Spring 2004

The grip of American Modernism [EXTRACT]

American Modernism: Graphic Design 1920 to 1960

By R. Roger Remington
Laurence King, 2003
£19.20, 35 dollars

Any historical investigation must engage with questions of identity and difference. An equilibrium has to be struck between the commonalities that unify objects or events befitting a distinct history, and the disparities that mark them out as worthy of our attention. To fetishise any object of study simply leaves historical analysis stranded in a no-man’s-land, bereft of any recognisable markers against which to contrast the object under examination; equally, to establish an endless series of differences would preclude our ability to be selective and define an object or time scale as warranting any sort of special attention in itself. Such juggling of identity and difference has been central to the history of graphic design, and may explain why it took until 1983 for the first comprehensive examination of the subject to see the light of day.

One of the dominant identities employed to synthesise these assorted strands has been the narrative of Modernism . . .

. . . R. Roger Remington has considered the unique appropriation and application of Modernism in graphic design in the US. In American Modernism: graphic design 1920 to 1960, he recounts the story, in the traditional manner of a chronology, of the ‘great exemplars and master designers’ that shaped this era . . .

. . . Nonetheless, he fails to analyse the social Utopianism at the heart of this vision. The political desire that drove the need for the new, while implied, is reduced to an emphasis on the formal properties of the Modernist calling . . .

. . . Uncoupled from its political origins, the grammar of Modernism has enabled many a corporation to represent itself as being in some way beyond the messy reality of everyday concerns and problems.

I may sound critical of American Modernism here but, on the whole, I am not. It is simply that to intimate some philosophical unity in the history of Modernist graphic design in the US is to posit something that was never quite there, offering a sense of equivalence across various media when there is none. In the desire to establish a unified view, perhaps the all-encompassing term of Modernism hinders our understanding of this important period in graphic design history.

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