Noah's Archive: Remembering Henry Wolf

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice

An old friend called with a curious request. “I’d like you to deliver the eulogy at my funeral.”
“What funeral? You’re not dying.”
“Not yet. But someday I will be. Will you do it?”
“Only if I outlive you,” I said.
“I knew you’d attach a condition to it,” he said.

I have a heightened sensitivity to eulogies, having reached an age when I find myself going to services for friends more often than to the theater or movies. When the photographer and art director Henry Wolf died last February, he was movingly remembered by close personal and professional friends: designers Milton Glaser, Ivan Chermayeff and Niels Diffrient; film director Robert Benton; and photographer Guenter Knop. Each of them spoke with affection, humor and clarity. Admiring the eulogies for their fluency seemed as tacky as counting the house, and I felt guilty for even noticing how good they were, until I thought of how much Henry himself would have admired them. We all come out in favor of quality, but for Henry it was the irreducible minimum required for every undertaking and he deplored what he saw as its erosion in design and culture.

He would have taken particular pleasure in the humor of his eulogists. Perhaps because graphic design requires that ideas be compressed, wit and humor are indispensable tools of the trade. The most compelling designs are frequently puns that play on images instead of words, visual counterparts to one-liners bundled with complex statements. Graphic designers need a sense of humor, but everyone needs to claim one. As Mark Twain said, “a sense of humor is the one thing that absolutely no one will admit to not having.” That is why so many people equip themselves with the exterior components of humor: they are like the people who, unable to afford a television set when the medium was new, installed antennas on the roofs of their houses anyway to impress the neighbors.

People who laugh constantly, or who keep a disconnected smile nervously within reach at all times, may have a sense of humor, but it is just as likely that they merely believe they should have one. Amos Oz, in his memoir Tales of Love and Darkness, writes, “Although he had no sense of humor and possibly had no clear idea of what a sense of humor was, my father always loved jokes ...” People who tell the most (and often even the best) jokes are frequently unable to recognize humor in any other form.

There are exceptions, of course: a friend of mine who made a successful sub-career of collecting and publishing tasteless jokes is one of the most genuinely funny women I know. But in general, joke mongering has no more to do with a sense of humor than identifying canned foods by their labels has to do with a sense of taste. A genuine sense of humor implies the personal perception of what is funny in situations, including one’s own.

Henry Wolf, who was in no sense self-deprecating, could recognize what was funny about himself. (On a plane, he would amuse himself and his seatmate by opening a magazine and, with a deft pen stroke or two, converting every male face into a likeness of himself.) And he knew what was funny about most things that were funny. The creator of some of the wittiest magazine covers ever published, Henry understood the anatomy of humor. His book Visual Thinking, both a compendium of his own best work and a provocative guide to imagery in design and advertising, includes the most convincing (and, come to think of it, the only) explanation I have ever seen of the psychology of sight gags on the stage and on the page. Explaining humor is beyond most of us. E. B. White acknowledged, “humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” but warned that “the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Henry had the rare ability to analyze humor without taking the fun out of it, as I discovered when he explained one of my own stories to me.

I was slightly acquainted with Rocky Graziano, the former world middleweight boxing champion who had become a popular television comedian. The essence of Rocky’s comedy was a punch-drunk persona, which he incorporated into his off-screen demeanor as well. Shrewd and sharp, he took a mischievous pleasure in acting punchy. When we were introduced, Rocky took my hand in his—the same right that had stopped Tony Zale in six of the most brutal rounds in boxing history—and squinted dubiously, as if he vaguely remembered meeting me before and hadn’t especially liked it. At last he said, in the blurred delivery of a man who has been hit in the head too often, “Didn’ I fi’ you in Clevelan’?”

“That’s very funny,” Henry said, when I told him the story.
“I know it is,” I said. “I’ve never been sure why.”
“Cleveland,” Henry told me.
“What do you mean?”

“I mean, since you’re obviously in no shape to get into a ring, and never were, just saying, ‘Didn’t I fight you somewhere?’ could have been amusing, but not hilarious. ‘Didn’t I fight you in L.A. would not have been any better. London, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome—none of those would do either. Kalamazoo, Punxsutawney, or Slippery Rock might get a laugh, but only because of the names. For that joke to work, it needs a second class city.”

That hurt. And not just because my mother was from Cleveland. Did The Cleveland Museum of Art, Jacobs Field and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame count for nothing?

The same candid elitism that informed Henry’s hierarchy of cities informed his view of himself. Years ago, AIGA ran a series of print ads, each featuring a prominent designer singing the organization’s praises. Henry’s ad ended in characteristic self-perception, “That’s what I like about AIGA,” he wrote. “It has class, and it reminds me of better days.”

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.