Two years ago, Joseph Fiedler posted 13 illustrations he said the Society of Illustrators had rejected from their annual show. Since the pictures were excellent, he joked that the number 13 had jinxed him. Still, numerology aside, I know how he felt. Over the years, I've had a lot of pictures accepted for those exhibitions, but I’ve always thought some of my best ones never made it. I remember thinking then that when I had the time I'd look through my archive and resurrect some of them. So here are 13 of my favorite Society of Illustrators rejects, starting with the very first one.
Heavy Medals is a drawing I did when I was 22 and working in Kansas City. It was part of the portfolio I came to New York with and the portfolio got me a monthly slot in Playboy that lasted for over 20 years. I had five pictures selected for the Society's show that first year but this wasn't one of them. Maybe it was all those cheesy medals. They look like Christmas tree ornaments on an unhappy tree. And what kind of jury would ever award an award to a picture that mocks awards?
Junkie Around the time I got my first Gold Medal from the Society, the jury rejected this drawing. I liked the Gold Medal picture well enough, but it was a conventional painting and reflected the larval stage of my career. It didn't look to the future of what graphic art could be. I never did go to the Society to pick up the medal: I'm told it laid around the place for years until somebody finally swiped it. And as for the prize-winning painting I've never shown it again. It’s frozen in time back in the Age of Nixon. But this drawing – the reject – kicked off the OpEd page of the New York Times and gave me a regular outlet for the kind of pictures many people had previously told me were unpublishable.
Mother and Child In 1975, Vietnam fell and in the panic that followed, refugees filled the roads to Saigon. The New York Times ran this drawing that spring and I re-published it two years later in my book Human Scandals. The Society rejected it both years. In those days, there were still folks at the clubhouse awaiting the Second Coming of Norman Rockwell, and people like that tended to think my pictures were grotesque. In 1978 I did a second version – this time a painting – making the woman blonde and nude – I used my girlfriend at the time as a model. I prefer that version, which has never been published: it's dark, but softer, warmer and more subtle. Still, the black and white drawing has the brutal edge of its originality, and I'm satisfied that it says something about something that had never been said before in art.
Long Shot When I switched from black and white drawings to color, a lot of art directors advised me not to. My ink drawings were just starting to win awards, they said: why monkey with your brand? But I thought branding was for cows. This was one of several pool hall paintings that never made it into a Society of Illustrators annual. Still, they did something better: they took me over the rainbow and into a world of color. When I finished the series, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her sepia house and into the Land of Oz. It set the tone for everything I've been doing since.
The Dinosaur Lounge was modeled on a real place: a club with a Day-Glo volcano on the wall that some Puerto Rican friends once took me to on the Lower East Side. The dinosaurs I added from some childhood drawings of my own. To be honest, it never really bothered me when pictures like this were rejected from shows. I spent most of my early career on the fringes of the business. I rarely went to openings and never looked at annuals. Some of that was due to shyness, but in general, it was self-defensive. I found it easier to go my own way in the business if I didn’t think too much about the way other people were going.
Rain was one of 40 pastels I did for a book published in Zurich. It was a sort of gamble for me since I had never used pastels before, but I was pleased with the way the series worked out. The New York Art Directors Club awarded it their Gold Medal, but when I entered several pieces in the Society of Illustrators show, they were all rejected. Then I had a one-man exhibition at the Society and made a poster of this drawing. I entered it in that year's show as well, but it got rejected again. Finally, when the Society voted me into their Hall of Fame and asked for three "signature pieces," I laid it on them a third time. This time they must have felt stuck with it because when the Annual came out that year, there it was.
The Prophet was the third painting I’d done of a cratered Earth. I did the first version in the 1970s and another about a decade later, but I was never happy with either one. Then along came Rolling Stone with an article that let me try again. This time it worked. The painting wasn’t picked for the Society’s show that year, but it’s one of my all-time favorites, and the underlying concept has proved fruitful. A couple months ago, I resurected the idea a fourth time, in a very different painting for the 60th anniversary issue of Playboy.
The Tree of Life is usually portrayed by artists as lush and fruitful and in general, I’ve always thought that's a great way to look at life. Yet I grew up in Ohio and Arkansas and all the Hollands before me had been farmers. That means they knew the many faces of Mother Nature. So when I was commissioned to paint my interpretation of the Tree of Life, I decided to show it as a budded shoot growing out of lifeless ground. I didn't expect it to be picked for the Society's show that year and, good guess, it wasn't. But I became very fond of the painting and when I had to bundle it up to ship off to the collector in Maryland, I was rather sorry to see it go.
Cold Catch was one of a series of paintings I did for Harrah's in Las Vegas. I’ve written about the commission in Rio By the Sea-O. There were 28 pictures in all, but this was my favorite. It started as an anecdotal image but quickly flattened out when I decided to make a pattern out of the holes in the ice. This gave me the idea to flatten out some of the other pictures as well, and that gave the whole installation a more graphic look than it would have had if I hadn't started fooling around with this one.
Green Door Over the years, I’ve done a lot of unpublished pictures, but I rarely ever entered them in shows. This painting was one, so normally I wouldn’t have tossed it into the ring. But then the British magazine Varoom published it in a cover story about my work, so I thought: what the hell. The green door is from a hotel in Istanbul, the woman is from my past. The painting is part of a series. There are a bunch more like it sitting around the house.
Bringing Down the Bull was done for Vanity Fair following the big Wall Street meltdown in 2008. It has most of the elements I shoot for in a picture like this. It’s simple and relatively artless and has no more details than it needs. It was also the first picture I did following my discovery of yellow. I don't know why I had never used yellow before; it's a perfectly good color. Maybe it's because my painting style is sculptural and yellow's a hard color to model. In this case, however, I kept the modeling to a minimum, and the yellow seemed to work. After that, yellow became my go-to default color, and for a while, everything I painted was painted yellow. Finally I got over that, but in the process I had added a new color to my palette. My grandfather once had a similar experience with green. In the space of a year, he painted his house green and all the rooms in it; then he took a two inch brush to his Ford pick-up. This leads me to suspect there are genes for things like this that run in families.
Molon de la Frontera is one of 40 pastel drawingss I did for a book of Spanish castles published in Spain. I had never used pastels on this scale before; my previous bouts with the medium had mostly been pictures like Rain – line drawings with some color smeared around. These landscapes were my first attempt to use the full range of color and pastel textures; and this drawing was the first I did for the series. So when the elements in it all seemed to work, it set the tone for the other 39. I entered several of the drawings in the Society's show that year but they were all rejected. On the other hand, I got queries from several galleries asking to show them. In the end, the originals were all bought by the publisher for donation to the city of Seville.
Hellhole Ever since my paintings caught on many years ago, a lot of art directors seemed to have forgotten that I did pen and ink drawings too. So I was happy when Chris Curry called from The New Yorker a couple years ago to ask for a full page ink drawing. Over the years I've found that drawing in ink has taught me a lot about painting and painting a lot about drawing. Once upon a time I thought my ink drawings would lead me into etching, but etching turned out to be too indirect for me. I got tired of all the scraping and rubbing. I wasn't crazy about having to draw everything backwards either, but ink drawings seem to work fine for me.
So much for 13 of my favorite rejects. It's funny that I can remember them better than most of the pictures I've been given awards for. I've aways wondered why that is.
Maybe it's because some works of art have a longer shelf life than others. For example, it's always amused me that when they make up lists of the ten greatest films of all time, they often name movies that were not even picked as the best movies of the years they came out.
Or maybe it's just the complex emotions evoked in all of us by any kind of rejection.
As a little kid, I was so vulnerable to criticism that I'd bawl every time I got scolded. And since I didn’t follow rules very often, I got scolded a lot. By the time I got to kindergarten, I sensed this was going to be a problem. And I concluded that if I didn’t want to be at the world’s mercy for the rest of my life, I'd either have to start following rules or shape up and develop a thicker skin.
By eighth grade I knew I wanted to be an artist. And coming from a small town and a poor family, I knew I’d have to start at the bottom. So I decided to get to the bottom as fast as I could.
In the ninth grade, I quit taking art in school and started submitting cartoons to magazines. My friends in class were getting blue ribbons for drawing hot rods and cocker spaniels. But I was getting rejection slips from The New Yorker, Boys Life and the Saturday Evening Post. I figured that made me a pro of some kind.
By the time I was 15, I moved up to a higher class of rejection. I sent a box full of drawings to the Disney studio in Burbank. I stuck in a letter I had typed on a neighbor's typewriter saying I was 21. For a year I didn't hear anything. Then I got the box back.
The drawings had all been pretty well manhandled, which meant at least somebody had looked at them. But just to have them returned that way was a discouraging sign. Surely if Walt had wanted to hire me he’d have phoned. So as I dug through the hundreds of drawings (yes, hundreds, I had never heard of a portfolio) I feared for the worst. And sure enough, there at the bottom of the box, was that authentic piece of Americana: a Mickey Mouse rejection slip.
Unlike the samples I had sent to the studio, the rejection was printed on archival paper: a Disney rejection was for the ages. Yet I always used to ponder those thumb prints at the top of the card. Were those Walt's? Had I been rejected by the great man himself? Or had I just gotten the bum's rush from some corporate flunkies? I hoped it had been the latter case; I figured I could live with that.
But now that I wasn't going to be the boy wonder of the Disney operation, I realized I’d have to go to Plan B.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a Plan B.
At 17 I graduated from high school. That fall, my friends all headed for college with stars in their eyes. I caught the bus for Chicago with a breaded veal sandwich and a hundred twenty five bucks I had saved mowing lawns. I didn’t know what I’d do when I got to the big city. I'd never been to a big city. I didn't know anybody there and I didn't know how artists went about finding jobs. Did you buy a newspaper and look through the want ads? I figured I'd have to wing it when I got off the bus.
I brought a bunch of drawings with me from Ohio. In the weeks that followed I took them around to studios. I was young and looked younger; several people asked if I was skipping school. I tried to schedule several rejections a day so I could work on new stuff at night.
Yet as I trekked up and down Michigan Avenue – "the Magnificent Mile" – in the cold that fall, I learned that my two years of futile cartoon submissions in high school had served an unexpected purpose. They had innoculated me against rejection. That was useful, because hadn't Carl Sandburg called Chicago the Hog Butcher of the World? At least I never expected a Welcome Wagon.
Over the next two years I learned that I could turn rejection into stress, stress into energy and energy into art. And out of that alchemy came the kind of art I would never have thought to do had it not been for the irritant of rejection and stress. They were cartoon ideas that weren't necessarily funny. Now all I had to do was find a way to apply them to subjects other than rejection and develop the right style to put them over.
That would take me another two years to work out and would lead to an entire portfolio of drawings like the picture Heavy Medals that I began this post with.
When I had that, though, I knew I was ready for New York. I gave up my rented rooms in Kansas City (by this time I had moved there and was working for Hallmark) and caught the bus east. I wasn't sure I could sell my pictures, but I was convinced they would sell themselves. It was a certainty that transcended acceptance or rejection. Ever since, I've taken an outsider's view of both and cast a cold eye on the collective wisdom that appears to invest either with authority.
It’s in that spirit that I've always tried to take professional recognition of any kind – good or bad – in stride. And why not? Over the years, I’ve been on enough juries of enough exhibitions to know how the sausages get made.
Some years ago, I was judging a show on the west coast with several designers, including Robert Miles Runyan, the legendary designer who first introduced art and photography to annual reports.
Miles told me about an exhibition that he had judged back in the fifties or sixties with Herb Lubalin and Saul Bass. All three were iconic figures who had helped revolutionize postwar graphic design. And all three had definite opinions about what was good and bad in the world of popular art.
It was one of the first professional competitions in the field, Miles told me; and they took their responsibility very seriously. "We were pretty tough graders," he said. "By the time we were finished, we were the only three who had anything in the show.”