Deceptively Conceptual Books and their covers.

“Modernism,” like “pornography” and “literary fiction,” is a term hard to define, though we all feel we know what it means—Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein, Bauhaus workers’ housing, the enigmatic and erudite complexity of “Ulysses” and “The Waste Land,” the startling distortions of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Book covers, however, with their ineluctable role as advertisements for the contents of the book, can scarcely attain the proud non serviam of high modernism: art for its own willful, bourgeois-baiting sake. Alvin Lustig’s abstract patterns for New Directions editions of Kafka, Henry Miller, and Djuna Barnes in the forties do not seem much more modernist than Arthur Hawkins’s sans-serif, Art Deco-ish designs for Shaw and W. Olaf Stapledon in the thirties, though there is a certain intransigent aloofness in the modest size of Lustig’s title typefaces. At the same time that he was presenting Henry James novels in an ultra-cool linear design laid over brown and gray rectangles, Lustig was perpetrating, for Lorca and Italo Svevo, crowded collages that anticipated postmodernism’s eclectic clutter. In different covers he echoes the high art of Miró, Arp, and Clyfford Still. Designing primarily for James Laughlin’s idealistic New Directions, Lustig was freer from the crasser commercial pressures, but his pronouncements, as teacher and design guru, on the book designer’s social mission seem precariously lofty. “By Its Cover” claims, “For him, like his European predecessors, modernism reflected larger social goals of integrating art and life, blurring the boundaries that had separated high art and utilitarian object.” Lustig, before his early death, in 1955, put it more grandly yet:

**{: .break one} ** If I seem to place a heavy mantle of responsibility on the shoulders of those who are really only expected to make nice shapes and colors, it is because history demands it. Every act that allows productive facilities to serve only itself, contributes inevitably to the threat of destruction that already looms on the horizon. **

By John Updike for The New Yorker

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