If you lived through the punk scene during the ‘70s, the notion that someday the era’s aesthetic would become as venerated as the Renaissance’s or Modernism’s would seem daft. Yet following a reasonable interval, every cultural rebellion becomes the meat of scholarship, nostalgia, and marketing.
So more than 30 years after its heyday, a new wave of retrospective books and exhibitions are emerging. The most recent, Pretty Vacant: The Graphic Language of Punk, opens tomorrow and is on view until March 15 at the Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. The mass of artifacts and ephemera is drawn from the collection of Andrew Krivine, a commercial banker and punk-stuff collector since 1977. For him and others involved with the exhibit, it’s both a chance to show off an obsession and fondly revisit personal pasts.
Punk was a defining moment for many, and a romantic one for those who just missed out. Krivine, who was raised in the punk hotbed of Briarcliff Manor, New York, told me recently that he was “an early champion of punk in suburban Westchester County, New York” and during frequent London visits he “was very lucky to stand a few feet from many of the greats.”
Kaytie Johnson, the director and chief Curator for the Galleries at Moore and the curator of Pretty Vacant, says punk/post-punk design appeals to her as a scholar and as a fan. “I was part of the punk scene in Phoenix in the late 1970s and early-mid 1980s,” she says. “The visual codes of punk, and the punk ‘anti-aesthetic’ are part of my DNA by this point.” From a curatorial standpoint, she added, the exhibition has required less research than most—“since I lived it.”
Johnson had already conceived a punk exhibition when she came across an earlier one, Rude and Reckless, and noticed that all of the work came from Krivine’s collection. That’s how the two met. “We had a great time looking through everything,” she says. “It was definitely a process steeped in nostalgia, for both of us.”
Krivine’s holdings are extremely broad, including proto-punk (T-Rex, Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Iggy, Lou Reed, Bowie), punk (NYC, London, LA in abundance), and post-punk (bands on Factory Records, Zoo, Rough Trade, Fast, Ze Records, Postcard, etc.). “It also reflects the geographic path of my early life,” he says. From New York, London, Norwich in the late ‘70s, to when his mother moved to San Diego in 1978 and he visited her during college breaks, he saw such bands as 999 and Penetration at local clubs. While in Chicago, he went often to Wax Trax Records (the punk record shop) and saw bands at the Agora Ballroom, Park West, and O'Banion's. In London he visited the headquarters of Virgin and Stiff Records, requesting any promotional materials they would give him. During his junior year at the University of East Anglia in Norwich—“one of the happiest periods of my life”—he saw almost every great British band. In the intervening years he expanded his collection by scouring record fairs, music shops going out of business, and the web.
With so much to choose from, selecting the most significant works was not easy. Johnson says the collection’s highlights include invaluable materials related to the psychobilly band The Cramps: “I’ve always been a huge Cramps fan, as is Andrew, and was always drawn to their uber-distinctive aesthetic. It really encapsulates, in visual form, the energy of their music.”
Another standout is design work that Peter Saville created for Factory Records, represented in the exhibition by posters he created for Joy Division and New Order. Saville masterfully sampled everything from postmodern architecture to Fantin-Latour still lifes. He was also especially keen at giving a distinctive design voice to these bands. Another notable work is Linder Sterling’s photomontage on the cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Orgasm Addict” single, which she did in collaboration with Malcolm Garrett, resulting in a fusion of British Pop art, Dadaism, and Situationist critique.
Krivine’s collection also features work by some of the big names in punk/post-punk design, including designs by Jamie Reid for the Sex Pistols, Gee Vaucher for Crass, Barney Bubbles for Elvis Costello, and Ian Dury and Raymond Pettibon for Black Flag. He’s also amassed an impressive collection of anonymous flyers, which Johnson noted “epitomizes the immediacy and DIY aesthetic of punk.”
Other than a link to a happy, sentimental past, however, what is it that fuels Krivine and Johnson’s passion for this material? Krivine says it is “aggression, humor, the lack of hypocrisy and pretense—and the notion that there is no hierarchy we must pay tribute to, if you want to be in a band and make music.” He also admitted that he despised the groups that are now classified as "prog rock:" ELP, Styx, Pink Floyd. “They were insufferable, and from 1972 to 1976 they dominated the airwaves," he says. "Punk unleashed this rage building up inside, during my early teens. Hearing the first Clash LP in June 1977 flipped a switch in my brain.”
Pretty Vacant is not the first time Krivine’s collection has been shown in public, and won’t be the last. But Johnson hopes this exhibition at a college gallery will be a terrific teaching moment for students, especially those who are studying graphic design.
“It’s retro, it’s cool, it’s loud and in-your-face, it’s anti-establishment, it’s analog," she says. "It’s everything students in their early 20s hold near and dear, especially art students. Punk’s appeal to subsequent generations of teenagers and young adults is a testament to its potency and legacy. Its visual codes and oppositional stance still ring true with youth culture, 30 years after the fact.”