LOVING YOUR WORK: Victoria C. Rowan on Milton Glaser

To be an adult is to have a primary relationship with your work–the activity that dominates our waking hours. This month, you’ll read stories detailing what we love most about this most intimate of relationships–in all its complexities.

When brainstorming for a series kick-off, I immediately thought of Milton Glaser, whose career is a dazzling portfolio of inspiring answers that counter such exasperation. In 1975 he created the “I ♥ NY” logo (1975), a supreme meme that’s still inspiring zillions of riffs well into the 21st century. Back in 2000, I had the pleasure of interviewing the multi-dimensional legend himself in his studio. At the time he was a spry  70, and he had just published his second hefty monograph to coincide with a touring exhibition. In 2006, he was also kind enough to participate in a panel I curated for the 92nd St. Y: “The Art of the Book: Milton Glaser, Chip Kidd, Dave Eggers & Michael Beirut” that turned out to be even more fascinating than I dared to hope. Given his track record–a New York Magazine Founder, in-demand creative director, fine artist, restaurant designer, School of Visual Arts Professor, recipient of the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2009–it doesn’t surprise me he’s now 84 and still working.  The original article I wrote BELOW ran in the January 2001 issue of ARTnews shorter than I submitted, so it’s fun to publish here for the first time the whole extended dance remix version from an old hard drive. Even if you have zero interest in becoming a graphic designer, Glaser’s annotated monographs are sure to get you thinking about visual communication and problem-solving in fresh ways. I refer to them myself often for inspiration infusions and my creativity retreat and coaching clients have also told me how much they appreciate the witty and sensual quality of his work and his experience-marinated insights.


Milton Glaser is a winning trickster. Ever quick to quip—“two clichés are better than one”–graphic designer Glaser continues to delight after nearly five decades with his dazzling visual gags and witty wordplay. Dismissing his work as too accessible to be taken seriously, would be a mistake. Just as Shakespeare’s jesters are actually the plays’ smiling savants, Glaser’s quirky and often irreverent creations resonate. (And yes, those are Glaser’s images on the covers of all those Signet Classic Shakespeare paperbacks.) At 71, Glaser has achieved emeritus status in his field, and the two current exhibitions he helped curate and the book he designed, Art is Work, chronicle the second phase of his prolix career. Essentially, these recent endeavors pick up where solo exhibitions in the ‘70s at the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Lincoln Center Gallery and Milton Glaser Graphic Design (Overlook, 1973) left off. Though Glaser enjoys an international reputation, he remains primarily identified with New York City. Bronx-born, Glaser founded New York Magazine, taught generations of students at The School of Visual Arts, and created the “I  NY” (1975) promotional campaign, credited with helping to turn around the then-bankrupt City’s fortunes. The AIGA exhibition features the greatest hits from Glaser’s voluminous repertoire. Outside the gallery at night, a slide show projects his work onto the City streetscape, perhaps a playful reminder that the street is where Glaser’s billboards and posters usually first appear. Inside the main gallery is a fun-house-sized 8-foot replica of the book Art is Work. Behind the mega-tome, the main gallery is wallpapered floor-to-ceiling with 80-odd posters. Among the most clever are those Glaser has done for the promotion of SVA. Every year he generates a different concept, be it “A Drawing Lesson” that uses a photograph of Matisse sketching to teach the onlooker how to compose a drawing. Or the multi-layered visual pun, “Art is…WHATEVER,” a SVA poster that simultaneously pokes fun at student slacker patois, urges the imagination to run wild, while also evoking a surreal image. Here a real-looking bowler hat casts a shadow of Magritte’s bowler-wearing everyman, the silhouette highlighting the word “hat” hidden within the word “whatever.” Also on display is a selection of three-dimensional objects Glaser has designed for the Italian housewares company Alessi, such as a wooden butcher block wickedly mounted on carved cattle hooves. Among the signature NYC spaces shown here are photographs of The Rainbow Room (1987) and Trattoria dell’Arte (1988) with all its art-world jokes. On each floor are jumbo versions of artist plaster casts used for anatomy studies, the second floor dinning room is a faux-sky-lit studio, and throughout are humorous riffs by other artists of notorious Italian noses. A former Fulbright scholar, Glaser says his concepts often start with words, (be they his own or a given text like Dante’s Purgatorio), the visuals following afterwards. In the intimate back-most room at AIGA, one can see the framed originals of these words made visible in the many mediums Glaser is fluent in: pen-and-ink, etching, pastel, colored pencil, and watercolors. Glaser has left his mark on the Philadelphia area too, having done work for Temple University, Sesame Place amusement park, and Franklin Mills. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s show is an honorary celebration of Glaser (recipient of the Museum’s COLLAB Design Excellence Award this year) and offers voyeuristic insight to Glaser’s creative process, specifically his posters. This exhibition is arranged along two walls of the narrow 125-foot-long Director’s Gallery. On one wall are a host of trigger influences—post-cards, prior projects, sketchbook doodles—and on the opposite wall, connected by a strand of red elastic, is the final poster. A postcard of Albrecht Dürer’s watercolor of a bird wing becomes the model for the mourning angel’s plummage in Glaser’s “Angels in America” poster (1993). For an Olivetti Valentine typewriter poster, Glaser appropriates a panel of the trompe l’oeil wooden inlaid paneling of the Duke of Urbino’s 15th century study (itself a period piece with a wink). Amidst the shelves overflowing with the desk-toy accoutrements of the day, is the marvelously inexplicable Zelig-like cameo of a wooden Valentine typewriter. Glaser resists the monniker “artist,” less out of modesty than out of self-righteous defiance. In Art is Work Glaser observes, “art currently seems to be mostly about money, and designers seem to be increasingly concerned about ethics, the environment, and their effect on the world.” Like Charles and Ray Eames, throughout his career, Glaser has chosen cultural clients with humanitarian visions compatible to his own passions, be they in the worlds of music, food, literature, art, decorative arts, education, or civic pride. And as Glaser’s backlog of financially successful projects attests, he is far from a fool; rather his brilliant synthetic thinking has taken on a Midas touch.


The title of this book is “Art is Work.” Do you ascribe any social, moral, or professional attributes to the word “work” when it is applied to design? Work is essential to people’s lives. To do work that is meaningful and excellent seems a fundamental desire of the best human beings. If we assume that art is a form of work, it becomes more related to our daily life. The disassociation of art from other human activities has impoverished our lives. When art is defined as an activity driven entirely by the needs of self-expression, I become very nervous. The overwhelming history of art, in fact, has been the history of people doing work for a specific purpose, in other words, commissioned works with specific intentions. After all, Michelangelo did not paint the “Last Judgment” to express himself. He painted it because the Pope wanted to scare the bejeesus out of the congregation. The idea that art is primarily an expressive medium is a recent invention not more than two hundred years old. This notion is supported by individuals like Vincent Van Gogh, who couldn’t work for anybody because he was so emotionally incapacitated; he as assumed heroic status as a result. One quickly realizes that Van Gogh is an aberration in the history of art. It is more instructive to look at another genius like Rubens, who organized painting workshops, executed innumerable commissions, and whose life was spent responding to other people’s needs. Art is not only a vehicle for self-expression or exclusively for the pursuit of the spiritual. From the very beginning, drawing an animal on the wall of a cave had a purpose—you would more easily be able to control the animal and this magic would help the tribe. In a most fundamental way work that was socially productive was very often combined with personal expressiveness to define the nature of art. If the word “fine” means to purify, when used to explain the difference between fine and applied art, one has to ask what is the impure in the latter. The lack of a spiritual intention seems to be the answer. However, we come across very few works created exclusively for a spiritual purpose. Throughout history, art has been purposeful and, almost without exception, has had a directive. You’ve been doing this for a long time, but you still like to draw, create, print, design, paste. I’m never happier than when I’m making things or thinking about making things. I have not lost the passion or the satisfaction of working. When I was doing the Dante monoprints last year, I would go to the studio at nine a.m. and before I knew it, it was twelve o’clock at night. I felt the same way when I was a student. It’s an experience I cannot imagine living without. For more mondo Milton:  • Milton Glasers’s monographs • Milton Glaser documentaryMilton Glaser in “The Art of the Book”  • Milton Glaser’s Ted TalkMilton Glaser’s website

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