Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The 1980 movie Popeye was widely panned by critics. (One of the more favorable reviews called it a "mess of a movie" and "unintelligible.") It quickly disappeared from the theaters but not before MAD Magazine artist Mort Drucker dutifully captured it in a parody.

Drucker drew many important subjects for MAD, but he was also assigned to depict much of the raw sewage of American popular culture: third rate television shows that quickly imploded and movies that should never have been made. (Remember Alf? Who's The Boss? The Flying Nun?) By the time he drew Popeye, Drucker had been slogging through such subject matter for almost 25 years.

Yet, he drew these pictures with the same loving care others might reserve for the immortal themes on ancient Greek vases. Look at Drucker's beautiful work for Popeye:

I am awed by Drucker's talent, but separately awed by his dedication and consistently high standards over many decades.

Notice in the panel below how Drucker continued his drawing beyond the panel borders. The man couldn't stop himself.

Click on these drawings for close ups of a master at work.

Look how convincingly he conveys great mass in his figures:

Notice how adroitly he controls the architecture of this complex scene, and still has the capacity left over to add a gratuitous fish climbing the stairs:

While Drucker was drawing for MAD, the other two great caricaturists of the latter half of the 20th century, David Levine and Al Hirschfeld were drawing more highbrow subjects-- great authors and composers-- for prestigious periodicals such as the New York Review of Books and the New York Times.

Many think that art is enhanced by association with prestigious subjects. They presume that a drawing of Dostoevsky must somehow be superior to a drawing of Joan Collins, or that a caricature in the New York Review of Books must be more culturally significant than a caricature in MAD. One look at Drucker's glorious drawings from Popeye tells you it ain't so. As far as I am concerned, Drucker is the best all around artist of the bunch, hands down. His prolific career is an astounding artistic accomplishment and I think more of him, rather than less, for achieving it with subject matter such as Popeye.


babar ganesh said...

also, i bet he did these after seeing the movie once or maybe twice in the theater -- no VCR or DVD back then.

Unknown said...

It's a little disappointing to see such an ill-opinion from you for that film. It was a general failure, but only critically. It baffles me when otherwise open-minded critics are instantly turned off to this movie, which I always thought was a brilliant treatment on the classic characters by an incredible director. I find it ironic that the MAD illustrator actually didn't capture much of the physical humor from the original film. His caricature skills are good but contribute nothing. The biggest feature in particular that gets me is the clothing; as far as I can tell he accurately copied the costumes as far as the design and style, but it's far less exaggerated than they actually were on the actors.

I think you should go back and watch it yourself again. It's a messy film but it has far more charm and character than this tripe.

Stephen Worth said...

I like how he renders a cartoon rendered as a live action film as a cartoon again, and all the while reveling in the ugliness of dragging cartoons down to mundane reality.

Anonymous said...

That movie sucks.


Glen Story said...

David, I applaud you for putting Drucker in the company of Levine and Hirschfeld. I'm an admirer of all of them but, like you, I think Drucker is the paramount talent among them.

I read somewhere that he never had any reference material, other than seeing a film once. Amazing.


MORAN said...

David, I really agree with you and Glen. Hirschfeld and Levine are famous and accomplished artists. There are sentimental reasons and intelligent reasons for loving their work but Mort Drucker is a far better artist.

अर्जुन said...

Popeye is my favorite Altman film!

"Many think that art is enhanced by association with important themes." ~ Dolts. Which may be why the critics panned the film.

" …I think more of him, rather than less, for achieving it with subject matter such as Popeye." ~ hear! hear!

Stop the hatin'!

Rhys said...

How often is really great art employed to put a gloss on second rate material? Not just these so-so Mad parodies but comic strips and animation.If scripts were subjected to the same scrutiny as artwork the final product would be so much higher.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jude. I loved that film and still do. It was cartoon transformed into surreal reality, moody, dark and filled with the oddest of characters. And it had charm, to boot! Those illustrations are skilled, but, yes, he didn't capture the energy and oddness of the actors.

Stephan Chobanian said...

Thanks for the post David! Having grown up as a Thechnical Illustrator (pre-computer), I have a thing for great pen and ink. Drucker has very dynamic lines making the figures very expressive. I can feel the volume by looking at them even without tone... I also like his use of gray lines for some of the forms and buildings as they move to the back. Nice post!

David Apatoff said...

Babar Ganesh-- that's right, no VCR or DVD, no Google images, not even fan magazines because he often drew these stories before the movies were publicly released. Just what he observed from screening the movie in advance and a few publicity stills from the studios. I tell you, it's downright miraculous.

Jude and अर्जुन and snoringdogstudio, perhaps I should go back and see Popeye again (although the thought chills my blood). I am usually a fan of Altman (I loved Nashville) but Popeye seemed to have all of the weird spottiness and not much of the redeeming social value. Or perhaps I just couldn't get past Robin Williams' balloon forearms. Making a transition from comic strip to live action is difficult under any circumstances (Does anyone remember Li'l Abner or Dick Tracy?) but making a transition from Segar to live action seems almost impossible, even for Altman. In any event, the reason I linked Popeye to Rotten Tomatoes (rather than Wikipedia or some other source) is so people can read the original reviews and get a cross section of opinions. There were some critics, even back in 1980, who thought Popeye was great.

David Apatoff said...

Stephen Worth-- excellent point! (and probably worth a whole separate post). I didn't include any pictures of it here, but Drucker drew the flat, cartoonish version of Popeye providing a running narrative around the more realistic drawings in the MAD parody. Skipping across different realities and different story telling modes, you can get tangled up in questions of ontology and epistemology if you aren't careful. There were parts of the movie (such as the aforementioned balloons taped to Robin Williams' forearms) that seemed more unrealistic in a live action film than in Segar's comic strip, perhaps because they were inconsistent with the rules of the particular medium. And I never thought of it before, but I think you are right, Drucker's pictures do "revel in the ugliness of dragging cartoons down to mundane reality."

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- I just followed your link to Jeff Koons' painting of Popeye. As you might expect, my view is that Drucker is a thousand times better than Koons as an artist, while Koons is a thousand times better than Drucker at self-aggrandizement. If there was a god in heaven, Drucker would be living in Koons' big mansion while Koons would be doing something productive, probably manual labor in a railroad yard in Ohio.

David Apatoff said...

JSL-- well... "sucks" is a harsher word than I would use.

Glen Story and Moran: I think it is very useful to compare and contrast Levine, Hirschfeld and Drucker. They worked in very different markets. While Levine and Hirschfeld appeared before the wealthy power brokers and literati of the world, Drucker appeared before the children who grew up to become the next wealthy power brokers and literati of the world. He influenced generations of film directors, politicians, artists and others while they were still at a very formative stage of life. It would be interesting to speculate about which artist had more of an influence on society.

It would also be interesting to muse about how much the art market's reaction to these artists is based upon social priorities unrelated to taste (meaning, the shallow pretentiousness of the audience). I am very fond of both Hirschfeld and Levine. I have heard both men speak, they have led interesting lives and they are dedicated to their art, but I think their reputations gain a boost from many audiences because of the publications in which they appear. If we focus solely on the quality of the art there is no doubt in my mind that Drucker is the superior talent, and that his prolific career is the greater accomplishment. The fact that Levine's and Hirschfeld's work sells at a premium in snooty galleries while Drucker's does not is a failure on the part of contemporary society, not the art. I suspect that failure is likely to be corrected over time.

David Apatoff said...

Stephan Chobanian-- thanks! I'm glad you see what I see in these drawings. Viewers miss a lot of the skill in the versions reproduced in MAD.

Rhys-- the mismatch between form and content creates some very interesting tensions. Just a few weeks ago I was complaining on this blog that the comic strip Doonesbury was beautifully written but badly drawn.

John said...

I've never seen the movie, but I just finished reading the cartoonist Jules Feiffer's memoir Backing Into Forward, and Feiffer wrote the screenplay. He shares some anecdotes about the making of the film and working with director Robert Altman. He also notes that he based his screenplay on the original comic strip, not on the cartoon, which may or may not explain some of the weirdness people find in the movie.

I'd recommend the book by the way.

Stephen Worth said...

The Popeye movie was unrelentingly ugly in a way that neither the Segar strip nor the Fleischer cartoons were. Whenever cartoons are adapted to live action, inevitably the main thing lost is the charm. Just look at the grim Jim Carey Grinch and compare that to Chuck Jones'. Even adapting comic strips to animation is a difficult trick. But the Fleischer Popeye cartoons are a brilliant example of why faithfulness isn't always a virtue. Fleischer's version of Popeye is quite different from Segar's, yet it is just as great in it's own way. The moral is, "the medium has an awful lot to do with the message".

Eric Noble said...

You are so right. Talent os talent, no matter who you're working for. I just wish that those critics would get their heads out of their proverbial arse. Mort Drucker is one of the greatest cartoonists/artists living.

I may have to post some of my George Woodbridge or Jack Rickard pages from MAD later.

अर्जुन said...

"Drucker appeared before the children who grew up to become the next wealthy power brokers and literati of the world." ~ Yes, Koons and his public.

"He influenced generations of film directors, politicians, artists and others while they were still at a very formative stage of life. It would be interesting to speculate about which artist had more of an influence on society." ~ Drucker!

stephen Silver said...

I am am honored to be a close friend of Mort Drucker and he was and still is the best of them all. He is a man of serious dedication and love for the craft. I'm not sure if you guys have seen this yet, but Mort invited me into his home for a couple of days to make an educational film on him. He discusses and shows his whole process. it is a 2hr and 35 minute film, here is a youtube trailer I made for it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VseZYszrtjM

Rhys said...

In this dicussion of great caricaturists no mention has been made of David Low.A true master and a creator of real substance.

chuck pyle said...

Mort Drucker, certainly THE seminal artist in my artistic life. More than Jack Davis, more than all the political cartoonists I admired, thank you David, for posting more original art from the MAD genius of Mad Magazine. No one drew with more power and sensitivity. You absolutely on target, He dignified everything he drew. Commitment to over the top storytelling and impeccably authoritative draftsmanship, and absurdist comedy notes to boot.He was my first art school.

David Apatoff said...

Rhys-- I agree with you about Low, he is fantastic and I have written about him here. When I wrote that Drucker, Levine and Hirschfeld were the best of "the second half of the twentieth century," it was primarily because Low and perhaps a few others worked in the first half. (Drucker may still be my personal favorite, but he and Low had very different approaches and at that lofty altitude, even I don't think it makes much sense to attempt to rank apples and oranges).

David Apatoff said...

John-- I meant to read the Feiffer book. Now I definitely will.

Stephen Worth-- Thanks for an interesting perspective. I agree very much with your general point but I suspect some of the readers may find your term "unrelentingly" a little harsh.

Eric Noble-- Please do, I'd like to see them.

अर्जुन-- If it was Koons, he should have paid closer attention.

David Apatoff said...

Stephen Silver-- I watched your film about Drucker and enjoyed it very much. I wrote Mort to tell him so, but I should have written to you as well. You asked a number of illuminating questions on the film and I recommend it to Drucker fans. Most of all, I just wanted to see him make those crazy lines with my own eyes, and it definitely scratched that itch.

Unknown said...

I remember his work. The first time I saw it was in 1989 when Mad magazine parodied Batman as Batty-man. I never realized how much I loved his work.

David Apatoff said...

Chuck Pyle-- Thanks for your comment, which certainly resonated with me; it sounds like we have similar reactions to Drucker's amazing work.

It has been my experience that Drucker's biggest fans are the people who really understand drawing and are capable of recognizing true quality in whatever unlikely forum where it happens to appear. They are not distracted by the phony chatter of art-- the press releases from gallery owners, the overheated marketing by auction houses-- nor are they dependent on the pretentious chatter of sniffy publications to reinforce their opinions. I am happy to say I'm not at all surprised to find you on the right side of that equation.

Postcard Friend said...

nice artwork

David Apatoff said...

Tanoshiboy-- if your first acquaintance with Drucker was in 1989, then you have 30 years of his earlier work for MAD to discover and enjoy. I envy you.

Postcard Friend-- agreed!

kev ferrara said...

What gets me every time with Drucker is that he understands the character of everything. And he appreciates everything he draws from that perspective. He is so far beyond the mechanical questions of anatomy and geography and perspective and the like one wonders if he ever even thinks of those things at all. (Given the integrity of his background drawing, his apparently unconscious facility is humbling indeed.)

I've never inspected one of Drucker's originals. Can you tell a little something about his materials?

Regarding the movie Popeye, when I was a kid I swayed by the reviews. I saw it again several years ago and found it was more interesting than I expected. However, it seemed the great effort, the controlling idea of the whole project, was to bring "cartoon physics" to life, that "lighter-than-air" and made of balloon rubber feeling. I think this idea was a basic impossibility that grounded the entire affair. Nowadays this might be more practicable, not just with digital tech, but also with the kind of stunt innovation of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.


Anonymous said...

My favorite Altman is Kiss Me Deadly , which i'd love to see Druckerized .

Al McLuckie

अर्जुन said...

Al McLuckie, thats an Aldrich not an Altman. I agree, would look good Druckerized. ~Robert Aldrich

Anonymous said...

Thanks - posted too late to think clearly , but Meeker , Cloris Leechman , Jack Elam etc would be a natural for Drucker .

Al McLuckie

Ray said...

I love Drucker's work. Even as a child of 5 or 6 picking up Mad Magazine, I would pour over his stuff. I'd always make mental notes of the artists I liked the best in a given issue, and he was always number one. His amazing skill is deceptive since he makes it look so effortless.

There just isn't enough general appreciation for the extreme level of talent and quality in a number of people unknown outside of the world cartooning or comics—many of whom can outdraw anyone outside of that industry.

Stephen Worth said...

I think Mad magazine and Monty Python have had as big of an impact on our modern sense of humor and social satire as Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift had in their time. Someday they'll be teaching courses on Mad in school.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- From time to time, Drucker experimented with different techniques for adding half tones; for example, he went through a long phase with gray felt tip markers (both warm and cool). He also dabbled for a while with gray wash, and with craftint. In later years he (or more likely an assistant at MAD) used rubylith overlays for gray screens. But for the most part, it was just plain old fashioned pen and ink (or brush and ink) on heavyweight paper through the decades.

There were times he relied more on brushwork and solid darks, and times when he tended more toward fine lines. Over 50 prolific years, he experimented with a number of variations on his core themes. But basically, all the strength was in the just plain drawing. If you want to watch Drucker penciling and inking, you can see it on Stephen Silver's film. Drucker uses what looks like a ratty mechanical pencil, so obviously the magic is not in his tools.

David Apatoff said...

Ray wrote: "There just isn't enough general appreciation for the extreme level of talent and quality in a number of people unknown outside of the world cartooning or comics"

That's much of the reason why I started this blog.

Stephen Worth: I agree. Just as Daumier's cartoons in La Caricature are now regarded by museums as culturally significant fine art, I suspect that MAD and Mort Drucker will one day be viewed very differently.

kev ferrara said...

Thanks for the info David.

I'm just about to go buy the exact same materials as Drucker used, just so I can draw like him. ;)

I have in my studio closet about 400 back issues of Mad Magazine which includes every issue from 1961 to 1988 or so (I collected Mad like my friends collected X-men). Looking through the piles at random, it does strike me that Drucker was the most consistent artist on the mad roster, and clearly the linchpin of the outfit.

I just browsed through a special that had his Jaws parody... and the quality of the drawing is just exquisite... and as you say, museum quality. Just the curls on Richard Dreyfus' hair and beard alone stand with the oft-reproduced "hair" drawings done by Durer and Rubens... and I say this with no reservation... the quality of draftsmanship is that high (Alas, the writing that accompanies the drawings includes as many references to nausea as possible.)

(As an aside, it is quite remarkable to see how much evolution the work of Don Martin and Antonio Prohias went through, and just how weird their work was at the start. )

David Apatoff said...

Kev-- too late, as soon as I discovered the brand name for the magic pencil that enables you to draw like Mort Drucker, I bought up the whole supply.

I think your point about Durer and Rubens nicely frames the issue of this post. If you are able to look at the drawing purely on the merits, and block out the jokes about barfing, then Drucker is on the same playing field with Durer and Rubens. (As a caricaturist, he is at least the equal of Daumier, it seems to me.) But it is very hard for most people to get past the context of MAD Magazine. If you put Drucker's art in a gilt frame on the walls of the National Gallery of Art I think many people would suddenly appreciate virtues to which they are currently blind.

Eric Noble said...

David, I just posted some drawings from Olaf Gulbransson of Simplicimuss.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Eric--Simplicimuss is an excellent example of the phenomenon we are talking about. Just as La Caricature was a popular humor magazine of its day that commissioned drawings by the now revered Daumier, Simplicimuss featured the popular drawings of (now) fine artists such as Kollwitz and Grosz.

I enjoyed the pictures by Gulbransson on your blog.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

What made me laugh? guess! not Mort's singing caricatures altho they are truely awesome...

The reference to ...The Flying Nun!
Thus I wondered wie alt du bist, and wieso you watched TV in those days...

kev ferrara said...

If you put Drucker's art in a gilt frame on the walls of the National Gallery of Art I think many people would suddenly appreciate virtues to which they are currently blind.

Well, the problem is that Drucker's work, no matter how great it is, still lacks the fundamental quality of "repose" which allows important and serious people to enjoy themselves looking at art without letting on that they are simply art fans like anybody else. Repose goes with palm fronds and erudite soires with premium membership investors in high finance tuxedos chattering along to the meticulous clinking of wine flutes and jewelry.

A museum built of vaulted halls, marble columns and gold gilt is prime symbolic real estate. Such a fortress of grandeur and austerity is not so easily breached by the scruffy.

Plus the panels are too small.

Wasn't it Chuck Close who said that he made his paintings so big because by doing so he significantly prolonged the time it took for buyers to walk by them?

David Apatoff said...

StimmeDesHerzens-- I confess that I have never actually seen an episode of The Flying Nun but I enjoyed the Drucker parody. The Flying Nun is timeless, zeitlos, just like me. In the words of Carl Sandburg, "Something began me and it had no beginning. Something will end me and it has no end."

Kev-- I'd never heard that Chuck Close quote before; I love it!

bill said...

It's been awhile since I have picked up a Mad magazine. I have a few buried in boxes somewhere. I remember as a kid comparing Jack Davis to Mort Drucker. Having kind of a contest with each new Mad I picked up to see who did some famous star better. I must admit that back then Davis won out more often that Drucker. I'm sure it was Davis' extremes which appealed to me as a youngster. I remember copying drawing after drawing. But I have a few pages of Drucker too. Thanks for this David. Man can they draw.

Anonymous said...

"The Flying Nun is timeless, zeitlos, just like me."

No human being is timeless. We are born, we live briefly, we die.

The matter from which we are made exists before us and after us, but not our selves.

Love Mort Drucker.

David Apatoff said...

bill wrote: "man, can they draw."

Truer words were never spoken.

Anonymous: I see from your comment that you are from that group that did not get the secret instructions on how to live forever. Look, I don't know why they chose to draw the line where they did. All I can promise you is that I'll put in a good word for you if the opportunity arises.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. Mort Drucker is the best. I grew up reading MAD, just to see Mort Drucker's latest masterpiece. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

David Apatoff said...
"But it is very hard for most people to get past the context of MAD Magazine. If you put Drucker's art in a gilt frame on the walls of the National Gallery of Art I think many people would suddenly appreciate virtues to which they are currently blind."

I think much of it has to do with the nature of caricature; with me it seems to always elicit a non-serious response (and I'd bet I'm not the only one), in spite of the fact that I love art and have a high regard for skill.

Ironically I have always regarded Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville as basically caricturists, yet do appreciate their manipulation and interplay of warm and cool tones, and no doubt many do consider "painterly", impressionistic brushstokes and "edgy" subject matter more "artful"...maybe theirs is the formula for the caricaturist desiring to gain more acceptance?

Alex said...

Jack Davis did 'funny drawings' with ok likenesses, he never had the skill to do what Drucker did issue after issue for however many years at Mad magazine.Also from my perspective he had one technique-one funny idea, big feet and hands - that he worked to death, whereas Drucker was always challenging and pushing himself when it would have been easy to stay in his comfort zone.
It annoys me when these artists are compared because i think Drucker concentrated on quality and Davis on maximum output.

kev ferrara said...

Jack Davis concentrated on making his pictures seem alive. His speed, coupled with his enormous facility, only helped him in this effort.

Davis is Great. Drucker is Great.

Alex said...

When I was about 14 I thought Davis was hilarious, as I grew older and saw the same old style cranked out all over the place my admiration diminished.
For example he's the weakest artist featured in the Dan Barry Flash Gordon book, his EC strips were very average and then he developed that big foot style and worked it to death.
To put him on the same level as Drucker seems nuts.
Although with all that advertising and TV guide work he may have ended up richer.

David Apatoff said...

Alex and Kev Ferrara: I agree with Kev that "Davis is Great. Drucker is Great." Personally, I prefer Drucker because I think his line had more character and variety, and because I think his drawings were more sensitive. I also think he was a better "all around" artist (although I prefer Davis' use of color). Both were gifted, prolific artists that had a huge impact on their field.

Having said that, I share Alex's qualms about Davis' focus on "maximum output." Kev, I appreciate your point about how Davis' rapid, seemingly slapdash style made his drawings look "alive" and spontaneous. I recognize that achieving that look requires real talent. But sometimes-- in fact, too much of the time in the '80s and '90s-- Davis lapsed into sloppy, disappointing work as far as I am concerned. I wrestled with this exact point using examples of Davis' work in a previous post.

Davis recently won the Hall of Fame award from the Society of Illustrators. (This award is not what it once was-- it seems that the Society now awards it by return mail to anyone who enrolls in the Society. But still, the award makes it difficult to claim that Davis' reputation was damaged by this alleged weakness.) My own view is that if Davis turned down 25% of the assignments that art directors kept throwing at him, he would have been a little less rich, but he would have enjoyed a legacy as a much finer artist than he currently does. He had the talent but he did not, in my view, share the same artistic integrity as Drucker.

kev ferrara said...

Artistic Integrity?

I would trade any Rembrandt for this splash page.

What I care about is expressive integrity, and whatever mimetic integrity is required to pull off the expressive feat. You couldn't really be pining for mimesis, David, or else you'd like Bougereau more than Drucker.

Alex said...

You could look at any number of great splash pages by Davis, Wood, or Elder and make a case for any of them, but in my opinion there is not one single Mad artist you could put ahead of Drucker.In terms of what he did he was the best of the best.

David Apatoff said...

Kev, you're right, the phrase "artistic integrity" may be too loose to be useful here. I didn't mean mimesis, I meant holding yourself to a higher standard than what you can get away with. Lots of small businesses, local radio stations, accounting firms, etc. wanted to buy a Jack Davis picture and he was able to earn a good living dashing off drawings for them. In my opinion, these drawings were not very well designed or thoughtful or creative, and he could not have been proud of them. I think that over the years his standards (perhaps a better term than "artistic integrity") softened and he seemed to tolerate more and more such work.

Plenty of artists who are just starting out hold their nose and do whatever the client requires. They may compromise their "artistic integrity" right and left so that their family doesn't starve. That's OK with me. Davis didn't need to do that. He was a giant, who could pick and choose.

When he cared, and he did preliminary drafts and put some time and effort into his work (for example, with these elephants he painted for Time Magazine) his art was exquisite-- smart and funny and beautiful. But I think there were periods when that was the minority of his work.

I do love his early and middle work for MAD. His later work, not so much.

David Apatoff said...

Alex wrote: "in my opinion there is not one single Mad artist you could put ahead of Drucker.In terms of what he did he was the best of the best."

Alex, I agree with you. MAD was a hotbed of great talents and I admire them each for their great contributions but as far as I am concerned, Drucker was "the best of the best."

kev ferrara said...


Tom said...

One of the reasons I keep returning to your site is because you post the work of artist that I loved as a kid. What is also interesting is how many people know how good Drucker is; one only has to look at the responses to your post.

"Many think that art is enhanced by association with prestigious subjects." I don't know if that is true, it seems like the art that has been embraced the last hundred years has not been about prestigious subject matter, from impressionism to Fairfield Porter, it seems people think art has its own importance and it can find its meaning in any old bottle, or even a bird on a piling. (The way Drucker describes the feathers on the bird’s neck from front o back says it all.)

"Ironically I have always regarded Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville as basically caricaturists,.." I think you are giving the work too much intention David. I love Lucien Freud’s work, but these two artist intentions seem more adolescent to me, they seem have the idea that looking is what art is, like most 18 to 20 year old who intently copy what they see (again this is not criticism) with out fully comprehending the relations between things. Like in Seville’s work where she simple zooms in on the subject and there is almost no formal consideration of the subject’s relationship to the space that holds it up. The same thing happens in a lot of Freud paintings, he paints a figure with bulk and reality and then he paints the floor the figure is supported almost parallel with the canvas plane, which creates the feeling that the whole painting is going to slide off the canvas and onto the floor. I have read that he admires Ingres, who is a much more formal artist who never destroys the ground plane (or horizontal plane) in his work even when it is not seen. One always feels the verticalness of people and things in his work and the acknowledgement of the wall that the painting is placed on. Which is also true in Drucker's work, you always know the camera angle.

To me it is a step back, an acknowledgement of the viewers position in space to what is being seen. Which is acknowledging the interrelatedness of things of the universe. And maybe that is way I feel you give Frued and Seville to much intention in suggesting carartiure, I don't think these two artist could flip out of their range as Bernini did with that caricature he drew of the cardinal he sculpted. They are too myopic in outlook, giving all their intention to the thing the body, only to what they are looking at.

I liked your Davis post on the elephants, but I feel like Davis’s elephant is really just a person and that is why it is so easy to relate too and emphasize with it. He expresses what we already know. We know how people feel when they lose the fight, (and of course everything has to be immediately readable on a magazine cover as people are going to give it about 5 seconds of attention) while the Rembrandt drawing seems to contain a feeling of distance in both feeling and space, of the unknowable and strangeness of the beast that is in a way more disquieting and foreign and in that sense more mysterious and less immediately satisfying. I think placing all the pictures together emphasis this feeling. (I am not saying Davis is not a great draughtsman here, I am just responding to the work)

Thanks for the great posts.

kev ferrara said...

Bullet pointing…

• Glad Jack Davis made the hall. He deserves it for the best of what he does.
• Interesting observations about the elephants, Tom.
• It has been a long while since the Art Mandarins actively sought to make Art’s subject matter “prestigious.” For political reasons, there is only general agreement among the culture vultures as to what “prestigious subject matter” is not, rather than what it is. So Art, instead, induces its prestige by keeping out of its generality anything the average red-blooded young American fellow might enjoy. And this induced prestige is simply a marketing tool. Which is to say, a political signal.
• Agree that Lucian Freud is a caricaturist… a great one, in my estimation. Hell of a painter too. That he purposely warps perspective for expressive ends should only bother the man who judges art by ruler and compass, (speaking of myopia). There isn’t a great artist in the world who hasn’t warped perspective for the purposes of creative expression.
• Saville takes one aspect of Freud’s aesthetic… to portray flesh as meat on a butcher’s table... and builds her whole world out of it. I don’t see her as a caricaturist, as she sticks faily closely to her photo ref. The side-show aspect seems to be a method of pandering to the po-mo dodos using her own body-image issues as fodder (yawn).

Tom said...

Hi Kev

"Agree that Lucian Freud is a caricaturist… a great one, in my estimation. Hell of a painter too. That he purposely warps perspective for expressive ends should only bother the man who judges art by ruler and compass, (speaking of myopia). There isn’t a great artist in the world who hasn’t warped perspective for the purposes of creative expression."

I am not talking about perspective, but stability, (like the budda) which is an essential element of the universe.

To what expressive purposes does a floor plane parallel to the canvas serve Frued's paintings? It seems only to undermine the stability of his figures. It strikes me much more as a lack of aesthetic purpose.

Anonymous said...

Tom said...
"I think you are giving the work too much intention David. I love Lucien Freud’s work, but these two artist intentions seem more adolescent to me"

Actually Tom that quote was by me and not David. At the risk of being labelled a troll, in my opinion there is a great deal of association between caricature (particulary Mad Magazine) and adolescence.

kev ferrara said...
"That he purposely warps perspective for expressive ends should only bother the man who judges art by ruler and compass, (speaking of myopia). There isn’t a great artist in the world who hasn’t warped perspective for the purposes of creative expression."

By degrees.

kev ferrara said...

Tom, I simply disagree that the lower portions of Freud's compositions are unstable to the point that the figures seem to be slipping off the canvas. Could you link me to the particular compositions you have in mind?

Etc. etc....

By degrees, yes. And..? Is there some degree of distortion that necessarily tests some tolerance limit for spatial warpation?

Anonymous said...

kev ferrara said...
"Is there some degree of distortion that necessarily tests some tolerance limit for spatial warpation?"

In fact for many people there are limitations for distortion, however subjective or undefined they may be. Others may have an active appreciation for distortion. I'm perfectly o.k. with leaving it to the individual to decide. You, on the other hand, seem to have appointed yourself as the final arbiter.

kev ferrara said...

No, actually not. I was just pointing out that its a taste thing, which you seem to agree with.

Tom said...

Hi Kev

I am not too good on the computer, but here are some links I hope they work. Notice the ground plane is closer to the plane of the wall then the plane of the floor in the museum which creates a feeling that he figures are being dump out on the floor especially if they are on a piece of furniture, (the top and front planes of the beds etc. are almost 45 degrees to the wall) or sliding down the wall on which the picture rests. This feeling was much more pronounced to me when looking at the paintings on the wall in a museum, (then in small reproductions on the internet) where it is harder to ignore the vertical plane of the wall and the larger the paintings are the more pronounced the conflict between the wall and the picture became. It probably happens because he stands so close to the model. It happens is some of his portraits also, where the head feels to low in picture plane or he is to far above his subject. Maybe the pictures should be hung lower on the wall to get the proper affect. I just think a more formal artist would take into consideration how their art was going to be view and how it relates to where it was going to be place.
PS this does not mean I do not admire and enjoy Freud’s work.






Laurence John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurence John said...

i agree with Tom about Freud's (often) uneasily sloping floor planes. i've noticed the same thing too, and didn't feel they contributed anything to the painting. i suspect it is purely an unintentional result of joining a straight-on viewpoint with a looking-down viewpoint. maybe i'm wrong about it being unintentional and Freud enjoys the slightly queasy feeling of distorted space. some artists (e.g. Fernando Botero, Edward Burra) have deliberately flattened floor planes for pictorial effect. it seems to say (somewhat jokily) 'the space in this painting is all artifice so it doesn't need to obey the laws of perspective in order to exist'.
i disagree that Freud is a caricaturist. making a head too small, ears or nose slightly larger, hands a bit big doesn't make one a caricaturist. Jenny Saville neither. as Kev has already pointed out, she works closely with photographic reference and doesn't distort the size of anything.

kev ferrara said...

Thanks Tom...

Those pictures definitely have that foreground quality you are talking about, but it seems most likely to me that he is doing that entirely on purpose. Just like, in many other of his pictures, he is doing something else. It seems really unlikely that something that looks so consciously done could be unconsciously done, especially in such a deliberate and considered painter as Freud. Personally, I love all the pictures you linked to and find no problem with the distortion of the foreground. I think it is purely for expressive effect to give the viewer a sense that the figures are floating and the viewer has a touch of vertigo.

Anyhow, best to you,

David Apatoff said...

Kev and Tom-- I agree with you both that traditional prejudices about prestigious subject matter largely disappeared in the 19th century when artists such as Manet stopped painting royalty and started painting servants and shop girls. The point I intended to make is that, for most of the world (as opposed to the enlightened readership of this blog) art that appears in a forum such as MAD magazine has a harder time with credibility than art that appears in the New York Review of Books or Art News. (Just as a portratit of Leo Tolstoy or Isaac Newton starts out with more legitimacy than a portrait of Kim Kardashian.) My point was just that historically, Drucker's work was burdened by that disadvantage, despite the fact that his drawing was usually better than the drawing in more "prestigious" periodicals.

Anelle Miller said...

As the Director of the Society of Illustrators, I take offense to your insinuation that anyone paying their membership dues can get into the Hall of Fame. If you had any idea how the nominating and voting procedures are conducted, you would retract this statement.

David Apatoff said...

Tom and Kev-- it doesn't bother me that the plane in those Freud paintings has been tipped toward the viewer to flatten the depth of the painting. Ever since Cezanne, it seems to me that artists have taken liberty with that plane, often to good graphic effect. Dubuffet made a whole series of fabulous landscapes with that plane squished absolutely flat. And as illustration became more slashing and dynamic in the 1960s, illustrations by Bernie Fuchs and others tilted the floor just to add vitality to the picture.

David Apatoff said...

Anelle Miller wrote: "As the Director of the Society of Illustrators, I take offense to your insinuation that anyone paying their membership dues can get into the Hall of Fame. If you had any idea how the nominating and voting procedures are conducted, you would retract this statement."

Ms. Miller, let me begin by saying that I love the Society of Illustrators and believe in its mission. I cherish my collection of Society annuals and have spent many happy, magical hours at the Society.

Having said that, even when I exaggerate for a joke, I do not speak carelessly.

When the Society created the Hall of Fame in the 1950s, the field of illustration was larger, more lucrative and more robust than it is today, yet the Society designated only one "giant" each year for the Hall of Fame. Norman Rockwell. Al Parker. Al Dorne. Robert Fawcett. In 1974, as the economics of illustration began to erode, the Society expanded to add three new Hall of Famers every year, but that seemed reasonable; the Society generally picked one current illustrator and two historical legends. By 1996, the Society was finding five fresh geniuses each year who deserved placement in the Hall of Fame. Now, it is not uncommon for six or even seven illustrators to be annointed in a single year.

I will spare you my subjective views of individual selections. There's no need to get personal about this. But if your position is that there are seven times as many worthy illustrators today as there were in the 1950s, I respectfully disagree. I suspect it is clear to most people that the standards for inclusion in the Hall of fame have changed.

If you want to observe those standards in action, read the blunt views of the Judges in the 1960 Annual for the Best Editorial Illustrations. Robert Weaver reported, "The general level of merit [in 1960] was low. More work should have been rejected. Show should stand for excellence, not be a review." Weaver went on to complain about the "lack of serious artists in the medium." Al Dorne stated that illustration that year suffered from "imitation-- and lack of drawing-- 'creative gimmicks' for the gimmick's sake." Harvey Schmidt said that the caliber of the work submitted that year was merely "average" and that it suffered from "imitativeness." You see similar attitudes in Robert Fawcett's biting essays in annuals from that era. The quality of illustration in 1960 was no worse than it is today, but these were tough minded, serious artists who held themselves and their peers to high standards. It is not surprising to me that such illustrators had the restraint to limit their hall of fame choices to one or at most two illustrators per year.

Tom said...

Hi David

Remember Fuchs illustration would be view by a person looking down on his picture in a magazine, (Like the view when landing an airplane). His floor plane runs across the page and leads the eye into the picture to the subject; the two couples and holds you there. The plane leads you to the subject and your eye rests there. The lamp on one side nicely balances the couple on the other, there is never a sense of disequilibrium. I am sure that when people opened up the magazine their eyes where lead from right to left, beautifully across the two page lay out and they did not want to leave. The ground planes in Freud’s works almost feel like they are at sea in a storm. You arrive at the subject and you feel it going to tumble or slide. Like the titanic everything is going down the deck as the boat starts to sink. A stable unmoving body needs a stable unmoving plane. Isn’t that one of Newton laws, and equal and opposite reaction? Freud’s work is meant to be seen on a museum wall, a veridical surface, the viewer will be standing on a horizontal plane. A 45-degree angle does not feel very steep until it grows in size and reaches a tipping point. Many of Freud’s paintings are at least five tall and as size increases stability and orientation I feel become more and more important because it starts to conform to our real space. Just having fun here so don’t take me too seriously.

PS Dubuffet does not make any attempt at depicting a seen reality, I would never sense such and incongruity in his work.

MORAN said...

That's an awesome point about the Hall of Fame. Why do you think that is? I would love to see Mort Drucker in the Hall of Fame. How do you get nominated?

kev ferrara said...

I didn't realize Mort Drucker wasn't in the hall. Nowwww I see why David is all pestered. Hey- We should make it a personal mission to get Mort in next year! How about an online petition?

Loved those quotes from those Annuals. I wonder if Dorne's quote was about Weaver? :)

Annelle Miller... You're doing a great job. And so is David. He was clearly exaggerating so there's probably no need for any animosity. We're all on the same side here.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN and Kev-- Thanks, but I'm not campaigning for anyone for the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame; that's somebody else's job. My only point is that, regardless of whether Drucker is lauded at the National gallery of Art or Sothebys or the Society of Illustrators, his drawing is brilliant. People should be a little less dependent upon trophies and awards when assessing quality.

Kev, you're absolutely right, my joke was not intended as a reflection on Anelle Miller's performance in any way. But I don't think there's much doubt about the underlying reality. When the Society first began to induct three honorees per year in the Hall of Fame, it stood for something very different. They inducted Bernie Fuchs as the current member and Howard Pyle and Maxfield Parrish as the two historical legends. Hard to argue with that. But I would invite you or any other expert to assess the evolution of the list of honorees since that time (on the Society's website).

kev ferrara said...

Now David, either the hall matters or it doesn't matter.

Personally, I find it a neat way for people to learn about Illustration's rich history. Therefore, if I care about people learning about the history of illustration, which I do, then I must care who makes it into the hall... as imperfect a measurement of illustration's best talents as it is.

(It seems posthumous induction wasn't allowed until 1974. Allowing Floyd Davis to be inducted before Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Frederick Remington and Winslow Homer... which is a peculiar thing indeed, historically speaking.

And I don't see Walter Everett, or William Aylward on there... and while they were not widely known after their heydays, they were truly both great illustrators. So in what way was the hall defining greatness even from the start?

David Apatoff said...

Kev wrote: "Now David, either the hall matters or it doesn't matter. Personally, I find it a neat way for people to learn about Illustration's rich history."

Kev, I should acknowledge that the hall can "matter" in a variety of ways which might affect the criteria for admission. If you view the hall as "a neat way for people to learn about Illustration's rich history," that would certainly tend to open the doors more than if you wanted to restrict it to "the best of the best." Similarly, if you decide to honor artists for their cultural impact rather than their artistic ability, you could justify electing a more varied assortment of artists. You might want to honor sentimental favorites, beloved old timers, artists who had made a great contribution to the business, women or minority artists who had been historically undervalued-- there are lots of different standards that might legitimately be applied.

I have absolutely no role to play in the process, but my own view is that the best way to garner respect for the field of illustration and show the rest of the world what illustration is truly capable of, is to showcase only the most talented artists, the ones who are capable of holding their own against artists up the street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or down the street at the Museum of Modern Art. That's just my personal bias.

kev ferrara said...

I meant that, no matter how artists are elected to the hall, no matter the criteria, the hall's roster of artists will be the way that many people learn about Illustration's history.

I didn't mean to imply that, therefore, the hall of fame's members should be selected on the basis of accurately reflecting the history of illustration. I meant to imply that, therefore, only the really great and unique should be in there.

I imagine the hall members are chosen for any number of reasons, including all those you mentioned above.

(Incidentally, I didn't mean to besmirch Floyd Davis. He is a great illustrator, deserving of his stature.)

Joss said...

What a great discussion! All of it.

"more mysterious and less immediately satisfying"

That's it! I think Tom finally nailed the difference between Fine art and illustration. Of course there is no clear line between the two. Of course I should have gone to bed an hour ago.

As a kid as now an adult I screw up my face and gnash my teeth at Drucker's work, how does he cram so !@#%*&%*(%* much personality into such simple playful marks and scribbles.

Joss said...


Anonymous said...

Your jibes about the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame strike me as more bewildering than clever.

First, you are conflating the selections for the Annual Show with the selections for the Hall of Fame. They may have started in the same year, but they're run by different committees, with different criteria. Different mistakes have been made, too, and the Hall of Fame ones are more noticeable because there are so few of them.

It is testimony to the early judges' myopia and ignorance of history that they chose only one Hall of Famer per year, not their parsimonious probity. It was eventually noticed that, at the rate they were being elected, the greats couldn't all be included until 2200 AD, and that would be assuming no more greats were coming on the scene.

For many years, the acceptance speeches by Hall of Famer's families all contained the same phrase: "It's about time!"

In 1999, there were 7 chosen. That's a lot, but every one of them: Mitchell Hooks, Andrew Loomis, Antonio Lopez, Stanley Meltzoff, Thomas Moran, Rose O'Neill, and Adolph Treidler, is a giant, though they represent giant-ness in arenas so diverse that many observers might complain about the inclusion of names they're not familiar with. Few people know all the greats, and if you looked at 20 people's list of top 20 illustrators of all time, I'm willing to bet that it would be much more diverse than lists of the top 20 baseball players.

In my view, every one of the 1999 choices was better than the election of Edward Wilson, Fred Cooper, or Ray Prohaska in the early years. While she was a perfectly good illustrator, it is hard for me to imagine Lorraine Fox in the same league as E. A. Abbey, but there they are, both elected in 1979. It turns out that Fox had recently died of too much inhalation of spray-adhesive, which she had used extensively in her collages, so perhaps there were special considerations in her case.

I didn't mean to insult the judges for the Hall of Fame. The committee is composed of past presidents of the Society, and since about 1980, Murray Tinkelman. The presidents are going to memorialize the artists who they knew and who inspired them; they are not historians, as a rule. So by definition, the choices have a personal cast.

And despite Murray's love of baseball (and illustration), I doubt that he applies the arduous sifting of performance they employ for the Baseball Hall of Fame on his judging for the Society's. Come to think of it, there are no statistics gathered on the performance of illustrators. Perhaps there should be. Ads batted in? Career-mentions of an illustrator in book reviews? Drinks drunk at the bar?

I am hinting that there are few objective criteria for an artist's inclusion in the SI HoF, few heated debates, and I notice that there are correspondingly few headlines in the papers when the new list leaks out each year. Perhaps it's not something to fight over.

But. There are many bases for objection in a courtroom: leading the witness, loaded question, badgering the witness, asking-and-answering. Your response to Anelle Miller covers all four: "But if your position is that there are seven times as many worthy illustrators today as there were in the 1950s, I respectfully disagree." I object! Among other things, Anelle didn't take that position. You're logically inconsistent as well: since the worthy illustrators are chosen from all time periods, the increase in selections doesn't necessarily signify that standards have lowered at all, (how about awareness of greatness increasing?) much less "today", which you use in the most slippery sense. The last time there were 7 chosen was I think, 11 years ago, which is not "today".

David, if you think Mort Drucker, or anyone else, should be in the Hall of Fame, just say so. Maybe Murray (or a past president) is listening.

Roger T. Reed

David Apatoff said...

Roger, this is a dialogue I relish but it would be a great disservice to Mr. Drucker, who overflows with the milk of human kindness, to associate my prickly comment about the Hall of Fame with this post about him. (After all, my comment was just a parenthetical buried in the comment section about a completely different illustrator.)

Perhaps you, Murray Tinkelman and I could have an in-depth, off the record discussion of individual Hall of Fame honorees at a bar some night when I'm in NY.

I recognize that you and Murray each know ten times more about illustration than I ever will. I also have great respect for Murray's judgment as the current chairman of the HOF committee. (It was after I spoke with Murray that I went back and entered a comment recognizing that an illustrator can be "great" in many different ways, and that I was just focusing on one of them). If I add anything to this discussion, perhaps it is the fresh perspective of an outsider.

For the limited purposes of this forum, let me respond to four of your broader points:

1.) If you suspect the early Hall of Fame judges were guilty of "myopia and ignorance of history" you're a tougher critic (and a braver man) than I am. Those first judges who kept the numbers low included illustrators such as Dean Cornwell, Albert Dorne and Harold von Schmidt. I'd also note that their annual that year was informed by a thoughtful History of Illustration by the renowned Henry Pitz.

2.) I may not know much about illustration but I am pretty handy with math. At the rate of two "historical" illustrators per year, the Society could have inducted every single illustrator in Walt Reed's classic book, "Great American Illustrators" by 1996. That means by 2200 they would have added 408 additional Great illustrators (not including the "current" Great illustrators who would be added each year.) That's a lot of Greatness.

3.) Also by my count, the last time there were 7 honorees was in 2006, and the number hasn't dropped below 5 since then.

4.) I did my best not to conflate the Annual Show with the Hall of Fame, which is why I stated that the quotes were from Annual Show judges. My point (which I think is really the only genuine issue for consideration) was that today we don't often see the kind of overt self-criticism that was displayed in those early annuals. Those annuals openly struggled with knotty issues such as the role of photography in art, or the future of the illustration business or the bad taste of clients. They contained comments not just from misanthropes like Weaver, but tough minded experts such as Richard Gangel or Robert Fawcett, who were famed for both their intellect and their candor. Today's publications seem more gracious, genteel, and ummm... self-congratulatory. I
will leave it to the experts to decide whether that friendlier tone played a role in the increase from one to seven (or six or five) honorees each year. Or whether that is good or bad for the reputation of illustration.

As Descartes wrote when he published his heretical Cogito, "If any of this offends anybody I take it back in advance."

Laurence John said...

"If you put Drucker's art in a gilt frame on the walls of the National Gallery of Art I think many people would suddenly appreciate virtues to which they are currently blind."

Drucker's art doesn't belong in a gilt frame on a gallery wall. it belongs on the printed magazine page for which it was designed. black and white comic art was never meant to be seen with all of the white-out, pasted on word-balloons and blue pencil lines visible and i don't think a gallery context adds anything to the appreciation of it. if people can only appreciate something when it's hung in a gallery for them that is their loss.

"The fact that Levine's and Hirschfeld's work sells at a premium in snooty galleries while Drucker's does not is a failure on the part of contemporary society, not the art. I suspect that failure is likely to be corrected over time."

Levine and Hirschfeld both have a much more elegant, stylized line and greater use of distortion than Drucker. the effect is for wont of a better word more 'stylish' than the more nuts and bolts way Drucker draws. i can easily see why their styles are more suited to a portrait of Samuel Beckett than Drucker's style would be. i'm not saying that they are better draftsmen, but that you should never underestimate how nuances of style will effect the perception of a piece of art. Levine also does observational watercolours which have a Burt Silverman-ish look, so it's no surprise to me that the work gets sold in snooty galleries while Drucker's doesn't.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- you raise some interesting points. I'm not sure it is a reasonable basis for distinction to say that that Drucker's art "doesn't belong in a gilt frame on a gallery wall. it belongs on the printed magazine page for which it was designed." Under that theory, Hirschfeld's or Levine's work (except for his watercolors, as you note)would not belong in a gallery either, nor would Daumier or Maxfield Parrish or N.C. Wyeth. Even the "pasted on word-balloons and blue pencil lines" are things that galleries and museums learn to love, with the right cultural incentive (the way they love the watermark on a Rembrandt etching that might otherwise be viewed as marring the image, or the Michelangelo drawing where he wrote his shopping list for his helper on the margin.)

But for me your point about "style" is most interesting. Style is in a slightly different category from the draftsmanship or the design which distract so much of my attention, but style undeniably plays an important role in what qualifies for a gallery wall.

A few months ago a reader referred me to Lou Reed's album, Songs for Drella, containing his recollections of Andy Warhol. I found Warhol's observations described in the song, "Style"-- especially his frankness and intelligence-- very persuasive and winning:

You've got the money, I've got the time
You want your freedom, make your freedom mine
'cause I've got the style it takes
And money is all that it takes

You've got connections, I've got the art
You like attention and I like your looks
And I have the style it takes
And you know the people it takes....

I've got a brillo box and I say it's art
It's the same one you can buy at any supermarket
'cause I've got the style it takes
And you've got the people it takes.

jaleen said...

Re: the critical mindset of the judges circa 1960 vs the "self-congratulatory" tone these days: I think the context of 1960 is not comparable to today's context. In the late 50s a crisis was looming in the illustration biz that makes today's dust-up over the so-called death of print look like a mere hiccup. Magazines were folding. TV was going color, taking more of the market with it. Studios were dying. Modernist fine art incursions had swayed the taste of the public except the most traditional sector. There was a real urgency to shift not just style but approach: the narrative was giving way to the conceptual. This comes out in those harangues about being "imitative". The old guard were dying off and they had failed to mentor in to SI a younger crowd, who were turning into Pushpin-ites. The competition and awards were begun to put SI back into the center of the scene, as they had become rather dated. The first few years of the new show and awards were really insider affairs and meant to defiantly distance the Society from their tarnished image. I say all this based on what I read in the internal memos in SI archives and what other records show.

It worked. SI got the center back, and turned their collective mind back to what it had been there for when it was established: an advocacy group for the profession. Today, SI is healthy and the shows are a very public face for all illustrators, not just members. It becomes them to show their pride.

Anonymous said...

I agree we're off-topic, unless you believe, as I do, that Mort Drucker should be included in the Hall of Fame. [Though your suggestion we "take this outside" -- a bar in NYC no less -- gets me thinking I ought to assemble a posse of pencilers to record the fracas] You're luring me into a numbers game: how many Greats were there at what point in time, multiplied by the optimum number of inductees per year, yields what year do they run out? I'm not going there, because I can't even fathom what criteria are used to define Greatness. Maybe Murray keeps a special platinum yardstick stored in a vacuum for the contenders who are close. I know that Walt doesn't. For starters, there were two versions of that book you mention: Great American Illustrators, one of which had 50 artists listed, the other had 75. So which Walt is right? He selected the hundreds of artists to appear in the Illustrator in America (the count increases the more recent the edition) based on... their Greatness. In the first edition, he slighted women illustrators, and by the third edition, still hadn't given sufficient weight to the categories of children's books, movie posters, pulp magazines, and fashion advertising, though he was improving in those sub-genres. [I share his bias against greeting card art, which he also snubbed.] In NONE of Walt's books is Mort Drucker included, probably because one has to draw a line between illustrating and cartooning somewhere, and Walt drew it with Drucker on the other side. Perhaps Murray has too. The early judges for the Hall of Fame weren't so careful, electing Rube Goldberg in 1970.

Grove is probably right: it wasn't so much ignorance of history as that the Society's attempt to remain relevant ca. 1960 is what led to them to choose only living artists to populate the Hall of Fame. As a basic criterion, however, don't you find this a bit mad?

In pondering this, I've come around to one of your complaints, however. Once you get to five selections per year, the aspect of specialness of the award begins to dilute, and now that the Hall has "caught up" on a great many Greats, I'd like to see it scaled back so that Murray doesn't have to rush through dozens of slides at the President's dinner.

Roger T. Reed

David Apatoff said...

Jaleen, you have certainly earned a seat at the bar when Roger, Murray and I start naming names (which may be the only valid way to test some of these theories).

As for your larger socioeconomic point, I suppose there is no era for which a "best of all times / worst of all times" argument can't be made. Because I work in the technology field, I tend to believe that far from being a "hiccup," the invention of computers (digital media, the internet and related information technology) is comparable in scope to mankind's invention of agriculture.

I am guessing that by most measures, the changes wrought by television in the 1950s did not impact illustration as much as the changes wrought by computers. Certainly the shifting of client dollars between industry segments is objectively greater. The impact on the way illustrators work seems greater too (In the 1950s illustrators only shifted from oil paint and watercolor to gouache and acrylic. Today the shift to digital has transformed not just the artist's entire toolbox but also the deadlines, the concept of "reference," the demands from unreasonable clients for changes, the appropriation of intellectual property, stock illustration and secondary rights, etc. etc.). And, I think, the impact on the pool of competitors for an illustrator is also greater; photoshop enabled people with virtually no artistic talent to skim away the lower tier of illustration jobs (along with the entire keylining and paste up industry); clients can cast their net world wide for the best / cheapest illustrator; they can even lure illustrators into unpaid "competitions" for work. (In July 2009, a brilliant young academic wrote a scorching indictment of "design competitions." I'm trying to remember her name. Hmmmm.... what was that name again? Ah well, I suppose it's not important now.)

We can have our socioeconomic comparison of the 1950s with the 1990s at the bar after we have finished discussing whether Howard Pyle and Rube Goldberg should share adjacent seats in anyone’s artistic pantheon.

For now, I certainly agree with you 100% that "SI is healthy and the shows are a very public face for all illustrators, not just members. It becomes them to show their pride." I'm just one of those guys with the antiquated notion that the best way to express that pride, to recognize accomplishment and honor talent, is to be vigilant about standards by which such talent is recognized (to the best of each generations ability). If N.C. Wyeth or Leyendecker were raised to believe that each of god’s little children is beautiful in his or her own way, and that we all enjoy equal cosmic validity under the sun, SI might have descended to the level of MOMA, and then where would we be?

David Apatoff said...

Roger Reed wrote: I can't even fathom what criteria are used to define Greatness."

Roger, I had a conversation with Murray on this very topic and it was, like all conversations with Murray, extremely edifying. Without betraying any confidences, it was clear that Murray's responsibilities as chair of the Hall of Fame committee require a more subtle, complex and diverse set of criteria than I have to wrestle with. (His ability to weigh them is only the 423rd reason why he chairs that committee while I spout off from this blog.) Me, I have the luxury of not caring about the political significance of a popular character invented by a mediocre artist. My criterion is: if they don't have a body of great work, they don't get on.

My suggestion of a bar was driven mainly by the need for some late night venue other than a jello wrestling emporium. But I am open minded.

Finally, I of course meant the issue of Great American Illustrators with 75 entries. I always stay up to date with the latest versions of Walt's work.

Thanks again for your thoughtful contributions.

jaleen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jaleen said...

Hi David, I admit my guilt concerning underplaying the digital turn - calling it a "mere hiccup" was rhetoric only to make my main point that your argument (that criteria of 1959-60 ought to be held to today) is not valid due to different historical circumstances. You've managed to conflate two different historical moments - 1950s and 1990s (which is again twisting my words because "today" for me is 2010, and given it is administrative changes at SI that we are discussing here, 2010 cannot be compared to 2000) - as if the nature of the changes in the field were the same 1960/1995 with only computers substituting for TV.

This is not so. I agree with all the changes you mention due to computers and the impact they have had. But those are largely DIFFERENT changes than the ones that I was thinking of for 1960, and furthermore, they had less impact on the way SI operates than did the changes of 1960 - and my point was that how SI dealt with competitions was related to industry changes that affected SI's administration in ways that have not existed at SI since.

The changes in 1960 that led to instituting the competitions in the first place (which by the way had never been started despite proposals to do so since SI was founded in 1901 because the Old Boys felt competition and awards were inimical to encouraging quality and detrimental to camaraderie and solidarity) are not only technical but SOCIAL. It is reductionist of my argument to say I was hinging t all on the shift to TV. Chiefly, I was trying to make the point, there was a generation gap, and a conceptual/philosophical gap, accompanying the technical gap, and it is these deeper gaps that caused SI to adopt such a rigorous approach to who merited Hall of Fame. As Roger points out, no Old DEAD Boys - because they had to look modern.

With the digital turn, everybody - including youngsters like me - had to learn computers, and most of us did. Those who didn't were secure enough in their careers that they did not have to.

But thru all the technical shifts of computers and the impact on style and how business
was done (the exploitation thru competitions was certainly NOT an invention of the computer age BTW; didn't you recently post a 1920s version?) the nature of illustration did not change. In the 1950s conceptual approaches started to overtake narrative approaches. That is a shift something like the invention of agriculture versus nomadic herding, because it entails an entirely different creative process, type of problem solving, more attention to the integration of word and image, and level of decoding on the part of the consumer. The switch to digital did not coincide with any such intellectual shift in illustration, although I'll grant that hypertext and Flash brought narrative back up to speed.

I'll grant you that computers brought major changes, but I argue that the late 1950s brought more categories of change all at once.

SI then had to move fast and drastically to maintain their relevance and authority, and this meant the rules and choices for the Hall of Fame were political and very circumscribed. I'm in no position to say whether the nominees and winners of the last 20 years are good, bad, or what, as I am more conversant with the historical than the contemporary. I can only say that the current conditions of SI and the industry cannot be compared to the past; the needs that the awards serve are different now - in part due to the digital turn.

I cannot think of a better time spent than at the SI bar with you, Roger and Murray. I'll be in town in February to take you all up on it. And we can debate whether the MOMA should have been allowed to acquire Andrew Wyeth's painting, only to hang it in a hallway.

jaleen said...
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David Apatoff said...

Jaleen, if I were to accept your thesis that the Society of illustrators established the Annual and the Hall of Fame to "maintain their relevance and authority" in the face of challenges from the conceptual crowd, TV, etc. then you would still have to explain how public self-criticism by Gangel, Fawcett, Dorne and others furthered that goal. It would seem to me that the unblinking scutiny of these tough minded artists, pointing out the weakness, imitativeness, failure of imagination among the ranks of SI would hardly help solidarity.

Ultimately, I think the test of greatness (whether for the HoF or for other purposes) has to depend less on what the politics and commerce of an era do to an artist, and more on what an artist does about it. If I were to believe that the 1950s were a tougher time for illustrators, I would think all the more highly of those straight talking, stiff necked illustrators who were not afraid to express their opinions about quality at a time when diplomacy and economics might dictate that they should become cheerleaders for the party line.

As my good friend Emerson said, "Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it."

jaleen said...

The way I see it, they WERE cheerleading for the party line - set now by the new field of Graphic Design and the rising popularity of modern art.

They were publicly acknowledging that "Hey, it's true, we do suck [by the hip new standards of design/art] - and now we're going to change! See what we have to show you [designers and artists] now?"

They were not interested in solidarity - they were interested in rebranding the industry, which meant dividing the progressives from the conservatives. Or if you prefer, they were forcing conservatives to change or get out of the way, a sort of solidarity-under-the-gun. There's a brilliant letter by James Lewicki - 4 pages typed - taking SI to task because he was not accepted in to the show for being too conservative.

If you look at Harry Carter's statement in 1960, (a Canadian by the way and largely to credit/blame for the competitions ;-P ) he praises youth, originality, independence, individuality, and the artistic "revolution that has been taking place", while "conventional or conservative plays a minor role" and "popular taste was not a criterion". He specifically compares illustration to gallery art, implying illustration is now better because it's more fine artish.

It's not by chance they got Robert Weaver - a very publicly outspoken SI hater - to write something. To paraphrase what Marshall Arisman told me, when SI came round to give Weaver an award some time later despite Weaver's years of badmouthing, SI admin said "We prefer to have him in the tent pissing out, not the other way around." Weaver famously berated fellow illustrators for not being artsy enough (and berated artists for abandoning communication).

I see this move of the Society as a reasonable strategy given the terror they faced. And it worked.

David Apatoff said...

Jaleen, the further we drift from the quality of the pictures into political plots and sub-themes (whether at SI or in the country) the less comfortable-- and the less interested-- I become. The point of this post started out to be that Mort Drucker's genius transcends his forum, and that viewers make a mistake if they become too distracted from the inherent qualities of the image by the politics or prestige of the window dressing. (And by the way, can I remind any readers who are still with us that I think Mort Drucker is brilliant?)

Perhaps experts such as Murray Tinkelman or Walt Reed would be a better place to test your theory that Robert Fawcett, Dick Gangel or Albert Dorne "were publicly acknowledging that 'Hey, it's true, we do suck [by the hip new standards of design/art] - and now we're going to change! See what we have to show you [designers and artists] now?'" My only advice is that you don't ask them while they are in the middle of drinking milk.

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

Just discovered your blog and think it's pretty fantastic.

Thanks for posting these Drucker panels and letting us see more of his technique. It may have been mentioned already,(I'm not going to read through 96 comments today), but what I've thought of as watercolor washed to get gray tones is looking more like graphite from the side of a pencil. Am I right?

Great stuff.

jaleen said...

Point taken David - one of the joys of your blog is that it provides food for thought, an outlet for illustration-art geeking out, and an opportunity to spray milk. Thanks for all you do.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

Davis and Drucker are both talented guys, but neither is fit to hold EC Segar's jock strap.

David Apatoff said...

Jeff with one f-- an interesting theory. We will have to leave it to future biographers to determine whether either Mr. Davis or Mr. Drucker had any interest in holding EC Segar's jock strap. In my view, Segar's primary attraction was his personality rather than his lines on paper. He was a genuine eccentric and his whimsical, oddball creations were a joy to read, but if we focus just on his drawing, I'd say there were quite a few cartoonists who were fit to hold his jock strap.

Movieboards said...

Bravo David! Thanks a lot for articulating this. He is a mighty force.

David Apatoff said...

Joel Brinkerhoff-- Thanks. Drucker occasionally used the side of a pencil for shading, but far more frequently he used gray felt tip pens (as in this case) or gray wash. It changed over the years.

Josh Sheppard-- thanks for writing. As you can tell, I agree with you, Drucker is an American classic, his 40 years of brilliance are highly regarded by artists but as far as I am concerned Drucker has never received the popular fame and critical recognition he deserves.

Paul Harmon said...

The Popeye bashing is a little distracting for this article, I guess it makes sense thematically.
I love Popeye, probably the only Robin Williams, anything I will enjoy. Very different from my other Altman favorites Three Women, and Images. And the songs from Popey by the great Harry Nilsson are fantastic! The look, characterizations, everything I thought were great. And I think it's always a put-off to use critic concensus to either support or condemn a film. I don't know about the others but I don't know a single critic that I can rely on, let alone a whole gaggle of them that I have no concept of their tastes or interests. Didn't 2001 have a fairly poor initial response from critics?
Anyhow these drawings are amazing. I really want to look into more of these artists, as I was never really into MAD or any of that type of stuff as a kid.The draftsmanship of some of thses old school cartoonists is just phenomenal.