The Daily Heller: Society of Illustrators Inducts Chwast Into Hall of Fame

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This text is adapted from my contribution to the 2023 Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame program featuring essays on Helen Hokinson (1893–1949), Reynold Brown (1917–1991), Anna Whelan Betts (1873–1959), Richard Amsel (1947–1985), Wendell Minor (b. 1944) and Barron Storey (b. 1940).

On Sept. 9, Seymour Chwast (b. 1931) was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. This is at once welcome and perplexing news. He has received so many honors and accolades over the course of an inspirational seven-decade career—duly acknowledged for pioneering a mid-20th century modern genre of witty conceptual editorial and advertising illustration—some people (myself included) might have reasonably assumed that this Society of Illustrators tribute was already one of these honors. Despite the gap between perception and reality, his induction into the Hall of Fame has come at an extraordinarily auspicious time for the 92-year-old wunderkind.

2023 included the acquisition of his complete archive of editorial, advertising, packaging, animation, children’s books and graphic novels (among them seven decades of sketches, comps, mechanicals and finishes) by The Dowd Illustration Research Archive (formerly Dowd Modern Graphic History Library) at Washington University in St. Louis, which already holds his entire collection of 150 posters. Later this fall Chwast will have the first-ever retrospective exhibit of his 40 (and counting) kid’s books and originals at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. And topping off this year of acclaim, he is the 2023 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award for Design Visionary.

He has practiced (and mastered) all manner of illustration, painting, sculpture, typography and lettering, design authorship and entrepreneurship. His sheer will to create outperforms some of his aging body parts. He credits this stamina to a daily nap; but whatever the reason, there is no arguing with success.

Chwast’s work—for clients and himself—is as bountiful today as it was back in the Cooper Union days when he co-edited the Push Pin Almanack, the seed from which grew into co-founding, with Milton Glaser (his partner for 20 years), Reynold Ruffins and Edward Sorel, Push Pin Studio, a hothouse for innovative illustration and graphic design. Push Pin was the Beatles of illustration and graphic design, and like the Beatles’ singer/songwriter duo of John (Lennon) and Paul (McCartney), Push Pin’s Milton (Glaser) and Seymour (Chwast) greatly influenced the popular culture of the times. The self-described “quiet one,” Chwast was in the vanguard of a thriving business that consequently evolved into a community of young illustrators and designers quickly transforming the style, practice, content and politics of American illustration during the ’60s and ’70s, and planted seeds in the field for decades beyond.

Chwast is still usually found hunched over his drawing board. When his client jobs are complete, his custom is to author his own (an empty desktop is the enemy). Of course, it is logical to expect that he’s slowed down a bit from the years of co-directing Push Pin and later going solo, overseeing The Push Pin Group, to when the drudge of running a business in his mid-70s was an unwanted distraction from the joyful challenge of making the work.

He works alone, with an assistant at his side one day a week, preparing book proposals, while putting the final touches on an unimaginably large backlog ready to be published. From his weekend studio in the Berkshires, he has produced a suite of sardonic anti-war themed prints and canvases and a series of 100 paintings of masked Mexican Lucha Libre wrestlers.

His existential raison d’etre is to transcend the commonplace and experiment with new methods through various media. While his graphic conjuring routinely veers from the expected, what he makes invariably derives from his special toolbox of mannerisms and tropes. As Chwast explains it: “I make things executed in traditional ways using pen and ink, marker, linocut, pencil, acrylics, collage, silk-screen, and now digital color. My work is a seamless fusion of illustration and design. I’ve lived through a profusion of historical influences. For me, life and work being inseparable.”