Salon selective

As London prepares for Cézanne mania, Jeremy Myerson examines the influence of modern art on design through a monumental new book

Whenever hard-nosed clients try to pour cold water on an outlandish creative proposal, or hard-nosed university administrators try to prise the design department out of the arts faculty to team it with mechanical engineering, a familiar cry goes up. Design is a practical art and designers are artists with a purpose. Both disciplines are intertwined. Without the nourishment of fine art, design practice will wither.

The arguments are always vehemently made – and you can always make a convincing case for the way in which Henri Matisse and David Hockney have influenced graphic identity, or Marcel Duchamp and Alberto Giacometti have shaped domestic products. Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina? Fewer designers are willing to own up here. But you get my point. The design profession, barely a century old, has hardly begun to tear itself away from the vortex of art movements out of which it developed.

Yet, for all the historical symbiosis, contemporary art and contemporary design are not on the same planet. The discourse is different and the forums in which it takes place are different. Many will make as strong a case for the inter-relationship between design and advertising, design and architecture, or design and craft. Many design courses are now found in faculties of technology or engineering, not in their traditional nest alongside the fine artists. Alan Fletcher’s observation that painters solve their own problems while designers solve other people’s has never rung more true.

Does any of this matter? Fine artists may condemn many commercial designers as servants of the market, failing to see the constant displays of creative resilience in the face of tight constraints. Designers may dismiss much contemporary art that appears confusing, ugly and self-indulgent, failing to see the way objects and images of popular culture are filtered through a critical personal vision. But everyone will unite, (just about), around the classic masters of this century’s infancy – Fernand Leger or Piet Mondrian in art, Peter Behrens or Charles Rennie Mackintosh in design. But in the current after-modern era, with three decades of rich and controversial ebbs and flows of fads and styles, the conclusion is that it is increasingly difficult to define common ground for the two camps.

That is, unless you can grasp what is happening in contemporary art. Only then can you begin to reconstruct some of the integral links with design shattered by the blasts of post-modernity that first started with Pop Art in the Sixties and built up to a crescendo with Arte Povera, Body Art and the rest. Which is where a new book by art critic Edward Lucie-Smith comes into the frame. Lucie-Smith, who once wrote a history of industrial design starting with early flint arrow-heads, has produced an admirably focused and coherent new survey of contemporary art trends called Art Today. This traces the panoramic developments in art since 1960, navigating the reader through the stylistic maze that followed the partial break-up of the classic era of Modern Movement art and artists.

I say partial break-up advisedly, because one of the main aspects of Lucie-Smith’s thesis is the survival of so much Modernist baggage, especially Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, in the context for painting and sculpture. The remnants of this universalist movement still define and illuminate an artistic landscape which no new orthodoxy has replaced.

Lucie-Smith is in no doubt why modern art achieved such respectability during the twentieth century, away from the radical pre-1914 context in which it was forged. The unrelenting hostility of the Nazis, who regarded Modernism as degenerate and persecuted its protagonists, drove the movement and many of its key artists across the Atlantic. America, the grateful recipient, developed a kind of home-grown Abstract Expressionism in the immediate post-war years and accorded the Modernists quasi-official status in its museums and galleries.

Lucie-Smith is also clear about “the first major challenge to Abstract Expressionism” – Pop Art, with its identification with consumer culture at the start of the Sixties. As he explains, Abstract Expressionism was “an art of inspiration, a celebration of the individual and of artistic individuality” whereas “pop, deliberately cheap, deliberately blank, came like a slap in the face”. The parallels with design, from which Andy Warhol took inspiration, immediately begin to take shape. Pop challenged the orthodoxy of well-mannered “British good taste”.

From this point in time, artists and designers begin to make the journey to the present together. The reductive elements present in Minimalism and conceptual art are part of the argot of design too. Don’t forget that Dominique Perrault, architect of the new National Library of France, one of the last of the late president Mitterrand’s grands projets, has claimed that the influence of Minimalist artists such as

Donald Judd was greater than that of Modernist architects such as Louis Kahn or Le Corbusier on a project which sets four glass towers shaped like open books around a sunken garden.

So great has been the force of cool abstraction in graphic design – the value-free visual science bequeathed by Basel and Bauhaus – that the leading American graphic designer Katherine McCoy has argued that designers have become distanced and detached from compassionate concerns and personal convictions. The uptake by corporate America of the abstracted symbols supports her case.

From the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the Eighties, McCoy led a widespread reassessment of the Modernist legacy in American graphic design. The result was a new form of typography which re-engages with content by deconstructing style. Other reassessments have gone on throughout art and design all over the world, all contributing to what Edward Lucie-Smith describes as “plurality, absence of hierarchy and a vast expansion of the cultural base”.

In some areas on Lucie-Smith’s carefully drawn map, it is possible to identify points of convergence between art and design. Land Art, Light and Space is a category of art which shares at least some of the creative agenda of architecture, interior and lighting design. Is not Sir Norman Foster’s remodelling of the Reichstag equal in artistic intent to Christo and Jeanne Claude’s wrapping of the same building in paper? New British sculpture often examines the material world of design in a satirical vein. David Mach’s Every Home Should Have One, for example, unites a discarded cooker, microwave and refrigerator with a gargoyle.

However, some art movements – feminist and gay art, the art of racial minorities – find no echo in current commercial design, where the ideology of global marketing clearly leaves no room for personal ideologies. It is hard too to equate the kind of graceful body ornament typically exhibited by Crafts Council jewellers with the masochistic body rituals of performance artists such as Stuart Brisley (who spent the best part of a week in a bath of offal) and Gina Payne (who slashed her body until she bled).

That said, Lucie-Smith’s book is great for designers wanting to tap into their artistic roots. It makes the point that with the emergence of AIDS art, twentieth century art has come full circle in returning to an art dominated by content, and prone to moralising – precisely the starting point for the Modern Movement. In that respect, the neutral, value-free style-led bias of design still has a long way to go.m

Art Today, by Edward Lucie-Smith, is published by Phaidon Press, price 45.

Latest articles