It’s hard to think of a body of work by a living Anglo-American designer quite like Milton Glaser’s. Drawing has always been the absolute foundation of what he does, so much so that a Glaser design without any drawing doesn’t quite feel like a Glaser. He has never regarded himself as an illustrator, though he has created many illustrations, and the position of control he occupies on projects, as the principal of his own design firm, is certainly that of designer. Glaser’s total command of type and image-making might seem to align him with the old tradition of the commercial artist, someone responsible in his handiwork for every square centimetre of the design. Yet there is another dimension of Glaser’s output to be evaluated and, for me, it’s the aspect that has always been the most intriguing: the degree to which he is really an artist trapped – or at least voluntarily confined – in a designer’s body.
It hasn’t always been easy to see this because there is a tendency to view any image produced to fit a design scheme and communicate a message as an illustration, no matter how brilliantly it is done. For his part, Glaser insists that it’s possible to have it both ways: to execute work for your client that is also undertaken for yourself. Something must have rankled, though, at least a little, because in his latest book, Drawing is Thinking, Glaser strips away the headlines, logos and text panels that compose his designs and presents his images in the raw, to be studied simply as drawings. Consider, for instance, his 1988 poster for a concert celebrating the music of Louis Armstrong at Carnegie Hall. The top half of Glaser’s portrait of Armstrong in coloured pencil is fenced off by six lines of angular sans serif capitals and you glimpse the image through the copy – the bottom line cuts across one of the jazz singer’s eyes. Liberated from this mesh of type, the drawing is free to be examined as a likeness, as an insight into a man and musician, and as a granular image on a textured surface.
Glaser is understandably wary about making grand claims for his drawings. “I am not so presumptuous to assume that my drawings are art. I have no idea whether they are or not,” he tells his friend and publisher Peter Mayer, who also interviewed him for his previous books, Graphic Design (1973) and Art is Work (2000). Glaser’s ambitions here rest on the sequencing of the drawings into what he calls a kind of ‘musical experience’. This melodic flow of images is not a narrative in any explicit sense, though Glaser makes comparison with comic books and film. Instead, he links the drawings by congruence of subject, shape, composition and colour, or by visual contrasts, such as tight hatching against loose, flowing lines. He hopes the sequence will stimulate the viewer’s unconscious to invent narratives, and the more loaded pairings do imply connections: a frightened girl and an angry merchant; a vulnerable looking swimmer standing in the water and a raging, open-mouthed devil, which together bring to mind the image of Goya’s ferocious Saturn Devouring his Son.
Linked to this is Glaser’s commitment to drawing as the most effective means of becoming attentive – always a central purpose of art. Most of the time, he rightly observes, we operate on ‘cruise control’. Only when Glaser draws something does he see it fully and he believes that looking at drawing can help the viewer to become more attentive, too. This, again, seems inarguable. Glaser also hopes that the sequence will amount to more than the sum of its parts. “I get closer here to my attempt to create attentiveness than in any single work that I’ve done,” he says. However, being completely attentive still means paying attention to one drawing at a time and it’s not certain that the presence of other drawings in a multi-page sequence will make a viewer any more inclined to focus.
I enjoyed the book most as a record of some of Glaser’s favourite drawings undertaken from the early 1960s to the present. He has an exceptional facility and it’s not exaggerating to say he is the technical equal of Hockney. In the 1960s and 1970s, he favoured pen and ink; from around 1990 he preferred coloured pencil and crayon. He is equally fluent with litho- graphy, silkscreen and watercolour. In his sketchbooks, Glaser reveals again and again his gift for rapid annotation as he captures the essential elements of an outdoor scene or interior with the lightest flicks of his pen. His subjects range from people (especially musicians, artists and writers), land-scapes and flowers, to the occasional satyr playing a pipe. Picasso is the inspiration for these mythological figures, and there are a good number of studies after Giorgone, Leonardo and Glaser’s sainted Piero della Francesca. His women, however, tend to be characterless erotic ciphers and muses, rather than real people to match his sensitive portraits of the ageing Monet and a care-worn Camus.
It has to be said that this subject matter could seem old-fashioned to anyone whose idea of drawing is defined by the dysfunctional line work and jaundiced outlook of David Shrigley and other modern masters of the cack-handed scrawl. As Glaser would see it, this is merely to impose your style on the world without really studying what’s in front of you. His humanistic concerns are a long way from the introverted (if sometimes virtuosic) fantasies collected in 2005’s Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing. For a fairer comparison, see Elizabeth Peyton’s coloured-pencil portraits in the same book. Glaser draws better, but it’s Peyton who had the big show at the New Museum in New York last year. The difficulty, as always, is that work like Glaser’s falls somewhere between art and design and the jurisdiction of museums that deal with one field or the other. Yet his drawings are there. To understand his achievement we have only to look.