Feature

In the Good Name of the Company

Jan Tumlir

Made in L.A.

With bold, black typography floated above washes of Day-Glo color, the Colby poster evinces a thrifty pragmatism: it is designed to catch the eye of those who pass by, in car or by foot, and then deliver its contents to them as directly as possible. Typically employed to promote neighborhood events such as street fairs, gun shows, small-scale musical concerts and so on, the Colby Poster Printing Company has also served as an important resource to a broad range of Los Angeles-based artists, from Allen Ruppersberg (who transcribed Allan Ginsberg’s Howl onto Colby posters in his work, The Singing Posters, 2003) to Eve Fowler (who subjected Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons to a similar treatment in her work, A Spectacle and Nothing Strange, [2011–12]).1Perhaps most significantly, the Colby company has enabled artists easily marooned within the space of the studio or the “white cube” to engage the life of the street. As such, their posters must be considered a form of public art, and one perfectly suited to the Los Angeles context in its inherent transience and disposability.

The Colby poster is by now a regional emblem, as the curators of the Hammer Museum’s first biennial, Made in L.A. (summer 2012), acknowledged by branding the entire show with the Colby aesthetic. The familiar graphics of the event’s Colby-designed posters found their way onto the cover of the exhibition catalog and a range of promotional items such as T-shirts, tote bags, and coffee mugs. This made perfect sense: These graphics have come to stand for Los Angeles, the city as such, and more specifically, Los Angeles art.

On the most basic level, the representative status of the Colby poster stems from its ubiquity. Since the founding of the printing company in the years immediately after World War II, its products have become an integral part of the local landscape, right alongside the likewise unavoidable palm trees, customized cars, and beach wear. All these various signs and clichés of the city share a capacity to be read at a distance; it is perhaps the most crucial condition of survival in Los Angeles, and it has been Colby’s mandate from the start. Above all, the company has served as a means for broadcasting messages, and in this respect it shares something with the city’s information and entertainment industries as well, even while operating at a much shorter range.

Objects on the New Landscape Demanding of the Eye

The above title of the Ferus Gallery’s 1957 inaugural exhibition provides an apt description of the Colby posters, and of the way that they work in concert with their context. As noted, they are made to stand out from the landscape and to attract our attention, but at the same time they are also made to fit in to the landscape, and to define it as “new.” These “objects” are “demanding of the eye” because they have a message to communicate, and they exploit the givens of their environment for purposes of communication. Whether the posters are mounted to chain-link fences, construction site walls, or trees and electrical poles, they inevitably treat their surroundings as an extension of the typeset page, thereby transforming the space of the city itself into a massive text to be read. Places where one must either stop moving, such as traffic signals, or at least slow down, such as freeway on-ramps and off-ramps, are especially opportune in this regard. Even so, motion, momentum, velocity, and the at once distracted and searching states of mind that these inspire, are essential to the posters’ function. They affect our experience of the city precisely because they are so adept at turning its own working conditions to their own ends.

The new-ness of the “new landscape” of Los Angeles was noted early on by Ed Ruscha, whose seminal bookwork Every Building on the Sunset Strip(1966) unfolds as a visual essay on this city’s architecture of mobility. If, aside from the title on its cover, this proto-Conceptual publication dispenses with any accompanying text, it is simply because the two-and-a–half-mile stretch of street that Ruscha subjects to photographic scrutiny is already replete with language. Words on street signs, storefronts, bus benches, posters, and billboards infiltrate every view as a matter of course. Ruscha chose to document the Sunset Strip with a motorized camera while passing through it by car, in response to the presumption, implicit in his subject matter, of a mobilized viewer. According to the artist, then, the experience of the “new landscape” is one of reading, or better yet, a scanning of signs, in which not only the eye and mind but also one’s entire body and being are engaged.

When, in 1968, the architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, along with a group of their students from Yale, headed westward to research the critically maligned or simply ignored form of what they would term the “autoscape” of Las Vegas, they began their fact-finding mission with a visit to Ruscha’s Los Angeles studio. Learning from Las Vegas, the book that resulted from their efforts, is very much a theoretical elaboration on the heuristic lessons of Every Building on the Sunset Strip, for here as well the “new landscape” is assigned a communicative function above all. Moreover, as an emerging model for their own architectural practices, this vernacular construct is characteristically postmodern in its indifference to space as the central concern of their discipline. “This architecture of styles and signs is anti-spatial,” they write; “it is an architecture of communication over space; communication dominates space as an element in the architecture and the landscape.”2

The “autoscape” unfolds before the auto-borne beholder as a succession of signs, registering on the eye somewhat like a length of film and a line of text. To see it is to read it, and vice versa, and from the confusion of iconic and symbolic codes that marks the design of both the Sunset and Las Vegas strips, a new kind of literacy develops, at once superficial and immersive. Deep reading is thwarted by the “anti-spatial” character of the “new landscape,” which appears as a strictly surface-level “store-front plane,” in the words of Ruscha, a row of self-advertising fronts that solicit our attention from either side of the street. “A store-front plane of a Western town is just paper,” states Ruscha in an often quoted 1972 interview with David Bourdon, “and everything behind it is just nothing.”3Or, put another way, whatever exists in back—and obviously there is something there—is cancelled by these paper-thin faÇades, which push out, press in, and enfold the viewer in a perspectival chute of semiosis.

In a “store-front plane,” then, the Colby poster is perfectly at home: paper on paper, signs on signs. It fits snugly into the “new landscape” because it is comprised of exactly the same stuff, and yet, as noted, the first rule of this occupancy is to stand out. It is a condition the poster shares with every other constituent part of its surroundings, and with which it must therefore compete. This might seem contradictory, but contradiction is no less inherent in the “new landscape” than confusion.

The Novel That Writes Itself

The motorist glides past a succession of messages aligned on either side of the street. These are both iconically viewed and symbolically read, but without adding up to any coherent meaning, for just as they manage to cancel any sense of the real spatial depth of the built and natural landscape behind them, so too do they seek to cancel out one another. In order to shine, the competition must be eclipsed. However, what becomes evident in the absence of a narrative through-line is a signifying ecology. If we were to compare the message-lined street to a novel, for example, it is one that continuously corrects and recomposes itself, and again, not in single-minded pursuit of a higher unity, but as the mindless outcome of the now symbiotic, now antagonistic interaction of its elementary particles. Whole sections fall away like vestigial tails when they can no longer adapt to the changing demands of the totality, only to be replaced by newer, more resilient textual mutations. No doubt, Allen Ruppersberg derived his idea for The Novel That Writes Itself, an ongoing project begun in 1978, from observation of just such “street life.” Conceived as a partly autobiographical book about the life of the artist with the supporting roles (of colleague, collector, critic, etc.) put up for sale, it was later executed in the form of Colby posters and thereby returned to its source. Even when this artist’s work is encountered inside the space of the gallery, as it generally is, it remains on speaking terms with the language of the street.

It is worth noting, in this regard, that Ruppersberg’s aforementioned transcription of the poem Howl is phonetic. The words that appear on his Colby poster version of Allan Ginsberg’s paean to a lost generation are printed in such a way as to elicit their sounding, and here, alongside the already noted confusion of image and text that is endemic to the “new landscape” of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, we may add the confusion of written and spoken language. Accordingly, the reversal of the historical progression from an oral culture to one of literacy—that once foundational insight of media studies—is at once acknowledged and enacted by this work. Ruppersberg’s posters hold their place as transitional objects, segues between two modes of information processing and, by extension, two orders of being.

As is made evident from the earliest days of our linguistic training, to speak back the word that is spoken to you is to commit it to memory. And from the example of the nursery rhyme, we may further deduce that the meter and rhyme schemes of poetic structure covertly serve as a memory aid, to inculcate whole sequences of words in the mind of their recipient so that they may in turn be repeated. In this way, phylogenetically as well as ontogenetically, the poem points to an archaic stage of communications, whereas the novel is entirely a product of the so-called “Gutenberg Galaxy.” As Walter Benjamin suggests in “The Storyteller,” “Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn,” but in the age of print media, this one-to-one connection of speaker and listener is severed.4 “The birthplace of the novel is the individual in his isolation, the individual who can no longer speak of his concerns in exemplary fashion…”5 The novelist’s essential solitude is reproduced by that of the reader, who likewise withdraws from the world with his books. Where does this leave the poster, itself a product of the age of print, but one that calls for collective reception, out in the open? Early on, at least, it was thought to possess revolutionary powers of reconnection, enabling the return of communicated experience and knowledge to the social sphere. To wit, this statement from El Lissitzky:

Footnotes
  1. This interaction may well have begun with Ed Ruscha’s street poster announcement for the exhibition New Paintings of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum, in 1962. “Ruscha’s New Painting of Common Objects Colby poster was designed for curator Walter Hopps’ groundbreaking survey of American Pop art,” reads the press statement furnished by Ruscha’s studio on this piece. “Hopps, knowing Ruscha had commercial art experience, asked the artist if he would create a poster for the exhibition. According to Hopps, Ruscha picked up the telephone on the spot and called a commercial printer that produced mass-market posters for events such as prize fights. The artist read off the title of the exhibition, names of the artists, the dates, and chose a size and quantity, leaving the printer with a single design instruction: ‘Make it loud.’” Even though Ruscha contracted a rival company, Majestic, on this project, the resulting product is often assumed to be a Colby poster because it closely resembles one. Moreover, in the late seventies, the Colby Poster Printing Company bought out Majestic, thereby obtaining their collection of type, which only heightened the possibility of confusing the two.
  2. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 8.
  3. Ed Ruscha quoted in David Bourdon, “Ruscha Was Publisher (or All Booked Up),” 1972, in Ed Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 23.
  4. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller” (1936) in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935–1938, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA; London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 144.
  5. Ibid., 146.