Though Milton Glaser is famous for creating the I Love NY campaign and
the iconic poster depicting Bob Dylan with multi-colored hair, he also
created a wealth of influential political art. His imagery has
protested the Vietnam War, fought AIDS and raised awareness about
climate change, fashioning a blackened earth accompanied by the slogan
“It’s not warming, it’s dying.” Mr. Glaser recently contributed to a
new book, 20 Over 80: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design, and just completed a pro-voting poster. “It says, ‘to vote is to exist,” Mr. Glaser told the Observer from his Manhattan studio. “And one of the problems we have now, people don’t understand that voting can accomplish something. They are so negative about affecting existing systems that they’ve withdrawn.”
You’re a Bronx boy. What visual cues growing up in the 1930s stick
with you today? The Bronx Zoo, because we used to go there almost
every Sunday. That well-known sculpture with beautiful rounded forms
of animals at the entrance was a pretty impressive piece of artwork.
Also, the advent of colored comics—Nancy and The Captain and the Kids,
Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and Superman and Batman. If you
investigate it, comic books were the initial entry experience into the
world of arts for almost every artist who grew up in New York.
The one thing that I cherish is the sense that you can care about others, as
well as yourself
In the book, you quote Pablo Picasso, who said once you learn
something, you can forget about it. How do you stop yourself from
reaching for the same bag of tricks? Consciousness and embarrassment.
Pick one piece of your work that deserves more attention than the
ubiquitous I Love NY logo? Well, I don’t understand the ubiquitousness
of the I Love NY logo. It’s freakish. It doesn’t make any sense. I do
identities all my life. I do trademarks all my life. They hang around
three weeks, sometimes a year, sometimes five years. What the hell
happened to this thing? What was this little scratchy thing circulated
around the world? Why did it persist in people’s memories and minds?
That is one of the great peculiarities of this profession is that some
things stick, some things don’t.
What event turned you into an activist? I’m political because I grew
up that way in the Bronx, in “The Coops,” a left-wing cooperative
building on [Allerton Avenue]. And it was a politicized time. Everyone
was involved in politics—demonstrations every day. There were cops on
horseback circling The Coops very often. It was a radical time. It was
about trying to eke out a way of living, it was about wages, it was
about protecting workers, it was about the emergence of a strong labor
force. At the time, there was an optimism, a sense that if we stood
together and demonstrated, we could change the existing condition.
Has that premise changed? It did change with the advent of labor laws
and increased wages and civil rights. All of that did change, until
very recently, when we discovered, maybe it hasn’t changed as much as
we thought. Since the recession, the pressure on people has become so
great that many have responded so negatively to the idea of social
progress. The conflict that exists in the country is unprecedented.
The political argument is so bitter and unrelenting. I guess it’s not
unlike the way it was in the ’30s, when you had this vigorous
resistance to changing, or improving the economic system. The one
thing that I cherish is the sense that you can care about others, as
well as yourself. When I hear Trump talking, you realize he doesn’t
care much about others.
In a documentary, you noted that “There’s nothing more exciting than
seeing someone whose life has been affected in a positive way by
something you’ve said.” Can you offer some parting words to improve
the lives of our readers? Don’t believe anything.