Top art museums regularly host exhibitions of artists whose work either compliments or expands on the works in their permanent collections. These special exhibitions are intended to keep regular members engaged and to attract new visitors. As an extension of this strategy, the exhibition catalog must be designed not only to accurately represent the artist’s work, but also to stand on its own as a desirable keepsake and as a reminder of the visitor’s experience at the museum. We created three exhibition catalogs for The Phillips Collection that illustrate compelling, comprehensive book design.
David Smith Invents
To celebrate two acquisitions of works by David Smith – a sculpture and a work on paper – The Phillips Collection mounted an exhibition that included several small sculptures plus paintings and works on paper. Smith, known primarily as a pioneer of modern American sculpture, identified himself as “a painter who came to sculpture through cubism and montage.” We approached the design of the exhibition catalog, “David Smith Invents,” with this duality in mind. By comparing and contrasting details of Smith’s paintings and works on paper with the textures and surfaces of his sculptures, we were able to evoke the essence of his aesthetic sensibility. As Smith himself put it, “I don’t know whether I make some pieces as painted sculpture or paintings in form.”
Using full bleed details, traditional silhouettes, and archival photos of Smith’s studio and outdoor sculptures in combination with curators’ essays and artist’s quotes, we created a unique view of Smith’s life and work. The book itself is an important record of the first exhibition in Washington, D.C. of David Smith’s work in nearly thirty years.
Pousette-Dart: Predominantly White Paintings
For a series of small, related exhibitions that occurred simultaneously at the Phillips, we created a series of catalogs of the same size and materials, with an overarching design style, to be packaged and sold as a set. Because of the modest scale of the exhibits, we designed books that were compact and perfect bound rather than large, hard-cover books more appropriate for “blockbuster” shows.
For the catalog of Richard Pousette-Dart’s “predominantly white paintings,” we wanted to highlight the patterns and subtle colors of the largest painting in the exhibition to demonstrate the artist’s technique. Our approach was to utilize as much of the press sheet as possible to print a detail of the painting across four panels of a gatefold cover. The heavy, uncoated, vellum cover stock proved to be the perfect surface to evoke the subtle textures and lines in Pousette-Dart’s canvas, setting the stage for a compelling series of essays and reproductions from the exhibit.
The quiet color palette, typography and airy page layout of the book complement the artist’s aesthetic. The end result was economical for the museum and representative of Pousette-Dart’s work and of the scale of the exhibition.
Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations
The next in the series of catalogs for the Phillips was for a one-room exhibition of Robert Ryman’s small, square paintings. The book’s square format as well as the page grid, typography, and section dividers create a direct visual dialogue with the artist’s work. We intentionally avoided cropping the artwork, centering them within consistent margins to highlight the variations in texture, color and materials, often with irregular edges. We injected small graphic elements in the spirit of Ryman to create coherent visual relationships throughout sections of the book. Four common characteristics unify the Phillips’s book series: the square format, gatefold covers, perfect binding, and “title tags” superimposed on each cover.
The exhibition catalog must be designed not only to accurately represent the artist’s work, but also to stand on its own as a desirable keepsake and as a reminder of the visitor’s experience at the museum.
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