Arriving at Grand Central Station one morning in 1990, I was transfixed by a poster that hung to the side of Gate 22. I stopped to stare, thus becoming an annoying impediment to those rushing to work. The poster was unlike any other I’d ever seen. It was a pastel drawing on umber-colored paper, of a man sitting on a chair looking straight at me. He had a somewhat questioning expression on his face, and was drawn so large that the two-sheet poster wasn’t large enough to encompass his entire body. It was advertising a new play, Six Degrees of Separation.
God! It was beautiful. And I knew the man who had drawn it! Jim McMullan. He was that quiet guy I’d met when I visited my friends Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser at Pushpin Studios. Jim was on staff there. My introduction to him was brief, but in 1968, when New York magazine began publication, and we both began illustrating its articles, we would run into each other. I admired his drawings, but one assignment he did in 1976 was outstanding. It was for an article by Nik Cohn titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” about working class Italian teen agers in Brooklyn, who lived for the disco dancing of Saturday night.
Milton Glaser, who together with Clay Felker started New York, gave him the assignment. Jim recalls, “It was Milton’s idea that I could act like a visual journalist. Instead of illustrating a story after it’s written, I’d be there at the beginning and develop my own story out of what I saw.” What he saw, besides the manic dancing, were anxious, melancholy youngsters facing a bleak future. Jim’s paintings, made from the photographs he took, used the weird shadows that flashbulbs throw off, to give those illustrations a frozen-moment-in-time look. They were extraordinary. When published, they helped persuade a Hollywood producer to buy Cohn’s article, and turn it into Saturday Night Fever.
That year, 1976, was the year the Evil One, Rupert Murdoch, finagled control of New York away from Clay and Milton, causing Jim and others to resign from the magazine. It was also the year that Jim was commissioned to design the poster for the play Comedians, and he was introduced to a sphere of graphic art where the artist must please not just one boss, but many: the producer, the playwright, the director, the star and sometimes the wavering producer’s wife. Not every artist has the temperament to put up with so many possible nay-sayers. Jim did. He also had the wisdom to accept criticisms that made sense. When director Mike Nichols told Jim that his sketches for Comedians looked too much like a book jacket, the artist accepted the fact that the difference in scale between the two meant that “a poster for a play has to state its case more quickly and overtly.” His poster for Comedians accomplished that with flair and stunning originality.
Ten years later, Bernard Gersten called on McMullan to create a poster for House of Blue Leaves, his first for the Lincoln Center Theater. Others followed, including his poster for Six Degrees of Separation, the one that had floored me when I spotted it in Grand Central Station. That morning, I wrote Jim a note to say how much I admired it, and won myself an invitation to lunch. A friendship followed, and we exchanged biographical information. My memories of growing up in The Bronx, seemed unworthy of mention, after Jim told me about his escape from the Japanese after they invaded China, his birthplace.
Jim’s grandparents were Anglo-Irish missionaries who came to China in the late 19th century. By the time Jim was born in 1934, his father, also James, was running the James McMullan Agency, a mini-conglomerate profitable enough to allow his family to support an orphanage, as well as a spacious house with big porches, a large greenhouse, a gardener, a cook, house servants, a chauffeur and a rickshaw man to take Jim to school. All that ended when the Japanese took over their city, Cheefoo. Jim and his mother shipped out and began their harrowing zig-zag journey across the globe. It ended in Darjeeling, India, where Jim was placed in a boarding school, only to learn that his mother, the only fixed point in his peripatetic life, was about to leave him there, and go with his father to another country.
Just before the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Jim’s father, then serving in the British Army, died in a plane crash, and Jim and his mother became wanderers again, ending up six years later in Seattle as permanent residents in the United States. Jim, now 17, was drafted into the Army, and thereby won his American citizenship. He then scooted to New York to study art at Pratt Institute, paying for his tuition by doing book jackets and magazine illustrations. He continued freelancing after graduation, but in 1963 joined Pushpin Studios, then at the peak of its reputation for innovative typography and eclectic illustration. His three years there were a sort of post-graduate course that sharpened his sense of design. Milton Glaser, who much admired Jim’s personal and distinct watercolor style, took every opportunity to propel McMullan’s career forward, and to this day, they remain the closest of friends.
Let me add, at this point, that Jim doesn’t seem to have any former friends. Who would want to miss out on the pleasure of being in the warm and witty company of Kate and Jim McMullan, or the beguiling charm of their daughter Leigh? How grateful we old friends are that Jim has moved from Sag Harbor on Long Island back to Manhattan, where his circle of friends keeps growing and growing, an odd outcome for this self-proclaimed introvert. Just as surprising is the fact that Jim, who was such a worry to his father because he wasn’t athletic or self-assertive as a boy, has somehow turned into a killer tennis player, and is still winning match points at the age of eighty-four.
As I write this, Jim is in the middle of his 32nd year of creating posters for Lincoln Center. The quality and quantity of work he has produced in that time, has now earned him a place beside Alphonse Mucha, Toulouse-Lautrec, Leon Bakst and Theophile Steinlen in the Pantheon of poster artists. Like all of them, McMullan has a strikingly original style. But unlike them, Jim has at times put aside his familiar watercolor style, to work in an utterly different manner, when he feels that a play calls for a different approach. For the Six Degrees of Separation poster he used pastel, for The Front Page he used his brush as if he were doing a pen and ink drawing. It captured that play’s 1920s period perfectly, and was later included in the book 100 Best Posters of the 20th Century.
Jim’s book illustrations are as notable as his posters. Of the dozens of children’s books that he has illustrated, 12 were written by his wife Kate. One, I Stink, about an anthropomorphic garbage truck, became a best seller, and it’s now an animated series on television. Another they collaborated on was Hey, Pipsqueak, a story about a gentle boy who outmaneuvers a pugnacious giant. It was undoubtedly inspired by Jim’s own experiences of encountering bullies in the endless series of schools he attended, as he moved from one city to another. The perennial outsider, he was always an easy target for cruelty. Those experiences became part of a book he both wrote and illustrated, Leaving China; An Artist Paints His World War II Childhood.
To me, the illustrations in Leaving China represent the pinnacle of Jim’s artistry. They are the kind of paintings that require real study to catch all the nuance and detail in each picture. That book also revealed Jim to be superb writer, one who is able to dredge up the most intimate feelings from his boyhood. As a child, he was an uncanny observer of the frailties of the adults around him. The book is a unique achievement, both as a memoir and as an illustrated book. It has not received the acclaim it deserves.
Before closing, allow me a few quick lines to acknowledge Jim’s many years of teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he taught his personal approach to drawing. You can read about it in his book High-Focus Drawing, or visit his New York Times blog, “Line by Line.” He has won too many awards to start listing, but he might have been especially pleased to receive the Drama Desk award for “consistently inspired artwork for theatrical productions.” And I think he’d like me to mention that he has designed two sets of gorgeous postage stamps for the United States Postal Service. However difficult it was for Jim to endure Act I of his life, his Act III seems well-nigh perfect.
Member, Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame