For more than sixteen years, José Luis Argüello has been the administrative assistant of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. From day one, it was clear that José Luis was not a typical administrator. Gregarious, engaging, and an indefatigable conversationalist, he is also and probably first and foremost, an aesthete in a 19th century sense. An accomplished pianist (although too reluctant to share his music) with a prodigious knowledge of the lives and works of the great classical musicians, José Luis, who graduated with a degree in art history from BU, is also an aficionado of Baroque and Neo-Classical European artistic cultures. He, until today, vividly and passionately remembers every building he visited and every painting he saw in his European travels more that two decades ago.
This introduction helps us understand the series of posters on display here that José Luis designed for the events sponsored by the Aga Khan Program since 2001. For although José Luis had studied graphic design, his sensibilities were shaped more by the aesthetic experiences and tastes he acquired as an avid Euro-trotter than by his formal training. This is how one can appreciate his selection of images as background for his posters from the rather circumscribed repertoire of Islamic art and architecture. He always went for the historically powerful, tactfully expressive, and spatially filling, favoring Neo-Classical- and Baroque-feeling images of monuments with which he was unfamiliar until he started educating himself about Islamic art and architecture.
His posters’ colors too are those of someone attuned to the neo-classical harmony of the 19th century European architectural interiors but also music, with touches of the vernacular, that seeped into it with the rise of national searches in the late 19th century and flavored and particularized its spectrum. He has a penchant for the Black and White photos with their sharp clarity and coherent gradations. But when he goes to colors, he prefers the earthy, warm ones, possibly also as a sign of that 19th century European sensibility that equated the Orient with the sun and the desert.
All along, José Luis makes sure that he is not boxed in a retro, possibly romantic, aesthetics. He overlays his pictorial historicism with a strong textual contemporaneity—simple, slender, and slick— suggesting that the message is of today even if the image is of yesterday. The lines and planes that frame and separate his compositions are very modern, owing their angularity and basic geometric shapes to the post-Kandinsky experiments in painting and architecture. His lettering too, which fluctuates between the Arial, Avenir, and Century fonts, ¬endows his posters with a contemporary feel despite the classical aesthetics that informs the images and their designer.
I hope that you will enjoy José Luis Argüello’s posters that not only visually document the activities of the Aga Khan Program at MIT for the last fifteen years, but also reveal the refined sensibilities of their designer and his evolving mastery of the communicative potential of the art and architecture of the Islamic world.