The Reign of Bernie Fuchs

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Bernie Fuchs’ was the Mad Men’s illustrator. After the Rockwell era, he was, according to illustration historian David Apatoff in The Art of Bernie Fuchs (The Illustrated Press) “more widely admired—and imitated—than any other contemporary illustrator.” At the age of 30 he was named “Artist of the Year” by the Artists Guild of New York. By 1975,

he was the youngest illustrator ever elected to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. His work was ubiquitous in national ad campaigns for automotive companies and major brands, and in national magazines, including McCall’s, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, TV Guide and Sports Illustrated. Apatoff’s book is the first major retrospective of Fuch’s illustrations, featuring over 300 illustrations. Fuch’s work also prompted a shift in approach from representational to symbolic, or conceptual, illustration. I asked Apatoff to talk about about his celebration of this pivotal artist.

Bernie Fuchs

You make quite a claim for Bernie Fuchs as a unique illustrator in the post-Rockwellian world. What about his work took him to a new level?Several elements contributed to his success: a long, prolific career; natural talent; and the good fortune to work at a time when illustration was running wild with creative possibilities. But I think his greatest asset was his creative restlessness. After he developed a popular new look, he’d change directions again, leaving a flock of imitators behind. (A peer recalled, “All the art directors kept calling up saying, ‘I want Bernie! I want Bernie!’ But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said,

‘Shove it.'”) In an era when his peers all used gouache or acrylic, Fuchs split off to invent new techniques in oils. He walked away from a secure career as the richest car illustrator in Detroit to start over as a freelancer in New York.

 Bernie Fuchs

Bernie Fuchs was certainly copied, as you point out. Were there others who reached his height of popularity?There were many great illustrators who came and went during those years, but I think Fuchs was the last “rock star” illustrator of the Mad Men generation, when ultra-cool illustrators drove Porsches or Rolls Royces and shaped public taste using a mass media that was still relatively homogeneous. The Push Pin artists or Bob Peak were other examples of hugely influential illustrators in the ’60s. By the 1980s the media had fragmented and the role of illustration had diminished, making it more difficult for an illustrator to repeat Fuchs’ “height of popularity.”

How would you say Fuchs evolved his approach from the pristine accuracy of his Detroit style to the work he did in New York?Fuchs said that once he developed technical skill, “it took a long time to really study and control looseness.” It helped that he experimented from a position of strength; he knew enough about perspective, anatomy and technique so he could choose what to abandon and what to retain.

 Bernie Fuchs
 Bernie Fuchs

You note that using reference photographs was shunned. Why?Nearly a century after photo reference was embraced by Degas, Cezanne and Lautrec, some commercial illustrators still felt guilty using photos. Call it an inferiority complex. Fuchs was a young artist working in Detroit when a Cooper Studio artist visited from New York and explained that illustrators who didn’t use photographs could never keep up with the pace and demands of the big city. Fuchs and his peers all started using more photography.

You also say that Fuchs’ work was no longer as popular with the increased use of photography; I argue that conceptual or “idea” illustration changed the field. What really happened?The quantity and profitability of illustration work dropped off precipitously as television drained advertising revenues from illustrated magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Colliers and dozens of others. Some people suggest that conceptual or idea illustration arose partly as a safe refuge from the camera. But I do agree it changed the field. Fuchs was never an idea illustrator. He became an accomplished photographer and award-winning filmmaker (he shot commercials for Mountain Dew and Puerto Rican Rum) and went on to become a gallery painter and illustrator of children’s books.

1959 EDSEL

There is an argument you pose that the quality of drawn line went downhill with the newer generation (you mention Ed Sorel and Guy Billout). Do you have a belief that this diminished illustration? I would argue idea illustrations made the the art more relevant and thought-provoking.My bias is that artists who elect to work in a visual medium should respect the challenges of form-creating work. Otherwise, why not become a writer? I love conceptual illustration—there’s no bigger fan of Saul Steinberg, Milton Glaser or Seymour Chwast. But the great conceptual illustrators were part owl, part songbird. As the concept became increasingly important, the visual form began to wither. Today, “concept artist” Richard Prince can neither draw nor paint well, but he’ll take someone else’s illustration and reframe it with a copy of their published work. His conceptual contribution: to “redefine the concepts of authorship, ownership and aura.” Where I come from, that’s neither an owl nor a songbird, that’s a buzzard. Recently the trees seem to be full of them.

I think the radiant pictures in the Fuchs book are a bracing reminder of how much we’ve lost by devaluing elements such as design, color or a sensitive line. Fuchs was a songbird, and a highly gifted one. There’s an excitement and potency to his pictures that I think is hard to equal with purely cerebral work.

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