By: Steven Heller
Norman Ives has an historic place in the American Mid-Century Modern canon as a member of a crew that used typefaces as art. It was not until after his passing in 1978 that I became aware that his work contributed to placing the Yale School of Art—a modern design hot-house under Josef Albers—on the map.
Ives’ design and art appeared to be an outlier of the percolating type-as-art movement that may have been popularized by Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculptures, but has since become ubiquitous not just in painting and sculpture but other massive architectural “type works.” Ives’ work fits squarely into this genre that has roots in the early 20th-century Modern movement. I feel fortunate to have had an opportunity to become absorbed in his work through an as-yet-unpublished book: Norman Ives: Constructions & Reconstructions by John T. Hill. Ives has been examined before, but not with the same intensity as many of his peers and followers. Hill has done his job well. I asked him to explain his interest in this relatively forgotten yet no less significant Modern master.
Why are you working to preserve Norman Ives’ legacy?
Ives was first of all a gifted artist whose talents extended to graphic design. It was a seamless transition, partly because in his design, he focused the same mastery of form that is found in his personal art. In his earliest studies at Wesleyan College there was a broad range of studies, including painting, printmaking, type setting and book design. Much the same curriculum was brought from the Bauhaus to Yale via Josef Albers’ teaching. An artist had license to paint, sculpt, create typefaces or design a poster. Alfred Barr was one of the first curators to bring examples of graphic design from Europe into the MoMA.
While Ives is perhaps best known for his designs, his paintings and collages are collected by major museums: The 1967 Whitney Annual exhibition of American painting, the Guggenheim Museum, YUAG and various others. An artist with this wide-ranging recognition leaves a rare legacy and one worth preserving.
Were you colleagues and friends?
I came to Yale to study with Herbert Matter, mentor of Norman Ives. With Ives’ acerbic wit, matte-black sense of humor, laser-sharp brain, kindness and generosity, I knew right away that we might get along. My classmate, wife to be, and I were his students. We were included in his parties. We taught together, worked on projects together, vacationed and celebrated holidays together. Our families were and are still very close. My godson, John S. Ives, formed the Norman S. Ives Foundation. His four sons are great supporters for all that I have done. I will never have a closer friend.
What is it about Ives’ work that makes him a “modern master”
Like much in the history of art, certain things rise to a level or a category that I see as timeless. I am sure that you are aware of many examples of this. Heraldry, Japanese family emblems, Kurt Schwitters’ collages, and the work of Josef Albers. Norman’s work helps define a period, one that was a high point in the teachings of graphic design. He was part of a program that helped distinguish that practice in its evolution out of commercial art. The fact of his recognition in two major fields of the visual arts makes him worthy of being called master in any period.
Was his intent to design and then transition to painting, or did he feel the two arts could co-exist?
Ives invested as much effort and visual skill in creating his symbols as he did in making a painting or collage. In some instances he designed symbols that were not commissioned. They were made simply for the formal and intellectual challenge. It is not possible to know how he weighed the two exercises. One tell might be the sheer volume of his personal work. Only 20–25% of his oeuvre is commissioned design.
He was a renowned teacher at Yale. What distinguished him from the other luminaries?
Partly for his lack of celebrity, students saw him as more accessible. His own studios were most often within a few blocks of the school. He met with students individually or in small groups. There was his personal interest in each student’s work and their progress. His assignments were diverse. Some were clear nuts-and-bolts problems. An example: In the morning he would hand out assignments giving information necessary to design an organizational chart for the city of New Haven. In the afternoon meeting he would review and discuss the results. (This was prompted by his having just done the same.) The challenge was to organize a complex body of information to produce a simple and comprehensive document.
This was balanced by his equally demanding assignments dealing with formal aspects of letters and lines of type, very similar to Josef Albers’ teaching methods at the Bauhaus.
It’s hard to imagine, but in the Yale Art School of the 1960s especially, there were awards given to teachers by their peers and students. Several years Ives received that award.
What do you want to ultimately achieve by making his work accessible?
Ives was an artist who shied away from self-promotion. It was rarely about him. The book aims to rediscover someone who has been overlooked and whose work should be recognized and shared with the world. It is partly a reminder that not so many years ago, designers were considered part of the community of artists. Ives was part of a faculty of artists. Herbert Matter, Paul Rand, Armin Hofmann thought of themselves as artists, as did many others. Some visual talent was expected of a creditable designer. Today there is little thought that any aesthetic sensibility is required. There are numbers of books touting the news that you too can be a graphic designer. Ives and his work are testament and example of a fine artist who turned his hand and talents to making elegant and functional designs.