Robert Weaver, around whom much of this past week's topic has swirled, once said, "It is possible that illustration and art may one day merge, at some vanishing point in history, but for the moment their aims and purposes are quite different. It seems to be the function of the artist to produce art. The illustrator may use the ideas of the contemporary painter; but it is communication that is his ultimate goal."
What a beautifully concise way of expressing the distinction.
Take this abstract expressionist piece from the Guggenheim Museum's collection, for instance....
No, I'm kidding - this is actually part of an illustration by long-time Cooper studio illustrator, Bernard D'Andrea, who painted it for Boys' Life magazine in 1965. D'Andrea used the ideas of the painter while still communicating with the readers of the accompanying story (see below).
During the first decade of his career D'Andrea was painting story and advertising illustrations for all the major magazines in that classic Cooper studio style... what author Steven Heller, in an article called "The End of Illustration?" derisively describes as "neo-Rockwellian mannerism... often stiff, puerile, and sanitized."
I wonder if that's how Bernard D'Andrea felt while painting the idealized realism that typified the popular 50's look? Was he itching to release his inner fine artist in a blazing splash of wild Jackson Pollock - inspired action painting?
Neil Shapiro wrote the seminal article on the Charles E. Cooper studio for Illustration magazine #16. He describes the influence of Murray Tinkleman (below) on his fellow illustrators. One of the artists who was there at that time, Don Crowley, is quoted as saying, "I kind of credit Murray with ruining the Cooper Studio, because he got those guys dissatisfied with what they were doing... they just weren't happy doing illustrations any more. They all wanted to be fine artists."
Is that what's really at the heart of the Avant-garde movement in illustration? The desire to be a fine artist? Consider this other quote from Robert Weaver:
"Until the illustrator enjoys complete independence from outside pressure and direction, complete responsibility for his own work, and complete freedom to do whatever he deems fit - all necessaries in the making of art - then illustration cannot be art but only a branch of advertising."
That would be a perfect world, wouldn't it? A major magazine or advertiser pays you a lot of money to paint with total abandon, without restriction or direction or any requirement to collaborate with the other graphic arts professionals involved in the project.
But with that as your central tenet, do you actually qualify for the title of 'illustrator'? It hardly seems realistic to me.
"Illustration is less of an art than a profession in our time," said Weaver. I have to agree... but I agree without the note of regret I read in Weaver's remark.
Here's another quote:
"One of the problems in illustrating for advertising is not the illustrator's problem at all, but the system. When an account comes into the agency all concerned gather and confer. Then they separate and ruminate, and again gather and confer. Visual evidence appears, is hashed over and is finally submitted to the client, is brought back and modified in further conference. When the client seems satisfied, the ads are ready for production, and at this time the agency is forced to call in a complete outsider - the artist. He comes in cold, unaware of all that has gone before and views the accepted layouts all buttoned up tight. What should have been his peculiar province - the excercise of his creative imagination - has largely been done for him and it is no wonder that he is soon concious of operating simply as a technician."
Are these the words of Robert Weaver or one of the other young turks of the Avant-garde movement?
No, they were written by Robert Fawcett in his introduction to Illustrators '59. But you can see that Fawcett was very much in sympathy with the Avant-gardeists. To a greater or lesser degree, I think all of us who are illustrators share this sentiment.
It would be lovely to just draw or paint whatever your heart desires, rebelling against the commercial constraints and compromise that shackle the professional illustrator's natural creativity, that sometimes demand more of a technician than an artist... and have instead the freedom today's youthful counterculture enjoys when they produce hiphop-inspired graffiti art like the piece below.
No, again I'm kidding. This is actually a piece by Al Parker from 40 years ago.
But I hope that you are, like me, astonished at Parker's amazing capacity for innovative and creative exploration, for his ability to anticipate and even initiate style and trend far in advance of his peers.
It was wondered aload earlier this week if Parker or Weaver had had a more pronounced impact on illustration as we know it today. If we have to assign responsibility to one single artist for having been the greatest innovator... for, as the commentor put it, moving illustration the greatest distance from where he found it, then I would have to throw my hat in Al Parker's ring.
Al Parker was also frustrated by the limitations put on his personal creativity. "An exceptionally innovating performance from the brush... depended to a great extent on the capacity of the art director to evoke it," he once said. "Once evoked, the art director expounded its merits to the magazine, which usually demanded a watered down version."
But in spite of those challenging circumstances, Parker also said, "The illustrator is always subservient to representation. Revolt is limited mostly to its guise, not its premise."
That is to say, you can be as rebellious as you please, just make sure they don't realize it!
The most successful illustrators, like Bob Peak (above and below), have always understood and accepted this reality. Because unlike fine art, illustration is part of a larger collaborative process; so when you are given the opportunity, push the boundaries.
And when they ask for the technician, make sure they pay you well.
As another person commented this week: "Untried territory is fine, but will it put food on the table?"
D.B. Dowd, who authored "Abstraction in (Dis)guise" for the Rockwell Museum's Al Parker catalogue gets the last word: Revolt is still an option -- as long as its cloaked.
*My thanks to Tom Watson for providing the Robert Weaver interview, "The Future of Illustration" and the Robert Fawcett introduction from Illustrators '59.