NEW LONDON — Letterforms and type were a lifelong fascination for Norman Ives, an American artist, designer, teacher and publisher whose work traversed the boundaries between mid-century-modern abstract painting and graphic design.
His work — a stunning range of paintings, collages, prints, posters, logos, murals and bas-reliefs — can be seen in the “Norman Ives: Constructions & Reconstructions” show at the Lyman Allyn Museum from Jan. 29 through April 24.
Tanya Pohrt, a curator at the museum, told CT Examiner that Ives often created a letterform pattern and then carried it through in a number of pieces, changing the colors, scale and media, sometimes using grids.
“You can see a collage version, and then another, a screen print with a kind of similar pattern, and sometimes he plays with color,” Pohrt said. “His work is fascinating because it’s sort of beautiful, abstract art but it’s also very grounded in graphic design.”
She said the letterforms were a constant throughout Ives’ life.
“You can see layers or levels of type that are layered over one another so that they kind of lose their readability and become almost abstracted forms. I think he’s just interested in exploring the range of what you can do creatively with these building blocks of language.”
It’s surprising that Ives, 1923-1978, is not better known, considering his accomplishments.
Ives studied at Wesleyan University and earned his MFA at Yale in a new graphic design program led by Josef Albers, Alvin Lustig and Alvin Eisenman. After graduating in 1952, Ives taught at Yale for more than 20 years.
In 1958, with colleague Sewall Sillman, Ives formed the Ives-Sillman publishing company in New Haven — specializing in silkscreen prints and monographs — and printed Josef Albers’ books, “Homage to the Square,” “The Interaction of Color ” and “Formulation:Articulation.” The company produced portfolios, monographs and editioned prints for a number of artists including Ad Reinhardt, Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, and Piet Mondrian.
In 1967, Ives was recognized for his fine art and graphic design work by two major institutions. The Museum of Modern Art featured his work in “3 Graphic Designers,” with Massimo Vignelli and Almir Mavignier. That year, his 8-foot square painting, Number 3-L, was also selected for the Whitney Annual Exhibition of American Artists, alongside work by Albers, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cy Twombly, Mark Tobey, Willem de Kooning, and Andy Warhol.
And throughout his career he designed for clients like Knoll International, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Institute of Graphic Arts, known as AIGA and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
“He was literally a genius and he had the capacity to cover so many of these things,” said John Hill, curator of the Lyman Allyn exhibit and author of the monograph “Norman Ives: Constructions & Reconstructions.”
“I think the work is timeless. I think it looks fresh today to me, as it did what it was made. Obviously, he was a master of form and was so gifted at making symbols and logos that had a great formal sophistication, as well as designing books, posters and murals,” Hill said.