Performance on Paper is included with general admission, free for members.
– Lanny Sommese, poster designer and educator
If a poster is, as some people feel, a mirror of the sociological context in which it is produced, then it might be a good idea to visit Colorado. It must be an interesting place.
When Lanny Sommese wrote those words in the German graphic design publication Novum Gebrauchsgraphik in 1976, he was speaking of Colorado's own Phil Risbeck and the late John Sorbie. Risbeck’s and Sorbie’s now internationally acclaimed graphic works have become expressive illustrations of their career-long dedication to the medium of the poster.
Professors in the department of art and art history at Colorado State University, Risbeck’s and Sorbie’s poster designs announced a constant stream of cultural events within the university and surrounding Fort Collins community including dance, theater, opera, and film.
The university campus became a stage where the poster acted as an effective communication device for an audience of primarily pedestrians. The posters also provided a creative outlet for the graphic design professors who were given tremendous artistic freedom.
The 30 posters on view in the exhibition Performance on Paper are drawn primarily from the museum’s collection and highlight Risbeck’s and Sorbie’s experimentation with a broad range of techniques over a 30-year period, including cut- and torn-paper, high-contrast photography, as well as hand-drawn illustrations and the innovative split-fountain printing technique (a printing process in which two ink colors blend together when wet).
The eye-catching results of these works lies in Risbeck’s and Sorbie’s ability to capture the essence of an event through the interplay of imagery and typography.
Establishing the Graphic Design Program at CSU
A designer of international reputation, John Sorbie established the graphic design program at CSU in 1960 and taught there for about 30 years. Sorbie frequently combined fragments of photographs—cut, torn, and reassembled—in unusual arrangements. For example, a larger-than-life camera focuses on the viewer of Sorbie’s surreal depiction of photographer James Milmoe, whose body is repeated and cut in unusual fashion. His silhouetted figures shared an affinity with some of Matisse’s cut-paper compositions while his abilities as an illustrator were honed by decades of making art and teaching.
Phil Risbeck worked as an assistant to Herbert Bayer in Aspen before he began teaching graphic design in the mid-1960s at CSU under, then program chair, John Sorbie.
Risbeck’s posters, like Sorbie’s, make use of almost every graphic technique available, including photography, illustration, and collage. He often created a single image to convey the feeling of an event. Whether a high contrast photograph or a deceptively simple drawing, Risbeck’s images confront the viewer with frontal compositions.
His poster for the Satyajet Ray Film Festival combines a sense of drama with brilliant color—reproducing an existing photograph in striking contrast, so features loom out of the dark background and eyes become deep shadows. Risbeck’s use of the split-fountain, multicolor printing technique was rather innovative. In the poster for Carmen, Risbeck positions his cut-paper silhouetted figures on a split-fountain backdrop to produce eye-catching results.
While working on a college campus gave the designers tremendous freedom, it also meant budget was an issue, along with deadlines that required quick and inexpensive graphic techniques. Sometimes they had a week; sometimes overnight.
A hand-drawn illustration, as in Risbeck’s poster for the ancient Greek tragedy Medea, could be rendered quickly and economically. Cut and torn paper was also a relatively fast way to make images, such as the abstract form in Sorbie’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater poster. The work demonstrates that graphic design, like dance and other art forms, can be a physical, human-made construction.
Risbeck and Sorbie understood that posters are a record of society and what societies value culturally and socially, and they show us—or reacquaint us—with those things the poster does best. For example, posters are especially effective on college campuses where you have pedestrian traffic. A successful poster speaks to an audience on the move. And Risbeck and Sorbie created posters with an immense amount of visual impact, combining imagery and type, to catch the eye of roving students.
Image credits: John Sorbie, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, 1974. Offset lithograph. © John Sorbie. Gift of Julie Roche, Amy Sorbie, and Judy Sorbie-Dunn. Phil Risbeck, Carmen, 1991. Offset lithograph. © Phil Risbeck. Gift of Philip E. and Marie Vescial Risbeck.