Martyl Langsdorf, Creator of the Doomsday Clock (1917-2013)

Martyl Langsdorf, the artist who created the original Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, passed away two weeks ago at the age of 96. The obituaries don’t quite capture her energy and intellect, but thankfully there’s a excellent oral history interview available via the Art Institute of Chicago (highlights include her beating Tennessee Williams in a playwriting competition).


Though she worked in a variety of media, Langsdorf is sure to be remembered mostly for her iconic Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cover. The clock, sitting at seven minutes to midnight, went from being the Bulletin‘s signature image to a symbol of the nuclear menace. When the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device in 1949, the Bulletin‘s board declared that they were moving the clock to 11:57, three minutes to midnight. Since then, it has oscillated between 11:58pm and 11:43pm (today it sits at 11:55pm, an ominous five minutes to doomsday).

Design critic Michael Bierut says the clock

translates all the arguments [about nuclear proliferation] to a simple — a brutally simple — visual analogy. The Clock suggests imminent apocalypse by marrying the looming approach of midnight and the tense countdown of a ticking time bomb. Appropriately for an organization led by scientists, the Clock sidesteps the overwrought drama of the mushroom cloud in favor of the cool mechanics of an instrument of measurement.

The effect is somewhat reminiscent of the postwar corporate identities created by Paul Rand and others, including Erik Nitsche’s work for General Dynamics.  There’s an essential connection between the two: both Langsdorf and Nitsche use abstraction to grapple with the a power so far beyond human comprehension that trying to describe its effects on individual humans is pointless. Nuclear war stands beyond the scope of empirical experience, in a place that we reach only through analogy.

It was a challenge that Langsdorf was well placed to take on. Reminiscing to Betty Blum sixty years later, she observed that abstraction was, fundamentally, the only way to depict  the nature of twentieth-century war:

one of my theories about non-objective painting is that it came at a time when the world had become so horrible with all its wars and everything, that it gets beyond comprehension, or expression. … the absence of any objects at a time when the  world was in such a horrible state hasn’t changed, when you think about it. It seemed to breed introverted art, cause looking out is so grim. The wars have gotten worse. Society has sides and the evil side has bubbled to the surface. And it’s just very hard. I think Picasso and his Guernica probably symbolized, way back, the war in Spain, which started the whole bloody business of World War II. He probably expressed it as best could be. And I remember the antipathy of Tom Benton who also did something about the war. It was so terrible, in my view. It was just awful. It was a series that I think was produced in Life magazine, or something. He painted the actual burning, you know, literal, ships going down, burning and smoke. You see, to me, Picasso’s Guernica is so much more powerful, because it is timeless. And it’s abstracted from reality.


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