The Daily Heller: Remembering the King of Gallery Catalogs and Posters

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It has been argued in the past that gallery art and graphic design do not mix. But that is an out-of-date notion. Actually, it is a fallacy. Who creates the catalogs, posters and other gallery ephemera? Some, perhaps, are created by the artists, but mostly they are from graphic designers. A few have made a specialty of designing for galleries.

The king of gallery design, if my collection of art catalogs is any indication, was Marcus Ratliff. He died on Feb. 4 at the age of 86. He was a graphic designer and later a collagist who, for nearly 40 years, ran his own Manhattan-based design firm, helping artists, galleries, museums and publishers communicate “the complexity and immediacy of visual art through typography and other visual language,” as his son Ben Ratliff, a writer and journalist, told me.

Born on Sept. 20, 1935, Ratliff grew up in Cincinnati. For two years he attended the University of Cincinnati, which did not have a studio art program, until he learned about the tuition-free Cooper Union in New York, where he would eventually study graphic design.

His studio archive in Vermont is staggering—”it’s an organized collection of catalogs, posters, invitations, etc., which amounts to a pretty good history of how those commercial galleries in New York represented themselves from the early ’60s into the ’00s,” Ben says. His books and design for monographs tended to be very classically designed.

Ratliff lived at the Judson Student House at 239 Thompson St., behind Washington Square’s famous Judson Church, where the minister, Bud Scott, acted as its missionary to the artistic community, making church space available for exhibitions and performances. There, Marcus (or Mark, as he was known then) helped launch the Judson Gallery in a basement room. It hosted his own work as well art bt his friends and colleagues, including Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann and Phyllis Yampolsky; others in the scene around the gallery included Eva Hesse, Fluxus artists Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow and Jay Milder.

As exhibitions of the new art began to transform into live-action performances, Ratliff took part in Dine’s happening “Car Crash” at the Reuben Gallery in 1960. “He played a car, wearing a dress,” notes Ben. (Some of this period has been covered in two recent publications: Inventing Downtown: Artist-run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965 by Melissa Rachleff, accompanying an exhibit at New York University’s Grey Gallery; and Happenings: New York, 1958–1963, by Mildred L. Glimcher.)

From his association with the Judson House, he became art director of Exodus, a literary magazine featuring poetry, short stories and essays, with drawings by Oldenburg and Red Grooms, that lasted for three issues.

Founded in 1967, Ratliff’s Marcus Ratliff Inc. designed hundreds of posters, catalogs, invitations and advertisements for clients including the major New York galleries, Castelli, Pace, Dwan, Sonnabend, Zabriskie, and the Whitney Museum, during a period when New York galleries and museums had just begun to develop clever ways of spreading news.

Sometimes they radiated the idea or essence of the artist and the work, such as an invitation designed for Robert Smithson’s Mono Lake Nonsite exhibition at Dwan Gallery in 1969: one inch high by 30-inches long, accordion-folded, with type on one side and an unbroken strip of a United States map connecting Northern California’s Mono Lake to New York City on the other. Or sometimes they simply presented news of an event in clear and elegant type and layout. “For years Marcus’ work stood out unmistakably on the gallery advertisement pages of The New York Times and The Village Voice,” says Ben Ratliff. For a time Marcus tried working in two cities simultaneously, designing the English magazine Studio International and living in West London.

(All exhibit photos are from a 2014 exhibit of Ratliff’s immense oeuvre at Solway Gallery in Cincinnati.)