The Writing on the Wall

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s reputation was made at Sea Ranch. A new exhibit shows why she’s a supergraphics legend.

By Zach Mortice

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon forms space (or something close to it) with color. That sort of alchemical transformation, she says, is the product of exacting and merciless study rather than whimsical inspiration. As a graphic design student at the Basel School of Design, Solomon studied with the Swiss modernist Armin Hofmann, scrutinizing Helvetica with a microscope, slicing off unnecessary serifs, and building a bridge to a new world through typographic economy.

Photo by Iker Gil.

“Armin’s in my head,” Solomon says. “Everything I do is still as if Armin is over my shoulder watching, saying ‘prima’ if it’s good.”

Starting with her era-defining supergraphics at the Sea Ranch, the influential development master planned by Lawrence Halprin, Solomon’s career has been an exercise in understanding the International Style’s ironclad rules of weight and proportion, handed down to her by Hofmann, so they can be artfully broken. At Sea Ranch, her wall-scaled drawings warped into near-psychedelic blocks of color and shape that hum with balance and restraint. There’s a timelessness that’s ever more obvious now that Solomon has been drawing for 70 years. Her supergraphics are perhaps the most durable examples of Bauhausian sensibility around. “Either I break [the rules], or I don’t break them,” she says. “But I’ve got them.”

Photo by Nathan Keay.

At Exits Exist, a show of her work organized by the Graham Foundation director Sarah Herda, new site-specific supergraphics echo and answer each other across the gallery, placed in conversation by little more than Solomon’s intuition. Setting up shop in the foundation’s Madlener House, these residential-scaled galleries, interrupted by wood-framed fireplaces and mantles, are an idiosyncratic setting for supergraphics that want to burst across white walls unimpeded.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Solomon had never seen the Madlener House, and worked from elevations and photos. “At first I looked at the molding and thought, ‘Oh, my God. What in the hell am I going to do with these?’” she says. She wanted to keep the space, in her mind, as pure and abstract as possible. She was unlikely to ever visit, having been homebound after a fall a few years ago. The dark brown hardwood flooring was “just a line” in her drawings, she says, because if she indicated the color, the drawings would look “terrible.”

“I figured it out and I went slow, and I enjoyed something to do during COVID-19,” she says.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Solomon began these graphics on 8.5-by-11-inch sheets of paper, and enlisted her daughter Nellie King Solomon, also an artist, to help install them. “She knows how to put my little crummy sketches on a whole wall,” Solomon says. From her home in San Francisco, Solomon watched as Chicago’s Heart & Bone Signs put black and vermilion paint on the gallery walls. “I knew it would be a real guess; just dumb luck if it would look good,” she says.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Exits Exist is an extension of her work at Sea Ranch. In California, Solomon’s supergraphics are often geometric abstraction inserted into modernist environs, warping through planes and wrapping across walls. In Chicago, the typography is stretched and squashed into geometric motifs that trade Sea Ranch’s busy intimacy for the Madlener’s formality and texture. What’s consistent between the two is the way Solomon’s supergraphics transcend decorative motif and become a spatial experience.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

In the Chicago show, the supergraphics in the first-floor galleries unfold not just across walls but across rooms, setting up an exuberant call and response from one gallery to the next. Abstracted versions of the letters spelling out the name of the show melt typography into geometry: an “E” as three squat vermilion rectangles, an “S” with its midsection stretched thin, a fat “T” shaped just like the fireplace it sits next to, dueling wings of an “X” that kiss precisely where two walls form a corner, its precision done riotously. Within the segmented, residential scale of the Graham galleries, the crook of an “S” is interrupted by a threshold, picked up again, and repeated in the next room, adding layers of depth to what at first appears to be just paint on a wall.

Photo by Iker Gil.

The wood framing of windows and mantles and the forced perspective through these spaces are as important as the paint. “The architecture,” Solomon says, “tells me what to do.” Material and spatial impositions “break the monotony and give me ideas I never would have thought of.”

Several of Solomon’s books are available in the bookstore, including her 1989 book, Green Architecture and the Agrarian Garden, derived from her master’s thissis at the University of California, Berkeley, and the time she spent designing landscapes with the architect Ricardo Bofill. The book features sumptuous landscape drawings that often begin in plan view but suddenly—and somehow subtly—shift to section views of architecture. Some of these same shifts in perspective are seen in Exits Exist.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Perhaps influenced by Solomon, landscape designers are using supergraphics to define space and delineate program with at least as much abandon. At the Superkilen supercollage in Copenhagen—by Superflex and Topotek 1—topographic track lines squiggle texture onto the asphalt, and tessellated polygons of red, pink, and orange threaten to buckle the ground plane.

After seven decades in design, only Solomon can say whether each swipe of paint is a dictum from Armin Hofmann or an invitation to break the rules and go her own way. But this particular transgression was—and still is—her greatest triumph.

Photo by Nathan Keay.

Exits Exist is on display through July 9; Admission is free, reservations required.

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