Davis was born on February 10, 1938 in Centrahoma, Oklahoma. His father who was a Methodist minister was given assignments that took him to different towns, including Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Davis attended Will Rogers High School. He was always interested in drawing, so at fifteen he took a job with a local illustrator, Dave Santee, doing odd jobs around the studio. He left Tulsa for New York City when he graduated at seventeen. New York in the early fifties was the place where a young illustrator could either flourish or be stuck in the salt mines of the art service agencies. Davis was lucky, for at this time a revolution with a profound impact on the method and content of illustration was beginning at The Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later renamed The School of Visual Arts) where he attended both day and night classes. Robert Weaver, Phil Hays, George Tscherny, Sal Bue, Tom Allen and Eugene Karlin offered classes in illustration and design that engaged the young Davis. "It was a turning point in American illustration," he says. "It was a rejection of Norman Rockwell, who was at his best a great Flemish painter and at his worst a bad cartoonist, as well as of the entrenched Westport style of romantic illustration."
Although Paul Davis was not among this first wave, he was swept up by it and soon contributed to the illustration and design of the epoch. By the early 1960s, he had developed a distinct visual persona which, owing to a unique confluence of primitive and folk arts, brought a fresh new American look to illustration. In a relatively short time he was among the most prolific of the new illustrators, and his style had a staggering impact on the field. Yet by the late 1960s, during a period of personal success, he was no longer content to simply repeat his triumphs. Davis enjoyed looking in new directions and indeed change and surprise have been his trademark. From the sixties to the present, he has contributed some paradigmatic approaches to the eclectic mix of American graphic art.
"I don't feel like I've ever thrown anything away," says Davis about these varied directions in illustration, book jacket and poster design that define a career of over thirty years. "One of the artists I admire most is Picasso because experimentation is one of his strengths. He neither felt the need to be consistent nor to reject one method simply because he found another? He said that 'some artists just turn out little cakes.' If I wanted to do that I would have become a baker—that's not why I became an artist. Style is a voice one chooses for its effect, and I want to be able to use as many voices as possible."
A decade ago Davis' voice was heard primarily through his illustration and posters. Today he is the principal of a small graphic design studio located in a downtown New York loft which he runs with his writer and editor wife, Myrna. He has garnered a diverse client roster and, in addition to editorial illustration, the occasional mural, the periodic book project, the print advertising account for a New York classical radio station and frequent pro bono work for various advocacy groups, Davis serves as the art director for Joseph Papp's New York Shakepeare Festival, as well as for Normal and Wigwag magazines. It is as an art director that Davis shows new creative ferment.
Davis' high school art teacher, Hortense Bateholts, introduced him to the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe and the Regionalists, Thomas Hart Benton and John Stuart Curry. He also had a grounding in Western art including work by Alexander Hogue and Charles Banks Wilson. Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum has an excellent collection of Western Art including many paintings by Russell, Remington, Bierstadt and Catlin. Davis therefore became rather skilled at realistic rendering. Art school taught him how to see, feel and expressionistically record his observations. But when the time came to make a commercial portfolio, Davis decided to set this knowledge aside and draw like a five-year-old. "I became interested in artists like Joan Miro and Paul Klee and their child-like approach to painting," he says. His teachers responded with mixed reviews: Weaver was against it. Hays, Bue and Tscherny approved, reasoning that it was a fascinating and necessary return to elemental form. At the end of the semester Hays arranged for Davis to have a small exhibition at the school. "Some students were upset that I was violating the rules of academic drawing," he recalls, "and Weaver, as he said years later, was disappointed that I did not become one of his imitators. He felt that I could have carried the torch—I consider that a huge compliment." Not only did Davis get some needed reinforcement from his teachers, but he also got an agent who landed him a freelance assignment with Playboy. A job from Art Paul, art director of Playboy, represented the epitome of professional success.
"As a student I got several freelance projects, and so I thought illustration was going to be really easy," recallse Davis. "Of course, it turned out that I was only able to get one job every three or four months—and for a meager $50 to $75 at that." Everyone who saw the portfolio liked Davis' work but would invariably refer him to other art directors. And since assignments were not forthcoming he took a freelance mechanical job at Redbook magazine. Sal Bue suggested that he present his work to Push Pin Studios. It was 1959, and Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser had already become the "hottest designers in New York" for their graphic revivals and inventions. "I'm not certain why, but I had never thought of taking my portfolio there," says Davis about the first meeting. "In those days, you could sort of walk into someone's office unannounced, and they would actually see you. I remember showing my work to [Push Pin's agent] Jane Lander who called in Seymour and Milton. Though they apparently liked it, Milton said, 'You can never sell that stuff.' I said, 'What are you talking about? You sell stuff that's just as outrageous?' Anyway they didn't offer me a job. Three months later I was working for Redbook, and Jane called to ask if I'd bring my portfolio around again. I assumed they might offer me an apprenticeship, but they didn't. When I was offered the job of assistant art director of Good Housekeeping, I called Push Pin to tell them that I'd prefer working for them, and Seymour said, "Well, why don't you come in the next Monday?' That's how I finally got a job doing comps and mechanicals."
One couldn't have found a better place to work. Not only was Push Pin's star on the rise, but Glaser, Chwast and co-founder Reynold Ruffins were terrific teachers of art history and technique. Among the many useful tricks of the trade, Davis learned how to render a kind of cross-hatched "Push pin drawing" using a speedball pen on thick watercolor paper. It was decorative and exactly what the clients wanted, particularly for spots, which is what Davis was assigned to do from time to time. "After a few months Milton said, 'We'd like to represent.' You could have knocked me over," Davis recalls. "At twenty-two, I was made a bona-fide member of the studio." Push Pin represented many up-and-comers, later most notably James McMullan, and was well-known for its ambitious thematic self-promotional pieces (among them the early Push Pin Almanack followed by the Push Pin Graphic) which allowed Push Pin artists the freedom to make images and design. Davis and another new member, Isadore Seltzer, jointly illustrated an issue on how the Kings and Queens of England died. It was witty and smart. However, while many art directors liked Davis' work, few assignments resulted from this promotion piece. So he continued to do "utility" work at the studio as well as drawings for a children's book, spots for Chemical Bank, and designs for some book jackets (which was a fruitful proving ground for his poster style). "I continued to try to find a way to do work that was both gratifying and salable," says Davis.
Davis developed an interest in American primitive painting and folk art as well as in the faded wooden signs that defined 18th- and 19th-century American commerce. "The fifties were a particularly nationalistic time, especially in the arts," he ways about the search for a native culture that was occurring then. "People were taking about what is American. [Despite abstract expressionism,] Europe was still the acknowledged leader in the arts, and many people did not believe that Americans even had a culture. But in 1959 Jasper Johns showed his American flag paintings. It was unmistakable American. I also remember going to the Whitney Museum annual exhibitions where Larry Rivers and Robert Rauschenberg were shocking people with their new American visions." Davis' interest, like these other proto-Pop artists, was in American indigenous art because "there was no school here, there was no academia."
From these influences, Davis developed a benchmark series of targets painted on old bread boards. They had the patina of the naïve and were deliberately evocative of American folk art. These paintings were published in a special issue of the Push Pin Graphic in 1962. An eight-page feature of celebrity caricatures in Horizon magazine followed and suddenly brought Davis to the attention of some influential New York magazine and book art directors, including Bill Cadge of Redbook and Otto Storch of McCall's, who had built his magazine's typographic identity on Victorian woodtypes consistent with Davis' American theme. Regular appearances in other nationally distributed publications soon followed as did a plethora of book jackets and record covers.
Given the tenor of the times, it is logical that Davis became a sought-after illustrator. Through Push Pin's revivals of art nouveau and art deco, advertising agencies had been conditioned to accept nostalgia as an effective selling tool. But in the early 1960s, there was no other American illustrator drawing inspiration from regionalism, folk art and colonial paintings (though it is now a cliché). "I was trying to distill their essence and not make my pictures eccentrically styled or distorted," says Davis about the introduction of an American-ness to illustration. But he soon combined this with the language of the Belgian surrealist painter, René Magritte, whose symbolic and metaphorical approach was virtually untapped by other commercial artists before Davis incorporated it into his own work. It was Glaser who informed Davis that he was unintentionally applying Magritte's vocabulary. "One day I was painting one of my folk paintings as Milton passed by. He said that it looked like a Magritte. I didn't really know much about him, but I quickly got very interested in a surrealistic approach as a way to convey ideas."
As much as he learned and as happy as he was at Push Pin Studios, Davis felt compelled to leave in 1963 owing to creative, but more importantly, financial reasons. "I was getting divorced [from his first wife]? and I really had to make some more money to support myself, my ex-wife and child." Within months of leaving the fold he began doing a lot of work for Robert Benton at Esquire and Henry Wolf at Show. The freedoms he was given by Dick Gangel at Sports Illustrated and Frank Zachary at Holiday also allowed Davis to hone his conceptual skills over time.
One of Davis' stylistic evolutions occurred between the late sixties and early seventies, and manifested itself in, among other things, a cover (and poster) for Evergreen Review in 1967 and a daybook/calendar for Olivetti published in 1974. For the left-wing arts and politics journal Evergreen, Davis contributed iconographic portraits of Robert F. Kennedy and other sixties celebrities, but the most memorable was an almost religious depiction of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, whose exploits in South America had become mythologized by the American New Left. In this image, Davis eschewed the Early American conceit for a synthesis of Italian religious art and socialist realism. "I was trying to make the image of a martyr," says Davis about this now famous artifact of the era. "I didn't realize the potency of the symbol at the times, but when the cover and later the poster appeared, Evergreen's offices were firebombed [by Cuban emigres]." For the elegantly designed Olivetti daybook, Davis painted over a dozen images in which one can trace the rejection of certain technical conceits and see radical changes in perspective and composition from the stiffness and motionlessness of his primitives to a more photographic sensibility. "I tried to erase the traces of American primitive art because it was becoming a trap," he admits. "I wanted to rid my work of all the elements that referred to other styles. And within a year or two, I had eliminated a lot of self-consciousness from my work." With the most successful paintings in this book, and subsequent images too, Davis began to "depend more on the beauty of objects" and depict scenes rather than ideas.
Probably Davis' most significant contribution to American graphic design is his theater posters. His Hamlet and subsequent posters for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival done during the mid-1970s challenged the conventions of contemporary theater advertising (particularly posters) in three ways: First, they were not encumbered by the usual bank of "ego" copy. "Those early posters didn't say anything: no Joe Papp; no Shakespeare Festival; no actors. I didn't even sign them at first (and only self-consciously used my initials when I first began to do so). The only lettering was the title of the play and the name of the theater, though we realized later that is wouldn't hurt to mention that his was, in fact, a Shakespeare Festival production and began to include a logo." Second, without mimicking style, Davis' posters referred to the late 19th-century European tradition of poster art which was ignored by the contemporary posterists. "I don't think there's anyone better than Toulouse Lautrec when it comes to posters," says Davis about Lautrec's distinctive balance between complexity and simplicity. Davis' early posters were also quite stark, employing a central image with simple type either stenciled or silk-screened directly on the artwork (as he did with Hamlet in collaboration with art director Reinhold Schwenk) or seamlessly integrated into the composition (as with the Three Penny Opera). "The history of The Shakespeare Festival posters says a lot about the way the posters are used," he says. "I have often made comments in the posters about the way posters look on walls and in the environment in which they are hung. Many of my posters for the Festival have had that self-conscious quality about being a poster." One of his classic examples, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, shows the main figure with the title lettering scrawled on a tiled subway wall where, in fact, the poster was intended to be hung. The third, and final, challenge to conventional theater posters was his basic methodology. Davis read the play, went to the rehearsals or readings, and talked to the actors and directors. "They seemed to think," he says, "that I was doing this revolutionary thing by actually reading the scripts."
By the eighties, Davis had created a rather impressive body of posters, many reproduced in The Poster Art of Paul Davis (1977) and Faces (1985). Most of them were realistically and eloquently painted with acrylic. But, true to form, Davis was not content to limit himself to any one stylistic method. He had always been an expert draftsman and drew with ease. Many of his more recent posters are simple sketch-like drawings in colored pencil or pastel. He also enjoyed working with collage, which in recent years, has become one of his methods of choice. He says, "Leonardo Da Vinci advised artists to 'look at the stains on the walls.' Collage is a similar process of uncovering images and ideas." Davis also likes collage because the approach is counterpoint to painting. "One of the ways I make a painting is to photograph an object and then try to paint it as real as possible. In other words, I start with an image in my mind and then try to make it happen on the canvas, which can get very tedious towards the middle of the process. With collage I cut up some magazines and start sticking pictures into place, and then my imagination begins to work." But reality does have a strong place in Davis' repertoire, and he says, "every so often I really enjoy making things faithful to the way they appear to me."
Consistent with his characteristic wanderlust, Davis always resists the status quo. Responding to a need to follow his muse, he moved his family to Sag Harbor, Long Island, in 1968 with the hope of devoting himself to painting. He accepted only a few commercial jobs from his agent to pay the bills. The interlude did provide a modicum of freedom, but it had it downside, too. "Sometimes I think one of the best periods of my work was the worst period of my life in a way. I isolated myself and was not very social. Everyday life with its interruptions is much more interesting, but is not as conducive to painting. On the other hand, if you isolate yourself, you run out of things to say."
In 1984 Davis returned to New York City and opened Davis & Russek, a short-lived advertising agency, with the goal of creating considerably better theatrical ads and promotion than convention had previously allowed. Davis had already worked on campaigns for The New York Shakespeare Festival and The Big Apple Circus with his new partner Jim Russek, but found that doing it from the advertising side was not as interesting as being a designer/illustrator. The agency was dissolved, but Davis maintained a good creative relationship with Russek and their former clients. He also assumed the art directorship of the New York Shakespeare Festival, overseeing daily ads, posters, and Broadway theater marquees. As art director, Davis has had to muster all his skills and tools. He also got to exercise his typographic sensibility.
Given the needs of the Shakespeare Festival for what Davis calls a "critical mass" of printed material, one might have assumed that his hands were full enough when he was approached by editor Gini Alhadeff to design a new cultural magazine called Normal. Davis had never designed a magazine before, but he saw this as a good opportunity to follow another muse. In lieu of a strict format, he devised a strategy. Every story was to be independently designed so that the layout itself would illustrate the content of the piece. Each of the dozen or so stories was treated to a different typographical approach right down to the page numbers. The first two issues received mixed reviews, some saying that I looked too much like a student project, others praising it highly. Paul Gottlieb, the publisher of Harry N. Abrams, called it "the most beautiful magazine since Verve" [an elegant French revue of the arts published between 1937-60]. Davis was pleased with his baptism into publication design and the lessons it taught him. "I work with young designers who are terrific with type and whom I encourage to have fun," says Davis with pride. "Sometimes I think I'm being very experimental, but I'm always concerned with legibility and communication. So while I try to shake things up, I'm probably not as experimental as others who are pushing the limits with approaches I haven't even dreamed of."
Davis is afforded considerable freedom owing to Normal's sporadic schedule (only four issues in three and a half years) and refusal to carry advertising (each issue is intended to be underwritten by one or more sponsors). Wigwag, the next magazine he was asked to art direct has more conventional commercial ambitions, including a regular schedule of ten issues a year and advertising. Wigwag was conceived in 1988 as a literate, lively, alternative to the venerable New Yorker. Davis was asked to be its art director because its editor, Alexander Kaplen, was reminded that he liked Davis' work when he saw the bus and telephone booth posters that Davis had done for the New York classical radio station, WNCN. These colorful, collage-like drawings are rendered with colored pencil and effectively celebrate the youthful vitality of the radio station while emphasizing its classical orientation. "Lex is exceptional," says Davis. "Most people don't think about hiring a magazine art director based on his or her drawing ability." Indeed, art directors for the major magazines are often selected from the same gene pool—they've either designed highly visible publications or were the associates of those who have—and that is why most magazines today look alike. Wigwag wanted to be different in look and content. And Davis, still fresh in terms of magazine art direction, provides that characters.
Davis has given Wigwag a more standardized format than Normal, but the identity is less to be found in the typography, than in the visual contents. "I function as an editor of illustration," says Davis. Wigwag is awash with drawings and illustration of all description and styles because Kaplen and Davis love illustration. Its covers are primarily illustrative, having been done by the old masters (among them Robert Weaver and Ivan Chermayeff) and newcomers alike. Inside most of the stories are illustrated with drawings, collages, or 3-dimensional pieces. Even the column headings are rendered by illustrators who combine "expressionistic lettering" and image. Concerning the abundant use of illustration over photography, Davis admits it is his bias, though photography is being introduced. The June 1990 cover, in fact, features a young woman on a beach photographed by Davis himself. In answer to the question, "How do the readers like having their senses jarred by unusual graphic approaches?" He says, "I believe that people are much more sophisticated than most of us imagine. And one of the ways of finding our audience is by treating them as literate." Despite the fact that Wigwag is still too young to attract a loyal audience, Davis' art directorial strategy has pumped new life into the curiously tired field of illustration.
Davis' own illustration seems to have taken more turns in the past few years than during his whole career. The word "reinvention" comes to mind. The first inkling of this came in 1985 with his Mobil poster for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Although the realistic painting of Holmes and Watson (modeled after photographs of the actors) is definitely Davis' signature, the typography is a mixture of Russian constructivism and art deco, unlike anything Davis had done before. Given that the Holmes tales are pre-European avant-garde, on the surface this seemed like an odd juxtaposition of forms. In fact, it was Davis in his experimental mode. His quotation of historical form is both a means of learning about and playing with that form. "I did this when I first opened the studio. I had been getting to the point where I had been doing too much of the same. So I began to think about typography as being equal to the image. I looked more closely at El Lissitzky and other avant-gardists. In this case my assistant, Jose Conde, and I took their typographic forms and just started playing with them until we achieved a combination that was pleasing to our eyes.
But is this kind of appropriation too nostalgic? "I don't think so," answer Davis. "I was trying to avoid being nostalgic. Particularly because it was Sherlock Holmes, I was really trying to do something that was 1985 rather than 1890. What I saw in the juxtaposition of the image and type was not nostalgia, but power. It is really going back to the roots of graphic design. So I'd call it research and development."
"Some uses of history are both personal and practical," writes John Olive in the essay The Use of the Past. "?some knowledge of history?enables me to solace myself with the reflection that others before me tried to work while in pain, failed for a while, but in the end managed to finish the task at hand." Davis' process underscores this notion. For over thirty years he has used history for the goal of researching and developing his art. But despite the numerous routes taken, he says, "It seems to me that you always have to come back to being simple, essential and topical." That this has resulted in so many influential approaches is a tribute, not to what Paul Davis calls his wanderlust but to an unending aesthetic journey to find truth, discover form, develop ideas, and create distinctive art.