Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer
This exhibition was on display from September 10, 2021 to April 10, 2022.
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E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954) was a pioneer of commercial art—the profession known today as graphic design. He believed that the street was an art gallery for the people. While living in England between the two world wars (1914–1940), Kauffer produced radical posters for advertising that introduced modernism to the public. For Kauffer, any emerging form of expression that deliberately broke from the past fell under the broad concept of modernism. As a modernist, Kauffer experimented in provocative ways with line, form, space, and color to promote services and products. He did not limit himself to posters, and designed a remarkable range of book covers, rugs, theatrical productions, and more, continuing his work in New York from 1940 until his death.
Kauffer resisted defining himself with one place to call home, one community of friends, or one artistic style. He was constantly in motion, fulfilling a lifelong impulse for travel and a hunger to experience something new. Kauffer and his friends embraced modernism in their creative work, lifestyle, and attitudes toward sexuality, gender roles, and politics. Though Kauffer considered himself a progressive and an egalitarian, his commissioned work tells a more complicated story about his ideals, his privilege, and his perspective on race. Over the course of two world wars and dramatic advancements in technology and communication, Kauffer designed for the quickening pace of contemporary life, until it outpaced him. Through dynamic periods of celebrity and struggle, Kauffer discovered that the only constant in the career of a modern designer was change.