or splatters of color, or unlikely juxtapositions or substitutions (Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ facial features are replaced with electric shaver heads). Make sure to visit the last room, featuring Eccentric Alphabets. Random typefaces sprawl across the walls, all drawn from the ‘ransom note” school of typography and design pioneered by the Sex Pistols. The finishing touch here is in the center of the room — a huge display case of the buttons touting artists and albums, and a selection of concert tickets. As the Elvis Costello fan I saw the show with said, “Wow, imagine seeing Lou Reed for seven bucks.”
Virge Randall is a freelance culture reporter who blogs about city life at newyorknatives.com/author/virge/