Sometimes you don’t know how much you really miss someone, especially an artist, until you see a retrospective of their work.
Robert Weaver (1924-1994) is such a figure. One of the most innovative post-Rockwellian American illustrators, he was ubiquitous in major magazines and newspapers until he began radically loosing his sight in the late 1980s. Weaver was the inspiration for one of my early books, Innovators of American Illustration, and a respected teaching colleague at SVA’s MFA Illustration as Visual Essay (founded with Weaver 30 years ago) during the early years of that program. He was a pioneer of the visual/text essay, a format that has been integrated into the graphic novel genre. Weaver’s essay work was not as well circulated as his commercial illustrations; he kept them in sketchbooks or loose leaf binders, and would show them to any visitor. He was ahead of his time yet the publishing industry was not ready for his narrative approach. What a shame.
Just the other day, I received a welcome surprise: A copy of one of his most emotionally startling essays, A Pedestrian View / The Vogelman Diary, edited by Alexander Roob, published in Germany by The Melton Prior Institute and Verlag Kettler (available here). It includes fifty-two individual gouaches of the New York street-scape and more. They are sequential insofar as the story moves on a linear trajectory yet it has an abstract quality too, which is a Weaverism. The pictures are divided into upper and lower portions, the former a painted image the lower a scrawled text which the Melton Prior Institute for Reportage Drawing and Printing Culture says:
. . . .deals with the reflections of a certain Clarence Vogelman (Note: Vogel is the German word for bird) rising to a dream flight over the metropolis as a successor of Theodor Storm’s little Häwelmann and Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, to then suddenly plunge to the forests of Upstate New York, probably, as is said, due to a bullet fired by a duck hunter. In Clarence Vogelman’s ongoing monologue, Weaver ties in several media-theoretical reflections in the vein of Marshall McLuhan. In the form of the Chinese picture scroll, he attributes McLuhan’s manuscript culture to the imaginary world of the state of dreaming, while the discontinuous waking consciousness, which is more strongly subjected to the rule of language, is attributed to book culture.
Always interested in the natural intersection of image and verbal languages, his experimental late work were not assigned illustration, produced “in total artistic isolation.” His various artist’s books always investigated how sequential images might work in random ways.
This gem, which includes an interview between Weaver and photographer and painter Sol Leiter, is not only an important insight into Weaver’s craft, it is a joy to behold. Man, that guy could draw!!
For more access to Robert Weaver’s work visit the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University’s Department of Special Collections.
For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.