The Weekend Heller: Drawing Milton
(Editor's note: In remembrance of Milton Glaser we republish this homage from two years ago.)
You almost have to wonder whether Stephen Alcorn, a painter, illustrator, printmaker and associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, is stalking Milton Glaser. Rather he’s an artist, like many before him, with an obsession. His father, John Alcorn, was a member of Push Pin Studios, and Stephen grew up influenced by their collective ethos and Glaser in particular. His “MILTON GLASER, IL DUCA DI NEW YORK: A Series of Portrait Tributes” is a tour de force of drawing craft and skill. I have watched as these images developed and asked Alcorn to discuss the series and its meaning to him.
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS MILTON The genesis of my ongoing series of tributes to Milton Glaser may be traced to my earliest childhood memories of two of his seminal works, namely the picture book he illustrated titled Cats and Bats and Things With Wings—a book that showcases a deliberately eclectic range of styles—and the fabled poster he created for Dylan’s greatest hits compilation. The poster loomed large over my bed (both literally and figuratively), while the book occupied a place of honor on my bookshelf. Both artifacts, although weathered, have survived the passage of time, and continue, to this day, to loom large in my imagination. The series is also an outgrowth of my lifelong interest in portraiture, which first began to blossom during my formative years in Florence, Italy, a city in which the ghosts of previous epochs loom equally large.
A SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM My formative years at the Istituto Statale d’Arte left an indelible impression upon me and infused my visual art with a passion for bold technical experimentation in a wide range of mediums. In addition to fostering an appreciation for craftsmanship in general, and in particular for drawing, I learned to value the past and thus see time as a continuum in which past present and future inform one another. Emblematic of this awareness is my earliest cycle of portraits, Ritratti degli Artisti più Celebri. Comprised of a series of relief-block prints celebrating European artists ranging from Cimabue to Picasso, the Ritratti degli Artisti più Celebri cycle reflects my fascination with the history of art. Although the timeless beauty of the Quattrocento Fiorentino, and the mythology it spawned, spoke vividly to my imagination, I realized early on, thanks in great part to my early childhood exposure to the Push Pin phenomenon, that an appreciation for antiquity need not prevent an appreciation for all things modern. The series also signals my penchant for hero-worship—an inclination that persists to this day.
DRAWING INSPIRATION FROM THE WELLSPRING OF HISTORY Celebrations of seminal figures from distant, bygone eras soon led to commissions from two notable publishers, Random House and Mondadori Editore, to create illustrative dust covers and frontispieces for the Modern Library and Grandi del Novecento series of literary classics. The literary aspect of my work would expand to include the life and times of 19th-century American heroes Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. These projects, in turn, led to a longstanding exploration of the African American experience, including, but not limited to, the advent of the Harlem Renaissance and, most notably, the life and times of Langston Hughes. All these cycles have involved, to a great extent, the creation of iconic portraits.
A CONFLUENCE ON ANTIQUITY & MODERNITY As I matured as an artist, my sources of inspiration became increasingly less remote in time. An example of this shift in my work is the series of relief-block portraits titled Modern Music Masters, a series through which I sought to pay homage to modern popular musicians who bridged the gaps between tradition and innovation, craft and genius, entertainment and art, music and poetry, composition and improvisation, black and white, east and west, and war and peace. What resulted was a series of modern pop music. It is against this popular-culture backdrop, or soundtrack, if you will, that in the Spring of 2012 I first endeavored to create a series of portraits of the visual artists that have had a seminal influence on my life, beginning with the early members of Push Pin Studios. One could say that my ongoing series of portraits of Milton, Seymour Chwast, Edward Sorel, Reynold Ruffins and my father, John Alcorn (1935–1992), constitutes an extension of my Modern Music Masters—that it, too, is an expression of gratitude for having come of age under the wondrous spell of the ’60s gestalt.
PROCESS In an effort to familiarize myself with Milton’s features, I began the series by working in a highly descriptive vein, employing an attention to detail worthy of 19th-century realist drawing and painting (as opposed to the markedly graphic sensibility characteristic of my printmaking). From the start my goal was to accord my subject a certain gravitas: a nod, if you will, both to his “Old Master” status in the annals of graphic design and to the larger pantheon of the history of art, to which Milton belongs. These more descriptive studies also serve to provide the foundation upon which to build a series of successive, increasingly inventive and overtly stylized images without forsaking the requisite likeness. By employing a wide range of styles and techniques, I aim to reflect the wide range of drawing idioms and styles developed by Milton over the years, and the versatility his work has come to represent. Since I consider this series to be a work-in-progress, I am looking forward to further exploring and developing it.
PORTRAITURE AS PEDAGOGICAL TOOL This series reflects the nature of the formal and technical challenges I embrace, both as an instructor and as a practicing artist. In The Face, a course in portraiture I have developed at Virginia Commonwealth University, a significant part of the coursework involves the exploration and study of the art of drawing as language, and by extension, the art of translation. Students are challenged to interpret a subject in a variety of formal idioms: chiaroscuro, modulated tone, modulated line, pure line, continuous line, etc. These modes of representation are then applied to exercises revolving around the precepts of two-dimensional design, followed by forays into the realms of symbolism, surrealism and magic realism. In many ways, the trajectory of the course echoes that of mid-19th century to mid-20th century art, a period that clearly resonated with Milton—hence the rich array of hybrid styles he has invented and continues to develop to this day.
WEAVING A FABRIC OF LIFE As a Fulbright scholar, Milton had the privilege of studying with the Italian master painter and printmaker Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964). Italian culture is syncretic, a crossroads for multiple civilizations. Coming of age as an artist straddling two cultures—one ancient, one modern—and being bilingual, Milton understood that the world is heterogeneous not homogeneous. The absence of segregation in his multifaceted work is a reflection of the very cultural diversity he has thrived on and sought to celebrate. Unlike so many aspiring and contemporary designers and illustrators whose cultural and art historical references do not predate the advent of Star Wars, Milton continues to embrace history in all its infinite complexity and variety. His work is at once modern and timeless, sophisticated and primordial—in short, his work lends itself to being appreciated on multiple levels. Milton thoroughly knows his sources and appears to have always recognized and understood that tradition is not nostalgia but knowledge passed from one generation to another. I am grateful for this example, for it permitted me to see my personal artistic development as a microcosm of the larger history of art, and thus to belong to a larger whole. Or, in Milton’s words, to be “a part of our extended history.” (See The Push Pin Graphic dedication page.)
Milton’s work remains artisanal at heart. And perhaps therein lies the secret to its enduring warmth and charm. His love of artists’ materials, his steadfast dedication to the art of drawing and his appreciation for all things tactile, has ensured an indelible connection between eye, mind and hand. Ultimately, it is the contrast between the inherent warmth of Milton’s organic approach to mark-making and the perhaps inevitable coolness of today’s emerging technologies that makes the study of his legacy by today’s aspiring designers and illustrators so vital.
A NOTE ON TECHNIQUES EMPLOYED The original works measure 14 in. x 18.5 in. and employ a variety of media and techniques ranging from pen and ink to a host of experimental combinations of watercolor, colored pencil, pastel and tempera applied to a variety of tinted grounds.