The two shows at MassArt’s Paine and Bakalar galleries aren’t paired. They do bear a nicely inside-out relation to each other. Applied art, the subject of “A Century of Style: Masterworks of Poster Design,” is about staying on the surface and doing it memorably. Scientific inquiry, which inspires “Encircling the World: Contemporary Art, Science, and the Sublime,” is about going beneath the surface and doing it revealingly. Both shows run through Dec. 3.
“A Century of Style” consists of 131 vintage posters drawn from the collection of Robert Bachelder. Most are European. Three that aren’t are famous: Milton Glaser’s Bob Dylan in psychedelic profile (1966), Richard Avedon’s even more pyschedelic John Lennon (1967), and Paul Rand’s IBM rebus (1981). The Rand poster is the most recent in the show. The earliest is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1893 “Divan Japonais.”
Toulouse-Lautrec is one of several fine artists. Gustav Klimt does something arrestingly non-posterish for the Vienna Secession in 1898. He leaves a large block of surface empty of text or decoration. For once, it’s what’s not in a poster that draws the eye. Otto Baumberger’s “Marque PKZ” (1923) uses absence differently but no less effectively. The collar of a tweed jacket fills the frame, the only text being the label — which is also the company’s name. However unconventionally, both posters meet the requirements of a successful poster: catching the eye, directing the eye, and lodging in the mind’s eye.
Some of the posters look like a fine artist’s work. Franz von Stuck’s staring eyeball, from 1911, could be the missing link between Odile Redon and the Surrealists. Its appearance may not be as surreal as its subject: an international hygiene exhibition, in Dresden. Erik Nitsche would appear to have been channeling Paul Klee in his 1955 poster for General Dynamics.
The posters are grouped by subject, within eras. So we get transportation during the ’20s and ’30s, for example. Other subjects include sports and leisure, nightlife, the London Underground (Alan Rogers makes brilliant use of an archer drawing a bow to indicate velocity), zoos, nightlife, fashion, music, and travel. Politics is nowhere to be seen — except that it is, however inadvertently. A Roger Broders travel poster from 1929 celebrates a spa town called Vichy.
The profusion of differing typographies, colors, styles, and approaches is so much of the pleasure of this very pleasurable show. Yet nearly all the posters do have one thing in common: They’re time capsules. To take a particularly glorious example, the Deco swank of A.M. Cassandre’s “L’Etoile du Nord,” from 1927, conjures up the interwar years with a wayback-machine immediacy. Where fine art aspires to timelessness, applied art seeks a constant contemporaneity. These posters are a succession of previous nows.
“Encircling the World” is a marvelous idea. It takes both title and point of departure from a remark by Einstein: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Art and science are both a kind of magic, aren’t they?
The 14 participating artists draw inspiration from various aspects of scientific inquiry. Rogan Brown, for example, makes highly intricate paper sculptures modeled on forms found in microbiology, meteorology, and topography. Stanton Hunter’s “Migration Grid #26” is a ceramic sculpture derived from butterfly migratory paths. Andy Thomas renders birdsong via digital animations. Vik Muniz makes ceramic plates with designs based on patterns created by bacteria in Petri dishes.
Dishes to plates might seem quite reductive conceptually, but the results are quite handsome aesthetically. That’s what counts. Too often, the works in “Encircling the World” are more interesting in theory than execution. This is the rare show where the wall texts are almost always more stimulating than the art. Talk to scientists, and you’ll be struck by the warmth and vividness with which most describe their work. They rarely emerge here. With a few exceptions, a consistent coldness and lack of sensory appeal mark these works. They make the gallery feel like a laboratory, rather than the other way around.
A CENTURY OF STYLE: Masterworks of Poster Design
ENCIRCLING THE WORLD: Contemporary Art, Science, and the Sublime
At Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 3. 617-879-7337, www.massart.edu/galleriesMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.