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.

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