Milton Glaser is not just an illustrator. However, if he were just an illustrator his contribution to late twentieth century applied arts and popular culture would be no less monumental. Yet because he has not been limited to one mode of expression his impact is even more extraordinary. Glaser is a designer whose graphic language includes narrative, conceptual, and decorative illustration, but decades ago he developed a holistic practice that wed type design to editorial illustration, magazine design to poster conception, interior design to book jackets and covers, and created a world in which art and design were completely intertwined. You see, Glaser ignores boundaries.
It is natural to cite Glaser’s most iconic work as the reason for his induction in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. The “Dylan” poster, “I ♥ NY” logo, and the post-9/11 “I ♥ NY More Than Ever” cover of the New York Daily News, to name a few of the memorable ones, are as recognizable today as were the most celebrated Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers. Yet for this writer Glaser’s renown also derives from what he did not make himself but rather what he has influenced and inspired.
To this day when Victor Moscoso, one of the progenitors of the San Francisco psychedelic poster style, lists his influences he credits Galser’s sinuous, curvilinear drawing and vibrant color palette and a benchmark for psychedelia. And thus approach further inspired Heinz Edelman’s animated drawings—the color, line and whimsy—for now the classic feature Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Back in the late sixties it was common to hear Glaser’s name associated with the Blue Meanies, the sublimely comic villains of this Beatles film, even though he had nothing to do with them, because Glaser’s hand was spiritually present.
When I was a teenager Glaser’s eye-catching rainbow-colored posters for WNEW FM, America’s first progressive rock ‘n’ roll radio station (which were ubiquitous in New York City), defined the epoch and helped launch the sixties youth culture illustrative style. Likewise, his brightly colored, linear portrait of an American Indian published a cover for Life magazine provided such a boost in the mainstream to this new period aesthetic, that I found myself copying the forms and colors in much of my own art school assignments. It is a tribute to Glaser’s vision that his collected work became synonymous with the late sixties, while it is evidence of his genius that it also transcended the fashion of the times.
Glaser’s designs are not artifacts of a single decade but epitomize the eclectic visual culture of the second half of the twentieth century, which Glaser (and his partner in Push Pin Studio, Seymour Chwast) helped foment. Prior to Push Pin’s rise during the late Fifties and sixties as a hot house of contemporary illustration and design practice, traditional drawing and painting had been marginalized by photographic and other mechanical media, which were more “of their time.” Modernism rejected both representational and stylized illustrative techniques, calling them passé or anti-Modern. Glaser thought such prescriptions ridiculous and refused to accept dicta that art must be entirely of the moment. He proved that vintage styles, including Art Nouveau and Art Deco, could be resurrected and hybridized to be more that nostalgic pastiche but rather dialects within a universal design language. Doing so, he expanded graphic communications and enlivened what had become an increasingly stolid practice. In the bargain he also presaged postmodernism, which eventually cast a large aesthetic shadow on design from the seventies through the nineties.
Whether labeled postmodern or eclectic Glaser has routinely embraced twentieth century design traditions while remaining contemporary. And yet it is curious that as styles predictably shift through the passage of years (sometimes months and even days), some of Glaser’s formal inventions and re-inventions have been rejected as passé. Of course, such are the vicissitudes of fashion and the myopia of the young. Whatever the surface manifestations (and some of his are admittedly locked in time), Glaser’s work is based on the sturdiest of foundations. “I was always personally interested in the idea that you could draw, you could design, you could do three-dimensional work, and so on,” he notes in his career-defining book, Art is Work (Overlook Press, 2000). So to view his oeuvre—from the posters to the textiles to the restaurants to the jewelry (he’s done it all)—it becomes crystal clear that drawing is indeed the lingua franca of visual communication, and that no amount of sophisticated computer programs can replace it.
Milton Glaser is not just and illustrator because illustration alone is too binding for his vast talents. He once said, “I’m never happier than when I’m making things or thinking about making things.” And it is this passion for conception, regardless of whether the object is ephemeral or ageless, that keeps his mind fertile. It is the continued love affair with drawing, painting, printmaking, in short all the plastic arts through which he articulately converses with the public, that secures his Pedestal in this Hall of Fame.
Art Director of The New York Times Book
Review and Co-chair of the MFA/Design program at the School of Visual Arts, New York.