Pictograms by Warja Lavater

January 5, 2009

In Platonic plates of dots and squiggles, Warja Lavater played mind games.  She took to perception, essence, and souls, to pick just three of her 60 Pictograms’ titles.  All pen and ink, the prints make a fine book, a curious mind’s pocket epics.

Robert Kushner, in the April 1997 Art in America, calls her style “very clean, very Swiss”– the land of Ikea & Helvetica– “it is simplicity itself.”  Actually, it’s ideographic, much like Otto Neurath’s isotypes (made with Gerd Arntz, whose site has a generous sample).  Critic George Pendle calls them “a Bauhaus of language– functional, formulaic, and, most importantly, for the proletariat.”  The eye understands without the brain, almost.

Warja Lavater’s Pictograms

But Lavater’s Pictograms are for the intellectual, sitting a spell in the country.  Like her when she began them living by the woods in Gockhausen, a suburb of Zurich.  She produced sixty over the years, returning to them “whenever I wanted to get a clear picture of something,/a reconsideration/a perception/a news item/a conversation/an experience/in this way received their formations.”

At first they seems slight.  “Souls” draws two large circles at each side of the page.  One’s vertical hatching, the other horizontal.  Through six numbered steps, each “panel” the width of the page, they send out their core, mix and combine.  The pages read fast but welcome thought, with a wry wit.  Another, “The Artists’ Café,” illustrates how a cafe goes from lively to dead, from artist’s cheap haunt to a museum not even the tourists attend.  The punchlines, that is, the “aha!” at the end, is often mordant.  Fitting, as they seem to show human existence in a petri dish.

A few words of German and French explain some nuances, but mostly it’s about the visual codes.  Several have legends, like a map.  And it’s about her vibrant line, crisp but open to manic scribbling.  Drawing so simply’s almost impossibly hard, but she did make a living doing logos for companies like UBS.

Warja Lavater’s Snow White

The B&W book’s out from Nieves, all published in 2008 for the first time; FAMILY Los Angeles has copies, or at least they did.  That’s “The Weed” from the cover, and her version of Snow White from another book, nicked from Galerie Brigitte Weiss.

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