New York museum pays tribute to the poster
Whether they encourage the purchase of baking powder or the start of an uprising, whether they hang in the bedrooms of preteens or on the walls of the subway, whether they center on travel or turmoil, posters are a universally used means of communication. Although they may not always be recognized as such, posters — both visually and in terms of their content — have been a vital part of all our lives, no matter what our age or where we live on the planet.
That's the essential philosophy behind the New York City museum that pays tribute to the art, effect and history of the poster. Opened in 2019, Poster House was conceived in 2015 by a group of poster collectors who realized there was something missing in the city's museum scene. "There was not a poster museum in New York, whereas there were several poster museums around the world," said museum director Julia Knight. "New York, being such a center of advertising and design, really seemed like a good place for it."
In fact, Poster House, located in the Chelsea neighborhood, is not just the first poster museum in New York, but also the first in the country.
In the short period between opening its doors and shutting them because of the pandemic, the now-reopened museum managed to mount several shows. Among them: "Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme," which celebrated the popular Czech artist whose style became one of the defining aesthetics of the time, and "Designing Through the Wall: Cyan in the 1990s," a retrospective of the German design agency Cyan.
Poster House's exhibits span the popular and the obscure. The museum, which arranges two shows at a time alongside one mini-exhibit, specifically pairs seemingly disparate subjects. "One of the two shows we opened with was Alphonse Mucha, because we knew, as a new museum, people were already very familiar with his imagery," said chief curator Angelina Lippert. "So we wanted to bring them in with something familiar. And then we surprised them with a corresponding show on Cyan, which was a 1990s East German graphic design group, which is something that most people would not know about."
I have to admit a certain bias in my coverage, because I am what those at Poster House might affectionately call a poster nerd. My own interest in posters was started in part by the art gallery and museum exhibition posters found on the doors of the bakeries, bookstores and dry cleaners of Paris, a phenomenon I discovered as a kid while on a family trip. Since then, posters have recorded time and place for me, much the same way music does. When I travel, I bring with me — always — an expandable tube, knowing that, at some point, I will most likely be either purchasing a poster or, depending on where I'm going, trying to charm a dry cleaner out of theirs.
As such, I thought butterflies were going to fly out of my head the first time I visited this museum (which happens to be situated on the street where I was raised, albeit on the other side of town). Those who know the area will recall that the more-than-100-year-old building was previously the home of Tekserve, a legendary computer repair business with a small computer museum of its own, although I have to admit little memory of it myself.
I arrived excited, but I have to say, Poster House did not disappoint. Instantly setting the tone, the airy lobby, which includes the requisite signifier of a cool New York space — an exposed brick wall — feels like a chic art gallery housed in a SoHo loft. (You almost get the sense someone is going to walk out with a tray of canapés.) In fact, the space was designed to evoke the feeling of a sidewalk, to give visitors the sense that the posters are being viewed in their natural habitat. Although somewhat narrow, there is a distinct lightness to the space, and a combination of materials and elements — wood, brick, glass, light —— does evoke the outdoors.
Directly to the left, even before the admissions desk, is the gift shop, which has the feeling of a serene, well-curated bookstore. Although well-stocked, it seems to have resisted the temptation to over-reproduce the museum's popular works. That said, how I managed to walk out with just a postcard — a simple but elegant red-and-black 1928 illustration of fish from graphic artist Julius Klinger, subject of a recent Poster House exhibit — is a miracle, given the inventory of design books and my legendary lack of willpower when in museum gift shops.
The feeling of calm is one that spills over into the exhibition spaces themselves, which are located on the main floor and the lower level. Unlike many museums in the city that are often overrun with tourists and visitors in general, Poster House feels neither claustrophobic nor overwhelming; one never gets the sense they have to move along so that giant tour group from wherever can read the museum notes. Exhibits feel entirely manageable and yet complete, as if no stone has been left unturned in telling the story of the existing subject.
Having now seen four of its exhibits, I've been repeatedly struck by what an immersive, imaginative experience it always is, full of small, clever touches that might be all but impossible at a larger institution. Such touches include the bookshelves in the current "The Push Pin Legacy" exhibition, full of books that contain covers and/or illustrations by artists who worked for the studio known for the exuberant, kaleidoscopic style that pushed back — so to speak — against the advertising aesthetic of the time. Founded in 1954, Push Pin was home to many lauded designers, including Seymour Chwast, Reynold Ruffins, Edward Sorel and Milton Glaser, who was perhaps best known for creating the iconic I (heart) NY logo. Amazingly, visitors are welcome to actually take the books from the shelves and look through them.
I found myself surprisingly affected by a group of posters in the Push Pin exhibit. Designed by Push Pin artists Paul Davis and James McMullan, they are a group of enormous posters advertising works from the New York theater scene of the late 20th century, when I was growing up in the city. Printed to hang in the subways in dimensions that sadly are no longer used, they are displayed in a space deliberately designed to allow viewers to see the posters in their entirety, with enough room to step back and grasp their scale. Instantly recognizing Raúl Juliá's haunting eyes in Davis's 1976 poster for "The Threepenny Opera," I experienced a rush of nostalgia for the era so strong that I'm surprised I didn't feel the rumble of a train.
Downstairs, in the new "You Won't Bleed Me: How Blaxploitation Posters Defined Cool & Delivered Profits" exhibit, museum-goers can use the record player to play vinyl albums of the soundtracks of films represented there. The exhibit came to the museum from TV-producer-turned-curator Adam Howard by way of a call for exhibition pitches on the Poster House website (a request that has since been taken down). Of Howard's bid, Knight says: "Not only did he pitch the show, but he knew where the collection was. He had the contact who had the entire historical collection of blaxploitation movie posters, and it just hit this nail on the head for us as a museum."
Although the exhibit has been in the making for about three years, it seems especially timely now. "I think it would have been a timely show no matter when we put it up, because these issues are so important to American society, but yes, after 2020, it does take on an even deeper level of significance," she said.
'Something a little bit more unusual'
The museum's starting point was a collection of World War I and World War II posters given by a private donor. Of course, as a nascent organization, it's adding to its inventory. In growing its collection, Knight says the goal isn't necessarily to amass the world's greatest or most complete collection. "We never intended to get a blue-chip poster collection together," she said. "We wanted something a little bit more unusual in terms of collecting."
Asked what she thinks is one of the museum's most significant posters, Lippert cites a set of objects she feels is notable for its ability to tell the origin story of posters. "It's a one-off; there's no other copy of this in the world," she says. "It's a progressive proof of a two-sheet poster by Jules Chéret. A progressive proof is what you get when a printer is about to print a poster. The proof is every color separated to make sure they all print correctly and that they all line up." Lippert says the proof, which is permanently installed in the building's stairwell, does a brilliant job of showing the printing techniques of the time. "Rather than me explaining how lithography works, seeing that, you're like, 'Oh!' "
Chéret is the French painter and lithographer known worldwide for his posters advertising cabarets such as the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge, among others. "Jules Chéret is known as the father of the poster," Lippert says. "He's the guy who perfected the art of color lithography, so posters could be made in large format, cheaply and quickly."
Because it is probably reductive to sum up a museum as "cool," I'll say that Poster House is incredibly stylish — in terms of its approach, its look and its ability to present to the visitor the best of the best, like a really elegant person who knows the value of editing a great outfit.
As Lippert admits, posters have traditionally been an afterthought of the art world. (She notes that many museums don't prioritize cataloguing their posters, making them hard to track down for exhibits.) But after visiting this imaginative, thoughtful, powerful institution, I have to wonder whether that might not change.
If you go
What to do
119 W. 23rd St.
Museum explores the art and social relevance of posters through exhibitions and educational events. It also features a gift shop and small cafe for which admission tickets are not necessary. "You Won't Bleed Me: How Blaxploitation Posters Defined Cool & Delivered Profits" and "The Push Pin Legacy" run through Feb. 6. "What's The Score? The Posters of LeRoy Neiman" runs through March 27. Open Thursday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday to Wednesday. Tickets $12 adults; $8 students, educators, people with disabilities and seniors; those 18 and under free.