Eli Kezler on endless installations, raw composition, and the spatial limitations of large-scale art.
Like fellow percussionist/visual artists Walter de Maria and Brian Chippendale, there are many intertwining components to the work of Eli Keszler. As an installation artist, a virtuosic percussionist, and an accomplished draftsman, Eli has explored prevailing themes, such as the passing of time or the rawness and root of materiality. He does this kinetically—his installations churn and yawn like depowering machines, and yet his playing sounds too quick to be human. His pen on paper drawings are meticulously detailed with small laborious marks that collectively add up to singular, strange, hypnotic objects.
A week prior to this interview, I had visited Eli’s studio, a large white windowless room filled with sketches and diagrams for installation pieces that had somehow carbuncled into abstracted masses. Two test dummy installations were set up—one a wire installation, and another, automated mallets on boxes that sounded like sped-up morse code when activated. One of these—a massive lace of interwoven piano strings played upon by micro-controlled hammers—is currently up at the South London Gallery, and on August 22, Printed Matter will host a launch party for Eli’s first collection of drawings, Neum, at which he will perform a special percussion piece using crotales, bows, and sticks on snare and floor tom.
Michael Barron You’ve just put out your first book of drawings, Neum.
Eli Keszler That’s right—drawings, diagrams, and sketches.
MB Where did the title come from? Something you made up?
EK Neum is a variation of the word Neume, which was a medieval music notation, still used in plainchant. It essentially outlined the contours or a line and then evolved slowly toward the five-line staff system that we use now—its vagueness is what appealed to me about it.
Elaine Lustig Cohen on the late Alvin Lustig and the art, and archiving, of the book jacket.
I first met the artist and designer Elaine Lustig Cohen through the website dedicated to her former husband, the legendary designer Alvin Lustig. Back in 2006, I had been asked to get in touch with the estate regarding his jacket designs for New Directions: we were hoping to replace intermediate designs on some of our books with the original Lustigs. I was an editorial assistant at the time; New Directions was still going through a generational change. Emails were considered unofficial. One senior editor told me to type a letter, “preferably with a typewriter.” Another told me to call. But I had neither an address nor an number. So I emailed the webmaster of the Alvin Lustig site and hoped for the best. Elaine herself answered my inquiry—it was the first contact she had had with New Directions since its founder James Laughlin passed away in 1997.
That was almost seven years ago. Yet over the years, Elaine and I have teamed together in promoting the legacy of Alvin Lustig. Many of New Directions’ classic titles now proudly wear their original Lustig jackets. This May, New Directions will issue an Alvin Lustig postcard collection: 50 of his best ND designs in a box.
Since our first meeting, I have also come to discover Elaine’s incredible body of work. A couple of years after our initial contact, she invited me to her opening at the Julie Saul Gallery. The exhibit was called, “The Geometry of Seeing” and it displayed the sort of opus only a designer cum artist could develop—a prototype for a sewing kit, a giclée of a geometric Alphabet, a collage made from old train tickets, and a wooden box adorned with colored cubes, among other pieces.
In the course of this Alvin Lustig revival, Elaine has also garnered widespread attention and acclaim as an artist. She began as a book designer for New Directions and Meridian Books. Architects such as Eero Saarinan and Philip Johnson hired her to do the lettering for their buildings. In the 1960s, Elaine worked as a designer for the Jewish museum, producing some of her most opulent and iconic designs. For the catalog cover of Primary Structures, a full-bodied “P” is cut neatly in two by a red line that folds below it into the curvature of an “S.” In the layout for Kinetic Sculptures the two words look as though caught in an eddy. Around this time, she began showing her artwork outside of design—collages and paintings that nod ever so slightly to Dadaism. Elaine’s recent exhibitions in the Julie Saul Gallery, the Adler and Konkright Gallery, and the AIGA Gallery, where her work was shown alongside Alvin’s, are a testament to her success as an artist. In 2011, she was awarded the American Institute of Graphic Arts medal.
This interview took place at Elaine’s Upper East Side home. The interior of her townhouse is touched with a designer’s sensibility—everything in its right place, from the curation and layout of art to the selection and placement of furniture. Speaking with Elaine is like cracking open a volume of 20th-century American design history. At 85, Elaine’s memory is as sharp as her knowledge is erudite. She speaks with a modest firmness, doubtless in her affirmation of fact, but humble about her accomplishments.
Michael Barron How did you get your start as a designer? Was it in Alvin’s studio?
Elaine Lustig Cohen Well, for a long time he was the only designer in the studio.