The Push Pin Pantheon

The following sampling from a series of 63 portraits of Push Pin Studios’ “Luminaries” is a project by Stephen Alcorn, son of designer, illustrator and early Push Pin member John Alcorn (1935–1992). John passed away too early, but bequeathed to Stephen a talent and passion for drawing. These drawings of Push Pin’s founders (below from top) Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, and early members, Ed Sorel, Reynold Ruffins and John Alcorn, represent a pantheon of designer/illustrators. I recently asked Stephen about the series and drawing in general.

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What triggered this drawing celebration of Push Pin Studios’ key members?
This series of portraits, which I began in the spring of 2012, was born of a desire to pay tribute to a group of artists that has proven to be a seminal influence in my creative life. As the son of designer, illustrator and early Push Pin member John Alcorn, I spent the better part of my formative years drawing alongside him. The studio and home environments he created were shaped by a remarkable confluence of wit, humor, decorative charm, graphic elegance and the power to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary. This experience led to a lifelong fascination with the edifying power of the mark and its ability to transform a blank surface into a revelatory image. This fascination was further fueled by my introduction, at a very young age, to the cultural phenomena that was Push Pin Studios.

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So, in a sense you grew up with Push Pin?
My father’s connection to Push Pin Studios predates my birth, to 1956, the year Milton Glaser hired my father, at the age of 21, shortly after graduating from Cooper Union. For the next few years he worked alongside Seymour Chwast, Reynold Ruffins and Milton (Edward Sorel by this time had left to forge a brilliant career as a satirical artist). Although considerably younger, my father quickly impressed his more seasoned peers with his skill. As Seymour Chwast would later recall, “his early cutouts and drawings emerged with no apparent effort complete on the page. As with Mozart, who composed entire musical compositions in his head, all John had to do, it seemed, was copy down the contents of his mind.” As fate would have it, around the time these four artists were beginning to leave their mark on contemporary culture, so too were four musicians in Liverpool, England. In the ensuing decade, Pushpin Studios would become to the realm of Communication Arts what The Beatles would become to popular music. In terms of iconography, one could say that my series of portraits constitutes an extension, despite a difference in mediums employed, of another series of iconic portraits of mine titled Modern Music Masters. In this respect, my tribute to the first five Push Pin members is really another expression of gratitude for having come of age under one wondrous, collective spell.

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You teach drawing—do you draw every day?
I do make a point to draw from life every day. I even go so far as to religiously maintain a library of 11 x 14 sketchbooks, each one dedicated to a specify theme, e.g., one for figure drawing, one for portraiture, one for studies of objects such as sea shells, one for studies of plant life, etc., etc. I find that my daily practice of drawing directly from life in an honest, observational manner is not only refreshing and pleasurable, but that it has the added benefit of informing the varying degrees of stylization present in my published work. And that it helps me avoid lapsing into unduly reductive and formulaic solutions. Furthermore, the practice serves to generate a visual record of things seen and experienced, a visual diary that documents my daily observations and discoveries.

Philosophically speaking, I find that the coordinated activity of the eye, mind and hand is nothing short of miraculous, and that this ‘act’ leads to an engagement that unifies body and soul. I believe that marks, signs and symbols made on physical surfaces with a stylus, pencil or brush have a way of restoring authenticity to the image, and can provide a healthy antidote to the artificiality spawned by the unbridled simulacra of our age, where illusion can become a substitute for reality. By according the haptic and the tactile their rightful place in my daily existence, I am able to achieve a more mindful state of being. Drawing has the power to unite ideas and physicality together through a process of translation and distillation. Indeed one of the virtues of drawing is the degree of abstraction it demands. For me, this process is immensely satisfying because it lends coherence to experience, and in so doing, order to chaos. Ultimately, the spirituality of a drawing is predicated upon realizing, making real, what had in effect been imagined. Drawing, in other words, gives substance to the imagination.

As an Instructor, I relish the challenge of analyzing and articulating the various processes that I, as a draftsman, illustrator, printmaker and designer, have developed and employed over the years, and which have become instinctual and intuitive. This process of self-discovery has breathed new life into the formal training of my formative years, resulting in a continuum of past, present and future experience that I find invigorating and inspiring. I encourage students to create drawings that are born of steadfast observation, and whose skill, care and determination invite the viewer to feel and to think—drawings that are not merely sensational attempts to get a message across in a matter of nanoseconds, but rather, drawings that invite repeated viewings, and reconnect us to a timeless, universal instinct in our being. Regrettably, the fast pace of modern life, driven as it is by the quest for immediate gratification and time-saving expediency, discourages such acts of contemplation. But when the time is taken to permit a drawing to unfold incrementally before one’s eyes, the experience can be revelatory, and permit the viewer to share in the creative process by following the different stages of a drawing: from the first tentative, underlying preparatory marks to the crowning, finishing touches. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that photography and its related media, e.g., film and television, tell the most truth about what we see. This is false: The camera may tell another truth about a subject, but not necessarily a more convincing one. Experience shows that the practice of drawing by hand can bring us into a deeper and more fully experienced connection to a given subject. It is often said that Leonardo drew so well because he knew about things; perhaps it is truer to say that he knew about things because he drew so well. All meaningful drawings are a testament to the sentient nature of our being, and of our need to engage all our senses (touch, sight, taste, smell, sound) in conjunction with all our higher mental faculties (reason, memory, perception, will, intuition, imagination) in the creative process.

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Why are the portraits drawn in so many different styles?
This series reflects the nature of the formal and technical challenges I embrace, both as an instructor and as a practicing artist. In The Face, a course in portraiture I teach at Virginia Commonwealth University/School of the Arts, a significant part of the coursework involves the exploration and study of the art of drawing as language, and by extension the art of translation, which requires an ability to interpret a subject in a variety of formal idioms: chiaroscuro, modulated tone, modulated line, pure line, continuous line, and so on and so forth. These modes of representation are then applied to exercises revolving around the precepts of two-dimensional design, followed by forays into the realm of magic realism. In many ways the trajectory of the course echoes that of mid-19th century to mid-20th century art, a period that resonated with the early members of Push Pin Studios, what with the rich array of hybrid styles it developed, and the invigorating confluence of sophisticated and primitive sensibilities it championed. The variety of artistic temperaments within Push Pin Studios seemed to call for an equally wide range of stylistic treatments. In an effort to familiarize myself with each individual subject’s features, I began working in a highly descriptive vein, by employing an attention to detail more in keeping with 19th century realist drawing and painting than with the markedly graphic sensibility with which I have come to be associated as a printmaker. The original works measure 14 in. x 18.5 in. and employ a variety of media and techniques, ranging from pen and ink to a host of experimental combinations of watercolor, colored pencil, pastel and tempera applied to a variety of tinted grounds.

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What, ultimately, did you want to accomplish with this homage?
My goal for the approximately 65 studies created to date is three-fold: first, to accord the subjects a gravitas normally associated with formal portraiture of old (a benevolent nod, if you will, to their status of “Old Masters,” and to the larger Pantheon of the History of Art to which these heroes of mine belong, however reluctantly); secondly: to provide the foundation upon which to build a series of successive, increasingly inventive and overtly stylized images. I consider this series to be a work in progress, and am looking forward to further exploring and developing it. Thirdly: to have the cycle, whence completed, serve as a didactic guide for future students so that they can better understand and learn of their rich cultural heritage.

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What significance does Push Pin have for you as an artist?
Unlike so many aspiring and contemporary designers and illustrators whose cultural and art historical references do not predate the advent of Star Wars, the early Push Pin Studios members embraced history in all its infinite complexity and variety. Their work is at once modern, ancient, sophisticated, and naïve, and ranges from the organic to the clinical and the imaginative to the literal—in short, they created a body of work that lends itself to being appreciated on multiple levels. And while they had a healthy respect for tradition (witness Seymour’s bold early woodcuts, Ed’s spirited revival of 19th century satirical pen and ink drawing traditions, my father’s crafty marriage of synthetic cubist-inspired imagery and type, Reynold’s whimsical celebration of indigenous art, Milton’s lyrical reinterpretation of Giorgio Morandi’s intricate line systems), they recognized that tradition is not nostalgia, but rather knowledge passed from one generation to another. For this example I am grateful, for it encouraged me early on to see my artistic development as a microcosm of the larger history of art with a sense of belonging to a larger whole.

The work created in the ’50s at Push Pin Studios was in essence artisanal, and perhaps therein lies the secret to its enduring warmth and charm. Their love of artists’ materials and appreciation for all things tactile ensured there be a connection between the work itself and the mind and hands creating it. Ultimately it is the contrast between Push Pin’s early artisanal ethos and today’s technology-driven ethos that I believe makes their legacy relevant to our age, and its discovery by today’s aspiring designers and illustrators so important.

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