the contextual life

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the helvetica around us

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i was in my favorite bookstore yesterday looking for the dvd of Examined Life (opens with video). turns out, it hasn’t been released yet but while i was looking over the videos they had on display, one caught my eye: Objectified. it had a bunch of simple, everyday images in black on the cover. the sticker on the cellophane said something like, “from the director of Helvetica“. being that i am a Netflix subscriber, i made sure to write down both film titles so i could put them in my queue when i got home.

as luck would have it, Helvetica was available for instant viewing, meaning i could play it on my computer at any time. so i watched it that night.

the film opens with typeface blocks cut from steel, a man inking them, rolling a press over them, and showing the end product – a fresh, black, inky ‘Helvetica’ in Helvetica on a piece of white paper. then, Times Square. it turns out that Helvetica is all around us and about 30 minutes into the film, it started to feel a bit oppressive. not the movie, but the fact that we are surrounded – overwhelmingly – with one typeface. i have a fear of walking outside my apartment and going mad from the oneness of our society’s choice in signage.

but, as the film goes on to show, there are reasons to embrace Helvetica. it is bold, clean, and easy to read. it is also the product of the “Swiss style,” which means it is very much concerned with the ‘figure-ground relationship,’ adding to it’s aesthetically pleasing presentation. the pro-Helvetica camp interviewed for the film even went so far as to philosophize about it’s rationality. to the pro-Helvetica camp, Helvetica is perfection.

i must say, i was buying it. i thought back to my zine days where i would toy with my font choices and even handwrite a few things. was i wrong? unwise to the supreme status of Helvetica? i was almost about to drop all my typeface-adventurism when in walked the anti-Helvetica camp – or the ‘we’re-just-not-that-into-you’ camp.

one of these revolutionaries has been my long-time design hero, david carson. i found myself cheering him on, like the dorky kid in class secretly willing the class clown to do the things she’d never dream of doing herself. david carson played with text. it looked weird, it overlapped, it didnt always make sense but it was art. it was rebellion textified.

but, as with many things, there was no simple answer. the pro and the anti camps kept coming back, intertwining and making their equally compelling cases. in the end, i came away with a shocking awareness of just how prevalant and profound something as unassuming as typeface can be.

the quality of Helvetica is astounding. the framing of the shots, the conversations from and observations of the world-renowned designers make this history of a runaway font thought-provoking and entertaining.


Written by Gabrielle

November 18, 2009 at 10:21 am

Posted in art, film

Tagged with , ,

kandinsky for beginners

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i’m not exactly sure how i found out about kandinsky, the russian painter who lived during the early 1900s, or when i did but i feel like it was probably a few years ago on the internet. it was at that time that i was getting into art. i had an instant love for rothko and thought andy warhol was pretty awesome. both had a great sense of color and shape. basquiat was another of my favorites. his stuff was warped childhood nostalgia personified. these guys made you feel like you could go home and create brilliant works of art – until you went home and found that you couldn’t.

the first painting of kandinsky’s i had seen was the one i think many people have seen without knowing whose it is. it’s the one with the rows of circles in all different colors, in fact, i think it hung on the wall in my pediatrician’s office. when i dug around some more i thought he was even better.

the other week, i was looking through the New York Times and found an article about the upcoming kandinsky exhibit at the guggenheim. i have to admit, i had never been to the guggenheim – the museum designed by frank lloyd wright. it would be my first visit.

this saturday i was sitting around doing the same old thing – drinking coffee at the local cafe and reading. a friend of mine rode up on his bike and stopped to say hello. we both lamented about how we had things we wanted to do in manhattan but were too lazy to leave brooklyn. we wished each other luck and he rode away. sitting there for a minute or so, staring at my book and coffee cup, i decided to get up and march toward the subway. i was going to the museum.

when i got there it was the height of the afternoon but i didnt wait on line for more than 5 minutes and even better, the let me keep my bag with me. the no camera rule however was frustrating. the guggenheim itself is a work of art and a great way to see an exhibit. the building spirals upward with the inside walls showing the artist’s work and the outside of the spiral exposed. the view both looking up and looking down could be framed on a wall. a close up of the paintings would have made good postcards and pictures of people looking at the art are usually interesting. but there would be none of that this time around. i was asked twice – politely, i want to add – to put my camera away.

kandinsky’s work on view spans the trajectory of his career. his impressionist paintings that i didnt know he did were some of my favorites. they were cheery, blobby monets.  his middle stuff while he was at bauhaus in germany was very sharp and geometric – like he was some architect gone off his rocker. the later stuff fused the abstract with the  mathematical precision and came out with what seemed to me to be some sort of parody of space culture. it felt very cold war russian – which then led me to believe he was brilliant since he had died in 1944 – a year before that era had begun. so, like rothko, warhol, and basquiat, kandinsky was revolutionary and definitely worth the $18 admission fee.

if you’re in new york between now and January 13th, 2010, you should go see it.


Written by Gabrielle

September 27, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Posted in art

Tagged with ,

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