John T. Hill recalls that his friend, artist Norman Ives, was excellent at word games and anagrams, and that his vocabulary was prodigious.
That’s something an art aficionado might have guessed, considering that Ives was renowned for work using type and letterforms as primary subjects.
In Ives’ bold red-black-and-cream screen print “Centaur,” for instance, the artful array of layered and juxtaposed letters can be put together to read “man” and “horse.”
An Ives reduced archival print from an original eight-foot painting — which was chosen for the 1967 Whitney Museum Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Painting — consists of interlocking brown and white abstract images that are ingenious arrangements of what look like now-indistinguishable segments of letters.
Ives was an important early 20th-century modernist whose signature work included cutting up type and then reassembling the pieces in abstract collages, often working in a grid. He was among the artists who led the way in creating art by using letterforms. Ives brought those ideas to his paintings, screen prints, bas-reliefs, murals and graphic design as well.
The impressive scope of his career is explored in an exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum titled “Norman Ives: Constructions & Reconstructions.” In addition to his fine art, Ives was also a designer, a publisher and a teacher.
“His abstract typographic art works, innovative posters, and brochures, along with his elegant symbol designs, inspired generations of designers and artists,” according to the Lyman Allyn. “ … Whether designing corporate symbols or painting murals, Ives was guided by his love of letterforms in their whole or in fragments.”
Ives, who lived in Woodbridge, taught at the Yale University School of Art in New Haven from 1952 until his death in 1978 at age 54. But before that, he was a student at Yale in its first graphic design class. He was greatly influenced by his teacher Josef Albers, who was famed for his abstract paintings and for his explorations of color theory and composition.
The “Constructions & Reconstructions” exhibition was curated by Hill, who was a student and then a colleague of Ives’ at Yale. Hill, who is a designer and photographer, wrote a 2020 book about Ives with the same title as the Lyman Allyn show.
In putting together an exhibition about Ives, Hill says, “You try to give somebody access into the work of a man who was such a genius and was so complicated. It’s really impossible to do that completely, but by having a sampling and pretty much a comprehensive look at his entire career, you do get some inkling of what it was like.”
‘Very fresh and engaging’
Tanya Pohrt, curator at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, says that Ives is “someone who had an important role as a teacher, as an artist, designer, and a publisher, but I think because his work was spread between these different areas … and because he was not someone who was pushing his own fame or agenda, the work hasn’t been that well known.
“But it’s really sort of striking, beautiful, very fresh and engaging work that helps us better understand some of the ideas and the themes that were of interest to artists in this mid-century time period. I’m thinking about the influence of Josef Albers, how Ives’s work is distinct from (Albers’) in many ways but how ideas can filter through teachers and students and just the complexity of art. A place like the Lyman Allyn is great for being able to dig into the lives and careers and work of figures who maybe haven’t received enough recognition, and I think Ives is one of them.”
Hill says that Ives was a master of creating forms, “forms that held together, forms that were gestalts, forms that were pleasing to him. He was really a formalist. He was able to reduce graphic design problems to as few elements as possible, and I think that gave him the ability to make these powerful images because they’re so simple and so to the point. There’s no frills at all, just bare meat.”
Hill’s aim is to keep that aesthetic alive and to increase awareness of Ives’ work.
Pohrt notes that the title of the show, “Constructions and Reconstructions,” reflects how Ives would take certain forms and separate them, turn them around, break them out and put them together in other ways.
“The beauty and complexity of how he’s breaking letterforms and other abstract geometric shapes into different components and then reconfiguring them in different visual ways — it’s really interesting to track that progression through different media that he worked with. So in prints, in collages and silk screen paintings, it’s exciting to see a range of work and think about abstraction, color, shapes, and how different artists have worked with all these materials and ideas in different ways and how Ives is an important part of that puzzle, alongside many other artists who are thinking about some of the same ideas in different ways.”
The personal side
When Ives and Hill met at Yale, Hill recalls, “We immediately became friends. He was very quiet, he was a little bit shy, and for whatever reason, we hit it off.”
Hill says Ives “was the closest friend that I will ever have,” and their two families became close as well.
Hill’s family would often go to dinners at the Ives home, and after dinner, Ives would take a drink and a cigarette and head to an unheated room where he worked.
“He would go and stand there and work on collages for several hours before he went to bed. He worked on them all the time. He was prolific. He died at 54, but he turned out an incredible amount of work, a huge volume of work, not just collage but paintings, bas reliefs, sculptures, the graphic design work, the murals — all of that was just a remarkable thing,” Hill says.
As for that graphic design work, Ives designed logos and symbols for corporations and businesses. Pohrt notes that consequently, in addition to producing work for his own enjoyment, he was also a working artist who had clients and was collaborating and designing things to achieve a purpose.
“His versatility is really notable. … Perhaps a reason he isn’t as well known is there is this traditional gap between fine art and graphic design,” she says.
“They’re very different worlds, but he seemed to really straddle both of them and produce dynamic work in both of these realms but for very different audiences.”