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Illustration Man

Celebrating the Legacy of an Artist Who Brought the Intangible to the Page—and Taught Others How To Do It

A Julian Allen illustration of Ronald Reagan
"Nixon in the Diner"
"Looking for Hemingway"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/25/2006

Julian Allen: A Retrospective

At the Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators, New York, through Feb. 4

It’s all in the eyes. Sure, the jowl creases just below the rosy cheeks lead the eyes to a lipless grimace and wrinkled neck folds that mark a grim countenance. Yes, the close-cropped composition lends this tight head portrait a whiff of reportage, the face tilted at a slight angle as if caught off guard. In the eyes, though, comes a grounding rod of humanity that years of constant media coverage hardly captured. In these dark, moist eyes—heavily lidded, a faint drop on one cheek that could be tear or sweat—blooms the subtle, deft touch that illustration offers and which photography cannot always freeze in time. In this small, 1980s oil-painting illustration, former president Ronald Reagan’s aging, rugged Hollywood face looks weary and haggard, zeroing in on a human vulnerability—a word rarely, if ever, used in association with Reagan’s administration, but one which perpetually rewritable American history has grafted onto his eight years in the White House out of nostalgia.

It is one of the 80 and some odd Julian Allen pieces currently on view at New York’s Museum of American Illustration, where Allen’s work—some large, some about the size of a page, some political, some comical, dating from the early 1970s to the late ’90s—ably fills the Society of Illustrators’ East 63rd Street first-floor gallery space and represents but a fraction of his life’s work. Born in England, Allen came to America at the behest of Clay Felker and Milton Glaser to work at their nascent New York magazine in the early 1970s, and he stayed here until his 1998 death from non-Hogdkin’s lymphoma at the age of 55. Over the ensuing decades his piercing, acute work appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone, Time, Vanity Fair, Details, and countless other magazines and publications, and the 1994 series of U.S. postage stamps commemorating blues artists. He also taught almost continually during this time before deciding, in 1997, he wanted to shift from the constant deadline-driven world of freelance illustration to become the full-time Illustration chair of the Maryland Institute College of Art, which developed this retrospective show in conjunction with Allen’s widow, Victoria. And though Allen was only able to spend a little more than a year at MICA, he restructured the Illustration curriculum into the model that it continues to thrive under today.

“He was just ready to try something different,” Victoria Allen says over the phone from her home in New York, about her late husband’s brief tenure at MICA. Spry and cordial, Allen’s excitement about this retrospective is palpable even over the line. She notes that it took her a few years to get her own life in order after Allen’s passing, but when she was ready to start planning a retrospective exhibition, MICA warmly welcomed the opportunity to be a part of it.

“He had been teaching since he left college, actually,” she continues, citing Allen’s long teaching positions at the Parsons School of Design and in Steven Heller’s graduate program at the School of Visual Arts. “I think what he was wanting to do was shift the focus from being a constantly living-to-the-deadline freelancer. And that’s how the Maryland Institute came about. Julian had mentioned to a couple of people that he was thinking about getting a job at a college. And [SVA illustration chair] Marshall Arisman had heard about [the MICA opening], and Marshall told Julian, ‘I hear about a lot of these kinds of jobs, but this one is really different. This one is special.’ And after our first visit, it was really a love affair. We loved them, they loved us. And it was very sad that it all ended as soon as it did.”

“We intersected very well with a need that he had in his career, I think,” current MICA Illustration Chair Whitney Sherman says over lunch on a chilly early January day. Sherman recalls responding to Allen’s New York illustrations in the 1970s, his work a long-distance mentoring example in her self-education. And Allen brought to MICA’s then-marginalized Illustration program a curriculum upgrade. “He had a very clear idea what it would take to become an illustrator, the kind of practice that a student might need in drawing,” Sherman says. “He really believed that drawing was the core of everything. And it was the right fit for MICA as an institute.”

Illustration can be easily overlooked—both as just one of many subsets of commercial art but also on the pages of the magazines, books, web pages, and newspapers on which illustrations appear. It’s a practice that really started to blossom in conjunction with mass-produced books and periodicals and the rise of an educated public, enjoying a so-called golden age during the 1880s to 1920s. Since then, thanks to dramatic changes in media technology and the rise in photography’s presumed emergence as visual language of reality, illustration has shifted as much as the art world, only on a much quicker pace and in the constant light of mass-produced exposure.

Allen’s experience shaped an educational model that knew illustration was a commercial art, one that needed to integrate professionalism with artistry. Allen “recognized that professional development was really important,” Sherman says. “So we needed to bring in a class where students learned about contracts and all the things that are practical business practices. He expanded out the junior year here to add a core class where concept-making was what was focused on. And that’s the way the department is still set up: The beginning part is about media, the center part is about idea-making, and the end part is about professional networking. And, obviously, practice runs through the entire experience.”

Allen’s own arresting work is testament to his teaching acumen. His work—often brightly colored, photographically informed yet emotionally richer, unmistakably stylized but not at the cost of the emotional reality of a situation—possesses an elusive gravity that you can’t always appreciate about illustrations at first. Just as journalists can be said to write the first draft of history, illustrators often have to capture the first blink of memory, of handling events and people as they might be remembered and not just how they’re considered at the time. And much of Allen’s work—especially his political work, such as the New York Watergate series or the devastating illustration of Clark Todd, the Canadian journalist murdered in Lebanon in 1983—present psychological insights into moments that photography sometimes can’t, anticipating how we might feel about these events over time.

Allen’s narrative sense is what continues to impress his colleagues and friends. “He had a way of telling a story, I think, that was unmatched,” Sherman says. “Julian’s work had more of that feeling of a journalist, like somebody out in the field. It had a real immediacy to it—even though it was all done through photographic research, it had the feeling of being there right then.

“It was dramatic. It was theatrical. When you go the theater, it’s a stage. You know that—you look at the set and you know that the bricks are just theatrical marks. But if the actress can activate that set, you start to believe that you’re there. Julian did that with his illustrations—he activated a time, place, and emotion. And that wasn’t being done anywhere else.”

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