Meet the Illustrator Behind Lincoln Center’s Most Memorable Posters
By Mark Rozzo
James McMullan, the Toulouse-Lautrec of contemporary New York, has captured the city’s cultural pulse with his inimitable posters for the Lincoln Center Theater. After three decades, the artist still treats his daunting mandate as if he were just starting out.
James McMullan’s first theater poster, for Comedians, in 1976. Opposite, the artist, photographed in New York’s Central Park.
Photograph by Jonathan Becker.
In 1979, the illustrator James McMullan was invited to mount a one-man show at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City. At that point, McMullan had been at it since the mid-1950s, and a retrospective was in order. His winsome, instantly identifiable watercolors, occupying their own territory between dreamy and brooding, along with his dashing signature—the eight letters of his last name rendered in stylish flicks of a sable brush—had been omnipresent in the pages of Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, GQ, New West, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and New York, where he was a contributing editor; on the covers of books (Borges and Durrell) and record albums (Poco); in corporate brochures and advertisements for everything from anti-psychotic drugs to Caprolan, a kind of nylon; and, lately, on theater posters, including a particularly eye-popping one for the 1976 Broadway production of Trevor Griffiths’s Comedians, directed by Mike Nichols. Here, McMullan depicted the actor Jonathan Pryce doubling over in a paroxysm of laughter, his character no doubt cracking up at one of his own jokes. The image had as much bang as an exploding firecracker. It was an invitation to fun and hilarity, laced with devilry: the stand-up comic’s desperation and neediness are laid out for all to see in brushstrokes that are as exquisite as they are unforgiving.
For the retrospective’s poster, McMullan now put his scalpel-like skills to work on himself. The self-portrait he came up with revealed similar layers—the light lights and the dark darks. It shows the bespectacled, 45-year-old illustrator in profile, done in a wet wash of happy mauves and aquamarines: a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged milquetoast. He is surrounded by some of the hard-nut subjects he tackled for magazines: teamsters, denizens of ratty Brooklyn discos. McMullan’s brush extends into a white void, where it sketches out a gangster character, a noir-ish guy in a fedora who happens to be pointing the business end of a revolver right at McMullan’s face.
McMullan survived the encounter. As many New Yorkers know, he has gone on to create a seemingly limitless stream of posters for Lincoln Center Theater, beginning in 1986 with John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves. He’s averaged about three a year since then, the most recent—No. 87—being for Dominique Morriseau’s Pipeline.The McMullan-Lincoln Center partnership is remarkable not only for its longevity, consistency, and amicableness but also for its visual imprint on both the contemporary theater and New York City. It might not be that much of a stretch to say that McMullan, who is hardly a household name, is to modern-day New York what Toulouse-Lautrec was to 19th-century Paris: the poster artist who sums up the spirit of his age. Guare has said as much over the years, and when I asked him about the McMullan/Toulouse-Lautrec connection not long ago, he emphasized the point: “I would repeat that! Those posters are a visual manifestation of what’s entertaining us now.”
A self-portrait for a McMullan retrospective at the School of Visual Arts, 1979; McMullan in his N.Y.C. loft, 1958.
From The School Of Visual Arts Archives/Glaser Archives/Visual Arts Foundation.
In person, McMullan, who turned 83 in June, is as unassuming as Toulouse-Lautrec was outré: mild-mannered and given to gray flannels, wingtips, and wire-rims. I brought up the 1979 retrospective poster—the nearest thing to a definitive McMullan self-depiction—with him at the recently inaugurated James McMullan gallery, in the lobby of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, at Lincoln Center. The gallery displays the original watercolors of an array of memorable posters—among them, Anything Goes, Arcadia, Six Degrees of Separation, Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I—and a new mural by the artist depicting a crowd of theatergoers (including William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln) stampeding across Lincoln Center plaza ahead of curtain time. Is the self-portrait a metaphor for the treacherous act of picture-making, the drama of creation, the clear and present danger involved with every dip of the brush? McMullan deflected this overheated line of inquiry with a few sensible strokes. “Oh, I was just flaunting my effeteness,” he said. “By painting these tough guys, I found a way of overcoming them.”
On the surface McMullan, with his self-effacing, wry wit, is Mr. Mellow. The man who is arguably the greatest illustrator of contemporary drama—and perhaps the greatest living poster artist—turns out to be decidedly no-drama. But creating poster after poster, year after year, with multi-layered input from directors, playwrights, and programmers, can really be nothing but perilous. With each new poster for each new Lincoln Center play or musical, McMullan’s daunting mandate is to create a work of art that unlocks the soul of another work of art, all while looking great on a bus shelter and ensuring that butts, as the theater parlance goes, land in seats. (And doing it all months in advance of opening night.) McMullan is a full-time metaphor seeker, forever in hot pursuit of the perfect, single, framable image that sums up an entire, complex production. (“I’m like Houdini,” he said of his artistic predicament. “I’m in the straitjacket.”) So far, he’s performed this neat trick with a stunningly high rate of success upon a roster of playwrights that, along with Guare, includes August Wilson, Edward Albee, Clifford Odets, Tom Stoppard, Wendy Wasserstein, David Hare, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Cole Porter, Sarah Ruhl, and William Shakespeare.
In the depths below the Lincoln Center theaters, hallways extend in every direction, lined with dressing rooms and rows of McMullan posters—the 41-by-81-inch “three-sheets” you find on Metro-North platforms and subway walls. It’s a virtual underground McMullan museum. The actress and singer Kelli O’Hara has spent countless hours down there, having starred in three productions that McMullan has done posters for: The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, and The King and I. “You dream of being on those posters!” she said. “The emotion that’s conjured up staring at those day after day: it can bring me to tears; they’re so much a part of my life.”
They have also become a huge part of the life of one of America’s greatest cultural institutions. After 30-plus years, McMullan and Lincoln Center are synonymous. As Lincoln Center Theater artistic director André Bishop put it, “The body of work he’s created for the Lincoln Center Theater has been indelible. If we didn’t even put our name on it, people would know it was Lincoln Center Theater.” Bartlett Sher, the director of South Pacific, The King and I, and the forthcoming My Fair Lady,concurred: “When you think of Lincoln Center, your image of it is one of his posters.” (McMullan has done posters for seven Sher productions.)
McMullan refuses to take any of it for granted, or to blow his own horn, or to slow down. “I’m on probation,” he said of his remarkable streak. “It’s my 30th year of probation!”
That probationary feeling may have something to do with McMullan’s peripatetic boyhood. He was born in Qingdao, China, in 1934 and grew up in Yantai (formerly Chefoo). His grandparents were Anglo-Irish missionaries who started a lace-manufacturing business in China in the late 19th century. During the Second World War, McMullan and his mother shipped out due to the Japanese occupation, ending up in British Columbia with relatives in the provincial outback and, later, on Salt Spring Island, across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver. Then it was on to Darjeeling and a spell at boarding school, then back to China (Shanghai this time), and then back to British Columbia. He lived in 10 houses in 11 years.
One day in September of 1945, a month after the end of the war, while the 11-year-old McMullan was at school in Darjeeling, a soldier he didn’t know invited him to a local café for an ice-cream sundae. The two had a pleasant chat, and as the boy was finishing his treat the soldier announced that McMullan’s father, Lieutenant Colonel James Cornwall McMullan, British Army, had died in a military-plane crash. (McMullan’s youth is stunningly chronicled in his illustrated 2014 memoir, Leaving China.)
Guare calls McMullan’s childhood “the key to him,” the reason he is so “quiet and to the point and terribly intuitive.” (Shades of that childhood filter into his Lincoln Center work: the puckish commentary on colonialism in the South Pacific poster, an out-of-place student’s alienation in Pipeline.) McMullan describes his boyhood self as a “sissy kid” and a “show-off.” He was a natural bully target. The relative loneliness of his upbringing, and his outsiderness, prompted him to take refuge in art: drawing a credible Bambi at age seven, progressing through superheroes, and, eventually, taking up a tutorship in Canada with a painter named Plato Ustinov, the Russian-aristocrat uncle of the actor Peter Ustinov. McMullan affectionately remembers him as “a bit of a hack.” Art school in Seattle and the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, followed.
In the 1950s, McMullan mostly did book jackets for E. P. Dutton. “I would get $110 a cover,” he says, “and rent was $35 a month for a cold-water flat on Sullivan Street.” One initial inspiration was Norman Rockwell, but fine artists such as Ben Shahn and Max Beckmann made a decisive impact: “We went wild making many neo-German-Expressionist illustrations,” McMullan once recalled of that time; many of them were for girlie magazines. In 1966 he joined the legendary Push Pin Studios design firm, founded in 1954 by Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and Edward Sorel; a mock travel poster he did at Push Pin, “Head Out to Oz,” has all the trippy psychedelic touches you might imagine. Even so, McMullan’s style was conspicuously naturalistic and painterly compared with those of his Push Pin brethren.
HE IS TO MODERN-DAY NEW YORK WHAT TOULOUSE-LAUTREC WAS TO 19TH-CENTURY PARIS.
McMullan began selling illustrations to New York shortly after the magazine was launched, in 1968; by 1974 he was a contributing editor. (He left Push Pin in 1969.) During the 70s, McMullan became a go-to journalist-illustrator, his unmistakable watercolors and drawings accompanying everything from a Nabokov novella in Esquire to an excerpt from Joan Didion’s The White Album in New West. The subjects were frequently gritty: Times Square hustlers, pool sharks, “paranoia.” The big one was a 1976 story in New York about an emerging dance culture in the outer reaches of Brooklyn, written by the swaggering British writer Nik Cohn. “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” was an instant sensation. McMullan’s snapshot-like watercolors could only have helped convince the producer Robert Stigwood that this was a movie waiting to be made: Saturday Night Fever. “The disco story,” Cohn later wrote, “might never have seen daylight without” McMullan’s handiwork.
With the Lincoln Center Theater relationship, which began under founding executive producer Bernard Gersten and director Gregory Mosher, McMullan fully ascended to the status of illustrator’s illustrator, draftsman’s draftsman, watercolorist’s watercolorist. Gersten proudly called him “an artistic collaborator in our theater”—not just a picture-maker for hire. Bishop, who took over from Mosher in January 1992, calls McMullan “a true artist,” whose work transcends advertising—and illustration—in its virtuosity, complexity, and expressiveness: the emotional shadings, the layers of meaning, the mischievous wit, the dark undertow. McMullan’s posters are, fittingly, every bit as challenging, and as entertaining, as Lincoln Center’s remarkable plays. They also transcend their moment: they are not dated, kitsch, or camp. There’s no retro mania for vintage McMullans as there is for B-movie posters or schlock paperbacks from the Mad Men era. McMullan’s illustrations—from any decade—look fresh. And seen whizzing past from a subway window, a McMullan poster, as Guare put it, can “burrow itself into your unconscious for years and years.”
Walter Bernard, Milton Glaser, and McMullan at New York magazine, early 1970s.
For 45 years McMullan did much of his work out of a studio at his house in Sag Harbor, New York, a 1950s prefab perched on Upper Sag Harbor Cove that he bought in 1970. Two years ago, he relocated back to Manhattan, where his new studio occupies a generic one-bedroom apartment five floors up in a brick tenement on a tree-lined Upper West Side block. The sounds of recess at the public elementary school across the street filter through the windows. Like the man himself, the studio is neat and uncluttered. The walls are covered with various McMullans—originals, posters, prints, a piece about him from The New York Times, mounted and framed by his daughter, Leigh McMullan Abramson, a lawyer turned writer who has contributed to The Atlantic and other publications. McMullan has been married to his wife (and Leigh’s mother), the writer Kate McMullan, since 1979. Together, they have authored an ongoing series of children’s books with titles such as I Stink (about a garbage truck) and I’m Mighty(about a tugboat). The books are modern classics and have become the basis of a new Amazon video series, The Stinky & Dirty Show.
His workstation, with its tilted drafting table, displays an envy-inducing degree of orderliness: Kolinsky sable brushes stand in tall containers, and the white-enamel butcher’s trays he uses as palettes are lined up according to color groups, arrayed with discrete blobs of watercolor paint. (McMullan has a special affection for the cobalt blue made by the Schmincke company.) For a guy who spends his waking hours channeling the Sturm und Drang of Lincoln Center’s dramatic productions, the place is—true to form—conspicuously drama-free.
This is where McMullan works from 9:30 until 5:30 every weekday, with a martini at the finish line. When he gets the call from Lincoln Center, he first reads the play or watches an earlier adaptation on video. He can start the visual brainstorming with a ballpoint pen on a legal pad or on old Filofax sheets. The ensuing process can be byzantine and arduous, best characterized by a line he used in 1998’s The Theater Posters of James McMullan, one of two illuminating books he wrote documenting the creation of his Lincoln Center posters: “Take two Prozac and call me in the morning.” (McMullan’s writings on illustration add up to arguably the most probing and entertaining investigation into the genre ever attempted.)
In McMullan’s case, the proverbial drawing board is frequently returned to as he sifts through sketches and ideas and layers of feedback from Lincoln Center. There’s a give-and-take, often lively. “He can get hot under the collar,” Bishop said. “He’ll defend the things he strongly believes in.” But just as easily McMullan will shift gears, like an actor toggling through different approaches to a character, until he strikes gold, ending up, as Sher put it, “somewhere mind-blowingly great you never could have imagined.” (A Stanford University business professor, McMullan said, uses the artist’s process as a way of teaching the concept of flexibility.)
When the approach has been decided on, McMullan typically employs a method he perfected during his years in journalism: taking photographs to get what he calls “information.” Models or, if available, actors pose. McMullan is an artist obsessed with the body, and all of his theater posters contain figures, often full-length ones. “In terms of the posters of the 20th century,” he said, “there are more feet in my posters than anyone else’s.” A typical McMullan image is all about movement and intense physicality: the heavily seated figure in his two classic posters for Six Degrees of Separation, the backside of the comely, broad-hatted passenger on the deck of a ship in the Anything Goes poster, all Art Deco curves. He is a master of the telling gesture, the writhing contortion, the fleeting expression: the illustrator’s classic tools.
When he’s ready to get down to business, he breaks into a special stash of watercolor paper, none of it made after the year 1955. The vintage stuff, McMullan says, has the right balance of absorption and resistance. His precious stockpile is now down to 80 sheets. (“It’s a race to the finish—whoever goes first, me or the paper.”) He tends to work small, sometimes four by eight inches. The fine lines you see on a McMullan poster are done with brushes—no pencils or pens. Much of what he does is “wet on wet,” that is, fields of watercolor meeting, or “fusing,” before they dry. This leads to a sustained series of accidents that bring energy to the image and excitement to the artist. “My work involves so much risk,” McMullan says. Sometimes the accidents aren’t so happy and the work ends up in the trash bin. Occasionally McMullan will execute an elaborate watercolor background, as with the poster for Albee’s A Delicate Balance. He’ll let it dry, admire it, and then attack it with an overlay in gouache (usually the figures), another technique that gamely courts disaster. If all goes well, the finished art is on its way to Lincoln Center, ready to be blown up into a three-sheet, with McMullan’s hand-painted, always striking lettering—remember South Pacific?—done on an affixed sheet of clear plastic.
You think of theater posters as having to pummel weary subway riders with screaming graphics, hard edges, riotous color. Yet McMullan’s watercolors and gouaches, for all their relative softness, cut through the urban noise. They’re the stage whispers that turn all heads. (Like anything posted in subway stations, McMullan’s posters are vulnerable to graffiti, a lopsided kind of collaboration that gallery and museum artists rarely endure.) Even so, there have been strikeouts along the way, such as the poster McMullan attempted in 1988 for a Mike Nichols production of Waiting for Godot. Nichols dinged the poster, apparently having made up his mind that he didn’t want a McMullan for the show, no matter how great and no matter how much Lincoln Center wanted one. It’s an experience that still sticks in the artist’s craw. “He accused me of not reading the play,” McMullan said. “Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a reader, and I do that part of the job.” The illustration showed an empty suit of clothes in the act of walking, the trousers going one way, the coat the other, a concept plucked from the first act of the play. (Small vindication: the poster was later printed and, according to McMullan, various people involved in the production bought and framed it.)
But those disappointments are rare, not unlike McMullan originals. The artist tends to hang on to them or give them to archives (such as the expansive James McMullan Collection at New York’s School of Visual Arts) or gift them to a lucky actor, director, or playwright. Prints and posters can be had at the Triton Gallery, in New York City; they’re a steal, often under $1,000 a pop. (The odd piece shows up on eBay from time to time.) Perhaps the modest prices reflect the fate of the lowly illustrator, even one as off-the-charts as McMullan, in an art market gone mad. As the caricaturist and satirist Edward Sorel, an admirer of McMullan’s, put it, “We live in a world with Jeff Koons—and the Motherwells and Franz Klines and Andy Warhols—and other extremely no-talent idiots that the world takes seriously as artists, while we, who take ourselves seriously as artists, are ignored as simply being ‘commercial.’ ” With trademark sarcasm, Sorel characterizes himself and McMullan—and, by extension, their illustrator ilk—as “the only sane people in an insane world.”
LINCOLN CENTER OF ATTENTION
‘The worst poster I’ve ever done.” Back at Lincoln Center, McMullan paused before one of his works, inspecting it closely. It’s for a show from about 10 years ago, and one of the figures is a veteran Broadway and Lincoln Center actress. “She still hates me for this,” he said with a smile, adjusting his wire-rims. The depiction, after all, isn’t exactly flattering. But it looks exactly like her.
You can’t help but wonder if McMullan’s is a dying art. In the age of social media and logos and InDesign, how could it not be? “This art is going to look prehistoric in not too many years,” McMullan said. But he didn’t seem perturbed. For now, there’s another memoir to get done and a children’s book about a pickup truck to illustrate. And there’s Lincoln Center poster No. 88 to turn in. This one is for next spring’s production of My Fair Lady, directed by Sher.
McMullan suddenly seemed eager to return to his studio and continue work on the new poster. He stood at the corner of West 65th and Broadway, ready to head uptown. A street-mounted Pipeline poster was visible behind him—an odd, alfresco tableau of the artist and his art, one that, after 31 years, McMullan is accustomed to. It was again time to get back to the drawing board, to try out more ideas, to crank out more sketches, hoping something might stick and the streak might stay alive: yet another classic McMullan. He didn’t seem to care how long it might take or how impossible the task might seem. “I love working,” McMullan said, turning to leave. “So what if I have to go back and do the whole thing over again? What else am I going to do with my life, you know?”