An Exhibition on an Iconic Modernist Opens at The Glass House

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By Aileen Kwun / Published by Dwell
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On view all summer, a new exhibition at Philip Johnson's Glass House provides the first survey to explore the relationship between the early paintings and pioneering design projects of polymath and modernist icon Elaine Lustig Cohen.

A pioneering figure of modernism, Elaine Lustig Cohen, 88, first began her graphic design practice in 1955, following the passing of her husband and creative partner, the influential midcentury designer Alvin Lustig, and has continued her work for more than 50 years, cementing her position as a legendary designer, artist, and rare-book dealer in her own right.

Installation view of paintings by Elaine Lustig Cohen in Philip Johnson's Painting Gallery

"Lustig Cohen's paintings resonate beautifully with the Painting Gallery," says curator Cole Akers, who organized the show. "It's as if Philip Johnson designed it just for them." Lustig Cohen's pieces are among the first by a female artist to be shown in the space, and are mounted on rotating panels that house the vast personal holdings of Johnson and his longtime partner, David Whitney, an art curator and prominent collector of contemporary art.

Organized by curator Cole Akers, a new survey of her work is now on view all summer at Philip Johnson's Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut. The choice of venue is historically significant: As a graphic designer, Cohen's first client was Johnson himself, who commissioned her to produce lettering and signage for the iconic Seagram Building in Manhattan. The two continued to collaborate closely over the years, for projects including the Glass House, Yale University, the Lincoln Center, as well as individuals such as philanthropist and art patron John de Menil, who was also a client of Johnson's.

Centered Rhyme, 1967. Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 60 in. Courtesy of the artist and P!, New York

"As a painter, Lustig Cohen began to develop a hard-edged style in the 1960s that engaged abstract forms, vibrant colors, and the physicality of the canvas’ flat surface," says Akers. "Her earliest paintings relate to her thinking about design."

In addition to her longtime collaborations with Johnson, Lustig Cohen worked with architects Eero Saarinen and Richard Meier, and arts institutions such as the Whitney Museum and the Jewish Museum. Her numerous book jacket designs produced for imprints such as New Directions and Meridian Press are commonly regarded as a high point of midcentury graphics, incorporating elements of the European avant-garde through collage, photography, and typographic compositions. Concurrent to her design practice, she has also collected and sold rare books and continued to produce a body of abstracted, hard-edged paintings, photographs, and graphic art.

Signage for Brasserie at 375 Park Avenue, 1957. Courtesy of the artist and P!, New York

Says Akers: "In 1955, Lustig Cohen began a graphic design practice that integrated the aesthetics of European modernism within a distinctly American visual idiom for her diverse clientele of publishers, cultural institutions, and architects. Her first client was Johnson, who asked her to design the lettering and signage for the Seagram Building, one of the first to establish a complete identity program throughout the building."

Installed in the Glass House's Painting Gallery, the exhibition includes a selection of her paintings from the 1960s and '70s, as well as materials from her multi-year collaboration with Johnson. Here, Akers shares a few highlights from the show, on view through Sept. 28.

Map of New Canaan, Connecticut, 1962. Courtesy of the artist and P!, New York

"Philip Johnson commissioned Lustig Cohen to design a map of New Canaan that identified the location of the Glass House as well as nearby modernist homes, some of which are no longer standing," notes Akers.

 

A portrait of Lustig Cohen, photographed this year by Prem Krishnamurthy, a graphic designer and director of the Manhattan gallery P!, which has also exhibited her works.