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The New York Times


January 23, 2017

Poster Perfect: The Art of James McMullan


By Erik Piepenburg

James McMullan in his Upper West Side studio. CreditÁngel Franco/The New York Times


No other living artist is more closely identified with an American theater company than James McMullan. For 30 years, his painterly posters for Lincoln Center Theater have been turned into collectibles that are more than advertising: They’re synonymous with the shows themselves. It’s hard to think of “Carousel” without recalling his artwork for the 1994 revival that depicts a brooding Billy Bigelow, vividly illuminated from below, atop wooden horses that rear beneath an angry sky.

To commemorate Mr. McMullan’s artistic tenure with Lincoln Center, a permanent exhibition of some of his best-known works was recently installed in the lobby of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. For playwrights, having Mr. McMullan, 82, spend so much time considering and visualizing their created world is like having Picasso paint their child’s portrait.


“Often contemporary theater posters seem to be made by someone in the marketing department and resemble clip art from the 1980s,” said the playwright Sarah Ruhl, who has had several Lincoln Center plays promoted with posters by Mr. McMullan, including her latest, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” which starts performances on Feb. 23. “I don’t mean to point any fingers at any particular theater when I say this. But they often are not really held together by artistry. There is no one else like Jim.”


When it’s time for Lincoln Center Theater to approve a poster, Mr. McMullan doesn’t turn in crude line drawings. Working mainly in watercolor, not with computers, he turns in a finished painting. If it’s rejected, he creates another one.

The New York Times recently asked Mr. McMullan to open the many drawers of his studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to unearth some never-before-seen work for recent shows at Lincoln Center that demonstrate how he paints, from first impression to final poster.

‘The King and I’ (2015)


In one early image (far left) for Bartlett Sher’s Tony-winning revival of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Mr. McMullan depicted the boat that brings Anna to the shores of Siam at the top of the poster, with the king in miniature. (“No more Yul Brynner, Jim!” is how Mr. McMullan described the feedback from the decision makers.) In the center image, Mr. McMullan imagined Anna at the gunwale of the ship seeing Bangkok for the first time. (“Too small and precious-feeling to represent a big elaborate musical” was Mr. Sher’s response, according to Mr. McMullan.) In the third, the more sweeping image — the show’s final poster art — Anna is surrounded by an oversized dark curtain inscribed with Siamese dancers and temple figures, giving it a “romantic and mysterious quality,” Mr. McMullan said.

‘The Royale’ (2016)


A fighter’s taunting pose inspired this artwork for Marco Ramirez’s play about a black boxer in the Jim Crow South. In the first image, a triangle of small white boxers advances on the main figure; in the second — modeled after Mr. McMullan’s own photograph of the actor Khris Davis, who starred in the show — they surround the larger boxer in varying directions. Advised by “the approvers” — including André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater — to make the poster less complicated and more direct, Mr. McMullan used just a single figure for the final piece, erasing the “tiny white champions messing up the composition,” as he put it.

‘How to Transcend a Happy Marriage’ (2017)

In Ms. Ruhl’s new play, a mysterious, polyamorous, birdlike young woman named Pip disrupts the lives of two couples at a New Year’s Eve party in New Jersey. Mr. McMullan said his initial piece (far left) — Pip with bow and arrow atop a dinner table — “was warmly received but judged too naked for publication.” In the second, Pip is clothed “in the age-old trick of magically adhesive floating drapery,” an image that Ms. Ruhl and Rebecca Taichman, the show’s director, found “too aggressive,” according to Mr. McMullan. In the final image, Pip steps more delicately as she makes a mess of the table settings.

A version of this article appears in print on January 24, 2017, on Page C2 of the New York edition with the headline: Drawn to Perfection.

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