Mildred Constantine

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Mildred Constantine Bettelheim (1913 – December 10, 2008) was an American curator who helped bring attention to the posters and other graphic design in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s and 1960s

Biography[edit]

Constantine (she used her maiden name professionally) was born in 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. She received bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University and attended the graduate school of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.[1]

She worked for the College Art Association from 1931 to 1937 as an editorial assistant on the journal Parnassus. She met Rene d'Harnoncourt, her future boss as director of the Museum of Modern Art, while she was working at the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs.[1]

She traveled to Mexico in 1936 as part of the leftist Committee Against War and Fascism, where she developed an interest Latin and Central American political graphics. A Latin American poster collection she organized was shown at the Library of Congress and became part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's permanent collection.[1]

From 1943 through 1970, Constantine worked in the architecture and design department of the Museum of Modern Art, as associate curator and later as curatorial consultant, where she helped popularize collections that were hard to categorize or had been ignored, which she called "fugitive material". Her 1948 exhibition Polio Posters was the museum's first devoted to causes, and included works she commissioned to help spread awareness of various social issues.[1]

She organized solo exhibitions for graphic and product designers including Alvin Lustig, Bruno Munari, Massimo Vignelli and Tadanori Yokoo that were described by The New York Times as "career-defining". Her broader-themed exhibitions in the applied and decorative arts included Olivetti: Design in Industry in 1952, Signs in the Street in 1954 and the 1962 exhibit of Lettering by Hand.[1]

Constantine organized the 1968 exhibition titled Word and Image, which was the first exhibition to focus on the posters in the museum's collection from the 20th century, and whose catalog is considered a major element documenting the history of the poster.[1] In his January 1968 review of the exhibit, art critic John Canaday of The New York Times opened noting that

"the Museum of Modern Art's new exhibition of posters, which opened yesterday under the title Word and Image, is so handsome that for a minute you wonder why billboards are disfigurements", noting that the museum had held 35 prior poster exhibitions but that this was its most comprehensive and that while most posters look dated after a few years, the items Constantine selected from the museum's collection of 2,000 posters "are as forceful as when they were issued."[2]

Critic Hilton Kramer's review in The Times, described the exhibit as consisting of 300 posters from the period from 1879 to 1967, chosen by Constantine based on their "esthetic merit", though Kramer felt that the exhibit could not explain the late-1960s poster fad whose psychedelic designs he believed were no match for the graphic masterpieces of earlier days.[3]

Following her 1971 departure from the Museum of Modern Art, she produced exhibitions and books on the subjects of caricature, cartoons, decorative arts and photography, including here work as curator of the 1988 Frontiers in Fiber: The Americans and the 2002 exhibit Small Works in Fiber, both of which drew attention to textile and fiber art[1]

Constantine died at age 95 on December 10, 2008 of heart failure in her home in Nyack, New York.[1]

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