‘The Art of the Poster,’ in Aspen
July 6, 2011
ASPEN – On the wall above the bed in his house in Aspen’s West End, Leonard Lauder has a poster. That is not remarkable at all – in all of Lauder’s houses, some amount of wall space is given over to the poster, those familiar, inexpensive, mass-produced works of paper, a combination of graphic and text, art and commercial pitch.
“It doesn’t mean they crowd out the Picassos, but they’re always there,” Lauder said.
Lauder, the 77-year-old former CEO of the Estee Lauder cosmetics companies, does, in fact, own Picassos, and numerous other similarly precious works. But if the posters did somehow manage to dominate the walls around his homes, forcing the pricier art into storage spaces or public collections, it’s not entirely clear that Lauder would object. Lauder’s knowledge of posters is encyclopedic; over the course of a morning, he went over the origins of modern posters (Frenchman Jules Cheret, in the 1880s); the hot spots of posters-as-art (first France, in the Art Nouveau period; then, in order, Germany, Switzerland and Italy); and the significance of posters in art history. (Rothko and the entire color field movement in mid-20th century America traces back, he said, to Swiss posters of 1909.)
“In any room we have, there’s always a poster hanging. I live with them,” said Lauder, whose house in South Florida features Art Deco posters, and whose Manhattan home has posters oriented around transatlantic shipping.
For the moment, the Aspen house is short on posters. Pieces from Lauder’s Aspen collection, built around European skiing, are on exhibition at the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Auditorium, in a show titled “Snow, Speed, and Style: Winter Sports Posters from the Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Collection.”
Lauder will give a lecture on “The Art of the Poster” at 5 p.m. Wednesday, at Paepcke Auditorium.
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Lauder began collecting posters as a child, making his way around New York City to pick up the propaganda posters – among them, one with the text “Loose Lips Sink Ships” – given away by the Office of War Information. Though those posters were given away for free, Lauder came to understand that posters at the time were valued objects – manufactured, sold, collected, exhibited. The way people treated posters became apparent for Lauder in the 1960s, when he visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and expressed an interest in poster art. He was taken downstairs to a room where thousands of German posters, saved by German Jews who escaped Europe during World War II, were stored.
“Most of them were in impeccable condition,” he said. “People didn’t pull them off the walls. Because they were produced for sale.”
Lauder was attracted first by the imagery of the posters: “Poster imagery is powerful – a picture and a short headline tells the whole story,” he said. Over time, though, as he turned the smallish company his parents founded into a cosmetics giant, posters began to resonate on multiple levels.
“I love to see things sold,” he said. “Posters, at the time they were first produced, were the only means of mass communication. That’s what was used to sell things, the most vital way to sell people on World War I, World War II. Posters combined my loving to see things sold and my love of art.”
There came a point where Lauder’s love of posters truly did create space issues; room was so tight that he began stashing posters under his bed. He estimates that he’s given away more than 80 percent of his collection. A favorite part of what he still owns is on exhibit in Aspen; Lauder says the Swiss ski posters in Paepcke Auditorium are “as good as they come.”
To measure the personal value of posters, Lauder uses the same scale that he uses on a Picasso: Does he still find meaning, and even additional meaning, the 30th time he looks as it? Posters clear that bar.
“They’re beautiful,” he said. “I never tire of looking at them.”