Arnold Schwartzman is the creative director of the Voices & Visions poster exhibition, in which compelling Jewish texts are graphically visualized by contemporary designers. The program was initiated and produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and we at the Skirball Cultural Center are excited to be the first institution to show this engaging poster series. In curating this exhibition for our Ruby Gallery I had the chance to meet and talk to Arnold Schwartzman about this project.
Arnold, you have two functions in the Voices & Visions exhibition: you are the creative director and you also designed a poster. Let’s talk about the poster first. You chose the quote by Susan Sontag, “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” and came up with a simple, yet complex image of silent speech. How did you find the visual language for it? And why did you choose this quote?
As the creative director of the Voices & Visions project I had the advantage of being able to choose the pick of the crop of quotations prior to offering them to the other artists. I decided to select the Susan Sontag quotation as I realized that there are many ways to visually interpret speech. The challenge was which direction I should take, other than displaying a zipped-up mouth!
I have always been intrigued by sign language of one sort or another. I was once invited to design a poster for the revitalization of the city of Naples, Italy, in which I incorporated an engraving of the Neapolitan hand gesture for “beauty.” On another occasion I designed the cover of the house magazine of a television network. I created the magazine’s name in nautical flag semaphore, a nod to the company general manager’s naval background. Or for the opening title sequence to my documentary on World War ll, Liberation, I spelt out the letter V for Victory in Morse code. I recall, as a child during the war, seeing the dot-dot-dot-dash painted on many of London’s street walls and air raid shelters.
After finally arriving at my concept, my next step was to decide on the technique and medium. At first I contemplated drawing the hands realistically, or perhaps in a more decorative style, then serendipity stepped in during a visit to my local art store—I finally found the answer when I noticed a display of wooden articulated hands. “Bingo, I’ve got it!”
How did your collaboration with the Grinspoon Foundation actually come about?
My wife, Isolde, who is my collaborating partner, and I had the opportunity to meet with philanthropist Harold Grinspoon and Madeline Calabrese, the campaign’s project manager, in New York City in March 2011. But my involvement with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation began earlier with a telephone call from venerated graphic designer and educator Louis Danziger. He was one of the artists who visually interpreted well-known quotations for the landmark advertising campaign Great Ideas of Western Man that was produced by the Container Corporation of America (CCA) between 1950 and the 1970s. Harold Grinspoon’s idea was to take the CCA concept and translate it to a Jewish perspective by selecting significant quotations by Jewish luminaries throughout history, each representing a Jewish value, and have them interpreted by Jewish artists. And it was Danziger who asked if I was interested in the project as he wished to recommend me as creative director.
Our first task was to come up with a name and logotype for the project. I finally proposed the name Voices & Visions as it not only expressed the coming together of the two entities of words and images, parallel to this I discovered that by strategically placing the two Vs together they form a Star of David.
Indeed, that is a wonderful “coming together.” Could you talk a bit more about the process, about the making of Voices & Visions?
Certainly. A team of scholars chose the quotations, after which copyright clearance was obtained prior to sending invitations to the prospective participants. With the knowledge of the unique styles of each of these artists, we carefully chose quotations that we thought would stimulate their style and thinking. This approach produced unexpected results—some predictable, some surprising.
In June 2012 Isolde and I spent a week in Springfield, Massachusetts, supervising the print check on the large run of the eighteen V&V posters, printed in several formats. After a period of eighteen months we now find it most gratifying to see the fruits of our labor so beautifully displayed at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Actually, the title Voices & Visions makes me think of the Skirball’s permanent exhibition called Visions and Values, for which you created an amazing audiovisual kaleidoscope of Jewish contributions to humanity as well as graphic decade panels of notable events. Both of those works feature a multi-perspectives approach, and so does Voices & Visions.
On a recent visit to the Skirball Cultural Center I did note the similarity of the core exhibit’s title Visions and Values to the Voices & Visions project name. Perhaps I had subconsciously recalled the name while working on this project. However Voices & Visions seemed the perfect fit for the two elements of our mission, the words of the quotes and the artists’ interpretations.
These days it becomes extremely difficult to think up a unique name for a project. For example, both Voices & Visions and Visions and Values have been adopted numerous times for such diverse organizations as think tanks, educational institutions, and corporations including Alcoa, Coca-Cola, and Wells Fargo. I also found that there is a similarity in my design of the V&V symbol and the Star of David clock opening title to the kaleidoscope exhibit that I had created in 1996.
Over the years I have been given the opportunity to interpret Jewish symbols such as the Star of David and the menorah for several assignments. Searching the internet one comes across a number of interpretations of these symbols; the challenge for the designer is to come up with a unique slant. Thus the creative challenge today has become more difficult than ever. Often when I think I have come up with a brilliant concept, I then discover that someone has already thought of the very same idea!
Let’s come back to your function as creative director for Voices & Visions. I am sure that this amazing international array of designers was only possible due to your having long-standing contacts in the design world. How did you decide whom to invite? What were your criteria?
Some forty years ago I was elected to the prestigious Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). Its members are considered among the world’s leading graphic designers. This connection afforded me the opportunity to form close friendships with these designers. The only artist among the group who is not an AGI member is Daniel Bennett Schwartz, who is recognized as a fine artist. Daniel created a series of paintings for my Oscar-winning feature documentary Genocide (1981).
It is a well-known fact that many members of the Jewish faith have excelled in this calling. So it was a fairly easy task to recruit Jewish artists who, due to our long-standing relationship, readily agreed to participate in the poster series.
Why do you think so many great designers and illustrators are Jewish?
In the early part of the twentieth century the offspring of a diaspora of immigrants to the United States faced considerable prejudice within the American workforce, where there were very few professional job openings for them. Despite these setbacks they prevailed.
Sometimes perceived as mere peddlers, they reinvented themselves into super-visual salesmen, exploring other avenues such as Madison. They emerged as the indisputable masters of their craft, producing such past legendary figures as Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Lou Dorfsman, Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg, Al Hirschfeld, Leo Lionni, Maurice Sendak, Herb Lubalin, André François, Alvin Lustig, Henry Wolf—the list goes on and on, including the first of the great women graphic designers to emerge, Cipe Pineles. America has since been enriched by the legacy of these giants who found their niche and excelled in the world of visual communication. Members of that generation are among the eighteen V&V artists; a couple of them even took part in the original CCA advertising campaign.
On a personal note it was Saul Bass who invited me to the United States in 1978 to be his design director. Some thirty-four years later this afforded me the opportunity to work on Voices & Visions.