Interview: Hubert Kretzschmar Vividly Illustrates the Pandemic

The colors are as bold as the topic – adamant, insistent, inarguable. The hues of the unequivocal. So unequivocal in fact that they, like their subject, are impossible to ignore. Stop. Look. Listen. Or else.

Conversely, the colors represent antithesis. Loud while their subject is silent. Forthright as opposed to furtive. Smashing you in the face rather than slipping up behind your back. Attention-getting hues for something that does its utmost best to be overlooked – until it’s too late. 

We speak of the kaleidoscopic array of declamatory hues Hubert Kretzschmar selected to illustrate the pandemic brought about by COVID-19, surely the most devastating event of our times. The German born artist has otherwise been famous for his iconic album covers for the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Led Zeppelin, Kraftwerk, and others.

But now he has undertaken his most monumental challenge: to illustrate this epochal event. An event by every definition of the word. A social occasion as much as a noteworthy happening as much as an adverse or damaging medical occurrence. It’s by far the largest gathering the world has ever witnessed, let alone been invited to. And everybody got to attend.

Then again, nobody had a choice. There was no otherwise. The invitation could not be ignored. The affair could not be skipped. Attendance was at once mandatory and compulsory, because the invite was really an edict that had the force of both mandate and compulsion.

That edict was perhaps the most frightening aspect about the virus. The order to participate didn’t simply come from on high; it came from a realm higher than anyone could comprehend. Some said God was the culprit. Others blamed other gods. Everyone was wrong. God didn’t do this. Neither did any of the other gods. We did this. To ourselves.

It is precisely that clash of fear and reprobation that Kretzschmar elicits in his COVID-19 Works. Hot-to-the-touch hues set within a culprit coldness; blaring warnings of dire things to come slipped from the side of recalcitrant mouths. Oh, it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, there’s also an undercurrent of humor to the proceedings. A burbling wile to help buffer the steadfast threat of collapse.

Therein lies the rub. Kretzschmar’s wile is made from the very same hubris that got us here to begin with. We really can be too smart for our own good. Add the disarming harmony of the hues with their inherent slap-back optimism and you’ve got a picture perfect illustrating of the pandemic. Is it bleak? Not on the face of it. But peel back the surface and it’s downright deadly. Just like the coronavirus called COVID-19.

To ensure that the world is well aware of just whose hands the pandemic’s responsibility lies, Kretzschmar has taken to a variety of forms and put his COVID-19 Works to work. Stamp-sized replications take flight through the mail systems. Standard sticker-sized versions slap to the covers of laptops, road cases and street signs. Postcard-sized offerings double as invites and announcements, while poster-sized representations of one, two, four and forty images wall the now silent city streets. Then too, of course, there are the silk-screened singulars, framed and fitted for the gallery, as well as the homes and offices of the more discerning collector. There’s even talk of pattern-soaked streetwear and patched caps and skullies. Whatever the form, Kretzschmar intends to make his message as widespread as COVID itself, by every means necessary.

Duly intrigued, we got Kretzschmar to give up the How’s and the Why’s behind his Corona Series, as well as where those How’s and Why’s came from, and what they might mean. More importantly perhaps, we simply let his sheer ultra vivid blast us right out of our realm.   

What compelled you to illustrate the pandemic?

I wanted to have something to look back on, a record of what’s happened when this is over…if it ever will be over? I asked myself what is it that’s most pressing on our minds? The concept of humans as a virus devouring planet Earth and destroying the host by doing so was very compelling.

I also became fascinated by the portal Johns Hopkins had put together to keep track of the spread of the virus. I started recording it on a daily basis to have a visual day to day comparison that might lead to an animated graphics project.

Then I started to collect images of people with special protective gear and made drawings using water-soluble color pencils. But I grew frustrated by the time-consuming effort of drawing. I have always been fascinated by the simplicity of roadway signage and how it can display incredibly life and death information, so…

What was the first image? 

It was half skull and half face with a breathing mask. The idea that we are restricted in our way of breathing led me to look online at all the ways masks are used, and I assembled a collection of mask images…including Darth Vader, the pneumo challenged proto breather. That led me to the virus graphic reproductions and in turn how the virus became a graphic placeholder. Initially I focused on simple street sign like graphics and worked within these restrictions. I kept the color palette to recognizable street sign colors. Red. Yellow. Black. At some point I started to create a poster-like frame that led me to freestyle different scenarios and explore a wider range of ideas.

Did you have a specific message in mind?

Traffic signs themselves convey messages and instructions in a very distilled manner. Failing to obey them is one of the primary causes of accidents and death. When people disobey instructions conveyed through signs, results can be very catastrophic. At that point I introduced the euphemistic language of the advertisement industry. The idea of what it would look like if Big Brother was going to sell us the virus.

Has the message changed since you began the series?

There was a point when I illustrated the virus shapes that were reminiscent of Tibetan mandalas and I let my mind entertain the thought of a society that reveres the virus as a deity.

Do you see the work being adapted for any particular public use? 

Some of the signs I created have a useful message, be it social distancing or the instructions on the wearing of masks or washing of hands…hygiene, etc. I have pasted some of the signs in my neighborhood and tried to make them look as if they where meant to be there. 

Do you think authorities need to use bolder imaging in their public service messaging?

Definitely! The message gets lost out there in the wilderness of the urban jungle. Somebody has to hire me to be a consultant.

Is that one of the reasons why your Corona Series imaging employs such bold colors and characters?

Like I mentioned earlier, I was tying to emulate traffic signs at first, but I also wanted to create a artistic statement and be playful with the subject.

Speaking of which, do any particular colors stand for/represent anything particular?

The whole thing about these kind of signs is that they activate a part of your unconscious, there has been a lot of research into how the message gets delivered. Every time a sign tells you there’s another sign coming up, it primes your brain, even if you aren’t paying attention to it. It’s called “cognitive priming” and the point is to increase your concentration and decrease your reaction time. That may seem obvious, but according to researchers this works purely on an unconscious level, rather than a conscious one. 

How about the characters? What’s behind them, and what do they represent?

A reason why crosswalk signs show stick-figure kids running or walking is because it unconsciously activates the part of the brain that monitors movement. There is a study that showed that dynamic signs grab a hold of your attention up to a full second earlier than those with static figures. They result in a significant increase in eye movement while you scan the area for dangers, ensuring a much quicker response time if some hapless grade-schooler happens to come darting out into the road. That spells for good signage.

I am just using some of the principles and I try and be playful at the same time. But it is interesting that one can find shortcuts into the human brain.

Did any of your visual cues come from The Vienna Method – that is, the isotype system developed by Otto Neurath back in the early 20th century?

I am familiar with the isotype system, modern infographics and pictograms owe a lot to the founder of this system. It relied on serial repetition as one of its core principles. I think Neurath and the Vienna Circle could not have foreseen the graphic revolution that the microprocessor has made possible.

Neurath’s aim was to “represent social facts pictorially” and to bring “dead statistics” to life by making them visually attractive and memorable – does that align with your goals?

In this case I am not dealing much with statistics, and representation of social facts is only tangential, if at all relevant. 

Are you familiar with the 1936 War on Syphilis public service campaign? (Note: It was the first nationwide public health campaign to use isotypes.)

I am familiar with a few of the posters, although not so many isotype designs as far as my memory serves me, and I could draw some similarities – a pandemic of far reaching consequence – to our current situation.

Neurath and his colleagues claimed Egyptian hieroglyphs to be their springboard – have you also been influenced by the ancients?

Not much, but I will need to revisit that time period and reassess.

How does the Corona Series fit in with the rest of your works?

As a visual artist I feel challenged to be able to switch gears and change media as I see fit. I also feel the need to exercise my brain while the world is being held captive by the fear of this virus.

How does it differ?

I have been working a lot with photographic imagery the past forty years. I still design the odd icon or corporate logo, but this style connects to my beginnings as a graphic draftsman.

Do you also see the works being shown as a set, either online and/or in a gallery? Perhaps even a monograph?

So far I spontaneously decided to put them up on my website. It would be nice to do a show with them as a group or do a catalog or book. I have to see where it will lead.

Has doing this series helped to keep you sane through these crazy times?

Somehow it has me made me a little more disciplined in the way I work now. It feels good to have something that gives me a little bit of excitement in being creative. And a reason to get up early and get going.

Do you think your mass productivity is a reflection of the severe impact suffered by your adopted hometown of New York?

Being in isolation lends itself to work – what else am I going to do? I do have to keep the growing number of fatalities in the back of my mind.

By the way, do you consider yourself to be a German artist, an American artist, a German-American artist or something else entirely?

At this point I am wholeheartedly a New Yorker. But I would just go by artist, without the geographical tag.

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