One of the more recent projects we have undertaken here at the Walker is the exhibition Frida Kahlo, opening on October 27. This is one of the larger exhibitions of the year and one that has a lot of print collateral, including: billboards, transtops, a host of various advertisements, bilingual gallery graphics, passes, guides, signs, etc . . . but for us what all of this work really begins with is the design of the catalogue, which in turn determines the look of the rest of the exhibition.
For us, in a sense, Frida Kahlo was more of an exercise in deciding what not to do rather than what to do. With the assistance and insight of Design Fellow Jayme Yen we started by spending a good deal of time looking at the various books for the many Frida exhibitions over the years. After perusing those we had a decent lay of the land and general understanding of what league we were batting in, one not entirely familiar to us I might add. Not only did the book need to satisfy a Walker audience but also a Frida audience, and an even larger general public who, thanks to Salma Hayek, are very familiar with Fridas legacy. Most of the books we create are for artists with smaller profiles (though we did make a Warhol book a couple years ago), making this an interesting project. What was obvious was that to succeed, conceptually and economically, our book needed a distinct personality, one that shows great care for the artist and the work.
Frida’s work is laden with symbols and intensely personal history, and was hard to react to conceptually for this very reason. The design process became more intuitive than usual, less about looking out than looking in, and we set about creating a world, a look in which Kahlo could feel comfortable inhabiting. We were able to do this through a mix of different materials, typefaces, and content. Different paper stocks helped to define the sections, essays, timeline, plates, photo collection, and backmatter. We chose a family of paper colors: cream, tan, and white, that would help make the book feel more personal and humble, less austere. Our typefaces worked in an awkward fashion, a mix of something more classical feeling with something more contemporary, trying to accommodate Fridas legacy in todays context, 100 years after her birth. New Century Schoolbook set in all-caps italic worked nicely for headlines, and Knockout provided a sturdy accent for footers and headers (for the exhibition titling we simply this relationship). In terms of the content, one of the things that makes this book unique among Frida catalogues is the inclusion of the Vicente Wolf Photo Collection—a large group of personal photographs of Frida, and Diego Rivera, taken by themselves and others like Manuel Alvarez Bravo. These photos, which have not been seen before, manage to shed a new, intimate light on a lifes story that we have been told from every possible point of view, as Betsy Carpenter says in the current issue of Walker magazine. What the photographs do provide is a record of a performance of sorts that began for Kahlo in childhood, after her bout with polio when she was six years old and the devastating bus accident of 1925 that left her body brutally broken—a self-conscious spectacle of self-invention born out of trauma, a seduction played out before the lens. In this theater of her private life made public, she created a role in which her identity was not fixed, but ever changing. Hardly the passive subject, Kahlo created and re-created herself almost obsessively. Mirrors, like her brushes and paint, were an indispensable means to an end. The looking glass and the camera lens were the (self)reflexive apparatuses that allowed her performativity to emerge.
In a more practical realm we also had to figure out who was going to print our little book (24,300 copies), and do it the justice the artist deserves. We chose Cantz, a printer in Germany we had used before and were very happy with. So it was off to Europe to oversee the printing, which may sound vaguely romantic but in reality is a tedious process and rather stressful on the designer (and the printer, in some cases). Various things run through your mind as you stand in front of the press, staring at a press sheet. Is this the right color for her skin tone in this particular painting? If I shift the magenta a couple of points will her skin look better, or will it just muddy up the leaves in the process? How did I never notice that monkey before? I wonder if he understands my English? For six long days and seven nights it was me and Frida, plus one German pressman. The three of us worked on trying to realize what so many had already worked so much harder on.