Islands of Visual Delight: James McMullan Enters The SVA Subway Series Hall of Fame
June 27, 2018
by Emma Drew
Last week, former SVA faculty member James McMullan, who taught various illustration classes for over 30 years, was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. This week, we're honoring his place in another pantheon of graphic arts greats: the SVA Subway Series Hall of Fame. As seen with McMullan's video below, the Hall of Fame series features some of the College's most revered designers and faculty members reflecting on the posters they have created for SVA over the years and giving insight into their work and processes.
The videos are an outgrowth of the iconic, ongoing subway poster series, initiated by founder Silas Rhodes in the mid-1950s, wherein three times a year practicing faculty members designed promotional posters for the school, to be displayed expressly in New York City's subway stations. Subway Series artists have included Paula Scher, Steven Heller, Stefan Sagmeister, among many others; in addition to McMullan, the Hall of Famers celebrated thus far have been SVA's acting chairman of the board, Milton Glaser, as well as former faculty George Tscherny and Ivan Chermayeff. Executive Vice President Anthony P. Rhodes has served as creative director for the subway posters since 2007.
McMullan joined the SVA faculty in 1969, after a few years at Glaser and Seymour Chwast's legendary Push Pin Studios and right as Glaser was founding New York; McMullan played a key role in establishing the new publication's graphic personality. Though he subsequently contributed to the covers and pages of Time, Rolling Stone, Vogue, Esquire and many other outlets, he is perhaps best known for theater posters, in particular, his work for Lincoln Center.
Ever fixated on the figure, how it can be captured, and what it can convey, McMullan's posters are built around life drawing and a keen interpretation of the text at hand. They feature bodies mid-movement or gesture and are emotionally vivid, colorful and moody. A dedicated teacher—McMullan has written for the Times about how to draw and developed "High-Focus Drawing" courses at SVA. His years spent teaching have directly impacted his work: in this case, guiding students to reconsider how the figure "strengthened my resolve to use the physical attitude of the body as the central premise of my theater posters," he said.
"I'm trying to find delight in my own work," McMullan emphasizes in his video interview. Prompted by such reflections in this latest clip, we talked to McMullan about his background, his distinct style, and what, in his contributions to the Subway Series, has been most key for him to communicate about the College and the notion of becoming an artist.
Can you tell me a little more about your influences as an illustrator and how they have been reflected in your work, whether for SVA, Lincoln Center, Push Pin or otherwise?
My childhood exposure to Chinese painting and my later enthusiasm for German expressionism gave me a fundamental love of immediacy in art and the conviction that the movement of the hand should not be hidden or disguised in the act of drawing and painting. I have never been interested in rendering forms carefully to achieve the illusion of space. If space occurs in my work, it is a result of drawing lines intersecting or overlapping in the way they do, rather than smooth forms reflecting light. The work of [longtime SVA Illustration faculty member] Robert Weaver has always been an inspiration to me in that regard.
What are the challenges or perks of these particular posters, destined for the subway and meant to represent some aspect of SVA?
Generally speaking, the SVA subway posters illuminate the creativity and sensibility of each of the individual artists who created the posters and dramatize the possibility that the school will help you to achieve your own way of speaking to the world. The posters work so well because they become islands of visual delight amidst all the other subway ads working in such an obvious way to persuade you to buy. The implicit message, in a way, is "look at how much fun this artist had making this picture; you can have a life full of the same kind of fun." I have always seen the commission to make an SVA poster as a particularly enjoyable and open-ended assignment. It was the closest aspect of my friendship with Silas Rhodes.
Last week you were inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. In light of this honor, are there any assignments or images that you continue to hold close, that have mainly stuck with you for one reason or another?
My illustration for Westinghouse Broadcasting representing the spirit of the city of Fort Wayne in 1966 is still an important image for me because in it I expressed my very personal, somewhat melancholy response to my time in the city and I got away with it. The autonomy I managed to grasp in that assignment showed me that it was possible to find a gut connection in many of the subjects I was offered as an illustrator throughout my career. I feel that way about my poster, particularly.
You mention in the video some of the practices and attitudes you hope to instill in your students—can you tell me a little more about how have your teaching and your own art-making interacted or affected one another?
There is only so much you can teach an aspiring young artist since a great deal of what will affect the work will happen as a result of life experiences. But I decided that I could possibly inspire in my students a love of drawing the human body by guiding them through both the logic and the psychology of what they are observing. The years I spent teaching drawing enriched my own drawing and my art to an enormous degree.
To learn more about SVA's subway posters and view additional Subway Series videos featuring poster creators including Chris Buzelli, Edel Rodriguez, and Louise Fili, click here.