Mark Thomson is based in London and is responsible for the design of the catalogue for the Mel Bochner: If the Colour Changes exhibition, currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery. Trained in fine art at Chelsea School of Art, for a period in the 90s Mark was art director of Taschen, based in Cologne, Germany, where he produced, among many other books, the definitive tome Starck (1996). Back in the UK, he began working on books directly with artists. More recently he has produced artist monographs, exhibition catalogues and text-based books with publishers Ridinghouse, as well as with the British Council and British Museum. Among other projects, Mark is currently involved in producing a monograph on the British artist and 2003 Turner Prize nominee Anya Gallaccio. Thomson, an authority on typography, occasionally writes on design-related subjects.
In a 2005 issue of Eye magazine, referring to an exhibition of Swiss books at the Design Museum, Thomson said: ‘An inescapable fact about exhibiting books is that the essential ingredient of a book – its engagement with time – is impossible to show. Sculpture you can walk around, a painting can be seen from left and right.’ The real experience of a book, he tells us, has more in common with music or architecture. Significantly, in the same article he talks about the exhibition and its catalogue, designed by Laurent Benner and Jonathan Hares, as being co-dependent and that, in this instance, ‘the catalogue itself is the star.’
When did you study at Chelsea?
1980 to 1985, studying fine art. Anthony Hill was my main tutor there. He’d corresponded with Marcel Duchamp and was a central figure in postwar British and European constructivism. He had an anarchic alter ego called Redo (as in play-doh). These things made him extremely interesting to me. His 1983 mid-career retrospective at the Hayward is still one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen: work that was totally uncompromising, industrial, practically colourless and apparently devoid of angst or expression of any kind. I loved it, and still do.
Why the crossover from fine art to design?
After Chelsea I started writing about art, mostly reviewing exhibitions and interviewing artists I was interested in, such as Hans Haacke and Dan Graham. I did a bit of lecturing, usually on these subjects. Meanwhile the work I was making had something to do with structure and language; it was really no step at all from that to design. I started doing flyers for concerts, and gradually realised that design held a deeper mystery for me. It was not clear at all how design worked – the language was far more subtle than the idea of problem-solving that was being put about. Typography in particular became my obsession, as well as the overall language of design. The first exhibition catalogue and print material I did was for New Contemporaries in 1993. For the first time I felt that all my interests came together in a meaningful way.
How did the Taschen job come about?
At about the same time I had been working on a book about chairs for Taschen, and went to Cologne to show them what I had done. While there I worked on another book with them for a day or two, returning a couple of weeks later to do some more. Then it snowballed – we got on well and after a few months I was given the job of art director. I had my studio in London and the studio in Cologne. I went between the two for a few years.
The main task was to introduce a more international design language – although the company sold books all over the world it was still quite German-looking. I gave the typography a new direction: Scala Sans had just been released and it was readable as well as fresh, it was both new and somehow traditional, and it was perfect for the coated papers that art books are mostly printed on. Scala and Quadraat became the baseline typefaces for the company.
You’re currently based in London but do you still do work for overseas clients?
When I stopped working with Taschen I wanted to focus on working with artists and working internationally – over the last few years I’ve worked in something like 20 languages. My clients are all over – we Skype a lot.
Could you explain something about some of the other things you’ve worked on?
The work has fallen into natural categories: monographs, exhibition catalogues, writings and other text-based books. I have made monographs on artists like Simon Patterson and Chris Burden, and catalogues for recent exhibitions by John Stezaker and Josiah McElheny at the Whitechapel, on German Romantic prints and drawings at the British Museum, Nick Danziger and Yuri Gagarin for the British Council (where I also designed the exhibition, with Nick Coombe Architecture).
I work a lot with Ridinghouse, who are doing some great publishing on and around art. Recently we’ve done a series of collected writings of Michael Bracewell, Georg Baselitz and Fred Wilson, as well as a book called Unconcealed – a brilliant, incredibly detailed study of the artist, dealer and museum network around conceptual art in Europe between 1967 and 1977. The most recent catalogue is for Mel Bochner at the Whitechapel Gallery (and in 2013 at Haus der Kunst, Munich, and Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Portugal).
Was it very different working with an artist’s work that is often strongly typographical, as opposed to say figurative or purely abstract? How did it affect your approach?
I am only trying to find a form through which the work can speak. In my view the designer’s role here is to place the work in space, as well as it can be done, and then to get out of the picture. This applies to every aspect of the design – the editorial structure, the structure of the page, the typography and the production. The moment of interaction between eye, paper and ink is the critical one where the work can be found or lost completely. I still believe that having some kind of understanding of the work makes all the difference to the final outcome. Mel Bochner’s father was a signwriter, so his understanding of typography and lettering is very grounded.
The exhibition title, If the Colour Changes, doesn’t appear on the cover of the catalogue: what was the thinking behind this?
Only that the catalogue is almost a monograph. There is much less out there on Mel Bochner than I thought, and the scope of the exhibition is basically the scope of his career, even if a guiding theme of the show is apparently colour. This particular catalogue includes five critical texts as well as a selection of Mel Bochner’s own texts, a very detailed biography and bibliography, and of course all the works from the exhibition. That’s a lot of content.
Images from the catalogue
Mel Bochner: If the Colour Changes
Published in 2012 on the occasion of the exhibition of the same title by Whitechapel Gallery and Ridinghouse in association with Haus der Kunst, Munich, and Fundação de Serralves, Porto; edited by Achim Borchardt-Hume and Doro Globus, with texts by Achim Borchardt-Hume, Briony Fer, João Fernandes, Mark Godfrey and Ulrich Wilmes
Front cover, showing:
Blah, Blah, Blah, 2011 (Detail)
Oil on velvet (ten panels)
Double page spread, showing:
Actual Size (Hand and Face), 1968/2002
Two gelatin silver prints