Before COVID (2020 BCV) the Cooper Hewitt Museum had planned a Fall exhibition of collected work by the modern(ist) poster, book jacket, textile, scenic and costume designer Edward McKnight Kauffer (aka E. Mcknight Kauffer, 1890–1954). If you’ve never heard of E.McK, you should visit “Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer” now that it is open through April 10, 2022. You will be surprised by what you will find.
Although internationally celebrated, the Montana-born American expat lived, worked and was held in high esteem in London for much of his professional life, but never entirely reached the same status in the U.S. Despite a major solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937—only the second for a poster artist, after A.M. Cassandre in 1936—Kauffer was never personally satisfied with his life’s work in New York, where he returned in 1940 after war erupted in Europe.
The new Cooper Hewitt exhibition curated by Caitlin Condell and Emily Orr is the largest-ever showing of Kauffer’s work and “traces the designer’s transformative role in integrating avant-garde style into modern life.” It features more than 150 design objects, ranging from eye-conic posters promoting revolutions in transportation to collages, montages, typography and illustrations for the most influential publishing venues of the time, as well as abstract designs for theatrical productions, carpets, film titles and more. The publication E. McKnight Kauffer: The Artist in Advertising—a 2021 Alice Award finalist—is also available at SHOP Cooper Hewitt.
Known as “the poster king,” Kauffer’s prodigious poster production stylistically ranging from Constructivism to Surrealism vigorously contributed to the design of his day and today. He made a huge contribution to the practice through his various experiments with abstract, reductive and inductive work applied to commercial art.