Tufte: the brand extension
Edward Tufte: Escaping Flatland: Sculpture and Prints7 November 2002 to 13 February 2003
A+D Architecture and Design Museum, Los Angeles
‘It’s time for a new kind of art: bookprints.’ Edward Tufte’s evangelical proclamations are an expression of the faith he brings to this show. His neat claims reveal the patchwork of precepts that underlie the exhibition: outmoded notions about art, nature and beauty; merchandising moxie; and a disavowal of any identifiable contemporary context. Bookprints are signed, limited-edition iris prints of enlarged two-page spreads from his books, available on his website (www.edwardtufte.com) for USD200 apiece. Despite the show’s title, the prints exist in flatland. Without the architectonic space of the book they are weak posters whose proportional relations are those of the book.
With similar cross-media confusion, Tufte’s edition of ten identical stainless steel sculptures – also for sale on his website for USD200,000 each – are ‘based on ideas from his books on analytical graphics and information architecture.’ While the work in those books is filtered through his rigorous mandate to ‘facilitate thinking’, it’s less clear what he’s asking these forms to do. Twelve feet tall and comprised of four interlocking planes of varying heights at varying angles, the sculptures’ smudgy stainless steel skin is designed to reflect ‘the beauty of nature’. In the exhibition brochure a set shown outdoors provide beautiful evidence for Tufte’s claim that ‘nature doesn’t go too wrong with colour’. In the white cube, the sculptures are less, well, colourful.
Tufte’s books are a valuable tool for thinking about information display, but in the materials that accompany this exhibition, they serve as the ‘mythic Origin’ that justifies his forays into other disciplines. Herein lies the true brilliance and severe limitation of his brand extension strategy. ‘Escaping Flatland’ is essentially a set of display samples given added value by their appearance in this context. (No wonder Tufte paid for the installation himself.)
The problematic relationship between designer-artist and design museum doesn’t stop there. Objects called ‘art’ and ‘sculpture’ in a museum setting enter a dialogue with contemporary art and sculpture perforce. Yet Tufte distances himself from the art world, except when he’s appropriating the minimalist sculptor David Smith. It’s also unclear how the A+D wants us to read the exhibition. The curatorial statement skirts the issue, focusing primarily on Tufte’s information design reputation. So what are these pieces, and how do we account for their presence in a museum of Architecture and Design? Are they fine art? Interior design? Landscape architecture? Graphic design? How should design museums treat art, if at all? Can they import the trappings of the art world and bypass the critique? The show leaves too many questions unanswered, questions that arise out of confusion rather than provocation.