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The pulp and paperback cover illustrator Norman Blaine Saunders
(1907–1989) was known for his exciting action scenes and sexy
women. Anyone who savors this 1930s, '40s and '50s genre of
hyper-realistic, melodramatic imagery knows his work, if not his
name. Saunders painted everything the imagination could conjure:
aliens and aviators, heroes and hunters, detectives and demons,
quarterbacks and comic books, sex kittens, serial killers and
Westerns—from Mars Attacks to "Wacky Packs." David Saunders,
the youngest of Norman's four children, has written a lavish book
chronicling his dad's impressive and alluring output. In this
interview he talks about growing up around some pretty wild images
and how his father's art has influenced his own appreciation of
both fantasy and reality.
Heller: What was it like growing up with Norman Saunders as a
dad? Were there always scantily clad models roaming around?
Norman and David Saunders, in the backyard of their West 104th
Street home, New York, 1979.
Saunders: He was a great dad! He had a playful,
irreverent spirit that charmed our whole neighborhood. We used to
sit on the front stoop of our brownstone on [New York's West] 104th
Street on summer nights and watch the people walking by. He would
spot a gorgeous woman and say to me, "My god! What a beautiful
woman!" and I would wonder about my father's marital faithfulness.
Then, three minutes later, he would exhibit the same fixation for
some guy walking by: "Christ! That guy is gorgeous!" When I looked
shocked he said, "What do you expect? I'm an artist!" He would ask
neighbors to pose for him, but everyone always kept their underwear
on. My father's studio was on the third floor, and that was where
most of the scantily clad models were confined. They weren't
roaming around. [laughter]
Heller: Your father was king of the sultry paperback and
menacing pulp cover. Was this what he wanted to be as an
Saunders: Dad surprised me once when I asked him why he
wanted to be an artist. He said, "So I could paint naked ladies."
It was so frank an answer that it made me laugh.
Heller: I guess that's way a lot of people become artists.
Look at Picasso.
Saunders: Dad was deeply influenced by Huckleberry Finn's
philosophy of life, and he aspired to live without pretentiousness,
pomposity or any impractical idealism. He was born in 1907 and
raised on a homestead in Northern Minnesota surrounded by Indians
and fur trappers. His concept of being an artist was defined by the
social limits of that context. He actually saw a Saturday
Evening Post cover at his music teacher's log cabin and admired
the cover painting by Norman Rockwell. He said, "Until then I had
never known there was anyone else named Norman in the world! I
figured, 'If that Norman can be an artist, then so can
this one!'" Luckily, he ran into several excellent art
teachers, and his natural talents were nurtured with a healthy
academic foundation and the inspired mentoring of Harvey Dunn and
Walt Wilwerding. Both of those artists were strong advocates of
accepting the social limitations of American artists—to work for
commercial clients to fulfill the required agenda, but to strive to
make art with their inner spirit to transcend the mediocrity of the
assignment—and they both claimed that this was comparable to the
ambitions of their European descendants from the history of art who
were employed by kings, merchants and churches. So my father's
identity as an artist was not conflicted by his sultry paperback
and pulp cover work, as long as he was free to paint in the style
that he felt was expressive of his inner spirit.
Three covers by Norman Saunders: Saucy Movie Tales (March 1936),
Famous Fantastic Mysteries (June 1950), Worlds of Fear (June
Heller: Did you appreciate what he did when you were
Saunders: Yes, I would sit in a chair beside him and
watch him as he would paint, because I was fascinated by the
magical process in which everything would gradually appear in his
paintings. It really seemed like a magic power. It was also a great
thrill to see his work in print. I remember him painting the cover
for Classics Illustrated's comic Frankenstein, and then
suddenly the comic was on the shelves at our local candy store and
every other candy store in town. That was magic!
Heller: Was Saunders connected to the world of illustration?
He never did a Saturday Evening Post cover, but was he
friends with other nationally known illustrators?
Saunders: Dad had come to New York City in 1934 and had
worked as an illustrator his entire life. He knew most illustrators
who were based in the New York markets. He was friendly with Norman
Rockwell and several dozen top illustrators. He was also friend
with many artists who were not illustrators. He knew Jackson
Pollock, Hans Hoffmann, Theodore Stamos and even Red Grooms. [My
father] Norm had always wanted to be on the cover of The
Saturday Evening Post. It was a bitter disappointment when he
finally realized that would never happen. The disappointing
realization came around 1964, when he found out that The
Post had fired Rockwell. Most illustrators realized at that
point that the whole system of promoting an "art star" was over,
and it seemed to have been replaced by a more efficiently
controlled mass-marketing system.
Heller: What would you say he was trying most to capture when
he painted a picture?
Saunders: Dad confided to me that he was able to close
his eyes and envision an entire imaginary world. He would
concentrate on that image with his eyes closed and then he would
open his eyes and he could faintly retain the entire scene just
long enough to jot down a few light scribbles on his blank canvas
or illustration board. After he had lightly indicated the placement
of all the elements, he would create a more substantial sketch of
the composition. Then he would begin to consider ways to make the
composition more dynamic. Once the light source was determined, he
would begin to make studies of all the elements under a similar
light source. That was when he would get live models to perform his
directed actions under his specially arranged theatrical lighting.
His primary need for models was to see how their bodies would
respond under the prescribed light source. His goal was to create a
vision that approximated his initial imaginary vision of the scene.
Dad was very sincere about this process, even when painting the
most seemingly silly Wacky Package or sleazy paperback cover. He
felt that his original imaginary vision of the scene was a
distinctive personal quality that would give his commercial work
the creative strength to endure the often humiliating hardships of
being a freelance artist.
A young David poses (at left) for a 1962 Mars Attacks trading
card illustrated by Norman Saunders (right).
Heller: By the 1960s, illustration's style and content were
moving toward a more surreal and expressionistic representation.
How did your dad feel about this generational shift?
Saunders: Dad always attended all of the art museum shows
in New York City as well as many gallery shows. He read the art
reviews in The New York Times and he enjoyed the
controversial progress of artistic trends in the art world. He
loved to make non-objective abstract art and to thereby explore
expression without identifiable content. When Pop Art became
fashionable he was delighted with the prospect of a wealthy home
hanging a Roy Lichtenstein painting of a hand pointing a
gun—"That's a real pulp composition!" He loved to see it in museums
and art galleries and wealthy homes, but when magazine art
directors demanded that all illustrators totally conform to a
prescribed style, he refused to comply. He was from an older
generation of illustrators who considered their career to be
entirely based on developing a recognizable style, with the hope
that their style would eventually become popular enough to land an
annual contract with The Saturday Evening Post, and that
career strategy would be completely destroyed if they were willing
to behave like a chameleon who would adopt whatever style might be
needed each season. Dad said he had seen many artists ruin their
reputation by changing their style to suit a particular magazine.
The only way to have a long career was to develop your own personal
recognizable style. [Dad would say,] "That way, they need to hire
you when they want work in your style!" Actually, Harvey Dunn
instilled that belief in him. Oddly enough, my father's career does
follow one arcing trajectory of developing style, which is pretty
clear in the book, and he did work continuously from 1926 until
1984, so perhaps he was onto something.
Heller: But did he do anything different to conform to the
Saunders: He was a keen observer of styles and fashions.
He always used men and women in his scenes that reflect the
fashionable stars of the times. He gathered many photographs of
famous actors in his photo morgue and he would pick models that
resembled whoever was popular at the time. The publisher Martin
Goodman got him started on that habit. He gave Dad a giant box of
Hollywood publicity stills and insisted that everyone on his pulps
looked like some movie star, saying, "Why use some schmuck, when I
can use a glamorous unpaid cameo appearance by Clark Gable?"
Painting for the cover of Man's Story (November 1965 issue) by
Heller: What, if anything, would you call his style?
Saunders: Dad was also delighted to incorporate aesthetic
influences from fashion into his work, but again the emphasis was
always on his retaining the creative vision of his personal style.
He felt that style was deeply embedded in each artist's drawing
method, somewhat the way handwriting analysts can identify
forgeries. Dad felt his drawn line was completely his own, just
like a signature on a check. From that basis, he also developed a
style of composition and a style of color schemes. He was delighted
to take those personal skills and subject them to a painting with a
1966 mod "a-go-go" flavor, but he was still working in his own
style. This tenacious individualism was essential to his whole
Heller: Are you an artist?
Saunders: Yes, it is all I ever wanted to be from a very
early age. My father enrolled me in a preschool art program at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1958. I studied at the Museum of
Modern Art when they had art classes, and then I studied at the
Brooklyn Museum Art School. I went to Music & Art high school
and the Kansas City Art Institute. I had a show at The New Museum
and my work is in the collections of the Met, MoMA, the Brooklyn
Museum, the Hirshhorn and many others. I have taught painting at
Yale, Oberlin, Washington University and dozens of other colleges.
I showed with Grace Borgenicht Gallery in the 1980s, and I now show
with Fischbach Gallery in Chelsea. It has been an amazing emotional
process for me to make my father's book, so I am sure it will
influence my future work.
Heller: I studied at MoMA, too, in the late 1950s. I was
expelled, however, for bad behavior. But I digress. Obviously this
book is a great tribute to Norman Saunders. While he's been
featured in books on pulp art and paperback covers, what did you
want to accomplish with this book?
Cover of the book Norman Saunders
(The Illustrated Press), written by David Saunders.
Saunders: Dad lived barely long enough to be rediscovered
by fandom. One day around 1969 he came home from delivering some
freelance assignments to Topps bubble gum company in Brooklyn and
he was very emotionally upset. He sat at the kitchen table and
confided to me that he had just met a young kid named Artie
Spiegelman who was hanging around the office, "This kid Artie seems
to know more about my work than I do! I always knew other
illustrators know my work, and a few old farts who are nostalgic
about their own childhoods, but I can't believe I actually met a
young kid who loves my work. It's the first hope I have ever had
that my work might be appreciated by future generations!" Then he
sobbed and put his head down on the kitchen table and started to
cry like a baby. I was deeply impressed. It finally dawned on me
that my father's archive of tear sheets and original paintings was
probably the only record of his entire life's work. He said,
"Everything I ever did was sold for pocket change at newsstands and
was thrown away with yesterday's papers. My life's work has turned
into the dust of oblivion and blown away from the trash heaps of
popular culture. Here I thought it was all gone, and then this kid
Artie shows up and gives me some hope."
Dad and I discussed the importance of doing an art book that
would combine examples of all of his many decades of work, so
people can see the development of his personal recognizable style.
Most enthusiasts of vintage popular culture are only concerned with
certain subject matter, as opposed to an artist's style. There were
many book offers over the years, but they always boiled down to one
specific orientation, such as a book about pin-ups, men's
magazines, sci-fi or Westerns. I realized there was a market demand
for those types of special subjects, but if I wanted to see a book
about the entire career of Norman Saunders, I would have to publish
it myself and not expect to make the money back. It was a thrill
for me to send a copy to Art Spiegelman, in thanks for inspiring
the whole project 40 years ago!
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