Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Re: Building

By Ray Pride

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  Tibor Kalman comes to mind if I ever worry about being too much the dilettante.

The brilliant graphic artist and provocateur was most visible in the 1980s, after his M&Co. firm collaborated with the Talking Heads on the design of their albums, and in the early 1990s, when Kalman edited the first thirteen issues of Benetton's image-driven, issues-heavy Colors magazine. Now: Tibor the monolith. There's a wealth of impressive imagery in the heavy, fat career monograph that is "Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist," with more than 600 illustrations from his many projects, but it's the unregenerately boisterous Kalman's words that matter most, in the essays and interviews collected here, most highlighting his prickly insistence on remaining ill-trained. "A state of bliss," is how he describes working on a typography-drenched Talking Heads video, "like being 10-years-old, not knowing what you're doing, but being in charge." There are also contributions by the likes of Kurt Andersen, Ingrid Sischy and I.D. magazine's Peter Hall. "I did two of a number of things," he tells Andersen, with whom he worked with on Spy magazine. "The first one, you fuck it up in an interesting way; the second one, you get it right; and then you're out of there."

Kalman has always attempted to find some sort of sanity , to impose some kind of skeptical dialectic upon the artifacts of late capitalism, rather than shooting helplessly along the multimedia image flume. (He finds the "incredible confusion" of a designer like David Carson to be "an incredible waste of trees.")

Perhaps Kalman's boldest project of late is his collaboration with architect Richard A. M. Stern on the current carnival-esque incarnation of New York's 42nd Street. Rather than an anachronistic recreation, Kalman argued for brighter lights and bolder signage, "a variety of old and new with the billboards poised above a dazzling array of disarray;" in essence, recognizing that the present-day grifter's midway of corporate commerce will change in unpredictable ways, buffeted less by the ravages of time than shifts in brand-name and logo-driven commerce. "Orchestrated spontaneity," another phrase used to describe the approach, could describe Kalman's own attack, particularly now, after a protracted illness, that he has turned to "noncommercial" applications of the many fields that fascinate him, dismissing the life of "logos, brochures, motels, tomato sauce or corporate bullshit." In contributor Steven Heller's words, he's "found a way to make commercial art serve society, the ultimate client." Or, as Kalman says, "Fuck committees. I believe in lunatics."

1 Proofreader's marks for: "To come; restore"

"Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist"
Edited by Peter Hall, Michael Bierut
Princeton Architectural Press, 420 pages, $60


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