Entrevista a Milton Glaser

by Brad HollandMarch 15, 2002

As one of the founders of Pushpin Studios in 1954, Milton Glaser helped revive illustration in the 1960’s when photography was thought to have swept the field. After studying at the High School of Music & Art, then Cooper Union in New York, Glaser studied etching in Bologna with the painter Giorgio Morandi. In a speech in 1998, he cited two opposites–Morandi and Picasso as his “artistic models.” Artists who are driven by opposing passions often come to grief. But those who succeed in harnessing them often give off light. More often celebrated for his design, Milton’s drawings have become increasingly personal and spiritual. The integrity he brings to his work has made him a touchstone for many artists, including me.

Brad Holland: You’ve previously mentioned Morandi and Picasso as your two models. I think anyone could understand Picasso’s influence on you. His work is so protean, as your’s is. But the influence of Morandi is less obvious. What does he mean to you?

Milton Glaser: For me, Picasso and Morandi represent the full range of human artistic possibilities. Morandi was parochial and narrow. He went to Paris once, didn’t like it, and never went again. He lived modestly. He was an academic beaurocrat. He taught at the academy three times a week. He never married. He didn't seem to be interested in money, fame, or women. He painted about three portraits of people. The rest are landscapes. They’re not familiar, but they’re the same kind of painting as his still lifes. He would make the slightest change. Move a passage of gray a quarter of an inch. If you wanted to buy a painting from him, he would write your name and address on the back; then, years later, after he had finished the painting, he’d send it to you. He was selling paintings then for $200.

Picasso, on the other hand, was the most egocentric, narcissistic man in human history. For him, there was no world except Picasso. People were just instruments to be used, like subjects of a painting. He wanted all the money, all the fame, all the accomplishment. He sucked all the air out a room. I can’t image two more opposite manifestations of human potential, and I think I am equally affected by both. Morandi’s dedication, his simplicity, his desire for nothing except the work, his modesty. And this raging lunatic who wanted to devour the world.

BH: You studied with Morandi. Do you believe you’d have been as influenced by his work if you hadn’t met him?

MG: I knew his etchings before I went to study with him. He taught hard ground etching, where you have to draw with a needle and make a very precise line. There is no tint or anything else to confuse the issue. Either you draw it right or you go elsewhere. But I became more interested in what he did, as I became more acquainted with his drawings, which are very different than the etching, and then of course the paintings.

BH: Morandi’s work is so ascetic. It lacks all of the things you normally use to make a picture interesting. There something almost monastic about that kind of renunciation.

MG: He had that quality in his personality as well as his work. He was very austere, very reserved, very proper in every way. Very sweet. You couldn’t imagine him getting excited. He was well composed with a profound innocent decency.

When I say that I’m kind of between Picasso and Morandi, the thing that I love about Morandi is his clarity of vision. The fact that everything is so rational and unencumbered by emotionalism, although you have an emotional response to that. The paintings are small, undramatic, with no narrative. There’s no brilliant painting. So you have to ask the fundamental question of what makes a work of art meaningful. All the attributes you might use to dramatize your work are not there. So there’s a sense of modesty. But it becomes monumental and you can’t figure out why.

BH: There seems to be a similar ascetic quality to some of your recent pictures. The Flowers of Evil drawings and the monoprints for Purgatory. A lot of your stylistic flair has been sacrificed to directness.

MG: When you are in the field of illustration, you are always trying to persuade people to respond in a certain way. The work has to be assertive to establish its place. You have to make a strong statement in a short length of time. This is unlike painting, where you can look at a picture over a period of ten years and still find it unfolding. It’s like the difference between journalism and poetry. You require a different time interval to appreciate the difference.

BH: How did the Purgatory pictures come about? Were you commissioned to do a book?

MG: Yes. I have a gallery dealer in Italy, who gave me Purgatory to do. I thought it was a great opportunity to move towards a more complex work. I decided to do prints. I took a monotype course in Woodstock. In monotype, you can’t control the work. It depends on how much moisture there is in the air, how damp the paper is, the viscosity of the ink. So when you do a print, you don’t know what the results are going to be. For me, that was good. When you develop a lot of skill, you end up rendering an idea. That's different from letting the picture push you. So I was forced to accommodate the process of making the prints, and it pushed me elsewhere. I had to be more resourceful and react to what I was producing.

BH: Do you know Isiah Berlin’s essay, The Hedgehog & The Fox?

MG: I do. I quote it often.

BH: His theme is that everybody can be classified as either a fox or a hedgehog. A fox with many ideas. A hedgehog with one big idea. You’ve always seemed like a fox to me, with influences coming from everywhere. How much of a hedgehog are you?

MG: I’m interested in all the things that have happened in the visual world. And probably like yourself, my influences are more outside the profession than inside it. I never use the profession as a guide for what I aspire to. I’ve always believed that you could do everything. Not that this is necessarily desirable. If you're a fox, you don't want to act like a hedgehog and vice versa. There’s no ultimate value in doing many things or doing one thing. These seeming contradictions are really part of the same universe. People want to think of them as opposites, but they’re made of the same cloth.

BH: I’ve always thought that people who draw tend to be rational, and painters emotional. Of course, great artists tend to be both. And since opposites attract, a lot of the best artists seem to come from families where one parent was very rational and the other very emotional. Were your parents opposites?

MG: They were very different. It would be hard to characterize them. My mother was very courageous, a sort of outgoing woman who didn't care about the opinion of the world. My father was a modest, more conformist personality.

BH: We all grow up with parental influences and as we go out into the world, we look for bigger influences who will extend those parental ones. So in my experience, people who are always trying to harmonize opposites in their lives tend to come from homes where their parents were opposites.

MG: My mother was enormously supportive without qualification. She convinced me I could do anything. My father was more resistant. He represented the resistance of the world. My secret realization was that I could use my mother to overthrow my father. But I realized not long ago what I had not been willing to admit in my life, and that was a presence of my father in myself. It’s a complicated issue when your identification with your mother is so complete.

BH: When you started doing this, did you think of being a painter?

MG: When you start, you don’t know about the distinction. All you know is that you like to make things. I had already realized that a painter's life was not my life. I couldn’t imagine painting pictures, selling them in a gallery, and having people put them on a wall in their house. It didn’t make sense. I wanted to do something else. At first, it was comic strips. When I was in Music & Art High School, I realized there were other alternatives. When I got to Cooper Union, I was pretty well on my path to the applied arts. I liked the idea of being public and useful and solving problems. I like storytelling.

BH: How conscious were you of all this when you started Pushpin? Or was it a couple of guys sitting around in a bar saying, “Let’s rent space together?”

MG: I think it was that. We were all in school studying design. We wanted to continue the feeling of being in school. We had no idea what the consequence was. We had never worked professionally. I had worked in a package design studio between high school and college, but outside of that, we didn't know what a studio was or how you ran one. We started after I had come back from Italy in ‘53/’54, so I was very interested in the difference between Modernism and the history of the Renaissance and the Baroque. I realized there was another way of thinking about art and imagery. Also, I never felt part of the history of illustration. I felt no continuity with the Saturday Evening Post and the Westport School. That kind of illustration had lost it’s passion, it's ability to look fresh. We took advantage of a change that was going on with artists like Tom Allen and Robert Weaver.

BH: Yet you brought a unique sensibility to illustration. Your model was more Reubens running a studio than, say, Van Gogh. And that was at a time when Van Gogh and the whole melodrama of his life had become kind of a dysfunctional model for 20th century artists.

MG: Yes, and unfortunately it’s a very egocentric model. It says, Do your work and you will be convincing. They’ll change their opinion of you, love you, pay you a lot of money and make you famous. All you’ve got to do is stick to it. This a total delusion about what really happens in the world. Unfortunately, this idea of self-expression has infected the schools as well, telling students that all you have to do is reveal your talent and the world will kneel at your feet. It’s such a total, miserable lie. It’s perpetuated by frustrated painters who encourage the innocent to think it’s true so they have the strength to go on themselves. In fact, the opposite is true. It produces a generation of bitter people who can’t figure out why they can’t make a living. There is something fundamentally wrong with that expectation of talent in society. At Pushpin, all we were trying to do was make a living. We didn't know exactly what that meant. We started the studio. We looked for work. We got jobs. We inspired each other. Then, at a certain point, we realized we were doing something different.

BH: Ok. We’ve discussed Morandi. But what about Picasso? He was the poster-boy for self-expression. The original gangster with genius. Frankly, I always thought he was less original than Matisse, who in some ways he pursued as if he were Captain Ahab trying to catch Moby Dick.

MG: Well, it’s interesting what you say about Picasso. Picasso was constantly referring back to Matisse. He was considered Matisse’s great adversary, but he had tremendous admiration for Matisse. When Matisse died, he said, “Now I will have to paint for both of us.” What I like about Picasso–and you could say this about Matisse as well–was his willingness to take chances. He abandoned one thing after another: Surrealism, Synthetic Cubism, whatever. He was always willing to give it up. Artistic courage is usually over emphasized. But it’s the ability to leave something behind and try something else when you don’t know where you’re going. I think that’s admirable and I love that quality in Picasso. You never lose the fear that you're going to f__k up and your whole reputation will be ruined, but he was fearless about what he did. There have been very few figures like that in history, willing to abandon their success in favor of possibility.

BH: Did you ever think that you’d get out of commercial art and do something else?

MG: No, I had no other ambitions. But I never thought there was a distinction between being a painter or an applied artist. Admittedly, you often have to deal with criteria that make it hard to create work of emotional or aesthetic significance. But once in a while, you do a book jacket, an album cover, an illustration that isn’t compromised by having to do it for a purpose or for a client. Some people use commercial considerations as an excuse not to do extraordinary work. They say “well, we’re not really free.” But as you know, that’s rarely true. Meaningful work presses through regardless of the constraints. In fact, for many people, constraints make good work possible. I’ve never believed I was being compromised as an applied artist.

BH: Were you influenced by figures like William Morris?

MG: Yes. I was very influenced by him and the Arts & Crafts movement and by other social movements that linked aesthetics and society through the idea that a well-made object produces good effects. I’ve always believed that if you do something well, it will have meaning. In recent years, I’ve been interested in African sculpture. There, the intent is totally unrelated to what we call art. It’s the desire to produce an effect, to change people. Who cares about whether its art or not. Even though the intent of a vase is to hold water, somebody says, “look at that again; it’s art.” Ultimately, it’s the work you do. Do it at the highest level and let other people worry about whether its art or not.

BH: I had mentioned earlier that I tend to think of people who draw as logical and rational. Your work is basically drawing.

MG: Yes. I’m a graphic artist in that sense. In recent years, I’ve moved from pen and ink and water color to crayons and softer materials. I think that’s moved me away from the linear a little, but I still think in terms of form and edges rather than in tonality. I guess that’s the difference: Painters see tonality. My strength has always been in shapes: Forms, edges and line.

BH: Those Wizard drawings you’ve done of Clarence Barron for Barron’s magazine seem to embody the essence of your style. They’re similar to the linear style I first saw of yours in the ‘60’s, but the style is cleaner now. It describes more with less.

MG: I must say, I like those drawings. My early drawings in that style were not as good. They were more decorative. More about pattern than drawing. I was learning on the job. These are much better. I’m more sure of the form.

BH: They distill all the elements of your past work.

MG: I think the work has become clearer as I’ve become older. It wasn’t so much the intent to distill things as it was to make things clearer. Stuff drops away.

BH: They’re like your pictures for the Flowers of Evil, where you seem to have renounced style. Yet, in the Purgatory prints, it seems as if you had renounced everything but style. There are no descriptive elements, but they encompass a whole range of emotion.

MG: It is interesting that you say that. There were two things that were happening. One was that they weren’t drawn. They were cut out. So, whatever facility I have at drawing had to be transformed into physically cutting something out, and I cut as well as an average person. Then there’s the fact that the work itself was not predictable or controllable. I had to respond to whatever was occurring and get out of the way. I guess, to some degree, it’s a way of avoiding premeditated style because the work comes from yielding to the circumstances. That is a very different idea than imposing your will on your work. The best drawings come when you look at something with reverence and yield to its uniquenes.

BH: It’s this renunciation of control by someone who has spent his entire career in control that’s interested me. That’s why I began by asking you about Morandi. We live in a terribly prosaic age, and most poetry has become self-conscious and cliché and melodramatized. But there’s poetry in your work and that’s necessarily what you’d expect to find in a business-minded designer.

MG: It’s certainly an aspiration. Work is not simply functional. Whatever it is that makes art worth looking at doesn’t come out of your intention, but from what you are.

Copyright Milton Glaser and Brad Holland. Reprinted with generous permission of Brad Holland, Milton Glaser and Step inside design magazine where it originally appeared.


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