The art of collage, for which Fred Otnes is best known, relies on chance—the seemingly random arrangement of disparate elements from unrelated sources. The skill, taste, and experience of this consummate practitioner controls chance to such felicitous ends that they appear to be inevitable.
Otnes was born in Junction City, Kansas, and raised in the Midwest, where his family frequently moved because of his father’s work. His peripatetic youth made socializing difficult, but it also resulted in Otnes’s strong sense of independence. His artistic ability was evident from an early age, when he imitated his favorite cartoonists and comic book artists. His skill, which was encouraged by his father, was also recognized by his high school art teacher, who arranged for him to visit The Lincoln Journal, where he was hired to work when he was not attending school. Various jobs led to an apprenticeship in the engraving department. Working at the paper enabled him to imagine a future in art for himself.
While taking night classes at the Academy of Art, he worked at Whitaker-Guernsey, one of Chicago’s top studios, where he turned out illustrations for major advertising clients such as Abbott Laboratories and United Airlines. At the time, his work reflected the influence of illustrators he admired—expert draftsmen Al Parker, Robert Fawcett, and Austin Briggs, among others.
In 1953 Otnes met and married Fran McCaughan, who created order out of the chaos of his bachelor life, and with whom he had a uniquely close and equal partnership. That same year, after having conquered Chicago, Otnes moved to New York to work at the prestigious Rahl Studios. He rented a house in Westport, Connecticut, and became close friends of many of the famous illustrators who lived in the area. For more than ten years he worked successfully in a representational style for such clients as The Saturday Evening Post, True, and Collier’s, specializing in masculine themes. In 1962, Otnes signed with the highly respected art representative Bill Erlacher, of Artists Associates, beginning a strong relationship that lasted more than 30 years.
In the early 1960s, the Otneses built and decorated their International style dream house—a Modernist gem that he credits, in part, with his development as an artist. At that time, the publishing world was in a state of flux due to the influences of photography and television on the marketplace. Otnes could see that a change had to be made to the narrative approach to illustration. To that end, he added a spacious studio to his home, where he learned a variety of printing techniques. What has been called his “metamorphosis” was abrupt. Robert Hallock, art director of Lithopinion, responded by frequently publishing the artist’s new work, to which Otnes soon added collage elements. He then employed photographic images within the collage, using his own photography or adapting imagery from other sources, such as old family photos. General acceptance of his new style quickly followed and assignments came from The Saturday Evening Post and the Franklin Library, the publisher of finely made illustrated books for whom he worked for many years.
The late 1960s and 1970s was a period of political and social turbulence—fertile ground for editorial debate and deliberation. The complex and abstract nature of such debate was difficult to render in traditional, narrative methods but was very well served by Otnes’s collages. He strongly related his artistic explorations to the work of Robert Rauschenberg, with its crowded juxtaposition of silk-screened images. Also, Otnes felt his audience, by way of television, had grown accustomed to repeated images and had the ability to take in large amounts of visual information. His illustrations, with their numerous and varied elements, encompassed entire events and atmospheres.
For three decades, Otnes’s illustrations appeared in Penthouse, where his technique was ideally suited for wide-ranging or abstract features on current affairs. In the same vein, his series on the historical life of Christ appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. For assignments with less pointed agendas, Otnes produced many works with a nostalgic, dreamy atmosphere, combining old photographs rendered with the photo-transfer technique, paint, antique collage elements, and even flowers that his wife had pressed. Attracted by the work of Louise Nevelson, with the overarching precedent of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Otnes began constructing assemblages for illustration assignments.
In the early days of the personal computer and other emerging technologies, Otnes’s work was sought after by companies desperate for symbolic visuals to project a high-tech look for their products and services. Influenced by the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, Otnes photographed the programming symbols off the screen of a small computer he used primarily for playing chess. This look was also effective for a variety of pharmaceutical giants and large conglomerates—companies with no single product to represent—who wished to express the intangible benefits of their holdings. Otnes enjoyed extraordinary success working with editorial and advertising clients, designing stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, and creating posters for 34 movies and a mural for the Ronald Reagan Library.
His poster for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum was also enlarged to a dramatic wall-size mural. The clean design and sheer beauty of Otnes’s multilayered work belied its difficulty. The complexity required that the artist think “like a three-dimensional chess game.” After careful research to get the appropriate elements, he set up each layer and transferred it, one color at a time, requiring that he visualize in advance how every shape and value would relate to all the others in the completed piece.
By the mid-1980s the sophistication of graphic design software, as well as a proliferation of stock illustration and photography, caught up with advertisers’ needs and Otnes saw it was time to consider another change. He felt that, “something created by hand was going to be the way to go.” This transition came at a time when he was showing his work at universities and colleges where he lectured, and in galleries nationwide, as well as in Paris, Japan and Korea.
With his unique approach, Otnes, as an agent of change in the field of illustration, was among the forces that moved illustration away from the traditional, representational narrative, providing clients an alternative interpretation of text or concept. His beautifully elegant solutions to countless illustration problems garnered Otnes more than 200 awards from prestigious arts organizations. The Society of Illustrators, which awarded him many Gold and Silver Medals and its Hamilton King Award, now has the honor of including him, most deservedly, in its Hall of Fame.
Author Fred Otnes: Collage Paintings