Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Robert Overby: Parallel, 1978-1969

Hammer Museum
10899 Wilshire Boulevard
May 1–August 31, 2000

Today, the late Robert Overby (1935-93) has all the aura of a cult star; a decade ago he wasn't even marina. “I see this show as the beginning of the public life of the artist,” says curator Terry R. Myers, who is preparing the first-ever Overby retrospective. “We need to see as many of the different things he did as possible.” That excludes his career as one of the most prominent graphic designers of his time: Between 1960 and 1970 Overby created logos and corporate-identity packages for Boeing, MGM, IBM, and Upjohn, among others; in 1977 he designed the Toyota logo that is still in use today. But it was only in 1969 that his careers as a fine artist began. When CBS entrusted him with the purchase of a three-hundred-piece art collection, Overby came to the realization that he himself could make fair versions of what he saw: hence the weird pastiches of Frank Stella and Claes Oldenburg he would later include in his self-published artist's book 336 to I, August 1973-July 1969. (In the subtitle of his exhibition, Myers pays homage to Overby's eccentric predilection for backward dating.)

Posthumous attention to Overby has tended to focus on the more art-historically palatable side of his oeuvre, such as his cast-latex pieces—works that neatly dovetailed with the post-Minimalist tendencies of the late '60s and early '70s (and earned brownie points in the '90s alongside the revival of such gestures by artists like Rachel Whiteread). While the Hammer retrospective—the first major contemporary monographic show under new director Ann Philbin—won't explicitly feature the design work, neither will it scant the evidently self-conscious contradictions within his “artistic” corpus. The sixty-eight-piece show leans heavily on the cast-latex sculptures but showcases as well the range of works on canvas and pieces executed in concrete and steel “This show should call into question some of our received ideas about the openness and diversification within art practices during that time,” Myers says. “Overby's failure to catch on in the New York scene then can be attributed to three factors First there was the LA thing, and then it seemed as if his work was an intentional joke. That he was a designer was the last straw.”

While Myers stays away from Overby's officially commercial efforts, the “cynical” dictates of good design, the blurring of boundaries between the fine and the applied, is everywhere in evidence. That the work should be revived at a time when the nexus of fine art and design again appears as an open question is fitting. Collaterally post-Minimalist and anticipatory of appropriation art, Overby seems even more archly postmodern than his most sedulously serious compeers.