A Formal Feeling Comes

The logo was everywhere-popping out from
behind doors, cast down from walls, scattered on tables. This cartoony
triptych was the spokespicture for Yale’s "September 11th, One Year
Later" programming. It was printed on every poster, flyer, and handout
advertising the memorial events scheduled a year after the attacks.

The logo consists of three pictographs-the first in red, the second in
white, and the third in blue. The first image is an abstraction of the
Twin Towers-and by abstraction, I mean two off-kilter rectangles that
look like an overly starched pair of pants, ready to drop. The second
picture is an aerial view of The Pentagon-represented by bold lines and
cracked into pieces (an image probably obtained from the same clipart
bank that provided the rectangular pants). The third is the outline of
an airplane in a nose-dive towards the bottom of the page. The cockpit
has already been swallowed up by a grass-green border below the logo.
On the larger posters there is a yellow half circle behind the figures-it
looks like the outline of a giant asteroid. Under it all: "To commemorate
the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Yale is planning a series of
educational and memorial events to be held on September 10th and 11th.
The panels and concerts are open to the general public." It sounded
like a birthday invitation and looked like one too.

At first I thought that the goal of the 9/11 triptych was to capture
9/11 without sugar-coating any of the horror of the day-no patriotic God
Bless America testimonials, no waving flags, no "don’t mess with
us" Maybe it was supposed to be grotesque and brutal just like 9/11,
the more graphic the better. Then where are the bodies? The arms and legs
sticking out of gutters? The people falling from the 110th floor, enveloped
in flames? Where is the plume of smoke and human ash?

Broken buildings and shattered machinery were the least horrific part
of the day. If the designer was confined to clip art (as the triptych
suggests), he could have at the very least plunked in some stick figures
with x’s for eyes, staring out the windows as the plane crashed to the
ground. But maybe it wasn’t about horror. Maybe the designer had something
else in mind. Maybe the object of this graphic was to summarize the events
that took place last year, in case somebody had forgotten. The logo didn’t
even get that right. The twin towers didn’t fall over like a set of blocks.
The Pentagon didn’t crack like broken plate. We remember it better than
that.

Every time I see one of those posters, now fallen, trodden on, and dirty,
I am sad. I expected to have things figured out by the time this anniversary
rolled around. But I haven’t. And if I couldn’t on my own, I was counting
on somebody else to explain it. Neither has happened, and I’m not ready
for logos or triptychs or slogans or birthday invitations. I need the
unabridged explanation first.

Guns blazing, I confronted the designer of the graphic. Peter Johnson
greeted me with a firm handshake and a smile, armed with a folder of his
sketches and a few different copies of his graphic. He wore khaki pants
and a plain, collared shirt. His hair was grayish blond, combed neatly
to the side and his thin white moustache bobbed up and down as he spoke.
"It was kind of an impossible task," he said quietly. "Most
of my work has been Yale directed, but this is a world crisis, a human
event, and it definitely put me on the edge of my chair. I’m used to areas
of imagination, but this was beyond imagination." His deep voice
began to waver. I put the guns away.

Suddenly, I could imagine being in his shoes. I wanted to understand
how he went about tackling what seemed like an impossible task. "Almost
like writing a poem is how I think about it," he explained. "In
graphic design, form is like sound and language. Poetry encapsulates the
sound of language, as opposed to just having a literal meaning."

He pulled out some sheets of paper from a folder. From his front pocket,
he removed a small notebook of recycled brown paper-pages of sketches,
each a variation of the approved graphic. The differences between the
drawings were subtle: a different figure stood in here or there, the crack
ran through the pentagon in different places. Every line of his final
graphic was drawn with purpose. "I wanted three symbols. I always
remembered the Shanksville [Pennsylvania] crash. I thought there was such
heroism in that particular act. I didn’t want to emphasize the towers;
I wanted the Washington dc attack and the Pennsylvania attack to be just
as important," he said. "Then, I wanted to get across a sense
of fragmentation or rupture or devastation. Shanksville was the most difficult
for me to think about. I had a symbol of plate glass shattering. There
was a sense of toppling, breaking, crashing-but these are just words,
sounds, literal meanings. So I tried to formalize them without being too
clever. That was the other mandate. This was no place to be clever."

I hadn’t even thought of this ammunition. But of course it made sense:
to be ingenious or witty with September 11th would be in poor taste. But
what was standing in for cleverness? The towers tumbling, the plane in
mid-crash-these images were not clever. They were disturbing. "I
wanted it to be alerting," Johnson said. "But I didn’t want
it to be distressing or macabre. I didn’t want to show ruins or death
or have it too horrific." "Why not?" I asked. Maybe it
should have been more disturbing, more real. "Because we all kind
of know that [it was horrific]. And to identify that would almost underplay
the seriousness," he said without skipping a beat. "I wanted
to be alerting in a positive sense." I was not convinced. Death should
not have been forgotten in order to make the logo upbeat, I thought to
myself. How could he ignore the people in those buildings? This day will
go down in history because humans were murdered, not because buildings
were broken.

In response, Johnson explained to me the difference between formal abstraction
and figurative representation. To illustrate his point he described the
early controversy surrounding the Vietnam memorials in Washington dc.
He juxtaposed Frederick Hart’s soldier monument (a literal depiction of
soldiers on the battlefield) with the more formalist black gash in the
soil. "There are a lot of people riding the fence between formalism
and figurative, or literal and abstract. … I was raised as a formalist.
It’s my language or vocabulary. As a person who was in Vietnam, I was
much more drawn to the abstract. And it might be who I am or by the very
fact that [September 11th] was unimaginable."

Johnson hadn’t ignored death. He just knew what he wanted. He knew what
he felt did justice to the death associated with a war that he fought
in, and for him Maya Lin’s memorial was the most moving-a monument that
was abstract. He told me he was trying to accomplish something like that.

To drive his point home, he pulled out an old New Haven Register. On
the outside back cover was his graphic with Yale’s events highlighted
below it. On the inside back cover was a huge oval air brushed picture
of the twin towers standing unscathed. A gigantic American flag waved
in front of the towers. In front of the flag, two massive hands held a
burning candle. Below this picture "Our Faith Will Not Be Shaken"
was written in bold. The pair of pants suddenly didn’t look so bad. "A
lot of this gets too sentimental," he said while looking at the burst
of patriotism before him. "But if I use the word sentimental, somebody
could say that my graphic is too mechanical." His eyes shifted back
to his art. "Admittedly, I consider it formal; I hope it’s not mechanical.
I wanted it to be poetical."

But are there answers in his poetry, I wondered. Did he understand September
11th and could I understand it by looking at his graphic. "Unimaginable
things happened," he told me. "I wasn’t trying to understand
it. I was trying to do the best I could." The graphic didn’t have
gruesome pictures of mangled human bodies, but it didn’t sugarcoat either.
The logo didn’t act as an exact caption not because the designer forgot
what happened or assumed we forgot; he didn’t want it to be literal. His
graphic was deliberate. It didn’t matter that it didn’t hold all the answers
to September 11th, 2001-that wasn’t its purpose. Instead it gave us a
way to think about it. And perhaps just seeing 9/11 from different vantages
and through different mediums gets us closer to some understanding. Johnson
had the courage to take a stab at it. I’m glad he did.

Flora Lichtman, a sophomore in Davenport College,
is production manager for TNJ.

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