The State of American Illustration, Bound in a Book

The new edition of an annual graphic-arts compendium hints at a renaissance in the medium.

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American Illustration

Anyone who isn't an illustrator, art director or simply a fan of illustration probably hasn't run across American Illustration, a behemoth tome that has been published annually for 30 years. The latest edition underscores the fact that ostensibly ephemeral images, published to illuminate specific texts in books, magazines, and newspapers, have for centuries encouraged the reading experience. Illustrations have had as much emotional consequence as some venerated canvases, and as social or political commentary some illustrations have even shaped mass perception.

New digital magazines (like the one you are now reading) do not seem to value illustration as much as the old print venues (though The Atlantic historically has been a showcase for innovative illustration). Yet with such a critical mass of beautifully conceived, smartly executed, and skillfully printed work, the current American Illustration annual suggests an illustration renaissance may be in the offing. If not, then it is a vivid reminder that there are a lot of talented illustrators looking for work.

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American Illustration began 30 years ago as an insurrection against the then-conservative Society of Illustrators exhibition and annual publication, which advocated a more stodgy Rockwellian/Saturday Evening Post-ian romantic, representational style (it has since change radically for the better). The founders of American Illustration (including me) sought to celebrate a new wave of expressionistic, art brut, and conceptual approaches surfacing at that time. It became a mission—indeed a crusade—to change the definition of how illustration functioned: from slavishly complementing to independently supplementing an author's words.

"Among the mediums that can be seen in this annual are hotel rooms, parking garages, fanzines, textiles, and toys."

Unlike the Society of Illustrators, which has long occupied a stately building with a gallery, library, museum, bar, and meeting rooms, the book itself was American Illustration's only real estate. The intent was to be generous with that acreage, so it reproduced only one image per page, as opposed to two or more squashed together like graves at Calvary Cemetery, a practice that was common in most graphic-arts annuals. This gave the artwork the integrity it deserved, and distinguished it as something more valuable than mere drawing for hire.

There was minor overlap in the beginning between what or who was included in American Illustration and the Society of Illustrators annuals. The former was edgy the latter was not. Eventually that changed. And for the past 20 years or so, the two publications have shared many of the same entrants. In fact, the difference between the two annuals is format, not content. But this year, the American Illustration annual has a renewed vigor. The imagery by new and old artists appears to jump off the pages, and each picture has a kind of energy that I've found lacking over the past few years.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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