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Exploring the Lesser-known, Non-film work in the Ace New Saul Bass Archive

Saul Bass fans, rejoice: the designer’s archive is now a helluva lot more accessible, thanks to a new online archive devoted to his work as part of the Film/Art Gallery site.

Film/Art Gallery is an online platform and physical space (in Hollywood, naturally) that boasts more than 6,000 movie posters. This summer, it announced a new partnership with the Saul Bass estate that sees it presenting many works from the designer’s personal collection for the first time. The Saul Bass archive launched with a selection of silkscreen prints, and over the coming months and years new pieces across the designer’s 60-year career will be added online, inducing publications and other ephemera alongside the poster designs.

“His film posters were cutting-edge and modern when they first appeared in the 1950s and they remain timelessly effective today,” says Film/Art founder Matthew McCarthy. “His laser-like focus on distilling the essence of each film to a single image, stripped of extraneous detail and clutter, keeps the work fresh and elegant.”

Among the prints currently showcased in the archive are a series of hand-pulled serigraph prints created in the early 1960s at the Art Krebs Studio in Los Angeles, which feature the original design concepts for many of his movie posters, as well as some trade ads. These were commissioned by Bass as a way to celebrate his initial vision, since his original designs were often modified by the film studio, and they were often used in exhibitions or given to museums, friends, clients, and colleagues.  

Some of the most interesting finds in the archive are the posters Bass created for his own short films, which he made in the early 1960s with his wife Elaine. The pair had been working together on titles and sequences for movies like 1961’s West Side Story, and decided that it was high time they created some celluloid magic of their own. The Bass’ collaborations included “tone poems” created for the 1964 World’s Fair, and Saul Bass’ first (and only) feature film, Phase IV (1974), released by Paramount Pictures. The Bass’ short films won accolades across the world, including an Oscar win in 1968 for Why Man Creates.

The collaboration between Film/Art Gallery and the Saul Bass Archive came about a few years back when McCarthy met with Bass’ daughter Jennifer Bass, who is behind the book Saul Bass: 20 iconic film posters, with Pat Kirkham. “We hit it off right away,” says McCarthy. The process of cataloging the vast amount of work and getting it online took a couple of years, and much rooting through boxes and storage units. However, it’s something of a dream project for McCarthy. “I started collecting posters when I was a kid, and later when I was an adult I realized the breadth of Bass’ work,” says McCarthy. “In America you grew up with it—going to the supermarket you’d see his logos.  My sister was a Girl Scout, and he did the logo for them. It wasn’t just the posters or the movies or the logos, it was the whole picture.”

For McCarthy, it’s the fact that Bass was so prolific, and internationally recognized and understood, that has made him such an enduring figure in the design community. “Whether it was a company, a filmmaker, a recording artist, or what have you, Saul had an uncanny ability to solve the problem of visually representing or translating ideas, goals, moods, and other intangible, difficult to visualize concepts,” he says. “He was of his time—there is an energy, a vigor, and an optimism that was certainly representative of mid-century America—but his work is timeless. He has an immediately recognizable style and yet he was able to work successfully for decades, always bringing his intelligence, wit, and extraordinary instincts to whatever project was at hand.

“He had the ability to pare down ideas, ideals, companies, works, or art into images that—stripped of text and language—are universally, visually understood and recognized,” McCarthy adds. 

Throughout his oeuvre, Bass’ oft-imitated, rarely bettered style shines through—all arresting commissions, strong contrasts, and bold colors. But delve a little further into the archive, and there are a few surprises. Here, we run through a selection of Bass’ non-film work.

1
Girl Scouts - The New Face, 1978

Bass was commissioned to modernize the image of the The Girl Scouts having redesigned the Girl Scout cookie boxes for the Burry division of Quaker. According to Jennifer Bass, he saw the “70 million boxes mostly sold door to door to homes across the country as a marvellous opportunity to communicate the fun, self-reliance and self-realization of scouting to parents and girls alike.” The success of the new boxes saw him hired to update the organization’s symbol.

“The stylized profiles of the new symbol were an emphatic statement about diversity and difference on one hand, and unity on the other,” she says. “The impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement is evident in this and other images that presented girls as active, learning and united in sisterhood.”

For McCarthy, this image captures “a certain hopeful, forward-looking, utopian ideal… the multicultural, backlit photo is reminiscent of the vibe that arose from the flames of 1960’s dissent and was evident in much of the art and advertising of the 1970s; it also infused the high school social studies textbooks of a couple generations of American high school students and can be seen on television ads and on record album covers of the era.”  

 

2
Freedom of the Press, 1980s

This image is based on a design that was commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and used as a pamphlet cover. Years after the initial brief, Bass commissioned this silkscreen poster from the Art Krebs Studio in Los Angeles.

“It’s certainly a very timely and important message at this moment in American history,” says McCarthy, who suggests it’s very much a reflection of the Watergate-era zeitgeist, yet also representative of the current U.S. political climate. “I love the fact that he uses the colors of the flag to suggest a patriotism and pride that is tempered with a sense of caution, awareness, and responsibility. I also love the way the title seems to spill out so elegantly from the pen, in Saul’s lovely handwriting, which we don’t usually get to see in his images.”

3
Human Rights 1789 - 1989, 1989

This poster was commissioned by Artis 89 to mark the bicentennial of the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen,” born of the French Revolution. Bass was one of a number of international artists invited to create a poster, and he decided to repurpose a design that he created for the 1956 film Storm Center, starring Bette Davis. “The film itself was not notably successful and the posters were largely forgotten, even by many Bass fans,” says McCarthy.

The image reflects both the film’s themes and mood but also serves the purpose of the commission and its primary concerns, which are certainly related. It was not the only time Saul repurposed a previously-used concept, although in this case the image has had very little alteration.”

 

4
Environment, 1971

This poster showcases Bass’ artwork for Environment magazine (also known as Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development). McCarthy loves the fact the image is “so urgent and of-the-moment, but I love the wit and charm that the poster displays.”

He adds, “It deals with an issue that can be depressing and seem bereft of any hope, and it imbues a sense of humanity and hope. The egg with a band aid is one of Saul’s classic visual metaphors and I think it’s fun and elegant at the same time.

“Another beautiful, succinct visual representation of an issue that is—unfortunately—as timely as ever. The image is witty and charming yet also urgent and clear. This poster speaks to the fragility of the Earth’s environment and our responsibility to recognize and attend to it.”

5
The Princess Grace Fund, 1981

According to McCarthy—to whom this poster was an exciting new find—Bass’ daughter Jennifer has spoken a lot about the “hands” motif her father often used. “By stylizing the hand and by linking it to people and the enhancement of life, he embodied the duality of giving and receiving that is at the heart of charity,” she said. McCarthy adds that the image is a “gesture toward the awareness that by focusing attention, devotion, and care toward a cause we can bring radiance and vitality into other people’s lives and into the world.”

He adds, “The multicolored spore represents an essence, a life force, a gift that is shared. There is a certain ambiguity to the image that reflects a universality; the figure could be a young child or something less recognizable, perhaps unknown, but unquestionably hopeful.”

6
For a Sane Nuclear Policy, 1959

Sane was an organization founded in 1957 as a response to nuclear bomb testing and the arms race, aiming to “develop public support for a boldly conceived and executed policy which will lead mankind away from war and toward justice and peace,” seeking to keep nuclear power within safe and human bounds. By 1958 it had more than 25,000 members, and among the graphic designers and artists involved in the group were Ben Shahn, Edward Sorel, and Jules Feiffer. This poster featuring the symbol for the Hollywood branch of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), indicated that the future lies in the hands of each and every one of us.

“I love that it is very much in Saul’s signature style and an early example of his ‘hands motif,’” says McCarthy. “I also think it’s great that the image is powerful and yet very subtle. It also utilizes a shade of red that was one of Saul’s favorites… he would return to it (or a shade very close) with silkscreens of Such Good Friends, Rosebud, The Human Factor, and The Shining.

“It’s a wonderfully sort of optimistic visualization that addresses the issue with hope and humanity. The 1950s were full of nuclear war hysteria and Cold War fears that were manifested throughout the arts and culture in sometimes laughable ways (like the Godzilla movies) and sometimes very realistic, horrifying statistics and predictions. This poster brings the issue back to a human level, from a black hole of despair, beyond comprehension and out of our control.”

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