From the SPD Archives: Barbara Nessim, Illustrator

From the SPD Archives: Barbara Nessim, Illustrator
Above: Rolling Stone, October 20, 1988
Illustration: Barbara Nessim; Art Director: Fred Woodward

One of the most important and memorable art shows this year (or any year, for that matter!) is Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life, currently on exhibit through January 11, 2015 at the Bard Graduate Center on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. This exhibit is essential viewing for SPD members and anyone interested in magazine design, illustration, painting, and brilliant visuals. One of the most influential illustrators and artists to come out of the 1960s, Nessim's An Artful Life shows her work as painter, computer artist, fashion designer, magazine illustrator, art director, teacher, public art creator, and more. The show is filled with bold, bright, powerful cover illustrations, large-scale computer artwork, mod 60s dress and shirt designs, ads for Levi's, videos, photos, and engaging imagery of all kinds.

In reviewing the show, the Huffington Post said of Nessim, that she "has been at the front lines of both illustration and feminism, crafting androgynous superstars who straddle the line between art and ad, masculine and feminine." For more on the show, see Steven Heller's review for The Atlantic, 50 Years of Reinventing Illustration.

Walking through the show is like viewing a cultural history of the past 50 years. Nessim has illustrated the covers of numerous major magazines, from Rolling Stone to Time to The New York Times Magazine. She was one of the first artists to embrace the computer as a creative tool. And the show is peppered with the celebrities who have surrounded Nessim's life, including Gloria Steinem (she and Nessim were roommates in the 60s), Milton Glaser, David Bowie record producer Tony Visconti, and many more. Nessim's influence on the visual world has been extensive, as an artist, illustrator, and designer and as the longtime chairperson of illustration at Parsons School. Do not miss this show!

After the jump there's more awesome illustrated cover art by Nessim, plus comments by her on creating covers and her beginnings as an illustrator.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to doing editorial illustration?

Barbara Nessim: In 1960 I graduated from Pratt Institute, studying graphic arts and illustration, but I was sure I would work as a designer/art director in an ad agency. Even though I didn't specifically study it, I was planning to pick it up on the job. In my senior year I started doing small freelance illustration work to make extra money at a job I found in The New York Times classifieds. It was mainly doing pen and ink drawings of handbags for a small ad agency called Master Matrix. My friend, the illustrator Alan E. Cober, encouraged me to seek work from "girlie" magazines which I was successful in doing, and by the time I graduated from Pratt Institute in 1960 I had my foot in many doors and was working fairly regularly. I also did textile colorings three days a week for two companies in their offices, to help pay the rent. The textile jobs lasted for seven years until, in 1967, I was offered a job at SVA teaching illustration concepts. Bob Giraldi was head of the department there and hired me. I was the second woman to teach at SVA and the first to teach illustration. That steady income replaced the textile salary and afforded me to only do illustration, my own art, and teach. I was enjoying life and work.

Could you talk a little bit about your process in doing the magazine covers?

Barbara Nessim: Rolling Stone's, art director, Fred Woodward called me up and asked if I would like to do the portrait of John Lennon. They were doing a story on him eight years after his death. I was hesitant because I don't do portraits easily and I find it hard to get a good likeness. Fred said he thought of me because John Lennon liked to draw. John did simple line drawings and he thought my work would echo John's style and be in the spirit of what he would like. He also said there was one caveat, Yoko Ono had to approve it. I agreed on the condition that, since I had a week's time, I would try to complete it in three days. And if he didn't like my best effort, he had a chance to ask someone else to do it. After about three attempts I did the drawing they finally used. Yoko Ono loved it and it became the cover on October 20, 1988 (pictured above).

The New York Times Magazine, June 29, 1997
Illustration: Barbara Nessim; Art Director: Janet Froelich

Barbara Nessim: The New York Times Magazine was doing a cover story called Breast Cancer at 35, to run June 29, 1997. Janet Froelich, the art director, said they couldn't show anything very graphic and were also concerned about the depiction of the nipple. My solution was the simple profile of the breast, done in a black brush line, scanned into the computer, and then I added the rainbow of color to signify women of all color.

Harper's Magazine, October 2010
Illustration: Barbara Nessim; Art Director: Roger Black

Barbara Nessim: Harper's art director Roger Black was sure I could do the perfect cover for Susan Faludi's article American Electra, Feminism's Ritual Matricide. I chose to do a collage with photographs I took, using Greek and Roman sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the base. The mother and daughter push/pull "dance" that occurs in most relationships was at the heart of the art. Floating red lips and mesh stockings adorn the leg of a woman kicking classic pearls out of the picture. The background has a leopard pattern. All elements are tempting the viewer to make their own story of the image.

Time, July 12, 1982
Illustration: Barbara Nessim; Art Director: Rudy Hoglund; Deputy Art Director: Irene Ramp

Barbara Nessim: I, along with seven other women illustrators, was asked to do "something on the women's movement" for the cover of Time, by deputy art director Irene Ramp. Art director Rudy Hoglund had to approve the cover. My cover was chosen and they wrote the title, American Women The Climb to Equality, inspired by my art. All the stories/articles were in process so there was no copy to read. I chose to do a simple face depicting all women black to white. The red figure is climbing the huge stairs to get to the "blue sky" which represented freedom and light. The black also represents the dark which she still is in.

Don't miss Barbara Nessim: An Artful Life, on exhibit now through January 11, 2015 at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery (18 West 86th Street).

Nessim will be participating in the following events as part of her show: 

November 18t:

December 4: 

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