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A life told in illustration

The Rockwell celebrates the “Golden Age” of Murray Tinkelman

  • Murray Tinkelman, Cover illustration for "The Shockwave Rider" by John Brunner, Ballantine Books. Ink and dyes on paper, 1975.

    Murray Tinkelman, Cover illustration for "The Shockwave Rider" by John Brunner, Ballantine Books. Ink and dyes on paper, 1975.

  • ©Murray Tinkelman

    ©Murray Tinkelman

  • Murray Tinkleman, "Native American Dancer with Sprite," c. 1986. Ink and watercolor on paper.

    Murray Tinkleman, "Native American Dancer with Sprite," c. 1986. Ink and watercolor on paper.

  • Murray Tinkelman, Cover illustration for "The Horror at the Museum" by H.P. Lovecraft, Ballantine Books. Ink and dyes on paper, 1976.

    Murray Tinkelman, Cover illustration for "The Horror at the Museum" by H.P. Lovecraft, Ballantine Books. Ink and dyes on paper, 1976.

  • ©Murray Tinkelman

    ©Murray Tinkelman

  • Ronni Tinkelman Mitten photo

    Ronni Tinkelman Mitten photo

  • Murray Tinkelman, Cover illustration for "The Shockwave Rider" by John Brunner, Ballantine Books. Ink and dyes on paper, 1975.
  • ©Murray Tinkelman
  • Murray Tinkleman, "Native American Dancer with Sprite," c. 1986. Ink and watercolor on paper.
  • Murray Tinkelman, Cover illustration for "The Horror at the Museum" by H.P. Lovecraft, Ballantine Books. Ink and dyes on paper, 1976.
  • ©Murray Tinkelman
  • Ronni Tinkelman Mitten photo

Spend just a half-hour talking with illustrator Murray Tinkelman and he soon reminds you of a favorite uncle, full of insightful stories, self-effacing humor and an electrifying romance with life.

With a career spanning three generations, the Hudson River Valley resident, now 81, displays no signs of slowing down.

Although his name may not be familiar, you’ve seen Tinkelman’s art on the op/ed pages of the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Atlantic Monthly, among other journals. He’s received commissions for artwork from the National Parks Service, the U.S. Air Force and Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame and, for the past 50 years, with no college degree, he’s taught master’s programs at universities and colleges.

“I was a hideous student and was terrible in all my academic subjects,” Tinkelman told one interviewer. “The only thing I had any ability in was drawing.”

Tinkelman’s evolution as an artist is well represented with a one gallery exhibit at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum. It’s just a few paces away from a three-gallery show on the illustrator Wendell Minor and bracketed by several rooms devoted to both familiar and rare paintings by Norman Rockwell. If you haven’t visited the museum recently, you’ll find a springtime of visual surprises.

How we almost lost WWII

The illustrator grew up during World War II and was raised in a Brooklyn tenement housing 112 families. In a time when everything was saved for the war effort, piles of newspapers stuffed a storage room. The youth would sift through the stacks and take The Saturday Evening Post illustrations and the newspaper series of Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon. Keeping them hidden, he’d study Rockwell’s photographic precision and the elegant pen strokes of Val’s Hal Foster and Gordon’s Alex Raymond.

“Being Jewish you’re already guilty enough, but this added to my guilt,” he told a Rockwell Museum audience recently. “Was I interfering with the war effort? Were the Nazis going t o win?”

It was certainly a close call; however, as the comic Bob Newhart once suggested, the inspirational John Wayne war movies assured victory.

Sensing an as yet untapped talent, an intuitive junior high assistant principal suggested that the boy, obsessed with illustration, should be sent to what is now known as Manhattan’s High School of Art & Design. Otherwise, she told his mother, he’d probably end up in jail.

“Not that she cared about my going to jail, but what would she tell the neighbors?” Tinkelman said.

He began a study of the rudiments of illustration.

“I only had three problems,” he told the audience. “I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t paint. I was color-blind. Other than that I had all the prerequisites necessary.”

Upon graduation he worked at a small studio for Dickensian wages. At $35 a week, he had no delusions as to any artistic prowess.

Almost a free man in Paris

At the time of the Korean War, he enlisted and served in Germany, half a world away from the action, where he created artwork for training aids and posters. Tinkelman also manned the frosting guns, decorating cakes for newly arriving officer’s wives, taking aim to stitch out such phrases as “Welcome to Germany.”

He spent 10 days of a 30-day pass in Paris, an awakening experience for a young man who, prior to crossing the Atlantic, had never been west of the Hudson River.

“I saw all the museums. I did all the touristy things, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe … The Louvre was really number one,” he said during the interview.

In subsequent visits, he became more drawn to the atmosphere of The City of Lights.

“I’m from New York and it may sound chauvinistic, but so be it,” he said. “We have a gadzillion museums, which I frequent all the time. There, it’s the same stuff …”

He became attracted to the ambiance.

“The streets are so incredibly different,” Tinkelman said. “The people are so different, the temperament, the personalities.”

Returning to the States and out of uniform, he took on a succession of jobs for greeting card companies, depicting animals so winsomely cute and cuddly that they made any sugary Disney product seem dangerously hard-edged.

“I was clinically depressed by the junk I was doing,” he said.

An epiphany

Thumbing through a 1956 annual catalogue of illustration, he was transfixed by the innovative work from the Charles Cooper Studio. He was soon hired and became strongly influenced by the illustrations of Lorraine Fox (1922-1976). She was an elegant, quiet woman, highly imaginative, gifted in design and a standout artist in a field overbearingly populated by men.

Tinkelman said that her style “wasn’t quite cartooning … it was a kind of symbolic illustration that depended on folk art as a root source.”

He copiously studied her use of colors and her playful abstraction of shapes. He dedicated himself to becoming “the second best Lorraine Fox” in the business.

Fox and Tinkelman shared a background, having taken studies at the Brooklyn Museum with Reuben Tam (1916-1991), a Hawaiian artist whose abstracts can be found at New York’s Whitney, Met and MoMA museums. Tinkelman described the artist as “a poet … He spoke so quietly that I had to listen.”

The illustrator said that even non-students would come from miles around to attend Tam’s critiques.

“He would criticize their work on the basis of who they were and what they were trying to achieve,” Tinkelman said. “He would crawl into their mind and their psyche.”

All that crawling produced remarkable results.

“It was not a new thing,” Fox told an interviewer. “It was the search for self ... Knowing yourself will lead to originality.”

Tinkelman’s career was now energized and within three years of joining Cooper he received $1,000 for a painting he’d created for The Saturday Evening Post.

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” the illustrator recalled. “It was published in the same magazine that Rockwell pretty much owned.”

Along with the bouquets came the brickbats. His 1963 book illustrations for William Saroyan’s poem “Me” caused a collective apoplexy among critics, who took on a scorched earth policy writing about the work.

“I got the worst reviews in the history of publishing,” Tinkelman told the audience. “First of all they hated Saroyan’s text, so I was in good company on the way down. They thought the artwork would frighten kids out of their toilet training and said it was a cross between Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and deKooning’s painting of ‘Woman’ ... I still liked the book.”

That same year he was offered a teaching position at Greenwich Village’s Parsons School of Design. The 30-year-old discovered that his studies with Tam had opened this first academic door.

“I didn’t realize what a legendary character he was until that moment,” Tinkelman said.

The illustrator went on to teach for 27 years at Syracuse University. Today Tinkelman teaches and his wife Carol administers a low-residency MFA program at Hartford University, designed exclusively for professional illustrators.

“Murray feels that what’s very important for them is to respect the art as a business,” she said. “We make sure that they look at themselves as a total picture of business and that they must do everything. Sitting home and drawing and painting is not enough.”

Art as exploration

At the age of 37, Tinkelman perfected an intricate style of pen and ink crosshatching that’s become his signature approach to subjects ranging from the illustration of vintage American cars to “outlaw” motorcyclists.

“It’s labor intensive, but it’s the easiest thing I do,” he said of the technique. “Getting up is hard. Taking a phone call is hard. When I’m in my studio, that’s therapy.”

His painstakingly unique style has depicted rodeo cowboys, Indian tribes of the Southwest, baseball players and the covers of an H.P. Lovecraft series as well as Richard Matheson’s science-fiction books. With a resume of illustrations including both children’s and adult books as well as his own creations, there’s hardly a genre of images that’s been overlooked.

Rockwell’s chief curator Stephanie Plunkett, who organized the exhibition of over five dozen of Tinkelman’s artworks, described the illustrator’s uniqueness.

“His work tends to have a sense of both flatness and depth. It’s modernistic that way, “ she said. “It’s also beautifully designed in terms of layout. There’s a real consciousness of making it look clear and graphic.”

In his lifetime Tinkelman has seen the dominance of magazine and print illustration ebb, however, the demand for illustrators for other expanding markets remains healthy.

“There’s probably more illustration being used today than there was in the so-called “Golden Age,” he said, and added “To me, the Golden Age is any age that I’m alive in!”

*****

“Baseball, Rodeos & Automobiles; The Art of Murray Tinkelman” continues at the Rockwell Museum through June 15. “Wendell Minor’s America?? ends on May 26, followed by the illustrations of Edward Hopper, beginning June 7. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: adults $16; students w/ID $10; ages 6 to 18, $5.

Directions: The museum is less than three miles from downtown Stockbridge. Signs direct motorists to Route 102 west and then Route 183 south.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.

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