The Daily Heller: Barbara Nessim’s Little Red Books

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A pioneer of conceptual editorial illustration, in the 1960s Barbara Nessim fought against gender inequity without even knowing she was doing so.

This year, Nessim was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. It is hard to think of a more worthy laureate. Coinciding with this honor, Nessim released a 10-copy limited-edition collection of archival "red books" from her 1975 Sketchbook project. Each of the 10 red books (pages of which are shown here) is signed and numbered and contains an original drawing. The original drawings in the books for sale were hand drawn with red archival ink and produced in 2019”. Each current volume sellsfor $500 (+shipping and handling). For ordering info, contact Nessim here.

The original run of Nessim's 1975 Sketchbook series contained 950 books in all, with 450 books bound in red, 100 bound in green and 400 bound in black, 9" x 6" in size. The archival paper is 65 lb Mohawk Vellum. (The books are 45 years old, and the paper is still pristine white.) The difference between the three colors of the books:

  • The 450 red books each have a unique numbered and signed original drawing in red archival ink.

  • The 100 green books contain a unique numbered and signed original drawing with watercolor.

  • The 400 black books, with no original drawing, were given to museums for their libraries, art critics, art historians, and Nessim's relatives.

Nessim's work inspired me when I was starting an ill-fated illo career. So I was honored to be asked to write a brief essay for her 2020 induction into the SOI Hall of Fame—excerpted below:

Entering the illustrator's male-dominated establishment was not easy in the early 1960s, yet Barbara Nessim's metaphorical approach and modern minimalist style definitely altered aesthetic norms during a period when art, design and illustration—not to mention politics, morals and mores—were ripe for change. Intrepid male art directors, such as Henry Wolf at Harper's Bazaar, Robert Benton at Esquire magazine, Stan Mack at the Herald Tribune Magazine, appreciated Nessim’s uniqueness and gave her jobs—but in retrospect, “I thought all illustrators had a hard time,” Nessim admits. “I just kept working and bringing my portfolio to art directors and anyone who would look at it. I was working during my every waking hour. When you have a passion for what you do it does not feel like work.” So if there was a barrier to break, she speculates, “persistence is probably the best hammer there is.”

In the mid-1960s Nessim, worked mostly in black and white, felt “starved for color” and decided to alter her methodology. At the legendary Art Students League in midtown Manhattan she joined a painting group, and the paintings she made influenced the color and form of her illustration. By 1965 a Nessim- style emerged that was a combination of etching line and colorful brushwork on canvas, combining with her epoch-defining florescent Dr. Martin's dyes, created using a stick pen dipped in Higgins Black Magic India ink on watercolor paper.

Since editorial illustration was a largely male market, it is ironic that Nessim’s work was appearing in such Playboy-inspired “girlie” magazines as Gent, Nugget and Escapade. Working for these magazines was opportune “because as an artist, you had freedom,” Nessim asserts. “The art directors used artists they loved, and there was nothing you could not do.” She illustrated a chapter from Terry Southern's book Candy and made mono-type etchings of Coney Island in the winter for Gentlemen magazine. In the 2013 exhibition catalog, Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life, for the Victoria & Albert Museum, I wrote that her work exhibited a feminine quality with conceptual intelligence. There was nothing submissively or stereotypically cute about her images, blending decorative elegance with provocative form. “The image had to convey a meaning, and I had to be able to articulate what that meaning was,” she explains. “I was telling stories in my personal art, and naturally it transferred to my illustration.”

Eventually, she was assigned work for the progressive city weekly New York Magazine, where design director Milton Glaser and art director Walter Bernard gave career-building opportunities to dozens of young conceptual illustrators. New York also launched Ms magazine in 1972. Its editor, Gloria Steinem, and Nessim had been roommates from 1962–1967, and she received assignments from Ms. as well as other women's magazines.

Nessim became known for translating social issues into pictures through coded allegory and metaphor. On the surface her work evoked classic beauty, but “you had to look at it to get the significance,” she explains. She did the Time magazine cover on July 12, 1982, the week the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was defeated by three states. “I decided to illustrate what was happening at the moment. It was a huge disappointment when the defeat was announced. My image illustrated that moment simply with a large woman's head glancing downward—she was sad but not angry—a stair step diagonal ran through her face, upward from left to right. The top half was black, the bottom white. I wanted it to symbolize all women of every color—her stylized hair represented the tears shed mourning the defeat. Above her head there was the blue sky, which the staircase enters. At the bottom of the staircase a petite woman valiantly stands, on the shoulder of the larger head, which now represents a 'hill,' her hair and dress blowing in the wind, ready to climb the stairs to the blue sky which represents 'light.' The headline reads 'Climb to Equality.'”

Nessim did a fair share of taboo-busting, about which she says: “I certainly didn't follow the social unspoken 'rules' in my life, such as not getting married or taking a job that was typical for a young woman entering the workforce. And I think I didn't follow any rules when I did etching—I was told a few times that what I was doing was not allowed.”

In the early 1970s, Nessim created a series called “Woman/Girls.” The images were simple pen and ink drawings of a single figure, usually standing on point, in red toe shoes, only wearing a decorative chastity-like pantie, which has an open area exposing her hairless vagina. “In all ways she was a woman but her hairless vagina was one that belonged to a girl who had not yet entered puberty. She appears full of grace; in fact, it takes a while to notice that her vagina is exposed, and another while to realize it is hairless, and what that means if it is even noticed at all.” In 1973 she exhibited these at the Corridor Gallery, and made a spare black and white poster, which the gallery director posted all over SoHo. “It seemed that as soon as they were posted they were taken down,” she recalls.

Nessim was also a leader of computer technology — the first illustrator that I knew of in 1980 to use bitmapped computer art. Computer art, although practiced since the '70s in the fine arts, was another breakthrough realm for her: “I tried my best to get other illustrators to join me,” she notes. “I requested permission to invite others up to Time Incorporated, where they had a secret enclave called 'Time Video Information Services’ (TVIS).” Gary Zamchick, an illustrator, and Ina Saltz, an art director, were on staff and willing conspirators. She tried to recruit others but no one wanted to work on this crude yet brand-new tool. In 1982 Joel Azerrad, the Creative Director at TVIS, invited her to be an Artist in Residence and she taught herself how to use the IPS 2 (Information Provider System) computer by Norpak by reading the manual. Learning programs was one hurdle; using this primitive machine for viable illustration was another. Nessim welcomed the limitation of the early bitmapping because it was interesting to see what she would make of it. Yet she faced resistance from all sides—illustrators, designers, and also in the studio art world. “Diana Bryan was the only illustrator that was interested and wanted to learn about it, and did.”

With an Amiga computer Nessim did some illustrations that were delivered on 35mm slides but most art directors preferred her analog illustrations until Photoshop came along. “When I got a job I decided how I would do it,” she says. “The cover I did for a story on breast cancer for The New York Times Magazine was a 50/50 job. The simple line was drawn by hand and scanned into the computer and the color was added with the computer.” Nessim’s adventures influenced other illustrators and designers.

Nessim never felt “that I fit into any one place in any world, be it the illustration world or the art world. I have no idea as to where my place in history is. What I do know is that I cannot do anything else but what I'm doing, and that gave me the feeling of doing the right thing. The other feeling I have that helps me conquer self-doubt is to consciously turn doubt into feeling positive. Sometimes that is hard to do, and then I have to go with the feeling until it changes, which I know it will.”

In Nessim’s creative universe, illustration is one way to get images into the world. “A visual can deepen the way a person understands what she is reading. I've illustrated stories and subjects that would have never crossed my path.” Nessim made it possible for women illustrators to speak their minds—and yet she still questions “whether I made a difference. … Obviously the women's movement has a lot to do with making people, men and women, aware of the concerns. I was not aware of the magnitude of issues to be discussed but I did know there were issues of equal pay and equal respect and more that I could not articulate fully. We were all learning how to live with each other.”