A pair of dark eyes, one framed within a trapezoid of shadow, gaze out from the black-and-white photograph that opens Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig. The graphic designer’s face is partially hidden by his right hand, its lifelines traced over with dark ink. The portrait was taken when Lustig was nearing 30 and already well established as one of California’s most imaginative designers of everything from letterheads to office space. The effect is both surreal and literal, a graphic rendition of palm reading.
Born in 1915, Lustig began publishing his innovative type treatments and streamlined illustrations when he was 18. While still in his 20s, he caught the attention of publisher James Laughlin, who was struck by this “young man who was doing ‘queer things’ with type.” Soon Lustig was designing a dust jacket for D.H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died, deploying a sans serif font against three biomorphic forms that progressed from limp black to bulbous gray to angular yellow. Influenced by the likes of Paul Klee and Joan Miro, Lustig distilled modernist painting into flat abstract shapes leavened with sinuous lines, the hues as carefully modulated as a Josef Albers color study. Born Modern is chockablock with vivid examples of Lustig’s hand-drawn images along with equally fresh collages—his cover for Lorca’s 3 Tragedies features black-and-white photographs of a full moon, a roiling sea, and a simple cross juxtaposed against shots of the author’s name scratched into wet sand and the book’s title scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper.
Readers of Laughlin’s New Directions literary line were impressed: Sales increased by 300 percent after Lustig began composing the covers.
Daniel Clowes, creator of graphic novels Ghost World and Ice Haven, admits to obsessive collecting of Lustig’s New Directions images from the ’40s. “I can’t even put my finger on what it is about his work, but he’s just the best,” Clowes once told the comic-book scholar Todd Hignite. “The combination of the images in relation to the title in relation to the typography is pretty much unmatched.” In Born Modern, the authors note that Ed Ruscha—an artist who famously deploys text and graphics in dauntingly witty canvases depicting gas stations and other mundanities—also cites Lustig’s New Directions book covers as an influence.
Although he was raised in California, Lustig could not resist the pull of New York when he was offered a job as the first “visual research director” for Look magazine. “Have succumbed to the lurid blandishments of the purple city,” he wrote to Laughlin. In the long run, the gig didn’t work out, but photographs of the airy offices Lustig designed for himself—sleek wood furniture complemented by frosted-glass grids framing silhouettes of hands, eyeballs, arrows, and other archetypes—testify to a lifelong drive to merge sophisticated design with everyday life.
Lustig had been plagued by diabetes since childhood, and by his late 30s was losing his sight. Still, he continued to receive heavyweight commissions, such as designing catalogs for the Museum of Modern Art and signs for Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building. Visualizing the projects in his mind, he dictated specifications to assistants, once asking that a color be matched to “the dominant yellow in Van Gogh’s sunflowers.”
Lustig died in 1955, at age 40, blind, but still far-seeing.
This Lisbon-born painter’s farragoes of texture—pencil, gouache, charcoal, ink—send his imagery yo-yoing between abstraction and figuration. In one piece, a pencil sketch of the Sphinx’s battered visage levitates within the flatly painted, ochre confines of a man’s head, the dark background shot through with bright tendrils of pastel. This existential conundrum channels both the wit of Saul Steinberg and the flickering menace of Francis Bacon.
In another work, penciled figures are dwarfed by tumescent hunks of vegetation, a blotty butterfly, and a swarm of yellow dots, the scale as fungible as the landscape in a dream. Queiroz’s deftly melded materials lend his deformed narratives a bewitching loveliness. Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 530 W 22nd St, 212-929-2262, sikkemajenkinsco.com. Through December 4