Wednesday, July 27, 2011


I just returned from Comic-Con in San Diego.  This week I will write about five of the artists I encountered there.

One of the best things about Comic-Con is that when 43,000 teenyboppers stampede to the far side of the convention hall for a glimpse of some teenage vampire heart throb, you might be lucky enough to grab a quiet half hour with a legend such as Seymour Chwast.

Chwast is internationally renowned as one of the great innovators of 20th century graphic design:

Together with Milton Glaser and Ed Sorel, Chwast founded the famous Push Pin Studio in 1954.

He is the author of many excellent books including the bible on the history of graphic style, which he co-authored with Steve Heller. They wrote:

[T]he new movement in illustration from the mid 1950s to the present can be summed up in one word: conceptual.  Illustration evolved from explicit and romantic realism to conceptual symbolism because the issues and themes covered in magazines were becoming more complex, more critical.  Prior to this, illustrators rejected illusion, metaphor, and symbolism in favor of explicit vignettes.  But by the late 1950s, photographers had vividly captured the surface of life, leaving the depiction of the interior, subjective world to illustrators.
As I have written before, I'm not as quick to write off art that "captures the surface of life."  I'm still a sucker for artists who express their opinions about natural forms using sensitive line, perceptive colors or an insightful composition.  As far as I am concerned, the melodies that arise from the perception of natural form can rival the most elaborate intellectual contrivances.  (I also disagree that there is such a bright line between the "surface of life" and its underlying meanings.)

Still, you could not ask for a better exemplar of the "conceptual" point of view than Chwast, who was among the earliest and most effective exponents of this trend in the US.  Here is his brilliant illustration for an article on impotence for Playboy:

Last week this blog discussed the contortions of "realistic" illustrators trying to conceal parts of human anatomy.   Chwast's illustration not only solves that problem with creative symbolism, he adds an important layer of psychological insight with the tangled cord that prevents the plug from reaching its goal. Traditional illustration offered nothing to compete with this.

I have said some unkind things on this blog about illustrators in the "I'm-so-smart-I don't-have-to-draw-well" school of illustration.  Too many of them ain't that smart, and the concepts they bring to the table turn out to be a poor substitute for a decent sense of design or an ability to draw.  But Chwast is a conceptual illustrator who does it right.  He has the same winning formula that made Saul Steinberg great: a first class mind, a spirit of playfulness that keeps him overflowing with creative ideas, and a true gift for drawing and graphic design.

Our tastes turned out to differ in several instances, but it was a privilege to spend time with him and hear his thoughts on a variety of subjects. I learned a great deal. Those who heard him at Comic-Con were fortunate indeed.


MORAN said...

He's more of a designer than an illustrator but Chwast is definitely one of the geniuses of our field. I'm sorry I wasn't there to hear him. Thanks for writing about him.

Anonymous said...

He is the author of many excellent books including the bible on the history of graphic style, which he co-authored with Steve Heller.

I'm not overly enthused about this particular kind of art, but anyone who attempts stylistic analysis, categorization, history, etc. has my deep respect. I've put the book in my Amazon shopping cart.

docnad said...

Wow. I would have enjoyed meeting Seymour Chwast. By the way, I love your contrarian strategy for dealing with the very young crowds at conventions like this.

I think many great illustrations have been produced in all styles, including both the "realistic" and "conceptual," and I think it's probably preferable, while acknowledging our loves, not to simply choose sides but rather to look at what works and what doesn't in any given examples. I suspect that, in the future, this division that everyone seems so passionate about on this blog may become far less important to students of the medium, and illustration art may be classified more basically as that created quaintly by hand and that created on a computer.

Anonymous said...

Can you tell us what Chwast talked about? Is he still working? I wish I could sit in on that conversation. That man changed everything. He had a huge impact on design. I agree with Moran. Genius.


Joel Brinkerhoff said...

I'm always interested in who influenced whom,(is that correct English?), because the Push Pin style greatly resembles Heinz Edelmann. Heinz is best remembered as the designer for "The Yellow Submarine", a claim Peter Max wrongly promoted about himself, and people still hold to. Did either Max or Edelmann work for Push Pin at anytime?

kev ferrara said...

Chwast is a great graphic thinker who came up with many great solutions to present ideas clearly and colorfully and cartoonily, no doubt.

However, his "history of the use of poesis in illustration" is woeful. It is the colorful, informal cartoony-ness of the push pin work alone that distinguishes it from what came before. It was an evolution, not a revolution.

As an example. Here's the same visual metaphor presented in two different cultures, with two different subjects...

Angular, austere...

Psychedelic and wild...

Here's some good ref sites for design...

Icons of Graphics...

Design History...

David Apatoff said...

Moran-- I agree that Chwast is highly regarded as the designer for all kinds of commercial products, but he has done a great deal of illustration which he continues today. He is currently illustrating a series of books such as Dante's Divine Comedy, Homer's Odyssey and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Etc, etc-- the reference book that Chwast and Heller put together is really quite an encyclopedic effort. I may not always agree with every distinction they draw, but the profuse illustrations are reason enough to buy the book, as far as I am concerned.

docnad-- yes, you would have. And I agree that the realistic/conceptual dichotomy could easily be replaced by another dichotomy that becomes more meaningful in the future. Chwast's quote seems to recognize that the rise of conceptual illustration was the result of technology (the camera) and the market (the shifting demands of publications), rather than some principle inherent to the nature of art. One thing we know about technology and the marketplace is that they will continue shifting.

Inked in Red said...

Agreed! I spent quite a bit of time talking will William STout, no doubt a great illustrator of our time and went to numerous artist lectures without having to endure long lines. Very sad, but at the same time saves me a lot of time and stress. ;)

David Apatoff said...

Joel Brinkerhoff-- I don't recall Chwast mentioning Edelman, but he did say they were influenced by an earlier generation of German artists, such as George Grosz. I do note that Push Pin was up and running a full decade before Yellow Submarine and before Peter Max hit it big. Peter Max was hired by Push Pin but I understand that it did not work out well.

Kev Ferrara-- I have not read Chwast's "history of the use of poesis in illustration" and could not find it on the internet. Did he really write such a thing? I would not debate evolution vs. revolution with you, but I do think that "the colorful, informal cartoony-ness of the push pin work" was quite a U turn after 50 years of Rockwell and Leyendecker, especially taking place at the highwater mark of Whitcomb, Parker, Whitmore and Bowler.

Like Saul Steinberg, Chwast works in styles other than cartoons. He does interesting metal work masks and paintings of cars that combine his trademark jauntiness with a somewhat frightening undertone.

Erin-- Let's keep it a secret, shall we? Or next year we'll be plagued with long lines too.

kev ferrara said...


I didn't mean to suggest that "history of the use of poesis" was History of the Use of Poesis.

I was just saying that what Chwast writes about poetics in illustration shows neither an appreciation of Brandywine picture-making techniques (which continued unabated up to and through Chwast's time through Frazetta, John Clymer, Andrew Wyeth, Stanley Meltzoff and others) nor an appreciation of the point I made above about Chwast's immediate predecessors in the editorial/industrial/metaphorical/informational illustration fields who used all the poetic techniques in question.

The train pulling into the station in 1954 didn't suddenly appear, it was trucking since 1890. Chwast didn't wake up one morning, a 20 year old art student, and shout, "Eureka... I'll be conceptual!"

No, more than likely he was taught to be conceptual by his teachers at Cooper Union, who were modernists who descended from Klee just like Nitsche and Savignac. And then the Pushy Pinners were "taught" to be pop by Warhol and Lichtenstein.

If you look at the very earliest work of Push Pin in the 50s you will see it becomes much different as the 60s roll on and pop/psychedelic/mod comes into vogue.

So, all to say, while Chwast's work is quite a stylistic/narrative change from Rockwell and Whitcomb, it was not that big a change from artists like Erik Nitsche or Raymond Savignac... who are Chwast's true progenitors in the illustration world.

Saying Chwast was a great change from Leyendecker is like saying Rockabilly was a radical change from Ravel. The remark does not consider that Rockabilly had a long path of its own which had almost nothing to do with the evolution of classical music.

Laurence John said...

Chwast's drawing style really disturbs me.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote, "what Chwast writes about poetics in illustration shows neither an appreciation of Brandywine picture-making techniques (which continued unabated up to and through Chwast's time through Frazetta, John Clymer, Andrew Wyeth, Stanley Meltzoff and others)

Kev, it may seem that the techniques "continued unabated" because individual artists continued to practice them, but I think such techniques were nearly wiped out as a commercial phenomenon. This was an era when Frazetta couldn't find work because art directors considered him "old fashioned," and Stanley Meltzoff stood on a street corner in the rain, unable to find a new assignment. Andrew Wyeth was selling to a different market, but he too was ridiculed as "obsolete." On the other hand, the clean, simplified, flat patterns with brighter colors adopted by the Push Pin guys (and yes, others) found great traction. In my conversation with him, Chwast did not suggest that he was the original source of this look-- quite the contrary, he was very deferential to predecessors (mostly in Europe and mostly from the early 20th century). But it is important to remember that when Chwast graduated from Cooper Union his style was anything but popular. He was fired after a very brief tenure at Esquire Magazine and started Push Pin in a cold water flat that he rented with his unemployment check.

I think that whoever Chwast's stylistic antecedents were, for some reason large numbers of people began buying products and reading magazines with the Push Pin "look" in the 1950s and 60s.

Laurence John-- I'm not sure why. Can you give us more? I think that if you are drawing in a simple, cartoony style for a sophisticated market, you have to make clear that you are not illustrating for children. A certain uneasy weirdness or eccentricity is essential.

Laurence John said...


maybe it has something to do with growing up in the 70s and seeing lots of badly animated TV ads that looked like this ?

i don't know, but that sort of rubbery psycedelic drawing gives me the creeps every time.

kev ferrara said...

I don't dispute any of that, David. I'm glad to hear that Chwast recognizes his antecedents in Europe, (a fact not implied by the quote you included in the post.)

It also should be noted that Frazetta's wilderness period only lasted a few short years, ending with his portrait of Ringo Starr in mad in '64. Same goes for Jack Davis's transition from horror artists to top advertising and movie poster artist... it was short indeed. And let's not forget the noir crime, gothic romance and sci-fi paperback boom... which may not be sophisticated, but was widespread all during that era and into the 80s.

The issue really is, what became hip to the new york yuppie crowd in the 50s and early 60s (and thus attractive to AD's looking to hawk product to the same)... and the answer is stuff that was influenced by Miro and Klee and Arp and Calder and DeKooning, and then Warhol and Lichtenstein. That was the scene. That was where the dollar bills were.

The exit of Meltzoff, Bama and countless other realists from the hip-centric commercial image industry was fairly predictable, based on that zeitgeist.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "I'm glad to hear that Chwast recognizes his antecedents in Europe, (a fact not implied by the quote you included in the post.)"

Yes, I didn't feel at liberty to quote Chwast in detail because it came up in the course of a private conversation, but he was quite open and pragmatic about his influences, and deferential to other artists. He emphasized European sources, but didn't (to the best of my recollection) name any domestic sources.

>>"The issue really is, what became hip to the new york yuppie crowd in the 50s and early 60s (and thus attractive to AD's looking to hawk product to the same)..."

Kev, I'm sure the ADs were looking for a new style that would appeal not just to the new york crowd, but across the country (and around the world). Wouldn't you agree that the important national styles from that era originated in specific locations (whether psychedelic and hippie styles from California or hipster styles from NY or mod styles from London) and swept across the country (and the world)?

kev ferrara said...

Interesting points

The history of "the next big craze" in marketing is fun to think about. The youth market, which came of age in 1950s america seems to mark the beginning of the (post)modern era. I think ADs became increasingly savvy about catching the next wave just right. (reminds of the scene in Hard Days Night where George Harrison visits that AD who uses an astrological chart to predict the next fad.)

On the whole, I think it is impossible for advertisements to lead the culture somewhere it isn't already going. Which is why I emphasize evolutions in the arts over revolutions.

However, in the long run, everything conditions us. Which is why repetitious marketing is such a cultural force. "Street cultures" only appear on our radar when their self-advertisements become codified enough to become identified... the result of repetition as well.

Frank Furlong said...

How can you possibly reccomend that book American Illustrators? I unfortunately bought one and feel 90% is absolute wasted paper. Where are Sunblom, Parker, Fuchs, English and countless others worth reading about? Rather than a bunch of pulp nobodies.