Friday, January 18, 2013


This is one of a series of posts on the artists featured in the upcoming exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum,  State of the Art: Illustration 100 Years After Howard Pyle. 
Prior to the 1950s, illustration was dominated by artists who visualized narrative passages from a text, employing fairly realistic styles.  But by the 1950s, that approach was running out of steam.  Traditional illustration was being battered by the rise of photography.  Fiction magazines which had been the prime market for illustration ever since Howard Pyle's day began losing circulation.  Advertising revenues were shifting to television.  In this challenging environment, a new form of illustration emerged.

In 1954, Milton Glaser co-founded the revolutionary Push Pin Studios, a graphic design and illustration firm which had a significant impact on the path of 20th century design.   In this and several other influential positions, Glaser employed graphic symbols and visual metaphors to convey ideas, choosing freely from a wide array of styles and techniques.  He observed, "It's absurd to be loyal to a style."

No artist has been more eloquent than Glaser  in articulating the merger of conceptual design and illustration. It would be difficult to overstate his importance to the field.  He has been the subject of one man shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pompidou Center in Paris.

I've enjoyed making unkind remarks on this blog about "conceptual" artists who cannot draw and who have no sense of design or composition but who have become emboldened by the excuse that such factors are less relevant today.  The focus of art has shifted, we are told, from visual appearance to intellectual content, making the technical skills of yesterday obsolete.  These artists would do well to study the work of Glaser.  For all that he did to expand the role of concepts in design and move beyond Norman Rockwell's brand of realism, Glaser has never lost sight of the importance of embodying his concepts in beautiful and relevant forms.

These are ample reasons for including Glaser in the centennial exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum, but I would add on a personal note that I especially enjoy the humor and whimsy that Glaser's work has exhibited over his long and prestigious career.  Like his fellow New Yorker Saul Steinberg, Glaser (who has been described as an "intellectual designer-illustrator") manages to handle the most profound philosophical concepts with playfulness and simplicity-- a sure sign that he is on the right track.

These and other original works by Glaser will be on display at the exhibition.


MORAN said...

Glaser is brilliant. I look forward to seeing his originals because I thought he designed them and had somebody else do the mechanical part.

pRiyA said...

I've read Glaser's writing and am familiar with his design, but strangely this is the first time I've seen his art. Thank you for showing this. Will search up for more.

Anonymous said...


Congratulations regarding the exhibition and wishing you success.

Has there ever been any historical economic analysis on the cost of photography versus traditional illustration? Specifically, was there ever a price point in time for photographic reproductions, say a certain year or era when photographic reproduction generally became less expensive than the reproduction of traditional illustration, or are there too many variables to ascertain such a thing?

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Glaser (as well as Chwast and others who focused on concept) sometimes designed images that were then executed by helpers who applied mechanical screens such as cello-tak or zip-a-tone, or who cut stencils or worked the silkscreen. But nobody got into this show who didn't have the power to draw and paint in their own fingertips.

pRiyA-- There are a number of books on Glaser's art, and I believe Taschen is in the process of working on a major retrospective.

Etc, etc-- Thanks for the good wishes, I appreciate them. I've heard from old time illustrators that in the 1950s and 60s, there was open warfare between photographers and illustrators for opportunities. During that period illustrators repeatedly claimed that photography cost just as much as illustration-- or even more. Some of these arguments seemed plausible to me, but I never saw a definitive economic analysis. In recent years, now that we no longer need a dark room for developing, or plane tickets to send photographers on site, etc. I am guessing that digital photography is demonstrably cheaper.

bill said...

Genius and so influential. I've seen his site but where is his blog? Thanks for this.

WW said...

Not to belabor a semantic argument, but when Glaser expresses his distaste for adhering to any one particular style, does he mean painterly style, or the medium itself? Is he referring to a broader definition of illustration which could mean any kind of pictorial image, be it painting, collage, photography, design, diagram, or typography, used alone or in combination to support a concept, text or narrative?

His affection for the "hand drawn" is evident, but he's clearly adept in the use of all of the above. Perhaps more to the point, how do we assess this work as "illustration" without knowing the context for which it was intended? With the School of Visual Arts piece, it's self-evident. The type clues us in to the narrative and purpose. Even the choice of fonts are part of it: the san-sarif reading as "facts", the italics reading as "thoughts", much in the same way lettering in comics function. The context, or function, is also essential in appreciating Glaser's choice of ephemeral materials, photographed in such a way as to make the viewer feel "in the lesson" so to speak. Unless irony is what your after, a luscious, trompe-l'oeil oil painting of the subject would not be appreciated in the same way. Recognizing the wisdom of his choices is part of the pleasure; it gives the term "conceptual" it's teeth. But in both the post on Fuchs and now this one on Glaser, we are not clued into many specifics about what it is these works are meant to illustrate. Are we to just view them as stand-alone paintings?

AJA said...

Glaser is great. I love his Shakespeare covers. They're so well designed.

WW said...


I realize now I hadn't addressed my last comment to you specifically as I had intended.

Anyway, to another point about costs of photography vs. illustration, obviously you can go either way on the cheap, but big production photo shoots are akin to movie productions and can get very, very expensive, even not counting the photographer's fee. I think the illustrators are right in this regard, but I can't see it would've made any difference. In the age of the Vietnam war, moon landings and Woodstock, Norman Rockwell just wouldn't do. Advertisers, publishers, art directors, editors were all following this lead. With a few exceptions, like the New Yorker, there were few allegiances to one form of illustration over another. Commercial interests are the overriding factor. I do think the onset of high quality reproduction, better films, and smaller high quality cameras lowered the bar for entry young auteur photographers, just as digital photography, digital video, and digital art does today. So publishers did take advantage of that, such as National Lampoon's notorious "Buy This Magazine or We'll Kill This Dog" cover, and got a lot of bang for the buck (no pun intended).

But it's also true photography has never got much traction in comics, fantasy, or any kind of long form narrative or sequential art (like the figurative illustration typically featured here). One reason for this is cost (one-off jokes like National Lampoon's not withstanding), but also because photographic textures are spell-breakers; focussing attention on textures that distract rather than enhance the story. Even worse, people look leaden, goofy, or just plain ridiculous posing as pirates or super heros, and no matter how hard you try, the photos date quickly. On the other-hand, artists can do so much more with body language, expressions, timeless stylization – making every line scream if necessary – as you have pointed out so well on this blog. With hand drawn art it's much "easier" to move from a dense jungle setting to a fantasy city, and it's easier on the eyes too because the artist keeps the style consistent across diverse settings. It's puzzling, however, that traditionally illustrated stories from Wizard of Oz to Hugo so often succeed translated to film via photography. I can assure you, in print, I guy in silver paint with a funnel on his head just isn't gonna fly.

Luca Carey said...

A lot of artists say things like "it's just concept" and try to make an intellectual argument for what is basically their dumbed down look. I'm probably somewhat guilty of this myself to some extent. The advent of photography gave artists a gift and a challenge... Concept art for games like Journey is enchanting because it can't possibly exist in plausible reality and yet it must borrow from it in countless little ways to give the mind the appearance of a habitable environment and living beings, even though we're looking at glorified cartoon characters and environments. I would hate for concept art and illustration in general to be stuck in a pure objectivity, though I envy the ease with which drawings and paintings used to be able to just steal from the real world. Fascinating stuff.

David Apatoff said...

bill-- Amazing, isn't it, that Glaser doesn't have time to write a blog? What else could he possibly be doing with his time?

AJA-- Agreed.

Luca Carey-- Fascinating stuff, indeed. And I especially concur that so much of conceptual art is "trying to make an intellectual argument for what is basically their dumbed down look." I can forgive a lot for a great concept but many artists today put great weight on concepts that are nothing special at all. One of the real revelations to me was that many of the old time artists who drew "non-conceptual" comic strips and advertisements were far more literate, cultured, articulate and yes, intelligent than the artists who are trading on their great "concepts."

David Apatoff said...

WWick-- you raise a whole lot of excellent issues. First, I think that Glaser has one of the most open minded approaches to style OR medium of any major artist of his generation. When he invented the famous "I Heart NY" rebus ( he chose to use words and a heart symbol rather than a picture. When he designed the brilliant cover to The Delta of Venus, he chose a photograph. His SVA poster was cut outs, and his Angels in America illustration was done in pastels. His book, Art Is Work, provides a great cross section of his taste applied to such things as designing restaurants and grocery stores.

I agree with you that "the age of the Vietnam war, moon landings and Woodstock" favored photography over Norman Rockwell (who did, nevertheless, paint the moon landing). But on the other hand, photography could not have contributed what Peter Max contributed to that era, or Arnold Skolnick, the anonymous commercial artist who was paid $15 to create the famous poster for Woodstock.

Your point about irony and trompe-l'oeil is, I think, at the heart of much popular art these days. Irony (or perhaps, snark) is king. People are no longer as excited by the illusion of 3 dimensional space on canvas as they once were. They are less willing to participate in suspensions of disbelief unless it is for dark and homicidal video games. Perhaps we know too much, or perhaps we just remember too much bitter history, but our culture seem to favor art that is once removed from the primacy of experience (for example Glaser's SVA poster) or better yet, photography over art. It remains to be seen whether photography will retain its epistemological and ontological credibility once the broader audience understands how easily photographic images can be manipulated.

Finally, I agree that these pictures, separated from the works they are meant to illustrate, could be viewed as incomplete in some respects but you could say the same thing about most of the art hanging in any museum. Sometimes you know the backstory, sometimes you don't. But I think all of those pictures, and these, have to be able to stand alone as beautiful visual objects.

PS-- I thought the National Lampoon "Kill this dog" cover photo was brilliant, and would not have been nearly as effective as a painting or drawing.

WW said...


Thanks for reminding me of the Woodstock poster! It was the "rebus" of my generation (I was especially captivated by the blue and white logo version). I can't say I'm as thankful for your reminder of Peter Max (just kidding), but the point is, because I came of age at that time, consumed as I was by visual culture, I saw photography and illustration as different branches of the same tree - competing for the same clients, be it ads for cars or shirts, images in magazines or on album covers.

To insert the film "Wall-e" in your survey is a bit like tossing a grenade into the otherwise gentile connoisseurship of this blog, as it suggests a future vision of the profession that blurs the distinction between moving images and stills; between "hand dawn" art and photographic realism. The first half of the movie (like the tiger in Life of Pi) is an example of CG that is virtually indistinguishable from photographic imagery. If we can't call it photography, lets call it the "photo-effect": the rendering of light, surface, textures and objects so precisely that it's virtually indistinguishable from photographs of similar subjects. While this is likely to be a growing trend in movies and print illustration, I don't see it as the demise of either hand drawn illustration or photography. Good narratives are often what carries the day, and sometimes low-tech or extremely stylized approaches such as "South Park" works like a punch line, just as, in another vein, photography plays off the presumed accuracy of fact - the photo-effect. Both "Kill this Dog" and the SVA poster are (likely) straight photographs that deliver the photo-effect to prey on our instincts. If CG was convincing enough, it would serve those same subjects for the same illustrative purpose.

There may be many good reasons, even in the realm of fine art photography and photo-illustration, where it would be considered important to convey to the audience that a photograph is shot straight without any post-production – such as with subjects of amazing stunts or natural phenomena. If this can't be made self-evident within the work itself, a backstory with and a reliance on trust might be needed, much like painters who only paint from life.

I think the philosophical hand-ringing over the true vs. false nature of the photograph is overblown, even as we head into this new frontier of seamless manipulation and digital creations. The media, in their instinct for scandal, try to whip us into a frenzy over this, eager to add each newly discovered fake photograph to the rouge's gallery, blaming the malaise on the ease by which this can be done with Photoshop. But malicious deceptions are just like any other purposeful deceit: you have to trust your sources.

Ironic that reports of the demise of photographs-as-document is blamed on the digital age, since the ubiquity of digital cameras means we are making more photo-documents than ever. For millions of people, the iPhone's instant feedback provides daily lessons in just what a camera can and cannot capture, which should help in both are awareness of the ease of manipulation, but also honing our already good instincts in sorting through all this.

Be that as it may, I think your on to something about the inclusion of film and digital art. And I wonder if much of our visual culture, will be consumed less in print form, but more and more on monitors – be it stills of video – from whence it was born.

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