Robert Andrew Parker on Life and Illustration

We see deeply disturbing images in dark, murky colors: guns pointing at heads, children strung up by their feet, abandoned eyeglasses lying twisted in a void. Eventually, we come to a factory billowing smoke: the crematorium at Auschwitz. They’re from a series of 20 hand-colored etchings, titled “German Humor.” And they’re by Robert Andrew Parker, one of the masters of late-20th century illustration.

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They’re also part of a 60-year retrospective currently at the South Pasadena Mercantile Co. It’s Parker’s first solo show in California in more than 50 years, with more than 150 original works on display. For SPMC, which typically spotlights emerging talent, it’s their first for a classic illustrator. Proprietor Scott Gandell, himself an illustrator, is delighted with the response and now plans to showcase Bob Peak in September. He’ll hold a closing reception for Parker on April 27th.

The German series, originally produced as monotypes in the mid-1980s, is part of Parker’s lifelong preoccupation with war. Born in 1927, he was already sketching combat scenes by the age of ten. And it was his pictures of imaginary battlefields, published in “Esquire” in 1960, that first brought him to national attention.

But even back in 1956 Parker had already shown his art at MoMA, the Met and the Whitney and had created copies of Van Gogh drawings and paintings that were used in the “Lust for Life” biopic. Over the decades his watercolors and acrylics have appeared in vast numbers of magazines and nearly 100 children’s books.

Parker’s loose, energetic approach achieves maximum effects with minimal amounts of detail. He was extremely innovative in his heyday, preceding other American expressionists like Alan E. Cober and Marshall Arisman. And at age 85 he can still pack a visual wallop.

“Robert Andrew Parker: A Retrospective” seemed like a good occasion to have him review his extensive career and offer a bit of advice for up-and-coming illustrators.

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“German Humor”

The title was meant to be ironic. The general aim of the pictures was to go from the 1890s to a gradual, sickening decline into the Nazi horror. I admire George Grosz’s work, and Otto Dix and Max Beckmann.

When I visited Auschwitz there was a display of thousands of eyeglasses, another of hair, another of shoes, artificial limbs and so on. I had seen photos of these things, but it was quite another matter to stand and look into a glass case of these everyday objects belonging to the people who had lived and died there. I was looking at evil.

I re-did the monotypes as etchings a few years ago because I had sold the suite of monotypes and I missed having them. I added three or four new images as well. I like making etchings.

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The 1940s U.S. Military

I was an airplane and engine mechanic on B-29s. The war had ended before I was of any use.

The army was an interesting experience. The draft made the army truly democratic. We all ate the same awful food. We all got 32 dollars a month. In our barracks, there was a group who, when idle, would play bridge while others could barely read. The army included everyone.

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Early Art Career

After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1952, I wanted to be in or near New York City. The only job that presented itself was teaching art at the New York School for the Deaf. The good fortune of having a successful show in New York in 1954 changed everything. And also: being hired to be Kirk Douglas’s hands in the movie “Lust For Life.” The 10 weeks on location—in Arles and Paris—was a great experience, as was being part of making a movie.

The years 1952 to 1955 were the last years I had a nine-to-five job.

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Breaking Into Illustration

My first show at the Roko Gallery in New York was a great success. It was 1954. During the show, a woman came in who was the art director for “Seventeen”Cipe Pineles—and asked me to do an illustration for her magazine. I instantly said yes.

I was lucky that what I was doing could be useful to magazines and books and record jackets.

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Illustration vs. Fine Art

The only difference between illustration and what I do is that someone asks me to do something or I do what I want to do. So in one case, a magazine pays me, and in another instance, the gallery pays me. The methods, the techniques, etc., are exactly the same.

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Magazine Commissions

I liked working for “Fortune” and for the Air Force. They both sent me on trips all over the world – places I could never have afforded: North Africa, South America, Central America, etc. I liked working for “Sports Illustrated,” shooting [for reference] in Ireland, South Dakota, Georgia, etc. Also for “Playboy” and “Time.” And I liked “The New Yorker” because it was always in a hurry.

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Illustration Today

Most of it seems to be done on computers. I have no interest in it.

I admire Joe Ciardiello, Istvan Banyai, Guy Billout.

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Advice for aspiring illustrators

Do your own work and hope art directors, museum directors, and collectors like what you do.

All images are from the South Pasadena Mercantile Co. exhibition and copyright © Robert Andrew Parker, 2013.

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