The vibrant, irreverent, and rule-breaking cacophony of the London and downtown New York punk scenes is brought to life in the Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976 – 1986 exhibition, residing on two full floors of the Museum of Art and Design through August 18.
Being surrounded by black walls plastered with DIY flyers and silkscreened posters of famous acts in long-gone clubs brings back memories of prowling CBGBs in the 70s and 80s, leaning about the next great act playing in a hole-in-the-wall club from a screaming poster, and getting grimy from paging through cheap, low-budget music zines on newsprint.
Looking around the room, you’ll see posters and flyers for Patti Smith at Max’s, Pere Ubu at Harrah’s, and an array of bands at Amsterdam’s Paradiso – some handmade, some barely drawn, and others that you’ll recollect as stand-out graphic signs of the times, like Gary Panter’s iconic logo for the Screamers.
In the center of the room, MAD has thoughtfully presented boxes of albums and turntables, allowing every visitor to experience the ultimate 1970s interactive music experience. Just flipping through the albums covers brings the excitement and wonder of this pre-Internet music era roaring back to life.
The show presents Andrew Krivine’s extensive collection of punk posters, buttons, and other stuff that he began as a teenager hanging out in his cousin’s punk shop Boy on the King’s Road in London. Fascinated by arresting designs and wild typography, his collection expanded beyond the DIY ethos of the early punk aesthetic to more thoughtfully designed creations by emerging graphic-design stars in the UK.
Take a look at some of our favorites in this Flickr album.
It’s easy to enjoy this show, which is not grouped by history or music styles; rather, it’s a celebration of the vast influences on graphic practice during the punk and New Wave era – newsprint, cut-and-paste collage, hand-crafted designs with rub-off Letraset letters, and high-art references to Russian Constructivist, Bauhaus, and Pop Art masters.
Listening in to conversations among rapt visitors in the busy gallery provides additional reference to anyone too young to have lived through this era in New York. Music connoisseurs will point toward a poster and inform anyone listening, “That’s more ‘New Wave’ than ‘punk’…I don’t know why this is all on the same wall.”
But everyone is having a grand time seeing images, hearing the bands’ music, and watching film footage of this rebellious period that left its mark on music, fashion, and culture at large.
The Sex Pistols, who started it all in 1976, are well represented in the show. John (“Johnny Rotten”) Lydon, who spoke at the opening, reflected back on the days when rule-breaking start-ups like his had no advance men, no tour promoters, no corporate backers, and created all their own posters, graphics, and flyers.
Forty years ago, he reminded, there were no computers or Google searches, so you had to be able to hand-stencil and hand-draw everything yourself. “I went to the library and learned how to draw and paint and read,” he added, “and best of all, the library was free!”
By the time bands from this era “grew up” and moved toward world tours and more commercial success, innovative graphic artists were tapped to create thought-provoking, stand-out work – Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett, Tibor Kalman, and Barney Bubbles all have multiple works in the show.
Be sure to hang out and enjoy the raw energy bursting forth in the clips from the 16mm documentary “The Blank Generation,” featuring live 1976 club performances by the downtown legends who defined New York punk.
Thanks to MAD and Andrew Krivine, who let Cranbrook Art Museum curator Andrew Blauvelt bring his collection to life for an appreciative audience.