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Lions Roar : March 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MArcH 2009 87 and greater per- son—when you lose all those reference points, including your ambition, the strangest thing takes place.... it’s as if you were suspended in outer space without a space suit or rocket ship. You are just floating and circulating around the planets for- ever and ever.... that experience of suspension is the canvas or the blackboard where you paint your pictures, your sym- bolism. it is the basic ground. You can only begin from there. trungpa refers to this state as a “black hole of egolessness and no- discursive-thought.” it is surely no picnic getting there, but it is in this timeless, placeless state of non-thought that dharma art is born. which is why the title of renowned graphic artist Milton Gla- ser’s new book, Drawing is thinking, gave me pause. the book showcases two hundred and four of the artist’s favorite images culled from his fifty-year career. Glaser’s approach to making art matches trungpa’s description of those who “often start with art and discover dharma after that.” Glaser explains: what is most compelling to me about the act of drawing is that you become aware, or conscious of, what you’re looking at only through the mechanism of trying to draw it. when i look at something, i do not see it unless i make an internal decision to draw it. drawing it in a state of humility provides a way for truth to emerge. what truths emerge Glaser leaves to his viewers to divine. at first glance the images, done mostly with a rainbow/mango/ pomegranate palette, create a jazzy, lambent atmosphere. at sec- ond glance, they address aesthetic challenges but few wider is- sues; they create delight in content, form, and color but trigger— at least in this reviewer—no epiphanies. Judith thurman’s intro- duction encourages us to see that art in general, and Glaser’s art in particular, unsettles expectations and confronts us with fresh mysteries, and so renews our wild edge. but the edges Glaser uses and renews in viewers soothe rather than excite. Most of Glaser’s images first appeared as commercial designs. to make his book more than an album of personal favorites, Glaser stripped his images of typography—often a key design element in his work—which frees him to sequence the pictures any way he likes. He opts for evocative ambiguity, arranging the mute designs, he ex- plains, in semi-narrative, quasi-abstract, somewhat musical terms. Glaser acknowledges that the commercial origins of this work could be an issue: “because i am well known, the audience would think, ‘oh, the old geezer is trying to show he is an artist.’ the history of my work and its context makes it impossible to look at it without those references.” the context is of course Madison avenue, where Glaser’s suc- cess has been stunning. no commercial artist has inspired more clients, swayed more customers, moved more merchandise, or become a bigger graphics superstar than he. His pushpin stu- dio’s protean spate of logos and ad campaigns (“i (heart) new York” his hugest hit); posters for museums, restaurants, schools, operas, and concerts (bob dylan’s dark profile his best known); Cd and record covers; menus; annual reports; book jackets; cal- endars; and illustrations for Fortune, rolling Stone, and the New york times have helped redefine advertising design the world over. but for Glaser there seems to be a catch: You know, every time i speak to students, they always ask, “do you do any work for yourself?” the presumption beneath that question is that since one works to assignment, the work is not for oneself. My view is that all the work i’ve done is for myself, and it also involves accommodating either a personality (the client) or problem that has to be solved. such is the nature of the design profession. design may not be the oldest profession, but the uneasy ten- sions it has long sustained between creativity and commerce raise concerns about artistic integrity that cannot be easily dis- missed. Judith thurman moves to dismiss them in her introduc- tion, pointing out that “the boundary between ‘applied’ and ‘fine’ art is a bit specious...especially in the case of an artist like Glaser, who navigates the marketplace of our visual culture, but without compromising his ideals.” the elephant in the canoe, of course, is the fact that the com- mercial artist, whatever his skills at navigation or the condition of his ideals, must enter the client’s world, capture the essence of the product, and stay within the confines of the assignment while con- firming assumptions, accommodating trends, and fulfilling expec- tations. Glaser doesn’t simply meet these preconditions; he knocks one job after another out of the ballpark. what, i wonder, might his prowess achieve if he weren’t going to bat for Madison avenue? the recycled graphics in Drawing is thinking do not answer that question. Leafing through the book, i can’t shake the feeling that even after his pictures have been stripped of their commercial refer- ences and combined in somewhat narrative, slightly abstract, rather musical ways, they are still angling to activate not only my mind but also my credit card. is it possible to teach an old dog no tricks? Chögyam trungpa would weigh in with a nuanced, defini- tive yes. “the name artist is not a trademark,” he states. “the Perception is unable to trace back its existence to its origin. So each perception becomes sheer energy, without a beginner of the perception and without substance—just simple perception. — Chögyam Trungpa, in True Perception son—when you lose all those reference points, including your ambition, the strangest thing takes place.... it’s as if you were suspended in outer space without a space suit or rocket ship.