History hasn’t always been kind to vertical stripes. Take a look at who’s worn them: gangsters, prisoners, circus performers, embattled referees. In fashion, where horizontal stripes dominate our Breton tops and summer dresses, verticals are considered radical, ergo unworkable. But the Swiss take no such issue with vertical stripes. Since WWII, Swiss artists and designers have turned to vertical stripes as the distillation of ideas, beauty, and revolutionary thought into a single graphic statement.
Swiss artist and designer Samuel Gross calls them the ideal pattern—or, rather non-pattern, as they’re so ubiquitous as to carry no weight. Gross is also the curator of “All Over,” a new exhibition at the Galerie des Galeries in Paris, which parades vertical stripes in (mostly Swiss) art to the point of saturation. The works—some 20 in all, from the fashionably monochrome to the colorfully moiré—come from generations of artists whose output dates back to the birth of postwar radical painting.
But it’s also intertwined with the International Typographic Style that emerged in Switzerland in the 1950s, an orderly, mathematical approach to design that no one with a creative practice in the latter half of the 20th century could have ignored. Gross’ bandes verticales and modern graphics both emerged at a time when fashion, design, and art were obsessed with all things pop, op, abstraction, and less-is-more. To Gross, they’re one and the same. “In Switzerland, you really felt that there was an interest in every visual element,” he says. “On the street you’d see it, a sensitivity to graphic questions leading to a radicality in design.”
Central Europe didn’t own the vertical stripe, of course. In Japan, vertical stripes were thought to adhere to an ideal concept of beauty, a refined style called iki. In nature, the bamboo forest was ski; rain was iki. In New York, artist Barnett Newman conceived of the ‘zip,’ a single vertical line that brought a spark of energy to his color-field paintings.
But Gross is a disciple of Swiss artists who played with stripes while they played with their audience, creating a crude interaction between the two entities. For this exhibition, he brought in a vast mural by John Armleder, a member of the obscure Fluxus movement, which wraps around the second floor of the Galeries Lafayette department store, where the gallery is located. And he carves out space for Olivier Mossett, who he dubs “the godfather of 1980s abstraction.” One of the few outsiders is London artist Ian Davenport, for whom it would be impossible not to paint in the vertical; his process is to drag color over a canvas from the top, allowing it to pool on the bottom like silk threads.
The overall effect in the odd, angled gallery space is of an almost electric vibration. As much as the appearance is kinetic, it also provides a rhythm and tempo to the experience. But is the vertical stripe still radical? We scroll vertically (and endlessly) online, and when we buy goods in person it’s by means of a vertically striped barcode. But what the stripe may have had lost in edginess, Gross’ exhibition proves it more than makes up for in beauty.