The magnetic power of Poster House NYC to acquire special collections is getting stronger by leaps and bounds. A recent donation to Poster House from the School of Visual Art (SVA) consists of 98 of its Subway Series posters dating back to 1996, including works by Milton Glaser, Gail Anderson, Mirko Ilic (who in 2013 initiated a traveling exhibition of SVA Subway posters to 44 locales around the globe), Louise Fili, Marshall Arisman, and Paula Scher, among many others.
These posters join an impressive selection of permanent additions to the Poster House collection. For more information on the Subway Series, including a video series featuring “Hall of Fame” artists and a peek inside the process of how they’re created, go here.
For the fiftieth anniversary in 1997, I wrote the following paean to earlier subway posters that appeared in School of Visual Arts Gold: Fifty Years of Creative Graphic Design (PBC International, Inc., 1997):
When I was a freshman in high school in the mid-1960s, every weekday I took the Twenty-third Street cross-town bus to Eighth Avenue where I’d catch a noisy subway that transported me to a prep school on the Upper West Side. Twice a day, coming and going, I passed the former NYU dental college recently turned art school located on Twenty-third Street between Second and Third Avenues where I enviously watched as crowds of long-haired art students wearing army and navy surplus blue pea-coats and carrying large black portfolios mingled with their female compatriots before going to class. For the rest of the ride I daydreamed about being one of them—wearing a pea-coat, carrying a portfolio, studying art, and generally being released from what seemed like an interminable four-year sentence at hard labor at a conservative boys academy where such appearance, accouterments, and even the study of art was rejected in the pursuit of an Ivy League education. Nevertheless, I was determined to attend that art school, and although I was still years away from even the possibility of enrolling, I kept the dream alive through one of the school’s early subway posters that had fortuitously come into my possession.
The poster by George Tscherny, which hung in my room for three years, showed a plaster cast of an ear with a real 2B pencil stuck behind it. At the bottom, in handwritten script was scrawled “School of Visual Arts”; and below that, a discrete line *of typeset text read: “Advertising Design, Illustration, Fashion, Cartooning, Audio-Visual Art, Technical and Industrial Art, Fine Arts.” I had little inkling as to what all this meant (except for cartooning). But I was so taken with the simplicity and eloquence of this poster that I intuited that this was the essence of a special kind of art, not the musty stuff that hung on museum walls. I continued to be touched by the school’s various subway posters by artists whose signatures became increasingly more familiar—Robert Weaver, Bob Gill, Ivan Chermayeff, Milton Glaser, among them. During those years, there were many iconic images hanging in the subway, such as posters for “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s,” “Aqueduct Race Track,” and “The Urban Coalition,” but none grabbed me more for their artistry, intelligence, and wit than the seasonal advertisements celebrating the School of Visual Arts.
As often happens, lives turn, paths twist, and although I had become an obsessive cartoonist, upon graduating from high school I enrolled in NYU as an English major. But I had not lost interest in The School of Visual Arts. In fact, I put myself on the mailing list and regularly received the school catalogs and announcements with the intention of one day taking some additional courses. Then fate interceded; I received a piece of mail that, somehow, forever changed my life. It was a publication edited and designed by students of a magazine course taught by Milton Glaser and Henry Wolf, which was, without doubt, the most exciting collection of pages I had ever seen. At that time, I was already working as a “layout person” for an underground newspaper, and had been cutting an excessive number of classes to get this work done. So it was this SVA publication with its distinctive typography, unconventional imagery, and cinematic pacing that convinced me that I was wasting my time at NYU. A few months later, I finally enrolled in SVA.
Yet, owing to a personal preoccupation, my academic and attendance record did not, shall we say, make the school proud, and I was eventually and rightfully removed from its rolls. Nevertheless, I consider myself a School of Visual Arts alumnus because I was totally influenced by the school’s remarkable graphics. The publications like the one from Glaser and Wolf’s class, as well as countless recruitment, exhibition, and lecture posters, and catalogs and booklets had a profound impact on me as an art director and designer—and indeed it had to have had the same effect on anyone who appreciates the strength of images and words in a well composed concert. SVA’s print material has served to show how design, illustration, and photography based on ideas, not ethereal trends and fleeting fashions, is the backbone of memorable communications. Without relying on the constraint, or ease, of a “house style,” SVA’s graphics are diverse, yet
distinctly identifiable as emanating from the school. At a time when many art schools succumb to the various new waves, SVA has followed its own—and its contributing artists’ and designers’ own—visions. SVA’s ephemera is not only the historical manifestation of a venerable fifty-year-old institution, it is evidence that the whole can be the sum of its distinctive parts and still be a total entity.
The amazing thing about the past fifty years of The School of Visual Arts’ graphic achievement is that those early works are, without exaggeration, as fresh today as they were when they were first conceived; moreover, the work done today is totally consistent with that legacy. Despite changes in the profession, marketplace, and technology, that wonderful “ear” poster which once hung on my wall still conveys its message with clarity and eloquence. As an example of The School of Visual Arts’ visual excellence, that is high praise indeed.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →