The Daily Heller: Ladislav Sutnar’s Modernudism

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Czech modernist designer Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976) arrived in the United States in 1939 on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. He came to work on the Czech pavilion of the New York’s World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, which—owing to the war—never opened. Deciding not to return home, Sutnar was a man without a country—but a designer with a distinctive new approach who would find a definitive place in the American creative landscape.

He earned commissions right out of the gate and established a design studio where he employed artists who later became known painters, such as Audrey Flack and Philip Pearlstein, and among his principal clients, the F.W. Dodge’s Sweets Catalog Service offered him incredible information design challenges. Sutnar’s Constructivist/Bauhaus background, honed while designing and teaching in Europe, was his singular asset. In New York he applied simple organizing principles to the redesign of routinely chaotic hardware, appliance and mechanical parts catalogs used daily by those in the architectural, building, plumbing and industrial trades. Rather than a potpourri of confusing, but essential, descriptions and prices, he established navigational systems for locating and retrieving fundamental data. He was a master of clarity without sacrificing identity.

Sutnar and his close collaborator Knud Lonberg Holm, a photographer, writer and architect, produced Sweets’ Catalog Design Progress, a detailed guidebook explaining the virtues of modern templates for all kinds of industrial catalogs.

Sutnar’s penchant for precision was a function of his design, but also a characteristic of his painting and the basis for the recent exhibition Shapes: Venus / discourse, photography, drawings unearthed curated by Jan Van Woensel of the Ladislav Sutnar Faculty at the University of West Bohemia, Pilsen. The show’s catalog is a reveal of Sutnar’s personal expression, known as Venus paintings. These works were inspired by his New York residence (populated by prostitutes and strip clubs) and became his main focus during the late 1960s and ’70s, when emerging young designers were monopolizing most of the corporate client work that had once been his for the taking.

At the same time, the art world was moving at breakneck speed away from pure Postwar abstraction toward Pop and Op. “Venus,” “Strip Street” and “Joy Art”—called “posters without words”—were influenced, like Pop, by newspaper and magazine advertisements and men’s magazines. Van Woensel compiled the sketches and photographic source material that vividly showcase Sutnar’s dedication to his art, while highlighting his interest, or “male gaze.”

The Sutnar paintings echo, but do not mimic, Tom Wesselman’s “Great American Nude” and other stylized works associated with Pop. However, there is a Sutnar sensibility here—rooted in his sense of balance, proportion and clarity—that departs from Pop aesthetics.

All images published by Sutnarbooks, Pilsen, are copyrighted by The Radoslav and Elaine Sutnar Foundation, with thanks to the Sutnar Archive and Mr. Josef Mistera.