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The Fine Art of Resilience: Lessons from Stanley Meltzoff

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How should artists respond originally to changing technology and fashion?

Can entrepreneurs learn from artists? I have suggested in THE AMERICAN that Arthur Fellig, the photographer known as Weegee, is an inspiring example of creative response to the economic hardship of the Depression era, rising from unknown technician to author of one of the best-selling photography books of all time. Now an exhibition at the Society of Illustrators in New York sheds light on a master of the following generation—the painter and art historian Stanley Meltzoff (1917-2006)—and on artists’ challenge to respond originally to changing technology and fashion.

The golden age of illustration into which Meltzoff was born extended from the 1880s through the 1930s. Advertising-supported magazines, lavishly illustrated children’s books, gorgeous calendars, pulp magazines, and other ephemeral genres made artists like Howard Pyle, N. C. Wyeth, Joseph C. Leyendecker (father of the Arrow Shirt Man), and, of course, Norman Rockwell superstars of print design.

Despite the rise of competing media, magazine illustration enjoyed an Indian summer in the 1950s, and Meltzoff was part of it. He was not only talented but—in contrast with Weegee—a fortunate young man. His father was a prominent New York cantor who, before emigrating, had sung in a choir that performed before the tsar of Russia. As a war correspondent and artist for Stars and Stripes, Stanley documented the rescue of Italian masterpieces, many of which he saw in storage.

After the war, Meltzoff had an enviable life. He had earned a graduate degree in art history and was teaching at the Pratt Institute, but he was also an enthusiastic ocean fisherman and one of the first Americans to learn the new sport of scuba diving. Meltzoff was lucky in love, too. His first wife, Alice, was a Ford model; they met in 1948 when the agency sent her to pose for an article on the all-American girl, for which she was perfectly cast. They were engaged within days, according to Mike Rivkin, author of Stanley Meltzoff, Picture Maker, and an admirer and scholar who bought the Meltzoff archives and copyrights from the artist’s family.

meltzoff striper 26

Striper 26, Striper at Anchor, Chesapeake Bay © 2012 Silverfish Press

Yet change was creeping up on Meltzoff. Kodak and other manufacturers had overcome flaws in earlier color photography, and new web presses made high-quality photo reproductions faster than ever. Art directors of major magazines liked the lower costs, faster turnaround, and new look. In addition, television’s competition for advertising dollars was starting to hurt remaining outlets for illustration; Collier’s, with a circulation of over 2.8 million in 1946, was out of business only 11 years later.

Like other artists, he saw a new environment as a chance to create a new genre or specialty.

These shifting tastes were a blow to Meltzoff, who expressed his feelings in an expressionist composition called “Anxiety.” It features a hooded man squirming in a chair, and was probably not for publication. But Meltzoff’s creative response to the crisis had a positive side, too. Like other artists, he saw a new environment as a chance to create a new genre or specialty.

For Meltzoff, his natural specialty was his lifetime pursuit of game fishing. Underwater photography could not capture scenes of marine life as a diver’s eye saw them or a painter’s hand could draw them, especially the shimmering brilliance of blue water. Working from photos and his memory, Meltzoff could paint fish almost as if he were one of them; as a diver and spear fisherman, he had a sense of being a predator among predators—and sometimes prey among prey. 

Meltzoff also had a lucky break. Richard Gangel, a veteran of other art positions at Time Incorporated, had recently been appointed art director of Sports Illustrated and had management’s support in giving the magazine a distinctive look, “not only tough and vigorous, but sensitive, and understanding of humans in athletic endeavors,” as he later recalled. Gangel recruited Meltzoff and other gifted illustrators like Bernie Fuchs, a specialist in automobile racing. Freed from the Norman Rockwell paradigm, these artists gave the old skills new life.

meltzoff self portrait

Self-Portrait © 2012 Silverfish Press

Meltzoff’s new career as an underwater fish painter flourished over four decades. As Meltzoff’s New York Times obituary noted in 2006, the marine art historian J. Russell Jinishian called him “the father and founder of the genre,” praising his ability to capture the brilliant colors of the sea and its inhabitants as only a loving explorer of its life could. Meltzoff had a formidable work ethic, supplementing hours of diving with observations of fish in his studio tank and in aquaria. (Perhaps recalling how a luxurious house and furnishings helped bankrupt Rembrandt, Meltzoff stayed put in still-unfashionable Fair Haven, on the Jersey Shore.) Not that Meltzoff limited himself to fish. He remained in demand for iconic commissions—including a witty condensation of American history that was reproduced 187 million times on local phone directories for the bicentennial year 1976.

What sustained Meltzoff and should inspire others coping with technological change was not just his talent but his youthful outlook and sense of humor.

What sustained Meltzoff and should inspire others coping with technological change was not just his talent but his youthful outlook and sense of humor. He was well aware that much of the fine art establishment looked down on illustrators, even after the former shoe-advertising specialist Andy Warhol appeared to have destroyed the hierarchy. Some of the most striking work in the exhibition pokes fun both at this attitude and at Meltzoff himself. For example, “The Huckster”—an early 1960s self-portrait as a pitchman with a pushcart filled with odds and ends—is itself an advertisement for the artist’s versatility. 

With renewed commercial success, Meltzoff also continued his career in art history. In 1988 he received the Eric Mitchell Prize for a first book by a promising scholar, awarded by a jury of eminent curators and museum directors, for Botticelli, Signorelli, and Savonarola: 'Theologica Poetica' and Painting from Boccaccio and Poliziano. (He was 71 at the time.) The New York Times article about the prizes identified him only as “a deep sea diver,” and that was accurate if incomplete. His love of fish, fishing, and the oceans informed his whole career, and even when middle-aged and a bit out of shape, he drew a self-portrait as a spear fisherman, a kind of King Neptune. Later in life, he turned from fishing to observation; he was a founder of the Littoral Society, a leading marine conservation group.

meltzoff huckster

The Huckster © 2012 Silverfish Press

Meltzoff could have become a full-time art historian—he was respected by eminent figures like his friend Ernst Gombrich—yet he reached millions more people as a studio artist than he ever would have as a scholar. Magazines were not ideal patrons for someone who took historical and scientific authenticity so seriously; Life magazine once ran an unrelated yellow teaser headline over a magnificent Meltzoff cover painting of ancient Greek warriors. But in the end, one of the 20th century’s most gifted and versatile artists has been vindicated. In today’s arts, too, the best remedy for anxiety may be to embrace one’s inner huckster.

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity, a visiting scholar in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, and an affiliate of the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

FURTHER READING: Tenner also writes "The Naked and the Dead: Weegee’s Lessons for Today," "Facebook and the Importance of Being Unimportant," "Markets, Risk, and Fashion: The Hindenburg’s Smoking Lounge," and "Titanic and the 1%." John Steele Gordon contributes “Snapshot of a Creative Destruction.” Nick Schulz describes “The Four Players Driving Innovation.

 

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