The State of the Art: Illustration 100 Years After Howard Pyle at the Delware Museum of Art (February 9, 2013 – June 1, 2013) celebrates two centennials: Pyle’s and the Museum’s. Guest Curator David Apatoff, illustration scholar and author of biographies on Robert Fawcett and Albert Dorne, highlights the eight artists in eight categories as representative of the best of the best : story illustrator Bernie Fuchs; graphic designer Milton Glaser; MAD caricaturist and comic artist Mort Drucker; The New Yorker cover artist and character designer for animated films, including Ice Age, Peter de Sève; editorial artist John Cuneo; painter and book artist Phil Hale; painter and magazine illustrator Sterling Hundley; and Pixar production designer Ralph Eggleston. This is not the usual roster of illustrators, so I asked Mr. Apatoff to discuss his curatorial rationale.
What was the impetus for curating this exhibition?
The 100th anniversary of the death of influential illustrator Howard Pyle, as well as the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Delaware Art Museum. We began the year with a centennial exhibition of Pyle’s work, and ended the year by surveying the landscape of illustration 100 years after his death.
What were your criteria?
We knew at the outset that it would be impossible to do a comprehensive survey of illustration. The past century of illustration has been one long, noisy circus train. Brilliance has come and gone at the most unlikely times, in the most unlikely shapes and sizes. In order to make this show manageable and illuminating, we had to distill hundreds of potential candidates into a small group of illustrators who could represent a cross section of the most important categories of illustration today. When it came to selecting individual artists, I did not view this as an opportunity to showcase overlooked talent or applaud financial success. I was not handing out popularity trophies or correcting past socioeconomic injustices, although those might all be worthwhile things to do. I was simply trying, as scrupulously and as cold bloodedly as possible, to identify the very best artists I could find in these categories.
There is quite an interesting lineup. Not all the usual suspects, clearly a personal selection. So, what is the narrative you are projecting here?
You’re right, it was a personal selection, and a dozen other curators might have come up with a dozen other lists. I would be most pleased to see those lists. But there is no doubt in my mind that these artists do the job. There is a lot of beautiful work in this show. I only injected one strong personal bias: I was only interested in artists who understood drawing, who had the eyes and fingers for crafting forms consistent with basic elements of design. Perhaps 100 years from now the most important illustrators will be executive managers of animation studios, or photographers, or videographers, but not yet.
My bias occasionally led to counter-intuitive results. For example, the illustrator I chose to represent sequential art is Mort Drucker from MAD magazine. He is hardly the flavor of the month, or even the flavor of last month, when it comes to sequential art such as graphic novels or internet comics. But there is an awful lot of lame artwork appearing in graphic novels today, no matter how moving or profound the text might be. If I knew of a current graphic novel artist who came anywhere close to the talent of Drucker, I would have used them. The interesting thing is, when you talk with a more fashionable artist in the show, Phil Hale, who does dark, obscure oil paintings 5 feet tall to illustrate psychologically complex Joseph Conrad novels, he’ll tell you that his ambition in life was once to go work with Drucker at MAD.
Howard Pyle certainly influenced a lot of illustrators, but I don’t see the spiritual or physical relationship with too many of your artists. What is the connection between them and Mr. Pyle?
Howard Pyle played an important role in shaping the path of illustration for the first half of the 20th century, but by mid-century his business model was falling apart. Photographers were filling the roles previously played by illustrators. The illustrated magazines were going out of business. Popular taste had changed. Illustrations began to talk and move, artists began painting with computers and working in teams of 100. And then of course came “photo-illustration,” the modern equivalent of decoupage. Illustration has changed so dramatically since the days of Pyle, he wouldn’t recognize it today.
So the question became, does Pyle retain any relevance for illustration today? Is there any of his DNA left in this work? I think the answer is yes. Pyle was a visionary who embraced the future, urging his students to look ahead to the day when there would be reliable full color printing, rather than the primitive wood engraving that had limited his own work. Pyle would embrace the uncertain future today, not shrink from it.
But most importantly, I think that the core values of image making that he preached – the sense of design, harmony, balance, proportion, contrast, etc. – are just as relevant to the Pixar color scripts and the Ice Age video clips in this exhibition as they are to oil paintings on canvas 100 years ago. Even in the current changed world, they still remain a reliable litmus test for separating quality images from the abundant drek on the market.
What conclusions do you draw from your selections? What indeed is the state of illustration in the 21st Century?
I tried to spell out some of my conclusions in the catalog, but if you want to hear my views on the state of illustration in the 21st century, I’ll meet you in Delaware with a bottle of wine.
For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility‚ one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.