Thursday, October 23, 2014


Now that the world has finally focused its resources on combating the Ebola plague, medical science can turn its attention to the second most fearsome epidemic threatening civilization: artists who use mechanical circles for heads.






The Ebola epidemic was centered in West Africa, and the circle head epidemic seems to be centered at The New Yorker magazine, which apparently finds this style charming:

Fortunately, some areas appear immune to the virus.   Ivan Brunetti applied for the job of artist on the simple minded comic strip Nancy but did not draw well enough, so he had to become a New Yorker cover artist instead.


Doctors have discovered a clue to the origins of this epidemic in the excellent reference work, Graphic Style by Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast.   The authors write that a style called "information graphics" was developed by artists such as Nigel Holmes in order to present simplified information to popular audiences.


The authors described the information graphics style as:
graphic design working toward the goal of clarifying simple and complex data.  The key difference between information design and general graphic design is transparency.  Ornament and decoration are unacceptable if they hinder perception.  Information graphics have, by virtue of a common visual language, become a sort of style. 
Information graphics began as a method for "quantitative visualization," useful for conveying information but lacking the sensitivity or complexity or range necessary to convey weighty ideas.   Yet today this style has become a popular vehicle for acute social observation and "deep" content.  Why?

Is this the latest dazzling display of genius by Chris Ware?  No, it's from an airline information card created by some underpaid staff artist.

For starters,  cultural awards (and New Yorker covers) are often bestowed by people who specialize in concepts but seem to have little appreciation for the qualities of line, color or design.  (A good example would be the confused Dave Eggers, who embarrassed himself by asserting that "The most versatile and innovative artist the medium has ever known" is Chris Ware.)

But more importantly I suspect our ambitions for the graphic arts (and consequently our priorities and taste) may be evolving in the information age.  The insightful Karrie Jacobs wrote,
Computers have seduced us into thinking about ideas--the intangible stuff that comprises our culture, our meta universe, our homegrown organic realities-- as information.
The perfect visual style for such a society is "information graphics."  The following drawing by Brunetti conveys the fact of sex, the information that the characters are engaging in sex, but conveys nothing worth knowing about the idea of sex.

This seems to be a weakness common to the circle head artists (as well as other graphic novelists who draw square or oval shaped heads using the same monotonous line,  insisting that good draftsmanship would only impede the flow of their words.) 

Visual art once prided itself in challenging our perceptions, but information graphics do the opposite: as Heller and Chwast note,  information graphics purge any details that might "hinder perception."  If there is anything oblique or profound to communicate, it will be done with words.

So why does the epidemic of circle heads matter?  The drawings above are pleasant enough to fill a blank space.   Besides, travel agents and telephone booths were rendered obsolete by the information revolution,  so why shouldn't the inefficiencies of art also be stripped away, so readers don't linger too long over the drawing in any one panel?  What is lost if the efficient processing of information dumbs down our appreciation for visual form? 

Here's my personal answer:  It's great that images can be harnessed to convey information, such as the motion of a character raising a glass.   But art-- good art--  has the potential to do more, to provide us with the shades of meaning necessary to communicate love and pain on a higher level.  It can strengthen our sense of aesthetic form that we need in order to fend off entropy.  It gives us a language  more subtle and profound than words to flesh out concepts of joy or sadness or humor or introspection.

Art enables us to express a range of moods, feelings and beliefs that transcend mere information and thus are conspicuously absent from most information graphics-- even when such graphics are lionized as "brilliant" or "profound." 

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Daniel Schwartz's illustrations were looser and more exploratory than the work of many of his peers.  Yet, his sketches reveal a classically trained artist with all the technical skill to create tight, representational pictures. 


This should not be surprising.  Often the artists who understand anatomy, perspective, light and shadow, etc. are the ones best equipped to make good use of abstraction.

I like the sensitivity of Schwartz's pencil sketches:

But he also knows how to make good use of strong, broad lines:

Schwartz's pencil sketches were often left visible in his finished illustrations and contributed important effects:

Illustration from Life Magazine story on the My Lai massacre, 1971

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Daniel Schwartz's illustrations were confined by the deadlines and space limitations of his commercial clients, but he hungered to do something more ambitious.  So he resolved:
Focus on the masterwork. Do it on a large scale.  Use your skills, drawing, composition, color to say something universal, timeless, powerful.  This had always been in the back of my mind.  Then one day in 1969, watching a crowd of joggers across the street  I thought I might attempt a large painting based on this resolute, determined group of men.   
He began a series of studies which, 16 years later, culminated in a painting entitled, "Portrait of the Artist, Running," a complex masterpiece 78" x 100".

During those 16 years, the painting went through several major transformations, ultimately evolving into something very different from Schwartz's original intent.  He began to record the painting's various incarnations, keeping track of how he nursed the ideas, the emotions, the composition, the abstract shapes, the flat patterns and the color match ups as he and his painting changed.  He ultimately published them in an excellent  book, Portrait of the Artist, Running.


The picture started out with muscular, purposeful men striding forward in unity. Later drafts turned into a more chaotic mob in the street accompanied by wild dogs.  After several interesting turns, Schwartz painted himself in the midst of a herd of purposeful men:
They are all muscular, their muscularity paramount, except for the central figure who is more fragile, hesitant.  He is trying to break away from the herd of onrushing men.  His face is in the shadow but the figure and the shadowy face are mine.  I have placed myself in an alienated context, set apart from my fellow men who are engaged in a fierce race for a goal I will not share... Wild dogs harass us as wild dogs would harass a herd of harmless animals until finally cutting out the weakest member for killing and devouring.  One of the dogs stands like a man to suggest its victory over us.

 I found Schwartz's book to be a smart, eloquent, illuminating journey through the mind of an excellent artist as he constructs a major piece.  With no illustrator's deadline,  Schwartz had no excuse for falling short of perfect.
By 1974 I had painted over and over it so many times that the original start had been completely obliterated....  Nothing satisfied.  The background wouldn't do.  The dogs wouldn't do.  The painting had become a weight on my shoulders.... It wasn't what it could be, what it should have been from the start.... I was fifty years old.  I gave no thought to what might become of this huge canvas.  I worked alone.  I had no prospects for the painting's exhibition or sale.  I had no deadline to work against as I always did as an illustrator.
As Schwartz continued to work, the figures acquired hard edges, the color palette became more intense and the shapes became more abstract:


When I visited Schwartz in his studio it was a treat to see his finished magnum opus, as big as a wall, where I could appreciate its subtleties and special touches.

 Schwartz's description of his painting process reminded me of the line by Dryden,  "He who would search for pearls, must dive below."

Monday, October 13, 2014


Daniel Schwartz is a gifted painter who worked as an illustrator in the days when illustration was more accepting of gifted painters.

Trained as a gallery painter and fine artist, Schwartz brought a distinctive class and dignity to his illustrations.  His talent was recognized early and he was awarded scholarships to the Arts Students League and the Rhode Island School of Design.  He also won several awards for his paintings and enjoyed successful one man shows at the Davis, Hirschl & Adler, Maxwell and Babcock galleries in New York.  His work was spread among the NY intellectual and arts communities, in the collections of figures such as Leonard Bernstein, William Styron, Gay Talese, William Paley and Daniel Selznick.


At the same time he was an award winning illustrator for top periodicals such as Esquire, Fortune and Playboy.

Today Schwartz remains a prolific artist who paints actively in his Manhattan studio.  Recently I had the great pleasure of spending an afternoon with him, looking at his originals and talking about his work.  I came away with enough material for a dozen posts.  In the days ahead I will be sharing some of the sketches, insights and original images I encountered during that rewarding visit.


Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Once upon a time, before art teachers employed video or Photoshop to demonstrate the progress of a drawing, the Famous Artists School helped popularize "step by step" instruction:

Original drawings by Harold von Schmidt, "How to Draw a Dog"

Even today, the Famous Artists School training materials remain a marvelous record of the working methods of some of the country's top artists. 

Von Schmidt, an excellent draftsman, is underrated today

Illustrator Seymour Chwast couldn't draw nearly as well as Harold von Schmidt but he was a smart guy who recognized that by reversing von Schmidt's steps he could create a clever joke about deconstruction and reductionism:

Similarly, the following series from Guy Billout was focused more on conceptual stages than the steps necessary to  create a likeness:

In the next example, Chwast offers an utterly delightful perspective on the progress of a drawing:

Many a truth is said in jest.  For Chwast, the lightning bolt of inspiration 
was more important than years of studying the craft of drawing.

In this final example,  Richard Thompson speeds up and slows down time, introduces the childhood game "Chutes and Ladders," and shifts back and forth between alternative realities: 

Video and Photoshop have become superior methods for demonstrating the kind of steps that Harold von Schmidt was teaching, but note how static drawings still permit more freedom and creativity when it comes to demonstrating conceptual steps.

For von Schmidt, the space between drawings only reflects elapsed time.  For artists such as Thompson and Chwast it reflects not only elapsed time but also movement between worlds or perspectives.  It allows the artists to play ontological and surrealistic games which, while not as linear, are every bit as educational and truthful. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Our society encourages artists to exaggerate their eccentricities.  Musicians, writers and graphic artists compete to distinguish themselves by dressing and behaving outlandishly.  A nice couple of bucks can be made from appearing as kinky and outrageous as possible.

Such poseurs are different from genuine eccentrics-- the ones who risk everything because they just can't help what they are.  The difference can be seen in the authenticity of their work.

Wanda Gag (1893-1946) the illustrator and author of important children's books, was one of the true eccentrics in American illustration.


The strong willed daughter of a Bohemian artist, Gag grew up in a remote corner of rural Minnesota.  Her  parents died when she was young, leaving her impoverished and responsible for her six younger siblings.  She fought to keep her family together, rejecting efforts to divide the children into foster homes.

Relying on just $8 per month from the county, Wanda scratched for pennies.  She sold little knicknacks and pictures to feed her young siblings.  She trained in St. Paul to become a professional illustrator but found the lessons too confining:
I cannot bear to think of following in the footsteps of others.  And this is what they are teaching us to do here in Illustration.  We are doing covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and everyone has a Leyendecker cover at their side which they consult and worship while working at their own sketch.
Wanda was intent on developing her own style, one that combined art and real life, so after providing for her siblings Wanda left Minnesota in 1917 to become an artist in New York City.  An early feminist and suffragist, Wanda was politically radical and artistically uncompromising.  She practiced "free love," believing that an active sex life was a wellspring for artistic creativity.  She developed a series of odd theories about nature, aesthetics and fertility. She designed and made her own clothes for an "artistic" look.

Shortly after her arrival in New York Wanda started doing illustrations for the communist newspaper, New Masses.

She began receiving steady commercial assignments but found them unfulfilling so she cut her commercial ties and rented a ramshackle home in the country (which she named Tumble Timbers). There she could work on her fine art without distraction.  (Also without heat, running water or bathrooms.  She ate food from her garden and cooked on a kerosene stove.  Her lean years in Minnesota had made her fearless about poverty.)

Wanda's drawing of Tumble Timbers

Wanda's drawing of her bed at Tumble Timbers, inscribed to her lover Carl

Her younger sister wrote a song poking fun at Wanda ("If she thinks its funny that you work for money / Don't blame her-- 'cause she's an artist!")

The stairway at Macy's


In 1928 Wanda hit it big with her first children's book, Millions of Cats, a deeply odd story about an elderly couple inundated with "millions and billions and trillions of cats."  They are ultimately saved when (spoiler alert) the cats kill each other over who is the prettiest.  The drawings and hand lettered text are in Wanda's distinctive voice, very unusual for the period.

My favorite book by Gag is her even more peculiar story, "The Funny Thing," in which a strange dragon-like "aminal" eats the dolls of little children until a weird baby faced man named Bobo (who lives in a cave) persuades the aminal to eat "jum-jills" (a food that Bobo invented from seed puddings and nut cakes) instead.  The aminal likes them because they make his tail grow longer (see illustration below, in which Jum-jills are rolled into balls and fed to him by birds).


If Wanda had any commercial sense she probably would have written sweet, condescending books for children but that was not in her DNA.   She said, "I aim to make the illustrations for children's books as much a work of art as anything I would send to an art exhibition."  Lo and behold, children recognized her authenticity so her books have remained classics for over 80 years.

With her success, Wanda was able to move from Tumble Timbers to a new home she called "All Creation" but her fortune did not change her personality.  In 1941 she confided to her diary, 
I often think, "what if my readers and various people who apparently think highly of me, what if they knew that I can feel love for more than one man at the same time, that for years there have been three men on my love-horizon, that I indulge in bizarre and esoteric love rites with my lovers! Would they, knowing this, consider me less good?"
In her extensive private diaries Wanda spoke of sex joyfully but in euphemisms, calling it "treetops" or "experiences of a non-Euclidean variety."   
Wanda with two of her lovers, Earle Humphreys and Adolph Dehn.  Apparently, her strong personality persuaded men to agree to these sharing  arrangements.
Compare Wanda's secret diaries, and the price she paid for her nature, to the easy license for today's art celebrities such as Currin or Koons.  Artists are coaxed and coddled to strive for eccentricity now.  They have become fabulously wealthy flaunting the kind of weirdness that helped keep Wanda impoverished.  
Gag's drawings can't compete with the slick production values or technical skill of today's art impresarios but I find her genuine eccentricity a far more rewarding human experience.