In the late 1970s, during a transitional time in graphic design history, Art Center grad Jayme Odgers helped establish a new look for California design, dubbed The Pacific Wave. His collaboration with April Greiman introduced the Postmodern ethos to graphic design — a marriage of fragmented, object-based photographic collage and asymmetric typography that set the stage in the brief pre-digital moment for the digital age. Odgers is an historical figure. And yet he is not as well known as contemporaries of his era because he turned to making art as the digital Turks were coming to the forefront. This exclusive DH interview is a step toward sharing his-story.
Before we talk history, I’ve noticed that you have been doing some great paintings using type and typographic forms. Obviously, your graphic design past is an influence, but what else are you saying with these works?
Yes, a direct influence, however it took me decades to make the connection. I got lost in Cubism. Typography, and words, remain an obsession of mine. Much of the earlier text-based work comes from paronomasia, a play on words.
For example, the Lover/over piece is a constructed example of what I call the Golden Rule of Design: “The solution to the problem lies within the problem,” another direct connection to graphic design thinking. Louis Sullivan used it in architecture (Kindergarten Chats), Rand in design; I use it in design as well as painting. It’s actually a Buddhist concept
Other text-based works tend to be informed by various tenets of Mahayana Buddhism. I consider painting to be a form of meditation—making my work takes me out of my body into a painless state of being. Once I realized this was happening, I began making aspects of meditation the subject of my work—mindlessness, being fully present, an altered state of being—using the constructs of various Buddhist principles.
For example, this piece (below), Taming The Bull 2000, is based on a Buddhist 10-step process to control one’s mind through taming one’s thoughts leading to enlightenment. It’s a graphic depiction of the word THOUGHT, starting and ending with the same ‘T.’ Thoughts are our greatest asset and our greatest weakness. These paintings are constant reminders for me to continue the practice.
Zen Buddhism has the seven essential qualities of Zen art:
Freedom From Attachment
In EGO I used two collaged ‘T’s, one truncated into an ‘L’ to form the word LET.
–In this raucous piece (above) titled Bête Noir #2, if one were to meditate on it long enough it would reveal the text “Now Is The Time,” a reminder to be present, to be in the NOW regardless of all the confusion going on around us. I continue to practice.
How long has it been since you practiced graphic design?
Shockingly, it’s been 43 years yet everyone still thinks of me as a graphic designer. I had my own design office from 1968 to 1972, with a staff of 13, including myself. Knoll was considering me for their graphics. My 6,000-square-foot space with 12 employees was too small and I didn’t want to expand. At that time I was doing all of Frank Gehry’s graphic work as well as my own.
In late 1972, I decided to follow Timothy Leary’s advice and “dropped out.” I was searching for my deeper self. Manly P. Hall, of the Philosophical Research Society, advised in a lecture, “Six months of quiet meditation can save an entire life of misdirection.” I decided to take a five years hiatus. So, off I went on my search.
In 1976, Lou Danziger asked me to teach under him at Cal Arts, which I accepted (I would do whatever Lou asks), thus entering back into society at that time after four years of free and easy wandering. On that outward bound journey of self-exploration I added another arrow to my quiver— photography.
What triggered your transition into painting?
Toward the end of doing commercial work, in 1968, I recall having feelings of deep angst about finishing a job, wanting to follow the idea further and not being able to do so. Eventually I felt ready to explode. At the time, I was having a recurrent dream of large Greek columns smashing down with my life exploding into fragments amidst roils of dust. I had reached an end. I also had a paranoid feeling of dying and never knowing what I would make on my own without a client calling. What would I do left to my own devices? In other words, who am I? The search was on.
Your work is integral to a shape-shifting moment in graphic design history—Postmodernism. What were your intentions when you did your work in the ’70s and ’80s?
I feel the need to get expository here, Steve, and bring in some of my early visual history. Trained in Kalte Kunst under Paul Rand, I used those rigid principles in my own design (late ’60s, early ’70s), however, by the mid 1970s, the Miesian “Less Is More” dictum of Modernism had lost its appeal. It was like a suffocating straight-jacket. I wanted a more free, larger visual Weltanschauung.
I had spent four years soul-searching, gotten hippified, plus went through a complete metamorphosis by living alone in the Nava-Hopi region of the Arizona desert for three months. I slept on the ground, spoke to no one, ate fruit and drank water. The deep sense of space shocked me. It was a truly religious experience.
This is a self-portrait (above) from that time.
For me, reentering society in the late 1970s was a time of confluences, of cultural collisions, blending, and hybridization. I had a need to mash up graphic design principles with photo-graphic concerns in a concentrated effort to heighten my images—the notions of graphic and photo-graphic becoming one. I sought that deep sense of space in my work that I felt in the desert. Graphis later did an article on “A New Breed: The Photo-Designer.” My work was included in that article.
Back from the desert in 1976, having not worked for four years, I made a new portfolio for myself from scratch because I needed work. I had each piece in the portfolio laminated to merge the collaged, paint-splattered images into a unified whole. This, unknowingly, was the seminal work that proved to be a harbinger for me. The work (below) was done prior to my meeting April Greiman.
Another example of my work prior to April is this “Thank You” piece done in early 1977—an eclectic miscellany of diverse collaged and drawn elements, heavy on Japanese influences, saturated with California colors and spatial layering.
When April and I met, she saw my laminated portfolio and remarked, “These look good enough to eat off, they’re placemats!” This led to our making Spacemats, laminated images for just that purpose. They proved to be a crossover idea and gave us huge visibility, not only in the design community, but the marketing world as well. For quite some time we operated in both worlds with Spacemats, Space Tissues (above right, my design) and Space Buttons. Interestingly, the design world and the marketing world had [their] own seasons and the two were complementary; fortunately as one slowed the other picked up.
When we first met, April was working at Frank Delano Associates Inc. in Century City. As mentioned, I was teaching at Cal Arts. She hired me to do a photograph for her company’s promotion and accompanied me on the photoshoot to Death Valley. She missed getting back to work the following Monday. She was fired immediately. Fortuitous, for her, I would say. Fate?
Prior to the time we met, Cal Arts had hired me to design a flyer that would print and mail for 75¢. I designed this piece (below) based on my experience as a teacher at Cal Arts, and seeing various events being performed in the grand hall each time I walked to my classroom. My desire was to collapse time by putting all those events into a singular frozen moment.
I had already created the photo-graphic image for the front side. Since April had lost her job, I hired her to design the verso (at bottom). My interest was in image-making, photo-graphic work, so I was OK with her handling the back, and the typography as well.
My purpose in showing you both sides is so you can visualize the differences between her work and mine at that moment. Her portfolio at that time was entirely typographic—some type at angles, not very spatial, and no imagery. Mine, conversely, was heavily image-based. Also, I had been in L.A. two decades by then, April about two months.
Below, on the right, is another photo-graphic piece I did, only this one was after April and I had parted ways. My client went crazy over it and couldn’t wait to put the type on it. [The client] wouldn’t allow me to do the typography. Can you imagine? She only knew of me as a photo-grapher. She wanted to put the type on it! I guess she thought I would screw it up. When I asked what she would do, she replied, “I’d add a white panel at the bottom, I wouldn’t want to disturb the beautiful image.” I knew she was clueless. I then quickly suggested we hire April to do the type. Fortunately, she agreed.
I show you these two pieces to demonstrate April’s involvement versus mine in two iconic Postmodern pieces—one prior to our relationship and one after, to demonstrate our individual contributions.
And what were your intentions?
My intention in doing work at that time, beyond content, was to create the deep sense of space (above left) that I had so loved in the seemingly endless desert. I found that by conflating graphic elements with photographic space I could heighten the dimensionality of an image to a near 3D effect, which absolutely fascinated me. I was also attracted to the bright, clean colors of the desert light.
Once we got together, April and I made a great team—she was style-based, I was content-based. She was typographic-based, I was image-based. She is right-handed, I’m left; I’ll tell you later why that was important. She is female and I am male. The reason I feel this is important is that each piece we did together carried male/female qualities which appealed to the widest possible audience. Additionally, April is highly competitive, me not so much, so she helped get our work out there. I find her marketing of herself quite astonishing. I tend to be more of a hermit.
While working together, April and I called our work “blendos”; I’m not sure of the origin of the term. We used the term because we were blending everything we could get our hands on in our work. We layered, we collaged, we painted, we used every visual trick possible to hybridize each piece, the opposite of “less is more.” In fact, we used to laughingly say “more is more.”
For me, making an image was generally a tedious affair, usually a photographic background with carefully collaged elements and critical airbrushing (i.e., Cal Arts poster image). To ease the workload, I came up with a “blendo machine” by putting a Hasselblad camera on a fully lighted copy stand. April and I would then stand, me on the left, she on the right (this is where left-hand and right-hand comes in), and arrange the cut-out elements on various backgrounds until satisfied. Then we would lower a sheet of glass pressing the layered images flat, and with a click of the shutter the final art was done. It worked wonderfully.
Below is a quintessential example of this process using multiple sheets of glass. Doug Schmidt, a set designer on Broadway, hired us to do a poster announcing his move. I thought it would be interesting to make it like stage flats leaning back on one another. To heighten this effect I chose to make the poster truncated, narrow at the top, so it would look like it was falling back into the wall. April made it smashing with her sensibilities, the stunning silk-screened dayglo form, BIZ, and her typography.
How did Wolfgang Weingart impact your graphic design?
I met Wolfgang through April. I so admired his work, truly monumental, however, by the time I was aware of what he was doing, I was no longer doing design or typography, mostly image-based work, so my respect only went so far as deep admiration.
Both you and April Greiman—together and solo—were the epitome of California design. How would you describe and/or define that California “style”?
Thank you for that comment and for asking. We certainly didn’t verbalize any particular aesthetic beyond “blendo.” No theorizing, for sure. If anything it was the opposite—a sense of freedom without rules, without structure or theory. April studied Swiss Design under Armin Hoffman in Basel, me under Rand; perhaps it was our desire to break out of that highly structured approach—to be loose, free, anarchic, subversive, against the norm, but with West Coast colors—pinks, light blues, warm light colors, bright desert yellows, pastels. Also, for us, we loved the eclectic use of Japanese elements. It was an Asian Invasion at that time in Los Angeles, sushi was everywhere. Plus there was a Kinokuniya bookstore which we ravaged for images. As Michael Vanderbyl expressed, “It’s a style of many styles.” For us it was whatever we could scoop up, throw together, and make work.
For me, the piece we did for WET Magazine, a publication that epitomized West Coast lifestyle at that time, represents our quintessential California Design look. It’s a strange salmagundi of disparate elements and styles, definitely irreverent, oh so colorful, with our requisite Japanese overtones, especially the gradation with which I was obsessed, and a quasi-religious subtext.
On the right is a piece I did for Pacific Waves, a 1987 Italian publication on California Design, which was the first book I was aware of on the California Design look. We were asked to submit our work. April submitted work considerably different from what we did together. Her work had became computer-based, influenced by semanticist Eric Martin, who would later briefly become her husband.
I refused to show the old work that seemed too overtly promotional, plus I was bored looking at it by that time. So I made a unique piece for the book. It shows all the California Design elements
I favored the gradations, soft colors, graphic textures, Japanese elements, yin-yang and good fortune. It was clear that I was heading toward more personal work. This was my commercial swan song.
What is the high-point from that period of your design life, when your work was an influence on others?
Such a thoughtful question. Speaking of work being influential, the work was so plagiarized that I lost my marketplace. For example, circa 1985, I went to New York to show my portfolio to Capitol Records to get work. I had done album covers in the late 1970s based on my desert photo-graphs. When I showed my portfolio to the art director, he was silent for a long time, then he said, “So you’re the one.” I asked what that meant. He replied, “I see work like this all the time. I can see you’re the one responsible for this look because every piece is absolutely consistent, however, I can hire people right here that can do this work for a lot less than I’d have to pay for you.”
In 1985, after April and I parted ways, I was invited to show my work at a visual design conference in Richmond, West Virginia. It was a big deal. I recall Duane Michals, a hero of mine, being one of the speakers. The day following our presentations, we were to give a workshop for anyone interested. I thought two or three people might show up, the room was packed. I told them I really had nothing to say beyond my work. They got very agitated. Finally one man from Westinghouse yelled, “But you’re our Paul Rand.” That was a highlight. I really didn’t have anything to say except “go do your own work.”
Another highlight was when Paul Rand, who as you know had little good to say about anyone else’s design work, came to the Art Center College of Design at the behest of Lou Danziger. This was decades after I had worked for Rand. I had a handful of his various books for him to sign. In one he wrote: “To Jayme, my best assistant ever and someone destined to surpass me.” Can you imagine Paul ever saying a thing like that? I guess in his old age he had softened, but still, I cherish that inscription.
Was theory as much a part of your practice as it was the Postmoderns that came after?
Not at all. In those early days it was catch-as-catch-can for me. I was really operating on gut reactions only—no rules, no theory—I just kept pushing and did what I felt I needed to do, or as Robert Rauschenberg so brilliantly stated, “… I just do what I can no longer ignore.” In retrospect, I was pretty oblivious that what I was doing was anything more than just making more visual stuff in a world replete with stuff. I wish I could say I had some theory, but I can’t. Certainly, at that time I had no idea the work would be so influential. I was busy exploring new visual terrain.
Today, as painting seems to dominate, what does photography mean to your output?
Initially, photography played a key part in my art making. It was an extension of what I had been doing commercially, with the photo-design work, essentially by combining graphic elements with photography, layering worlds together in a novel way, mashing them up, collapsing time.
For example, I would set up my painting easel with the beginning of an image, then photograph the setup with a 4×5 camera. I would have 40×30-inch cibachrome prints made and worked on the print by pushing and pulling the implied space as much as possible. I realized those collaged, painted, dyed elements were sitting in mid-air, on top of, and within, the photographic space, thus completing the “photo-painting.” They seemed like graphic thoughts frozen in space.
Since the camera is monocular, I found that by working the photographic space, I could create a fully three-dimensional illusion in 2D. If one looks at the 1990 photo-painting (reproduced on the following page) cropped by a black frame, with one eye closed and proper lighting, it creates the illusion of the three-dimensional studio space, not unlike wearing 3D glasses. This never fails to amaze me.
After time, I felt that the camera was getting in the way. My print maker, Michael Wilder, who also did Barbara Kasten’s work at that time, moved to Montana. I tried others but Michael was the master, so I put away the 4×5 camera.
To get into the meditative state I felt I needed, it became necessary to work directly. The camera added too many distracting, linear, left-brain decisions—film processing, clean lenses, tripods, lights, etc.—all too mechanical. I’m more at home in the nonlinear, spatial right-brain, though I suspect the brain isn’t that clearly segmented.
But what to paint?
I dreaded painting representational subject matter or painting abstractly. I needed to investigate something that was a deeper part of me. After much introspection I realized text-based work offered suitable content based on my love of typography.
Here’s a recent text-based piece made from dust. I live in a really gritty part of Los Angeles. Particles seem to rain down from the continuous parade of semi-trucks in this industrial environment. I decided to make the dust work for me. I made a typographic frisket and allowed the dust to settle on it for six months. Clearly, it’s a statement about the fact that we won’t last forever, not us nor the U.S.
What’s next for you?
That’s a big question. I’m a deeply entrenched polymath, I love too many things. I say this because it seems like everyone is required to pick a lane, to stick with one identifiable path, or be damned. For example, when Workbook Stock wanted to offer my images in their stock library, which included all types of commercial imagery, they had no category in which to put my work. What are these things he makes? They’re not really graphic design, they’re not really photography, they’re not illustrations. What are they? There is no neat little box to put them in. That seems to say it all.
That’s my dilemma and always has been. I’m the only person I know deeply interested in all those subjects. In terms of what contemporary culture wants, I’m a total misfit, can’t make up my mind.
Of course, at 76, I’d love to see a book of my life’s work. It’s been quite an amazing journey, from working with Paul Rand, to graphic design, to photography, to photo-grapher, to entrepreneur, to artist. I expect that won’t happen soon—if ever. However, that’s my dream. There is a story there.
So what gets me out of bed in the morning besides bills and pills?
Simple, making my art. It is still my driving force after some 29 years—longer than any other career. Lovely.
Plus trying to regain some lost health so I can be far more productive. For me it is truly one day at a time.
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