The Ultimate Poster Gallery

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The Reinhold Brown collection in New York City provides a tour of poster history.

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Reinhold Brown

Even among diehard art connoisseurs, posters are one of the subsets of graphic design that's accepted as legitimate art. Part of the credit for that fact should go to a New York City gallery known as Reinhold Brown, one of the first to take the poster off street and put it on the gallery walls. Since their exhibition space opened in 1973, Susan Reinhold and Robert K. Brown have uncovered so many individual schools of poster design that their business should be considered a university.

Bob Brown, who lives in an apartment once occupied (with furniture designed) by Lucian Bernhard, the father of the reductive "object poster" or "sachplakat," says he "fell for the medium in 1968." Posters were consistent with his other enthusiasms at the time, film and jazz. "I never thought about the alternatives in art dealing such as paintings or prints," he says.

Reinhold Brown's first exhibition in 1975 was "Posters of the Vienna Secession," which were little known in the U.S. at the time. The gallery was the first to display nearly all the richly layered works the PKZ poster campaign for the Swiss men's clothing store chain. Another landmark was incredibly rare and significant works from the 1920s titled "Russian Constructivist Film Posters." Many exhibitions of early- and mid-century modern poster designers opened at Reinhold Brown, among them A.M. Cassandre, Paul Rand, Lester Beall, Joseph Mueller-Brockmann, and Niklaus Troxler. And with an exhibition of April Greiman's digital work, they helped popularize postmodern design. In their new space (960 Madison between 75th and 76th Streets) the current exhibition, "From Mackintosh to Lichtenstein: Design Landmarks in the History of the Poster" is as stunning as any exhibition the have already mounted.

While some poster dealers were content to show only highly collectible art nouveau and art deco posters, Reinhold Brown introduced modern—indeed austere—Swiss and German posters.

Graphic design is more collectible now than ever. Affordability may have something to do with that. The breaking down of cultural taboos as to what is art may also play a role.

"We feel that these posters from their modern beginning circa 1905 best express what you call 'posterness,' exemplified by their simplicity and the way—often playful and witty—that they highlighted the advertised product and drew the viewer into the situation," Brown says. "The Swiss have had an enduring and interesting legacy for the whole of the 20th century."

Reinhold Brown's goal is to foster excitement about the continuum of poster art. So in the current exhibition, posters from the 1920s presage Pop Art and hyper-realism as well as the highest achievements in elegant typographic and neo-Constructivist posters from the 1950s.

But this is not selfless connoisseurship; the gallery is in the business of selling artifacts. And what posters sell the best? Brown lists winter sport posters between 1915 and 1950, automobile posters, and travel posters, especially stylish ones from the 1920 and 1930s. The design-oriented posters by the masters such as Jan Tschichold, Herbert Bayer, and the Russian Stenberg brothers bring high prices because there are so few of them. The same goes for the finer posters from historical art movements such as the Vienna Secession, German Expressionism, Russian Constructivism, and the Bauhaus designers or those who studied there. As for individual artists, Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec attract many of those who like Art Nouveau. Among the practitioners in early 20th-century Germany, Lucian Bernhard and Ludwig Hohlwein are the most sought-after. Great Art Deco posters always attract collectors; here A.M. Cassandre stands tallest, but Charles Loupot and Jean Carlu have an almost equal following. The Swiss Joseph Mueller-Brockmann, Armin Hoffman and Wolfgang Weingart have been collected for 20 years chiefly, Brown notes, "by graphic designers." In a more illustrative vein, the jazz posters of Niklaus Troxler, and products posters by Raymond Savignac and Bernard Villemot are widely collected as well.

Like any art form, value is both subjective and market-driven. What really matters is how many of a certain poster are still extant, and one can only approximate by having a feel for how many times a poster has appeared in the marketplace. "We always begin with aesthetic value," Brown says, "and then consider historic value. If it is contemporary or after the Second World War, the prices tend to be more affordable." But, he adds, "We like being surrounded by interesting design regardless of its monetary value."

Their current holdings are varied, but from a monetary point of view, Brown says Charles Rennie Mackintosh for the Scottish Musical Revue as well as the poster for the Glasgow School of the Fine Arts done by Margaret Macdonald, Francis Macdonald, and Herbert McNair are have the highest sticker price. They have two exquisite studies done by Josef Hofmann and Koloman Moser at the time of the opening of the Wiener Werkstaette shop in 1905. But their favorites are a classic Manoli poster by Lucian Bernhard depicting a simple yet colorful box of cigarettes, and the classic Soviet film poster by the Stenberg Brothers for "A Man with a Movie Camera."

What, however, makes Reinhold Brown an invaluable resource is their unexpected holdings. "We have over 500 Hungarian posters between 1905 and 1930 that are part of a Nazi-era restitution," Brown says, "many of which are remarkably distinctive and were almost never seen after they were printed."

Graphic design is much more collectible now than ever before. Affordability may have something to do with that. The breaking down of cultural taboos as to what and what isn't art may also play a role. As far as the poster aspect of graphic design is concerned, "we see a broadening out of the time scale, which is to say that posters that were of no or little value when we started out are selling for not-insignificant sums," Brown says. "People are also collecting other forms such as packaging, broadsides, and brochures. Sometimes it's for reasons in and of themselves, other times because they it into a wider field such as automobile or travel memorabilia."

Despite worries over the supposed death of print, there are still lots of posters being produced. I asked Brown what makes a future classic. "Sometimes a poster becomes sought-after because of what it advertises, not for the reputation of its designer or how it was printed," he says without hesitation. "Our main criterion is whether the poster is emblematic of a new approach or movement in design such as the punk style in the 1980s (Wolfgang Weingart, April Greiman, and others). If an important fine artist makes a poster and it is appealing and truly original, as opposed to a reproduction of a work already done in another medium, we will be interested in it as such posters often become classics." But he adds, a bit wistfully, "With the days of fine and meticulous lithography past their peak, I'm not sure how many classic posters from our time there will be down the road."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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