On February 21st, a group of artists and writers gathered at The New School to celebrate the book by the late Robert Weaver and to salute his achievement as an illustrator more generally. Cartoonist Ben Katchor and Alexander Roob of the Melton Prior Institut Dusseldorf outlined Weaver’s body of work and several friends and relatives reminisced about his life and career — including the photographer Saul Leiter, illustrator James McMullan, and Weaver’s brother Fritz (an actor perhaps best known for his turn as the sinister Chancellor in the Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man,” opposite Burgess Meredith).
The new volume, A Pedestrian View/The Vogelman Diary, is the realization of Weaver’s 1982 experiment combining fifty-three gouaches (“A Pedestrian View”) with scrawly, gnomic captions (“The Vogelman Diary”) originally filed in a ring binder: one project in two parts. Roob’s accompanying essay compares Weaver with contemporary Pittsburgher Andy Warhol. While the latter managed to transform his practice in commercial art into fine art, Weaver was never drawn to away from illustration, though this 1982 personal project represents a totally new direction from magazine assignments, which Roob calls “a self-portrait in the form of a kaleidoscope.”
The views are “pedestrian,” in the sense of a flaneur wandering the streets and in the process collecting legs, police barricades, pigeons, laundry ads, wheel-wells, restaurant clapboards, manholes, roller skates, and other ordinary waist-down urban sights. Weaver’s bric-a-brac recalls the effluvium that litters many teasing compositions by Saul Steinberg, but rather than Steinberg’s tidy figuration, here the objects intermingle, convoluted by radical perspectival shifts and interruptions of color. Weaver’s manner of seeing is extremely particular: an orange blob of umbrella octogonally commands a field of hashed-in grey cement, partly obscuring a hazily poetic puddle which reflects, out-of-frame, branches of a tree above. The scribble below reads, “A town is no longer a series of fixed-perspective views. But is abstract sculpture.”
“Pedestrian View/Vogelman” was one of Weaver’s several picture-cycles, essentially artists’ books, and the only one yet published. It’s the consummation of his desire to combine the model of single picture or design, in which all elements are frozen and equal, and the process of literary and musical development, where meaning is constructed through time. During his ruminations at the talk, James McMullan suggested that, steeped in Italian neorealist film and interested in the split-screen films deployed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair by Charles and Ray Eames, Weaver started to develop new forms of rhythmic development to his illustrations: in A Pedestrian View, many frames follow the ambulations of anonymous figures, legs and perspective constantly in motion, choreographing page by page the many vectors of pedestrians and the everyday signage of street life.
In 1972 Weaver commissioned four artists associated with the Terry Ditenfass Gallery to make comics for an issue of Graphis magazine focusing on comics (he is nicely bracketed by contributions from Alain Resnais and Milton Glaser). In his accompanying essay, “Experiments in Time-Art”, Weaver dilates on the power of the strip to transform visual art: “The artist working in the narrative strip medium can extend the single instant backward or forward in time. Not only can he move slowly or suddenly or not at all, change his mind, hold his audience in suspense, sustain a mood, surprise or destroy; he can virtually wire his pictures for sound.”
In A Pedestrian View, the balance of power between text and image is maintained in a tense relation of near-opacity. Weaver’s split-level book is constantly forcing the singularity of the image and that of the text together—but each as a contrasting autonomous entity, rather than a supplement. Weaver’s earlier work, which appeared in magazines like Esquire (where art director Henry Wolf employed both Weaver and Leiter) and Life, is part of a lineage of illustration now rarely practiced, apart from the occasional sealed courtroom (an obvious exception: Joe Sacco).
Reportage: illustration as documentation, artist as camera. This is, perhaps, surprising given Weaver’s loose and gestural style, with often disrupted traditional perspective and throbbing patches of violent color. On the page, they often seem to be trampling over the page, but within that framing all the devices converge on isolating a particular way of seeing a space. Art directors like Wolf used its specificity — like the new book’s combination of text and image — to set off, rather than explain, its corresponding article.
Accompanying Roob’s essay at the end of the book is an interview with photographer Saul Leiter, who recalls his long friendship with the illustrator and in particular one occasion when Weaver accompanied him on an assignment to photograph Warhol with his mother. In the photographs, Warhol is admiring some Weavers.
Weaver’s eyesight was poor throughout his life: Leiter remembered, during the discussion, watching him try to make out street signs through coke-bottle lenses. Perhaps that was the impetus that drove his vision away from photographic simulacra and toward a graphic interpretation. But the honing of his technique led him to capture the form of things as a kind of interior truth, but one defined by the manner of its expression and almost freed from the burden of its literal contents. The sprays of color of police tape, the interruptions of text from signage on the street, the akimbo legs of a roller-skater: in angles and juxtaposition they guard a fleeting meaning not derived from its subject, but kindled by its translation into art. As Weaver wrote in American Artist September 1959: “the artist should not merely reflect; in in an atomic era he should be the reactor.”
Near the end of the evening McMullan read from an artist’s book in which Weaver had scribbled down a personal collection of aphorisms (somewhat like Mel Bochner’s index card project, “Misunderstandings”) — some of them familiar: “If you can’t imitate him; don’t copy him (Yoggi Berra),” “If you are not skillful enough to sketch a man falling out of a window during the time it takes him to fall from the fourth storey to the ground, you will never be able to produce great works (Delacroix)” — and some of his own invention: “Art is what is left after the message has evaporated (Weaver)”.