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“American Posters: Five Views”

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The status of “lower” art forms is as much a matter of communication as commerce. Any two-dimensional work sure enough of its meaning and direct enough in its expression runs the risk of being labeled “graphic design,” particularly if it’s mass-produced. But we don’t need early Soviet agitproppers to remind us of this. The homegrown examples in “Posters American Style,” which opens March 27 at the National Museum of American Art, challenge the familiar hierarchies with brutal wit and sheer visual panache. The posters’ messages span the century and run the gamut from “Narcoti-Cure cures the tobacco habit in from 4 to 10 days” to—I’m extrapolating slightly here—”Get hip, soldier—the Baez sisters are carnally available only to red-blooded draft resisters.” But historical quirks aside, even when these pieces weren’t made by such high-art notables as Robert Rauschenberg, Romare Bearden, and Alice Neel or such graphics dons as Ben Shahn and Leonard Baskin, they can pack a mean punch. Just this weekend I searched my pantry in vain for Rupert Garcia’s hot-cereal bigotry poster child (above); in retrospect, I’m glad I had to settle for the smilin’ Quaker. In conjunction with its exhibit, the NMAA is convening “Five Views,” a panel discussion moderated by curator Therese Thau Heyman and featuring Library of Congress prints and photographs division chief Linda Ayres, National Portrait Gallery director Alan Fern, collector and Chicano poster specialist Tomþ.s Ybarra-Frausto, and renowned designers Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser. From 10 a.m.-noon Saturday, March 21 at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Free. For reservations call (202) 357-4511. (Glenn Dixon)