Thursday, October 23, 2014


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






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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's my personal answer:  It's great that images can be harnessed to convey information, such as the motion of a character opening a door.   But art-- good art--  has the potential to do more, to provide us with subtler shades of meaning for communicating love and pain on levels where words are inadequate.  It can strengthen our sense of aesthetic form that we rely upon to fend off entropy.  It equips us with a vocabulary for fleshing out profound concepts of joy or sadness or humor or introspection.

Art enables us to express a range of moods, feelings and beliefs that are more important than mere information and that cannot be conveyed well with information graphics-- even in an era when such graphics are the literati's vision of "art."

Saturday, October 18, 2014


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


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

I like the sensitivity of Schwartz's pencil sketches:

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

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

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

Thursday, October 16, 2014


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

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


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

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


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

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

Monday, October 13, 2014


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

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


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

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