Art, by design
December 23, 2005
Certainly there are more famous names to have emerged from the Bauhaus school than Herbert Bayer’s. The German school of art and design that flourished in the 1920s and ’30s boasted such members as painters Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.But it is debatable whether any Bauhaus artist embraced the school’s philosophy as completely as did Bayer. Founded by the noted architect Walter Gropius in 1919, the Bauhaus was built on the principal that all the creative disciplines, everything from graphic design to painting to urban planning, should be integrated. That concept stemmed from a desire to take positive steps forward following the devastation wrought by World War I. Perhaps by exploring a synergy between artists, designers and architects, Germany could help lead the way out of the darkness.”I think he was the perfect person to go to the Bauhaus,” observed Aspenite Merrill Ford. “I think he was the tabula rasa. He was so young and so fresh when he entered the Bauhaus. And he just accepted it.”
Last week, I was given a fairly quick tour of Aspen’s West End, to get some idea of the mark Bayer left on one small neighborhood. Leading the way were Ford, who was a friend of Bayer’s dating from the mid-1950s, and Hugo Anderson, owner of Denver’s Emil Nelson Gallery, which handles the Bayer estate, and a nephew of the late Aspenite Robert O. Anderson, one of Bayer’s main patrons.Ford and Anderson pointed out a series of houses designed by Bayer, all featuring clean, modernist lines. Most striking was a fence, in front of Bayer’s old West End studio and house, still intact and clearly reflecting his design aesthetics. At the Aspen Meadows – virtually all of which was designed by Bayer – we saw the earth sculptures (an art form invented by Bayer), paintings, fabric wall hangings, a wall of the gymnasium painted in what is commonly known as “Bayer blue,” and around the corner of the gym, a spiral staircase that Ford was particularly fond of. The tour concluded in Ford’s Aspen Meadows home, the most prominent wall of which is devoted exclusively to works by Bayer, numbering around 30.At the center of all this activity is an exhibit in the art gallery inside the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Auditorium. Featuring work largely from the collection of Bayer’s late widow Joella, the exhibit “joella’s bayers” features paintings, photographs, drawings, watercolors and sculptural maquettes, all from Bayer’s early period, from the 1920s to the ’40s. Also on display are several photo montages, another form Bayer is credited with co-inventing with Laszlo Maholo-Nagy. The exhibit opened last week and runs through March.And there is still more Bayer to be seen in Aspen. “Herbert Bayer: From Bauhaus to Aspen” opens at Sardella Fine Art on Tuesday, Dec. 27, and runs through Jan. 17. The companion exhibit features later posters, paintings and examples of his design work.Somehow, this just scratches the surface of what Bayer produced in his 85 years, some 27 of those, from 1946-73, lived in Aspen. A survey of what Bayer accomplished leads inevitably to a wonder about the man and his mind.In Aspen, Bayer designed the original Sundeck – an octagonal building that permitted unobstructed views of all the mountains – and the Bayer-Benedict Music Tent, the home for Aspen Music Festival concerts for some 35 years. On the smaller scale, he created snowflake pins, ski posters and the annual poster for the Aspen Music Festival and School. He designed a monument for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and a similar piece that stands at the Denver Design Center. As a design consultant for the Atlantic Richfield corporation, headed by Robert O. Anderson, Bayer led the corporate art program and designed rugs and highways and two Los Angeles skyscrapers.
Bayer was the director of a groundbreaking advertising campaign for the Container Corporation of America, owned by the pioneer of modern Aspen, Walter Paepcke. It was perhaps the first series of ads that didn’t promote a product; instead, the Container Corporation allowed Bayer to design eye-catching pages that combined art with philosophical writings. Bayer created ads for Norel and General Electric, and was so highly respected that he was allowed the uncommon privilege of signing his name to the ad designs. He was art director for Vogue magazine in Berlin.And yet, the Encyclopedia Americana refers to Bayer simply as a “typography pioneer” – which is strictly true. Bayer is credited with inventing the sans serif typeface, a genre of type that was typically clean and functional. He also invented an alphabet, heavy on punctuation marks, and completely absent capital letters. (Hence the unusual spelling of the “joella’s bayers” exhibit. “If you ever got a letter from Bayer, there were never any capital letters,” said Ford.) The Bauhaus founded a position in typography specially for Bayer. Ford and Anderson also recall a Bayer-designed atlas that was uncommonly attractive. In 1938, Bayer designed the exhibition “Bauhaus: 1919-1928” for New York’s Museum of Modern Art.Bayer, the artistFor all his prominence as a designer, Bayer’s fine artwork is beautiful, mysterious, even emotional. And always impressively constructed.
“You see this show,” said Hugo Anderson, referring to the Aspen Institute exhibit that he curated, “and you see the art is not an afterthought. You see that his fine art career was extraordinarily important to him. The work evolves from when he was 19 ’til his death, at 85 [when he was living in the Santa Barbara area, where he moved in 1975].”Bayer’s hunger for artistic knowledge came early. The Bauhaus school offered instruction in almost every area of the arts – except art history. So Bayer took it upon himself to get educated. With a friend, Bayer took a year’s leave from school and walked across Italy, absorbing several centuries of art history along the way.The range of fine art is as impressive as Bayer’s multifaceted design achievements. In “joella’s bayers,” there are photo montages that play with perspective and composition, paintings and watercolors that reveal his genius for color. As a younger man, the work tends toward surrealism, growing gradually more graphic as his design career flourished.Some recall Bayer as aloof – as well as meticulous, well-dressed and short on ego. But the art exposes how Bayer absorbed the world around him. When his daughter Julia died young, he went through a gray period. As the Nazism threatened his native Austria, Bayer’s work reflected his anti-war sentiments. Among the most powerful works in “joella’s bayers” is “Call to Arms,” which chillingly portrays a dark sky above the faceless masses, all carrying jagged weapons. Following the war – and living in Aspen, which reminded him of the small mountain town of Haag am Haustruck where he was born into a farming family – the tones got lighter. After the actor Gary Cooper gave him a pair of owls, the birds, and especially the round owl eyes, became prominent in his art. A butterfly collector, Bayer often put butterfly images in his work. When the United States started its Apollo space program, he played with images of the moon.For all the distinct periods, there are also ideas that Bayer played with for decades on end. The earliest piece in “joella’s bayers,” a drawing Bayer made at age 19, includes the image of clouds the artist would revisit repeatedly.
“I think he does an extraordinary job of that logical German mind,” said Anderson. “He gets an idea and he runs it through everything, to see if it fits. And if it fits, it’ll show up in other media. He was the example of thinking, just because he used an idea once, the idea wasn’t dead. It evolves. And Herbert evolves a lot.”One shape, a square with pinched-off corners that resembles the Music Tent’s canvas panels, was a consistent component in the art. It shows up in drawings, sculptures and in a chapel Bayer built in New Mexico for Robert O. Anderson. Ford once asked Bayer about the shape.”He said, ‘You wouldn’t understand it,'” recalled Ford. “I said, try me. He told me it was his spirit.”In retrospectIn the estimation of Ford and Hugo Anderson, Bayer’s renown, especially as a fine artist, lags behind his achievements. Oddly, they point to his success – both as an artist and as a designer – for this relative lack of recognition.
During his years in Aspen, virtually all of Bayer’s art was bought by his two patrons, Robert O. Anderson and Walter Paepcke. (It was Paepcke who persuaded Bayer to move to Aspen and who kept Bayer busy with significant projects, including the creation of the Aspen Institute campus.) The immediate sale of his art, combined with his financially rewarding design career, made it unnecessary for him to push his work into galleries and subject himself to critical reviews.”He was too successful,” said Anderson. ‘He didn’t have to go and exhibit as much, go through getting in galleries and being reviewed and being acquired. He had two big patrons in Aspen, so it would just get snapped up. The critics punish you if you don’t pay your dues. And being in Aspen was the kiss of death, as far as having an art career.”Anderson is set on correcting the record. In addition to the two current Aspen shows, the opening of the expanded Denver Art Museum, next fall, will include a Bayer exhibit. But Anderson, who is working on a book of Bayer’s graphic design, has bigger things in mind.”My goal is to see a major retrospective of his work,” he said. “Bayer’s work could fill the whole Denver Art Museum. And the more you see of Bayer, the stronger he comes across.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com