Alan E. Cober

2011 Hall of Fame Inductee: Alan E. Cober

Alan Edwin Cober was a part of his time, yet ahead of his moment. He was an expressionist and satirist while other illustrators of his generation were realists and romanticists. He was a journalist while other illustrators in his circle were drawing entirely from the imagination. His practice often contradicted his affiliation. He was one with the Rockwell milieu but a pioneer of the anti-Rockwellian evolution. He made it possible for gritty graphic commentary to flourish in the rigid precincts of American illustration—and even the Society of Illustrators in the late sixties.

Cober was one of a small group of American illustrators who injected the precepts of modern art into commercial art, which, after World War II, was mired in overly rendered sentimentality. In the early sixties, when he began, illustration was at the proverbial crossroads, between mimicry and expression. A few progressive art directors, notably Cipe Pineles at Seventeen, Richard Gangel at Sports Illustrated, and Henry Wolf at Esquire, introduced young illustrators, many who were previously unwelcome in the illustration brotherhood. Cober broke through.

Rejecting realistic narrative painting for expressive and symbolic drawing, and watercolor rendering, his illustrations did not slavishly mimic a passage of a text, as was the convention, but complemented the story with an alternative vision and interpretation. Such work is commonplace now but Cober was among those who fought for its acceptance. His editorial art appeared in numerous publications, among them TIME, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Life, Look, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times.

Cober’s loose, expressive, deceivingly primitive linear style owed a debt to the economical line of Ben Shahn and the conceptual acuity of George Grosz. He often included scrawled texts on his pictures. Among his many credits were his coverage of the shuttle liftoffs from Cape Canaveral for NASA, the 1980 presidential campaign for TIME, and Pope John Paul’s 1987 visit to the United States for Rolling Stone.

For most of his professional life he compulsively filled hundreds of sketchbooks with everything from simple notations to fully realized paintings. From these sketches he would complete drawings, watercolors, and prints. His work on the mentally retarded, prisons, and the aged were compiled in a book of drawings, The Forgotten Society, for Dover Books in 1972, a volume that has been reprinted in 2011. And it is this investigative illustration that stands as testament to Cober’s life and career. He believed that narrative art could influence and inform public opinion. Yet he was a commentator without a specific agenda.

Sure, he was politically left of center, but his drawings, in the tradition of, but not the style of the 1930s Social Realists, was more humanist than polemical. One cannot view his drawings of Sing Sing prison’s moth-balled electric chair without emotionally experiencing the violent surge of electricity that Cober described as passing through his own body when he saw this instrument of “justice” upon entering the death chamber. Nor is it possible to look at Cober’s etchings of mammoth industrial turbines without knowing how totally fascinated he found these monuments of the Machine Age.

As a visual commentator, Cober responded to three stimuli: manuscripts, social and political events, and his environment. Sometimes all three fused into one. As a traditional illustrator, Cober never mimicked the texts, as many were commanded to do. He routinely injected his own symbolic commentary (even if it was not quite comprehensible). When he was commissioned to cover events, like a Pope’s visit to the United States or Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful second-term presidential campaign, he transcribed reality, yet translated it into his own visual language. When he interpreted his surroundings, he replaced discipline with free-form expression.

The man loved, loved, loved to draw—anything and everything. And his journals were fanatically filled with everything from outtakes of assignments to a series of portraits at his local swimming pool. He enjoyed the act of capturing friends and acquaintances, not as caricatures, but as characters.  

Cober was a descendant of the 19th and early 20th century artist-journalists, and one of its foremost torch-bearers. However, it wasn’t easy keeping the flame burning. Through the force of his will and ego (with a mild or intense touch of arrogance—he enjoyed the well-placed curse word), he could usually make art directors and editors bend to his desires. Yet that could not stop the inevitable shifts in media and method. At the time when he most actively practiced illustration, many of the traditional outlets for such work had cut their budgets and slashed their interests. Cober continually pitched his stories to deaf ears. And as young art directors took veterans’ places and the institutional memory of his achievements faded, he was forced to pitch even harder. So he found alternative methods—books and exhibitions. Just think what he would have accomplished had he lived long enough to embrace the Internet.

Cober was also an influential and beloved illustration teacher. He was a professor of art and distinguished visiting artist at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York. He also held the Lamar Dodd Professorial Chair at the University of Georgia, and, at the time of his death, was teaching at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, where the Ringling Brothers circus, which he loved to draw, retired for the winter. His work is held in the collections of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the New Britain Museum. During his last two years he was exploring the medium of clay as an extension of his drawing.

Before passing in 1998 at age 63, he was firmly entrenched in the netherworld—which for some is a black hole—between “fine” art and illustration. He was a maverick in the truest sense: at times quite ornery, as mavericks tend to be, other times entirely sanguine about everything around him. By example he showed that illustrators needn’t be schizophrenic in their creative or professional lives; rather, they can have multiple personalities. Cober didn’t abide roadblocks or stop signs. He enjoyed the status of hybrid, yet pushed the concept of illustrator as “author” as far as he could take it. And today, in large part owing to Cober’s tenacity, illustrators can do anything, as he might say, “they fuckin’ well please.”

Steven Heller
Co-Chair, MFA Design department
School of Visual Arts, New York