In 1968 Brad Holland became my first and only mentor. I was just 17, he was 24 and his most memorable lessons focused on the ethics of making art. He taught me that an illustrator, cartoonist, and even an art director could make a decisive contribution not only to a publication, but to culture. He offered inspiration to a kid who desperately wanted to be some kind of an artist but was indoctrinated into believing that commercial art was a lesser art. Holland convinced me otherwise.
I met Holland by accident through an ad I’d placed in The Village Voice for contributors to a small magazine I was starting with money set aside for college. Borrowed Time was its title. It was a literary/poetry anthology that lacked a real direction and point of view. At our first meeting in the basement apartment of a brownstone on East 10th Street, Holland arrived with the largest portfolio I had ever seen. He was tall, skinny, and sported an Abe Lincoln-esque beard. Like the proverbial rube just off the bus from points west he looked excruciatingly out of place in hippie Greenwich Village. Originally from Arkansas, he had worked for a few years at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City but had come to New York to make a different kind of hallmark. During the hour we were together he uttered only a few words, his eyes never once looked directly at me, but were fixed intently on his work as I slowly turned over the large, image-laden boards. “Good stuff,” I told him, holding my awe in check at the sight of his meticulously rendered line drawings featuring surreal fantasies and allegorical vignettes. “I like ‘em. But can you illustrate Literature? Can you stick close to the text?”
Literature, indeed! I had no idea what I was talking about. Nonetheless, Holland agreed to contribute—and for no fee—so long as I agreed that he would retain complete control over the content of what he did. “Sure,” I said.
Actually, I was surprised that he returned a week later for a meeting I’d organized to explain the purpose of the magazine to the anointed contributors. Holland patiently listened to my pedantic monologue about the blah blah blah “philosophy” of Borrowed Time. He also stuck around until everyone had left, at which point he said, “I’ll help you design this thing.” “But I already have an art director,” I replied curtly, referring to an old high school buddy who pretended to know about layout. “He doesn’t know shit about designing a magazine,” Holland replied defiantly. “And frankly, you don’t know much about putting a magazine together either, so I want to be involved at least where my drawings are concerned. His words pieced my ego like rusty X-acto blades.
After that I wasn’t sure I even I wanted him around, but he was curiously persistent. He was also right about my so-called “art director”, who redesigned the day after we started pasting up the first pages. Holland took over by default and the very first thing he did was introduce me to the art of typography. In fact, he did all the type composition himself, cutting and pasting strips of phototype on the floor of his apartment. Using Herb Lubalin as his model and Avant Garde magazine and his prime example (incidentally, he published his first major editorial illustration there in 1968), he showed me the expressive nuances achieved by smashing, overlapping and otherwise allowing type to speak. While I resented that he was so much better than me, I knew that what he imparted was the equivalent of months, possibly years, of art school. I was torn between feeling gratitude and a slew of baser emotions.
Yet I truly admired Holland’s passion and I listened with envious attention as he told me his duels with editors and art directors over his sacred principle never to render anyone else’s idea (a common practice at that time) but rather always find a better, more personal solution to any illustration problem. He never illustrated verbatim but always reinterpreted a text in metaphorical visual terms. Moreover, he stuck to his guns at the expense of losing a job, which happened from time to time. His actions sometimes seemed foolhardy. Yet I remember when they paid off—when something without equal was published in a national magazine or on a book jacket or even a poster. I understood that Holland was not only fighting against accepted wisdom—that an illustrator was merely the extension of an art director’s, or worse, and editor’s hands—he was trying to radically alter, if not expunge, the conventions of narrative, sentimental illustrations and create a more intimately expressive art. He once confided that he would either win or quit—there was no middle ground.
It worked! Within the year of our first meeting, he earned steady work in Playboy, Evergreen Review and even the staid Redbook. He eventually became a principal artist for the New York Times. Drawing on the legacies of such acerbic graphic commentator artists as Kathe Kollwitz, Georg Grosz, Henrich Kley, and his beloved Goya, Holland’s stark black-and-white drawing raised the conceptual bar of an antiquated field that was rooted in Rockwellian romanticism. But just as he refused to be dictated to by editors and art directors, he was never sanguine about maintaining signature styles. He once told me, “My models were always writers, guys who could write essays, poetry, plays, whatever they chose, and try different approaches. There’s no reason why an artist can’t take a similar approach. Use charcoal one day and bright colors the next. Do a series of white-on-white painting and then do a handful of messy drawings as if you were five yeas old. I mean you can’t get everything into a single picture. Every picture is just an elephant. Everyday you feel a new part of who you are.” And so he evolved his methods and manners to suit his needs, often surprising, sometimes shocking those who commissioned them.
I wish I had Holland’s courage. Frankly, the frustration of being limited by my on meager abilities was painful. I couldn’t draw realistically if my life depended on it. I couldn’t come up with the visual metaphors that seemed to flow from Holland with ease. Yet at the time I continued to draw little cartoons, and tried to get them published with some success in various underground newspapers. Getting published was fine, but more important for me was earning Holland’s approval for what I was doing. I wanted validation that my art was good. But since he never said so in as many words—at least I never heard him—at age 18 I decided to stop drawing.
Sounds childish now, but I presumed since I couldn’t compete with Holland, who was not yet at the top of his game, and since I liked art directing anyway, I’d just stop doing one and focus on the other. It was a sound career move. But I also figured that if I stopped drawing I’d be hurting him, not me. Indeed, six months after I had published my last cartoon, I met Holland in the street and he asked, “How come I don’t see your drawings anymore?” “I decided to never do them again,” I said woth an angry edge to my voice. “Too bad, some of them were really good,” he said. Victory!!?? I had given Holland power and abused our relationship. Yet a new relationship took hold. As an art director I was under his watchful eye, but I was not in direct competition with him. And so I allowed him to teach me about the history of satiric art and visual commentary — the same history that informed his work. Holland also became a regular contributor to underground papers I designed, The New York Review of Sex, The East Village Other, Screw, and The New York Ace, and I was able to apply some of the lessons I’d learned from him. For instance, I gave license to artists who sought to redefine their briefs so that their more personal solutions were possible.
By the early 1970s Holland was a fixture at The New York Times OpEd page and had made such a mark that he was copied far and wide. The OpEd page was the most important illustration outlet in America, and he contributed illustration that both complemented the articles and stood on their own as integral artworks. In 1974 I became OpEd art director, and working with Holland was a great perk. Over time we became equals, though I still get a bit nervous when I think about how harshly, but humanely, he critiqued all that I did. These days we won’t see each other often, but our bonds will never be broken. I have never really known anyone who exerted such a fundamental impact on the way I practice. Without Holland’s fervency and passion for mass communication I am certain American Illustration would not be as completely astute; rather it might still be locked between those old verities, sentiment and romanticism.
Former Art Director, The New York Times Book Review and recipient of the 2011 National Design Award.