I’m glad to have known and worked with John Jay, if only briefly.
Searching for the Avant-Garde
Sly Stone’s delicious voice ruled the radio airwaves, “Everyday People” was the number 1 song but giving way soon to a new Aquarius as the Fifth Dimension harmonized about change in the air. 1969 was going to be one of the most radical years in our modern history. It was the year that changed America.
I am a young student with no perceivable direction, no idea about design or creative career yet, just dreaming to be somewhere bigger than my own existence in Columbus Ohio. I could always sense that there was a more dynamic world out there, a place where people arrived daily because they had a similar itch to experience life at its fullest. A place that nurtured ambition and the desire for the unknown. For me, my future was unclear but my old world intuition inherited from my parents told me that the skills you learned in school could only take you so far. Yet, to dream bigger than your friends was not something you did openly back then. But dream I did.
Prophetically, the big summer movie is Phillip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus”.
Then it hit me. The May 1969 issue of Esquire Magazine arrives in the school library. The headline boldly declares, “The Final Decline and Total Collapse of the American Avant-Garde.” The cover captures Andy Warhol drowning in a huge can of Campbell Soup. Despite the headline, the genius of art director, George Lois made the Esquire cover each month, his own version of the avant-garde. Highly conceptual, in tune with the cultural zeitgeist and challenging the norms of society, he made Esquire covers into social commentary built with the craft of a great artist and matching intellectual rigor. Lois motivated us to think about our world in context of our existence. Like the art world’s avant-garde, he used consumerism, a magazine cover designed to sell, to raise the consciousness of the American public. He saw himself as an artist and throughout his career from editorial to advertising, he remained fearless. He was an artist and he didn’t care whether you thought so or not.
On his iconic Warhol cover, Lois comments, “You could look at it as just funny, or you could look at it as how fame swallows people — the absurdity of fame. He is drowning in his own soup.”
Years later… I arrive in New York City, in search of this avant-garde… was I too late? Was it over? My search was for a modern day Atlantis, a place where the extraordinary was everyday and its people equally mythical. I soon learned the city’s little secret… It was not just about ideas… It was about hard work, NYC was a place filled with determined dreamers, doers and makers, and like me, they often came from another place. What bonded us was our ambition and willingness to fight for the right to be creative, to be the best we could be. But clearly, dreaming alone was not going to be enough. Human nature causes us to place great value on what others think of us, they try to define what success looks like for us. Society’s opinion can charge the course of our lives but that is the antithesis of being fearless.
The avant-garde was going through its own growing pains and the critics panned its embrace of fame and fortune but the movement kept morphing. Its goals and tactics changed through corporate sponsorship, globalism, technology and the life-changing influence of the next generation. Mass media brought art to the threshold of glamour and power but the mundane always had its own power over even the most gifted. I remember having lunch at Robert Rauschenberg’s studio with him in the kitchen as he watched the daytime soaps. He knew every character and dazzled us with his appreciation of the lurid details of each daily episode. As I roamed the vast studio looking, turning each painting on a revolving rack, Rauschenberg could be heard moaning in the background because todays show was ending with an unsatisfactory ending but he knew tomorrow was a new day. It always is.
The Warhol Foundation will soon sell all of its artwork in order to operate fully as a grant foundation offering financial support for future generations of artists. That will cause havoc with all of those who have invested heavily in his legacy and the future value of his art. 26 years after his death, Andy Warhol continues to the most avant-garde of them all.
Fast forward from my initial arrival to NYC to 2011 at a glittering black-tie event in Manhattan, it is the Art Director’s Club Hall of Fame annual celebration. George Lois enthusiastically congratulates me on my induction into this extraordinary group of creative talent. Lois claims he told the jury, “This is a no-brainer.” I just hope he was speaking of my induction and not me personally! He is the youngest inductee ever into the Hall of Fame and the designer of the award itself. I stood there thinking back as a kid, and that Esquire cover in my hands. The next morning, I pull out my first edition of his book, “The Art of Advertising”. At the time of its publication, I was a young editorial art director trying to make it in journalism and this primer on mass communications laid the foundation for me on how the big idea was possible is all forms of creative expression… from magazines to fashion to advertising. Lois’s version of the Big Idea is still growing within all of us and his impatience with mediocrity remains infectious.
John C Jay Art Directors Club 2011
Last week, I received an email from a designer in San Francisco, who is a former recipient of my Jay Scholarship Fund at Ohio State University. It is a survey from Graphic Design USA’s January/February issue. The headline reads “The Most Influential Art Directors of the Past 50 Years” and George Lois, deservedly tops the list. However, as I drift down the list, I am astonished to see my name on it as well. This is far beyond anything I ever dreamed… to be on a list with George Lois. It is Graphic Design USA’s own 50th anniversary and they celebrated by naming the most influential companies and people in the past 50 years in design and advertising.
Graphic Design USA 50th Anniversary
What I love about Lois’s Esquire decade, 1962 to 72, as the magazine cover maestro was that Esquire was his moonlighting job. His night job created an extraordinary body of work, 32 of 92 covers were exhibited by The Museum of Modern Art in 2008. As his day job, he ran an ad agency with some of the most important clients in the country. His ability to think and work creatively on so many levels at once is an inspiration and shows us all how passion can take you to new places if you are willing to make sacrifices for the big idea in any media. We have a responsibility to constantly raise the creative bar and to do so, we must find more ways to be fearless.
I am still searching for the avant-garde. So I have just opened W+K Garage, a new creative shop that will work with innovative global clients but also as an entrepreneur in different forms of creative expression. It was time to resist the obvious, reject what others may feel is success, do work that is truly personal and help those in search of a more creative future. We live in the most creative moment in history and the future is just beginning. There is no turning back.
Bracket — W+K Garage
Thank you George Lois for helping all of us to overcome our own fears. Your legacy is actually just beginning.
— John C Jay