fb-pixelNorman Ives, artist who played with and against type, subject of new exhibit at UMass Dartmouth gallery - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Norman Ives, artist who played with and against type, subject of new exhibit at UMass Dartmouth gallery

Norman Ives's "Centaur," a 1973 screen print.Norman S. Ives Foundation

DARTMOUTH — ”Seeing is more convincing than reading,” wrote artist and designer Norman Ives in a 1960 edition of Industrial Design magazine.

But for Ives, who died in his mid-50s in 1978, the impulse to read was an avenue toward seeing. Using letterforms as building blocks, he made work that paves synaptic pathways between symbol and image. The artist is the subject of “Norman Ives: Constructions & Reconstructions,” curated by John T. Hill, author of a book by the same name, at the CVPA Campus Gallery at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Ives was a first-year graduate student at Yale in 1950, the year Josef Albers arrived to revolutionize the university’s art department with Bauhaus notions marrying aesthetics to utilitarianism. Such thinking elevated commercial art to the cannier field of graphic design, and Ives was a standout. In 1967, the Museum of Modern Art celebrated him, along with Massimo Vignelli and Almir Mavignier, in “3 graphic designers.”

Norman Ives's untitled 1951 hand-stamped print depicts a Victorian house.Norman S. Ives Foundation

The tension between letter and image fascinated Ives from the get-go. This show begins with a 1951 print of a Victorian house made with hand-stamped 19th-century wood fonts — “S” filigrees along the eaves, an “A” forming the roof. Ultimately, Ives left pictures behind and let letters speak for themselves. They roared and jabbered, never turning into words.


His method was simple, reassembling letterforms on grids, swapping their context from reading to seeing, from the left-to-right on a page to the more holistic picture plane.

An untitled work by Norman Ives from 1963.Paul Rudolph

In a painted facsimile of a 1963 mural, pieces of black letters fill squares, interlocking with the off-white background. The familiar serifs, angles, and curves are so magnified they’re impossible to read. Still, the brain strains to — an invigorating effort. In the 1973 screen print “Centaur,” Ives arrays sans serif letters on a spiral set over a grid. They topple, tilt, and overlap, colors changing where they intersect. It’s breathtaking, an alphabetic tumbleweed.


Ives understood the power of symbols. His 1960 book, “8 Symbols,” details his thinking behind eight logo designs, on view here. They add layers of visual nuance to letters, building meaning. In his art, he strips meaning away. Letterforms cling to their symbolic import like strangers in a strange land, and a new kind of reading is born.


At CVPA Campus Gallery, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 285 Old Westport Road, Dartmouth, through Oct. 23. www.umassd.edu/cvpa/galleries/campus-gallery/

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.