WHEN I MOVED to New York in 1994, I was introduced to Lella and Massimo by a mutual friend, photographer Nini Mulas. The year before, I had worked closely with Nini for over a month, elbow to elbow, 24/7, preparing an issue of Abitare on Los Angeles. Nini was one of the Vignellis’ most intimate friends. It goes without saying that Nini and Lella—both true art Amazons—did not mince words when it came to giving me frank and fierce advice on how to behave as a newcomer in New York—what to wear, how to behave 9 to 5, how to behave 7 to midnight and beyond, which art galleries to visit, where not to go, best and worst architects, best and worst designers, whom to invite for lunch and whom for drinks. . . . They were loving but also authoritative and definitive and impossibly stylish, dressed in black and gray and navy (the latter only occasionally). Massimo shared their chromatic penchants but liked to talk about beauty and design rather than about survival in New York. He was smiling, suave, and forgiving—at least so he was at home, over a dinner of risotto with Lella and his son Luca.
I was soon presented with a different side of Massimo at a symposium on graphic design organized by Illinois Institute of Technology professor Sharon Poggenpohl in Chicago. There, I had a chance to witness live one of Massimo’s famous diatribes denouncing the ravages that early digital designers—Emigre’s Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans in particular, who created their own fonts on newly introduced Mac computers—had inflicted upon our field. He sure had strong opinions—and very, very strong words—for these young experimental designers. And he did not change his opinions easily. The querelle continued for many years, until it became the stuff of lore. Of course, time brought perspective and, movingly, Licko and VanderLans wrote Massimo a goodbye letter in which they said that “over time, we have come to realize that your critique was probably one of the most valuable replies to our work,” as reported by Julie Lasky in the New York Times.
MoMA and the Vignellis have had a close relationship for decades, through three generations of curators. To celebrate Massimo’s life, we recently installed one of our proudest acquisitions—a selection of their work for the New York subway system—accompanied by a post on the MoMA blog. The famous 1970 New York Subway Map sits front and center, just as it sits high among the great masterpieces of graphic-design history. Just like Harry Beck’s much earlier map of the London Underground, it was filled with rectifications and rationalizations that were a testament to Massimo’s belief in the universal communicative power of modernism—and of his faith in 90- and 45-degree angles. The waterways were light brown. Places were not where they should be. The map was too much: too straight, too brutal. Even New Yorkers could not cope with it (the map was retired in 1979 and replaced with one that was still abstract but less angular and conceptual), and perhaps they were right. Like a botched first-series stamp, it was a fundamental step towards final success, and it is a rare, precious artifact. It has now been brought back by the MTA—New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority—in their Weekender website, which helps people navigate the system in the days when most maintenance interruptions are scheduled. Here, its extraordinary pointedness and edge offer the perfect platform for a new digital interactivity. After all, there is poetic justice about the fact that the design of someone who was, at first, such a traditionalist turns out to be so well suited to an online format.
Massimo Vignelli’s work transcends all of the boundaries of graphic design—as it transcends those of architecture, design, and communication, for that matter. Only a few designers in history have achieved a level of influence that makes them, very simply, indispensable. I add my voice to the choir and ask, could you think of a world without Massimo’s contributions? So much of it would be visually mute, or at least dumb. And communication design would be much worse off, having missed the productive and polemical energy it gained from arguing against this giant modernist father. I am sad Massimo Vignelli has died, but more than anything, I am so glad he has lived.
Paola Antonelli is the senior curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
I WITNESSED a miracle. On November 22, 2013, Berkeley held the last symposium in honor of James Cahill to be given during his lifetime. I was invited to speak alongside two of Cahill’s former students, now all eminent scholars in the field: Richard Vinograd (Stanford) and Patricia Berger (Berkeley). The person who crashed the party was the honoree himself. Before the symposium started, Cahill showed up in a wheelchair, attended by his caretaker. With his unflagging vigor, he had largely mocked the ruthless law of nature throughout his retirement years. But in the final months of his life, Father Time finally caught up with him. I greeted him, and it was only after I pronounced my name loudly that he recognized me. Never, however, count Cahill out. He surprised the organizers with a modest proposal: He wished to present. And present he did. The wheelchair-bound man, advanced in age and now cognitively struggling to recognize faces, spoke in his tenor voice, crisp, sharp, uncluttered, with an eloquence that was unadulterated vintage Cahillian. What I witnessed was a clinical case of how a great mind works. Other cognitive faculties tethered to his large physical frame had begun to forsake him. However, the robust engine driving a distinct part of his mind, fueled and loaded with a lifetime dedication to Chinese art, throbbed on, unimpaired. The voice that filled the hall came across as a disembodied, soaring spirit, unburdened by the flailing body, as if it had emanated from the recorded tape of one of the lectures Cahill had delivered on so many occasions. That mind attached to Chinese art lives on. It is still with us, alive.
It was fitting that on this occasion Cahill spoke on seventeenth-century Chinese topographic paintings. His magisterial trilogy on Chinese painting ends with the seventeenth century. The Norton Lecture he once delivered at Harvard also focuses on this dynamic period, a subject that had consumed a good part of his intellectual energy. The master narrative he fashioned therein is a tale of two impulses: a literati mode long on self-organizing forms and short on observation-derived verisimilitude, and a professional mode the other way around. The literati won. It was largely due to Cahill and his generation of scholars that the Western readers learned and bought into that story. However, wary of seeing his master plot hardening into an overweening orthodoxy that overwhelmed other impulses, Cahill sought to erode the foundation of the edifice he had successfully built by deflating the loftiness of the literati ideal, weighing in on the losing side of his plotline, and calling attention to the vitality and validity of the professional craftsmanship and practice. The topographic illusionism of garden paintings and well-wrought portraits of female beauty executed in the professional mode preoccupied him in his final years. So it was that he gave his last lecture on topographic paintings of country estates. Later Cahill took on early Cahill. We thus see the self-renewal of a great mind capable of exalting both sides of the story. It is a win-win situation. Cahill shall be at peace with himself in his afterlife: He remains a winner, as always.
Eugene Wang is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller professor of Asian art at Harvard University.
ANNE HOLLANDER was an independent scholar and critic who transformed the way we look at art and fashion. Her first book, Seeing Through Clothes (1978), was a highly original—and brilliantly titled—exploration of the relationship between body and clothes through centuries of art history. At a time when fashion was widely dismissed as frivolous and irrational, Hollander argued that changing styles of dress, like paintings and sculpture, were “connected links in a creative tradition of image-making.” She demonstrated that even the way we perceive and represent the nude is influenced by the way artists portray the body dressed in the fashions of the day. Thus, for example, Goya’s famous Maja has the same “high, widely separated breasts and rigid spine” created by an invisible corset, which is clearly present in the clothed version.
I distinctly remember reading Hollander’s description of the nude and clothed Majas, because I had just had my own epiphany about the cultural significance of fashion. The year was 1978, and I was in my first term in graduate school, when I read two articles in the feminist journal Signs, debating the meaning of the Victorian corset. It was exactly as though a lightbulb had turned on, as I realized, Fashion is part of history! I can study fashion history! Seeing Through Clothes was one of only a very few books that I could envision as a template for the kind of work that I wanted to do.
Eventually, I met Anne, and we became friends. In person, she was not only brilliant but also beautiful and chic. I think that both her personal style and the originality of her work are not unrelated to her position as an independent scholar. Anne was never an academic. She had a bachelor’s degree in art history from Barnard College, but instead of going to graduate school, she became what she called an academic “fellow traveler” in places such as Yale, Harvard, and New York University—married first to poet John Hollander and then philosopher Thomas Nagel. To be an outsider without title or tenure is difficult but also liberating. Lacking an institution, colleagues, or students, she said, “I have only my public, and I have no idea who they are.”
In 1994, Anne published Sex and Suits, another stylish and intelligent exploration. In this book, she focused on the mystery of the men’s tailored suit: Why had this particular fashion lasted so long, virtually unchanged for centuries, when so many others had come and gone? Whereas most writers would have emphasized the relative “functionalism” of the suit, Anne argued that it was really the suit’s aesthetic or its idealizing characteristics that were most important. As she put it: “With the help of nearly imperceptible padding, curved seams, discrete darts and steam pressing,” the suit evolved into “an exquisitely balanced garment that fitted smoothly without wrinkles and buttoned without strain to clothe what appeared to be the torso of a Greek athlete.” This was, perhaps, not an entirely convincing argument, as it not only idealized the effect of the average suit but also minimized the suit’s significance as an indicator of global modernity and class identity. Nevertheless, it served as a useful corrective to the orthodox interpretation of the menswear.
Having heard Anne talk about cloth and clothing in painting, Patricia Williams, then the publishing director of the National Gallery Company, invited her to propose an exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The result was the 2002 exhibition and accompanying book “Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting.” Although I did not get to see the exhibition, the book remains a valuable document of Anne’s ideas about drapery, dress, nudity, and style. I wish that a publisher would collect Anne’s many articles on fashion, some of which can be found online. In her review of my 1999 exhibition, “Shoes: A Lexicon of Style,” for example, Anne zeros in, unerringly, on “the lethal weapon style, which usually involves a fierce high heel, often skinny and slanted in an odd direction, like a half-open switchblade.” If only there were more people who could write like that about fashion.
Valerie Steele is director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York and editor of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.
WU TIANMING came into his own in the Chinese culture wars of the late 1980s. He’d been a “movie brat,” a village kid in love with films since childhood, and he first thought that he’d like to be an actor. In 1960, aged twenty, he managed to get into a training class for film acting run by the Xi’an Film Studio, of China’s sixteen state-run studios the one nearest to his home in Sanyuan, Shaanxi Province. Having joined the studio’s payroll he did some bit-parts in the studio’s productions of the early 1960s, but his dreams of stardom ended—along with almost everything else in the film industry—in 1966, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution turned most areas of Chinese life upside-down. Wu never talked about how he got through the “years of turmoil” but we know that he came out of them wanting to be a director. He spent the last three years of the Cultural Revolution (1974-76) studying directing at the partly re-opened Beijing Film Academy.
Back in Xi’an, he co-directed two features with his friend Teng Wenji and then made his debut as a solo director with River Without Buoys (Meiyou Hangbiao de Heliu) in 1982. It’s hard to overstate the impact this film had in China at the time. First, it was the most accomplished and original movie ever to come out of Xi’an Film Studio, a less than lustrous production center founded only to pay lip service to the communist government’s policies of de-centralization and regionalism. Second, its tale of rafters on the Xiao River played into the contemporary fashion for “scar fiction”—novels, poems, and films which lamented the emotional and psychological wounds inflicted on ordinary people during the Cultural Revolution—but transcended the genre by focusing on surly, hard-bitten men and doing without tear-jerk sentimentality. Shot entirely on location with an almost tactile immediacy, the film gave veteran star Li Wei (who had made his screen debut thirty-four years earlier in Fei Mu’s legendary Spring in a Small Town) his last great role as Pan Laowu, a hard-ass loner unjustly criticized by extremist leftists.
The prestige, the commercial success, and the emotional resonances of River Without Buoys led to Wu Tianming’s appointment as the new head of Xi’an Film Studio in 1983. Approaching his forty-fifth birthday, he was the youngest studio head in the PRC and, according to a 1987 New York Times report by Edward A. Gargan, immediately made his presence felt by telling the studio staff it was shameful that so many Xi’an Studio films appeared on “Year’s Worst” lists. A good five years before Deng Xiaoping called for sweeping economic reforms in the public sector, Wu began making radical changes in the studio. He went straight into production of his own new feature Life (Rensheng, 1984), attacking what he defined as the three main problems in Chinese society: having to accept assigned posts rather than choose one’s own employment, the practices of nepotism and favoritism, and “unhealthy tendencies in the Party.” All but unnoticed outside China, the film created national shockwaves at home and fueled intense debate.
Life inaugurated a policy of producing “westerns”—by which Wu meant movies with deep roots in the West China regions around Xi’an, although one of the films he greenlit, He Ping’s The Swordsman in Double-flag Town, actually was a brilliant “translation” of codes and conventions from the American Western. On top of high-grade entertainments, Wu insisted on producing a number of tansuo pian—literally “experimental films”—which he saw as important for raising aesthetic and conceptual standards, regardless of their commercial performance. They included Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief (Daoma Zei, 1986), shot in Tibet and Gansu, and Chen Kaige’s King of the Children (Haizi Wang, 1987), shot in Yunnan; both films obliquely reflected their directors’ experiences in the Cultural Revolution.
By employing “Fifth Generation” directors like Tian and Chen and allowing them to make defiantly non-commercial films, Wu found himself at odds with Wu Yigong at the Shanghai Film Studio, who regularly spoke out against “elitist” films which the mass audience couldn’t understand or relate to. But Wu Tianming prevailed, not least because his once-moribund studio produced as many hits as Shanghai did, but also because his tansuo pian were premiered in international festivals and acclaimed as breakers of a “new wave” in Chinese cinema.
Wu cemented his strategic alliance with the “Fifth Generation” by making a deal with Chen Kaige’s cinematographer Zhang Yimou: in return for letting him turn director to make Red Sorghum (Hong Gaoliang, 1987), Zhang agreed to act in Wu Tianming’s new film Old Well (Lao Jing, 1987) as well as supervising its cinematography. Both films took the China market by storm and went on to achieve considerable international success. These triumphs strengthened and emboldened Wu. When the head of Shaanxi Propaganda Bureau criticized his policies, Wu Tianming fought back by publicly denouncing him as “a bureaucrat who doesn’t understand films but wants to control filmmaking.” As the International Herald Tribune commented, it was “virtually unheard of for a well-known Chinese artist or intellectual to criticize a Party official to a western reporter.”
Wu Tianming was traveling abroad in the spring of 1989, as the protest-occupation of Tiananmen Square gathered momentum: first in Australia, as the head of a Chinese film delegation, then in the US by the time the Party opted for military force to end the protest. He chose not to return home, and American universities queued up to offer him “visiting scholar” posts to get him through the crisis. By 1993, though, he was reduced to running a video-rental store in Monterey Park, California, and stumbling through daily English-language lessons; he told me that he learned five new words each morning and had forgotten four of them by the afternoon. It was inevitable that he would eventually return to China, and inevitable that his many enemies in the Communist Party would make his life difficult when he did.
There were two last films as director: King of Masks (Bian Lian, 1995), a charming fable about a 1930s street entertainer, financed by Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, and An Unusual Love Story (Feichang Aiqing, 1998), in which strong performances just about redeem the mawkish plot. There was also a return to his origins as an actor when he starred in the 2012 film Full Circle. But, like too many of China’s greatest film talents, Wu Tianming had a career curtailed by circumstances beyond his control. When it mattered in the late 1980s, though, he was a one-man reform movement—and boy, did he achieve.
Tony Rayns is a London-based freelance filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer.
Michael Schmidt, Ein-heit (U-ni-ty), 1991–94, gelatin print, 20 x 13 1/2”.
GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHER MICHAEL SCHMIDT died on May 24, 2014 after a long illness. He will be remembered by his friends for his great warmth and loyalty, as well as for his uncompromising honesty and utter lack of sentimentality. “Life is not a holiday,” he liked to say. He was a very serious guy, but he had a robust sense of humor—a big smile and even bigger laugh. He will also be remembered by his peers for his dedication to his work and to theirs, and for his affecting brand of high ambition stripped of the even slightest pretense. “I am the best photographer in the Wartenburgstrasse” was another refrain, and nothing pleased him more than a strong new body of work made by a friend.
Schmidt will be remembered above all for photographs and books rooted in his native Berlin. He was born there in October 1945, just shy of five months after the end of the war in Europe. “The pre-natal period was very important,” he insisted. So, too, was the location. He was born in what would become West Berlin, but when he was a child his family lived in the East for several years before fleeing back to the West. Schmidt started out as a cop (it’s what his parents wanted) and learned photography on his own in his early twenties. In 1969 he began teaching photography at the Volkshochschule (adult education center) in his neighborhood of Kreuzberg, and at the center in 1976 he founded the Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography).
That same year, Bernd Becher was appointed professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, which dwarfed the Workshop in scale and prestige, and the art world soon became obsessed with photographic doings in Düsseldorf. But during Schmidt’s five years of involvement with the Workshop it was a beehive of impressive visits and/or exhibitions by the likes of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Larry Clark, William Eggleston, John Gossage, and Stephen Shore. It is extraordinary that a neighborhood community center was among the first and most active institutions in Europe to embrace the vitality of postwar American photography.
Meanwhile, Schmidt in his own work was applying the lessons of American work to his deeply personal experience of his battered and divided hometown. His early books were devoted to the Berlin neighborhoods of Kreuzberg (1973) and Wedding (1978) and to the city and its inhabitants more broadly (Berlin: Stadtlandschaft und Menschen, 1978). The photographs are as brittle and unadorned as Robert Adams’s early pictures—minus the bracing sunshine of the American Southwest—and the new buildings seem just as grim as the city’s nasty scars. The pictures nonetheless convey familiarity and affection—and a weighty regard for the inhabitants.
Berlin nach 45 (Berlin since 45), the strongest of Schmidt’s early series, was photographed in 1980 but not published until 2005. Pristine pictures devoid of people survey a cityscape whose bombed-out lots remained barren after the Wall went up in 1961. Here, Schmidt’s steady gaze often met the blank firewalls of buildings that were half their former selves, and the stripped severity of the photographs slices like a sharp knife. Despite the nominal reserve of the images, Schmidt’s emotion enters our hearts through our eyes, as it would again in a series titled Waffenruhe (Ceasefire) that he began in 1985 and published in ’87. Here, reserve gave way to high pictorial drama: Extreme details, croppings, overlappings, disparities of focus, and somber tones transform drab and ugly patches of the city into monuments of funereal pain. And though many of the pictures are fragmentary, murky and cryptic—as if it hurt Schmidt to look—there’s no question that the main subject is the Berlin Wall.
The stylistic evolution of Schmidt’s work from the early ’70s to the mid ’80s was remarkable. Perhaps still more remarkable was the passage that led from the expressionist immediacy of Waffenruhe to the dense, complex, and demanding Ein-heit of 1996. The single German word broken in half signalled Schmidt’s skepticism toward Germany’s euphoric rush to reunification in 1990—a message unfortunately diluted by the English title U-ni-ty. About half of the book’s 163 photographs are by Schmidt; the rest are his photographic copies, often decisively cropped, of images from newspapers, magazines, propaganda magazines, and the like. The deliberate, poetic sequence simultaneously evokes the painful complexities of German history after 1933 and interrogates the reader, who is obliged to interpret the uncaptioned images and the implications that arise from the sequence. Among photobooks, Ein-heit is at once the most creative response to Walker Evans’s American Photographs since Robert Frank’s The Americans and a wily embodiment of postmodern sophistication.
After Ein-heit, Schmidt stopped photographing in Berlin. He went on to complete valuable projects on women (Frauen, 2000), provincial Germany (Irgendwo, 2005), and the food industry (Lebensmittel, 2012, for which he was awarded the Prix Pictet three days before he died). But his most important and lasting legacy is his sustained, artistically vital, and deeply moving engagement with his native city.
Peter Galassi is a scholar and curator whose principal fields are photography and nineteenth-century French art.
Michael Schmidt, “Lebensmittel,” 2006–10, c-print, 22 x 32”.
I AM NOT SURE if it’s appropriate to picture someone who was a great human being with a tremendous love of life by first mentioning that he was a former policeman. But imagine a friendly cop, someone who would know how valuable the idea of organization and order is for society. Michael Schmidt wouldn’t let go. So when you discussed images with him, he would have a firm conviction, paired with an openness and tremendous generosity to give advice and support. He would be sure of his own work by the time he showed it, but he freely admitted that he wasn’t certain until he had it where he needed it to be, and that discovery process could take many years. And he would be staunchly convinced of other people’s work, too, which allowed him to help a great number of artists, especially once he founded his legendary Workshop for Photography in Berlin in the late 1970s.
Berlin was then, and to a certain degree is still, a provincial city. To a great extent he coined the images we associate today with its leaden past, when the wall was still up and the city seemed to be a dead end. He actually described himself as working in a cul-de-sac. When asked if he could work somewhere else, too, he replied, “Of course I could, but I wouldn’t know why.” He made black-and-white images of the corners no one loves, cares about, or ever had any aesthetic ambition for. Yet he wasn’t unemotional about the place, he was just unsentimental, and his clear, unblurred view onto the small world he saw matched—in his own, very recognizable dialect—pretty much what other people in other countries were recognizing as iconic as well. That made his work, if not international (as it’s not about being linked to some global aesthetic), then inspiring for people elsewhere who didn’t suffer from a similarly desolate environment. Though he was until recently mostly noticed in smaller circles rather than the broader public he deserved, he was nevertheless massively influential for a number of generations of German photographers without directly being their teacher.
But work that looks today like a classic Teutonic view onto our trite and demure environment, which defined the everyday in West Germany, was just one aspect of his efforts. His surroundings changed, and so did he. His sensitive attention turned toward more fundamental concerns: The last body of work which gained international acclaim was about food (his series “Lebensmittel,” in literal translation, “means to live”), which I saw over the years in different formations and constellations in his studio located in the two Germany’s former Grenzland (borderland). He started to use color photography, sparsely—and surely not for the same reasons others do, but rather to show, for instance, the grotesqueness of packaged meat that reveals a clown’s face when sliced. It was shocking: Apples would suddenly look aggressively healthy, cabbage depressing. He had a great sense of humor and was a man who was not as granite faced as one would think looking at his prints. Schmidt was ill for a year, seriously facing death, without losing his resilient vigor. He knew time was running out, and he worked until his last weeks, just publishing a book called Nature a few days before he passed away. That book looks like his legacy: I don’t think he believed in fate, and the sixty-some pictures in the book at least wouldn’t suggest that. Here, the photographer’s eye looks at trees, undergrowth, fields, one odd cow, and branches. His stoic view is unsentimental, not looking for solace in the romantic, and absolutely aware of an unbridgeable distance between himself and the unimpressed nature around him, which runs its course with logic but without any divine dramaturgy.
Thomas Demand is an artist based in Berlin and Los Angeles.