Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Jean-Claude Suarès 1942-2013

"The Preservation of Muteness" (1973) by Jean-Claude Suarès.

Jean-Claude Suarès, an illustrator who radically altered the way editorial illustration was used at The New York Times as the first art director of its Op-Ed page, died on July 30 in Engelwood, N.J.. He was 71.

The cause was a bacterial infection, said his wife, Nina Duran.

For decades The Times refused to hire an editorial cartoonist or have art on the editorial page. But when the Op-Ed page was introduced in 1970, Mr. Suares — with the blessings of the page’s editor, Harrison Salisbury, and The Times’s design director, Louis Silverstein — adopted a daring idea: Rather than restrict artists to illustrating only specific passages of text, give them license to interpret an entire article.

The approach helped guide the paper into a new visual era and influenced other newspapers and magazines.

“It was time for a big change,” he said in a video history commemorating the Op-Ed page’s 40th anniversary. “I wanted the art to be well drawn, and I wanted to create some kind of emotional reaction.”

Mr. Suarès spoke several languages, and he used them to recruit “a small posse of artists from around the world,” said Brad Holland, an illustrator whom Mr. Suarès helped achieve prominence. Mr. Suarès, he said, “gave us an opportunity to redefine what graphic art could be and do.”

Brad Holland, Lettuce (New York Times Op-Ed page)

The graphic designer Milton Glaser said Mr. Suarès “made you feel you were working on something really important when he called you.”

Many of the artists he called were from Soviet bloc countries and fluent in surreal symbolism, which offered thought-provoking concepts instead of editorial cartoon clichés like Uncle Sam and John Q. Public. Captions were rejected. It was a form of visual commentary rarely found in other publications.

The “Op-Ed style,” as it came to be known, was characterized by black and white crosshatching and moody imagery, which some Times editors called lugubrious. Nonetheless, Op-Ed art was celebrated at galleries and museums.

In 1973, Mr. Suarès arranged an exhibition of Op-Ed art from The Times at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. He also edited the catalog, “The Art of the Times.” But the show was his undoing. Because he had failed to obtain permission for the exhibition from his superiors, he was fired, though he continued to provide illustrations for the newspaper for many years.

Mr. Suarès was born on March 30, 1942, in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Sephardic father. His mother was a survivor of the Dresden bombing. The family later left Egypt for Italy, where Mr. Suarès spent some of his teenage years. After moving to New York, he briefly attended Pratt Institute, joined the Army paratroopers and was sent to Vietnam, where a stint on Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, left him wanting to pursue graphic design.

His subsequent career was cobbled together from alternative and mainstream publishing ventures. Early on he was art director of underground papers like The New York Free Press and Screw. His early illustrations resembled 19th-century caricatures. He was later a design consultant for Scanlan’s Monthly, a short-lived muckraking magazine; founder and creative director of 7 Days and Poz magazines, and design director of New York Magazine, Columbia College Today and Connoisseur. He also oversaw redesigns for Variety, Publishers Weekly, Broadcasting & Cable and Military History.

Over the last 30 years his comic drawings have appeared in The Times, on the covers of The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, and in other periodicals and books. He wrote, edited or designed scores of illustrated books. He was also involved in book publishing. Working with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Doubleday, he designed Michael Jackson’s autobiography, “Moonwalk.” With J. Spencer Beck, he wrote “Uncommon Grace: Reminiscences and Photographs of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.”

In 1976, the release of “The Illustrated Cat: A Poster Book” by Mr. Suarès and Seymour Chwast started a craze for cat-themed books. Mr. Suarès produced several more, including “Cats in Love,” “Hollywood Cats,” “City Cats” and “Sexy Cats.”

“His timing was great,” Mr. Chwast said, “He always knew what was going to be big.”

Beside his wife of 33 years, who is also an artist, Mr. Suarès is survived by a sister, Josée Bauman.


An appreciation by Stephen Heller in Print.

Memories of JC (Jean-Claude Suarès)

Death dredges up memories. Memories trigger sadness for a past that is just a memory — a vicious cycle of remembrance and remorse. I hope that somewhere memories actually live on and death is just an earthly delusion. On July 30, Jean-Claude (JC) Suares died suddenly from a rare bacterial infection, his wife Nina Duran told me. It is a tragedy that a vibrant and commanding 71 year old could be struck down by something so random yet sinister as a rogue microbe. His doctors said no one will ever know how he contracted it.

Brad Holland was the first person I emailed upon learning the news. We were both impacted by Suares’s life. Holland was given the most important outlet of his career in the fabled New York Times on the OpEd page that Suares art directed. To understand how incredible this was, the Times barely used illustration and all of a sudden one of “us” was art director with the vision and power to engage “our” generation’s illustrators. Beside Holland (I can still recall how excited I was by his premiere illo), others who worked for underground papers like ScrewThe East Village Other and more, were appearing regularly on the OpEd. This was like a musician getting a hit record after working countless Bar Mitzvahs and weddings – well almost.

JC Suares by Brad Holland in my office at The New York Review of Sex.

A couple of years before Suares became art director of the OpEd and Book Review, he gave me my first job doing mechanicals for The New York Free Press. You see, when I was 17 and about to graduate high school, I whipped up a folder of autobiographical cartoons I had done and took them around to every periodical from The New Yorker to Evergreen Review to The Freep and other NYC undergrounds. I was published in the Rat and The Avatar, was interviewed by the art director at Evergreen (which I much later art directed), and I got a call back from a Mr. Suares, who my parents’ housekeeper said called from The New York Times. I returned the call. It was, obviously, the Free Press, not the Times. He asked to meet me the next afternoon.

JC was a bit stout, a little squat yet an imposing figure back then, with a slight indefinable accent. When he came to greet me he was wearing an ascot. That was not the hippie look I had become used to seeing at the underground papers where I dropped off my folio. He looked at my work far more quickly than I would have liked, and gave me some pointers about drafting inks and dyes. All I really wanted was to get his approval, have him see my innate genius and publish my introspective scribbles.

Instead JC asked if I could do mechanicals. I said yes without thinking. I knew nothing whatsoever. So when I left his office, I called around furiously to anyone I knew who was artsy, though no one could tell me what a mechanical was. When I arrived for work the next day, he showed me what to do with a glue pot and wax, sat me down next to another mechanical artist and said “watch him!” After a week, that person, dour by any standard, disappeared, leaving me alone and untrained. I stayed, believing this was my destiny. A week later, JC told me that he was going to show my batch of drawings to the editor, Sam Edwards. The next day, I was assigned to do a weekly drawing under the banner “A Heller,” and over time, a couple of covers – all assigned by JC. By then I was nicknamed “the kid.”

One day, not too long into the job, I heard JC on the phone in the office we both shared with Sue Graham, Charlie Mingus’s future wife, talking to Seymour Chwast about doing a poster for a new magazine called Inkling that JC was co-founding as its art director. JC was boasting to Chwast, who’s name I kind of heard about as part of something called Push Pin, how it was going to be the greatest humor magazine ever, based on a cross between the English Private Eye and French Charlie Hebdo but American. They had funds, offices in the Empire State Building and lots of great contributors. JC cursed often and regularly during the course of a day, but on this call I didn’t hear one fuck or shit. He was on his best, most persuasive behavior.

A week later, he announced he was leaving the Freep to start Inkling. I would be art director of the Freep with all the rights and privileges hereto bestowed – which meant $50 a week (if there was money in the till, which wasn’t too often) and at least two all-nighters a week, and man the phones on Saturdays. After Inkling got started he promised to hire me. I won’t go into how little skill I had. But I did have JC’s confidence and best wishes. That was enough.

I don’t recall if an issue of Inkling ever was printed. I doubt it. But JC turned up again a year or so later with his own design studio called DADA. He was doing various publications, including Changes, a poor cousin of Rolling Stone. Coincidentally, DADA Studio was located at 80 Fifth Avenue, the same building, on the same floor where I, now going on 18, was the “co-publisher” and art director of The New York Review of Sex. I had just parted company with Screw, which started in the Freep office. Now a veteran of over a year on the boards, I was racking up publication credits. JC had just been hired, in turn, to design Screw, which he did much better than I had done. I frequently drifted by JC’s office to see how he and his partner did what they did more professionally than me. That period is somewhat vague in my addled mind, but I do recall on one of the two occasions when I was arrested by the NYPD vice squad for publishing pornography, I walked by JC’s office in handcuffs. Standing in his doorway, he smiled — chucked actually — and gave me a thumb’s up. He was either amused, relieved or secretly wanted to be busted too.

After the Review of Sex folded, I worked as art director at Rock magazine for a while, before returning to Screw as art director. Around that time, Screw was designed by Brill and Waldstein, because Suares went on to work on the muckracking Scanlan’s Monthly and other projects. Soon after, though I don’t recall the dates, while I was working on Screw, and hiring artists like Brad Holland and Philipe Weisbecker, Suares was settling in as art director of the Times OpEd page, revolutionizing illustration with, among others Holland, Weisbecker, Roland Topor, Hans Georg Rauch, Michael Matthias Prechtl, Tomi Ungerer, R.O. Blechman, Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser and Eugene Mihaesco. Man, I was envioius.

By then JC and I didn’t have much direct contact. But by the greatest of coincidences, I met Ruth Ansel, the Times Sunday Magazine art director, and she brought my portfolio to show Louis Silverstein, the legendary Times design director. It was Ansel’s idea that I work for the Magazine as a designer, which suited me just fine, it was Silverstein’s idea that “I help out,” as he put it, as OpEd art director, which flattered me even more. I was just 23.

Apparently, and I had only heard rumors at the time, JC had been fired (he told me he quit) because he had stepped on big toes. It was during a torturous transition, involving putting another art director temporarily in his place, that my appointment was broached by Silverstein with the OpEd editors. When JC heard I was being considered, he laid the groundwork for my assumption of what frankly was the only job in the world I wanted. Ansel brought me to Silverstein; Silverstein hired me; JC made it possible.

Our relationship after that was, however, complicated. I hired him often as an illustrator. If I didn’t, he would have been hired anyway – the OpEd was his baby – I knew it and the editors insisted on it. That caused a certain textbook “mentee – mentor” resentment. Partly because I wanted his approval but also because I didn’t want his overarching influence getting in the way of my own ideas. When I left the OpEd two years later for The New York Times Book Review, our relationship ostensibly ended. Sadly, human relationships often work out that way. Many years passed before we spoke again. I can’t recall when we last saw each other. He did appear in the 40th anniversary video that I wrote and narrated, directed by Aviva Michaelov, which gave him some of his due.

When I learned of his untimely passing this week, the same year that both my parents died (in their 90s), after the initial shock I realized how just a few people make huge differences in one’s life. When I read Holland’s tribute to JC (see below), it reaffirmed that my life would be radically different today without JC being there for me when I most needed him. Fortunately, I was assigned to write his obituary in the Times (see above) – it is something I would never imagined when I met him for the first time those many decades ago. It was a small form of payback. Still, an obit is a news story not a remembrance, so I couldn’t say one very import last word: THANK YOU JC for launching my professional life!


A tribute by Brad Holland

Jean-Claude Suarès

Steve Heller just emailed me from Paris to say JC Suares has died. Variety has an obituary.

I owe JC too much to try expressing it on a day like today when I'm swamped with deadlines. But a few years ago I posted an article here about the birth of what has come to be called conceptual illustration; and I'm writing something more extensive about it to be published in the fall. The best I can do today is to quote from that:

"The first mainstream forum for this new approach to illustration appeared in 1970 and it was an unlikely one: the Op Ed page of the New York Times. This feature, newly-created, was the first op-ed page in the country. The Times had never published editorial art before, and the editor, Harrison Salisbury, wasn’t sure what he wanted. He knew, however, what he didn’t want: no donkeys and elephants, no Uncle Sams and John Q. Publics, and no cartoons of politicians with their names written on their suits.

"To find a vision for the page, Salisbury turned to Jean-Claude Suares, a former art director of Screw and the only member of the hippie press who drove a Bentley to work. A self-described descendent of an old Egyptian banking family, a refugee from Nasserʼs revolution, a dropout from Yale and graduate of Pratt, Suares spoke several languages and used them all to recruit a small posse of artists from around the world. The artists had different approaches to art, but they had one thing in common: a personal approach.

"This made them alike in their potential to redefine what popular art could be and do in the changing world of the mass media."

For my own part, I wanted to disengage graphic art from the need to channel a writer's sensibility and point of view; and by 1970 I had found only two art directors willing to cut me loose and defend what I was doing to their editors: Art Paul at Playboy and Heller himself at the hippie New York Review of Sex. Suares was the third, but he was the one who brought my drawings out of the world of men's magazines and sex papers into the mainstream.

I met JC at the shabby Review of Sex office at 80 Fifth Avenue. He was just starting at the Times that day and within a week, he saw that I was being published there. Within two years, the art of the Op Ed page was being exhibited in museums around the world and I made my first trip overseas with Suares for the big exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

It was a long trans-Atlantic flight in the smoking section of the plane (they still had them in those days) while JC chain-smoked cigars. He had brought along his buddy, the jazz musician Charles Mingus, and seeing Paris for the first time in the company of those two was like sitting in the back seat of a squad car as two wily cops patrolled the streets.

Suares didn't stay long at the Times – he had stepped on too many toes there, and left when his own defender, Harrison Salisbury, retired. But in his short two years he had midwifed an approach to popular art that has greatly expanded the range of what we as artists can do.

He went on to advise publishers, author books and do his own charming drawings for many of them.

We live in a world of hyperbole these days, but in truth, there are never many people in any generation – nor in any line of work – about whom it can be said that so-and-so was a giant. JC was a giant; and everybody in the field of graphic art these days owes a little bit of their own creative freedom to him.
RIP, JC. You left too soon.

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