The Daily Heller: Zooming in on Istvan Banyai

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On Feb. 20, The New York Times published a detailed obituary of Istvan Banyai. It was well deserved. Those who knew and respected the iconoclastic editorial artist and bestselling children’s book author/illustrator were stunned to learn that he had passed in December. It was quietly revealed to a few friends in mid-January.

In 2013 I was asked to write an essay to coincide with his exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA; the first sentence was quoted in the Times‘ obituary. As a tribute to him, the essay appears below. In 2001 I also wrote a review of Minus Equals Plus (Abrams Books) for Eye magazine. This was Istvan’s first and only monograph. In retrospect I may have been too critical of the book, but my high expectations drove the writing. Istvan had a quirky eye, a cynical persona (born of his Iron Curtain upbringing) and sharp intellect that was best expressed through his pen-and-ink visions. His legacy will hopefully live on, but his unexpected end at 73 came much too early.

From the Norman Rockwell Museum exhibition, 2013:

Istvan Banyai is mad. Not angry nor despondent, but mad in the transcendent sense. He is perpetually in a state of creative lunacy that only a gifted artist can achieve—if lucky—and the rest of us try to achieve usually with little success. This madness is also a state of grace that enables this artist’s eye to see what the average person cannot, and allows him the ability to record what the non-artist is incapable of articulating.

Banyai is possessed by many inspirations, what he calls “an organic combination of turn-of-the-century Viennese Retro, interjected with American pop, some European absurdity added for flavor, served on a cartoon-style color palette.” And he inspires other artists through the translation of these disparate influences into a personal visual language manifested through exquisite illustrations that are vessels for complex narratives aimed at adults and children. His signature sinuous linearity is at once beguiling and hypnotic, lulling his viewers into a moment of wonderment, while inviting them to take part in his madness(es).

He understands and nurtures every aspect of his artistic behavior. Banyai has written, “I draw, and map my mind as I go along.” Yet rather than draw from the observed world, he trusts his fertile imagination to frame an internal world, refusing to inject what he calls “social realism” to his work. Perhaps this is a remnant of his early life in Hungary (born in Budapest in 1949) following the failed “uprising” in 1956, when after tightly shutting the Iron Curtain, the Soviet occupiers sucked the life out of the nation’s creative arts, replacing it with dreary Communist visual propaganda. For some, art was forever neutralized, for others, like Banyai, it became an opportunity to rebel against convention and revel in countless alternatives.

Rather than follow other artists’ leads (or censors’ decrees), Banyai asserts, “I can only see what makes sense to me. If I am lucky to have that, immediately a picture comes to mind. Now I just have to draw it.” If his mind and body are in sync, as they usually are, he will conjure an image that, he says, gets as close to that imaginary thing as possible. “It is all imitation, a semiotic game … [that] also works as therapy—and keeps me out of jail!”

I recall when Banyai made a trial visit to New York with his hefty portfolio in hand; he was testing the waters. It was vividly clear that he had an overpowering desire to live and work here like many other very talented artists washed ashore during a period of Eastern European emigration, when travel restrictions between Soviet countries were relaxed. What began with a few visually eloquent illustrators from Romania, Czechoslovakia and Poland, grew to include almost every Soviet Bloc country, including Hungary. The New York Times was like Ellis Island for these artists. Through its revolving doors on W. 43rd Street, literally one or two dazed Eastern European illustrators arrived each day and would present their wares. Because so many were well-trained in the art of symbolic subterfuge, they were perfect for the intellectual needs of the Times‘ OpEd page, Week in Review and other sections that used “conceptual illustration” and “graphic commentary”—illustrations of ideas that, as Banyai says, were part of a semiotic game.

Banyai’s work, however, stood apart from many of the earlier émigré arrivals. His mastery of line, ease of distortion and confidence with composition were expected, but his capacity to express himself in a visual language that was at once mysterious and accessible was a key asset. Additionally, but not inconsequentially, his work defied what some editors at the Times lamented was “lugubrious,” dark, morose, at times off-putting. Banyai may evoke the same kinds of cautionary messages as the lugubrious ones—protesting war, political intrigue, economic decline, et cetera—but did so in a cooler, minimalist, indeed more friendly manner. Or has Seymour Chwast, co-founder of the legendary Push Pin Studios told me, “Istvan’s work has a unique quality … a combination of solid drawing, engaging concepts and a joyous spontaneity.”

What’s more, he was not reliant on the frequent surreal cliches that became indicative of the OpEd style. He did not need such visual crutches because, as Chwast says, “Istvan knows how to create an illusion of space, painlessly and at any angle imaginable.” Meaning the man could draw rings around others.

Banyai was soon in great demand, employed by the dozens of editorial outlets (that have since dwindled to a mere few), notably The New Yorker and New York Magazine, The Atlantic and ultimately regular features in The New York Times. He also found work in advertising, but the most game-changing moment in his professional life was the first of his Zoom (1995), and later ReZoom (1998), children’s books and the subsequent short films made for Nickelodeon and MTV.

Because Zoom allowed him to tell a fully constructed story, it went beyond the limitations of his one-off editorial genre. Moreover, it revealed the mischievous side that has come to define Banyai’s work. Taking a page out of the Charles and Ray Eames classic film The Power of TenZoom gave his child audience and their parents a new way to see how their small universes interconnected with the larger universe. The drawings were more “social realism” than others before and after, but done in such a way as to engage the younger eye without excessive mystery. Once they bought into the Zoom concept, they were hooked on what would come next. Sprinkled through the first and second volumes and also the optically delusional REM, Rapid Eye Movement (1998), which celebrates mysteries of sleep, are visual puns and graphic witticisms that are distinctly Banyai. “I don’t know if the Zoom books and The Other Side are his best works,” adds Chwast. “But I wish I had done them, and if I had I would have been exceedingly happy and proud.”

Over the years, Banyai’s work has become a staple of American illustration. His line, which was always assertive, has become even more fluid and expressive—a pleasure to behold and imagine how he does it so effortlessly. Banyai has added to his skills but retains the subversive wit—and madness—that continue to define him.