Published: July 21, 2020
Review by Greg Smith, Catalog Images Courtesy Wright
CHICAGO – Word came of American graphic designer Milton Glaser’s passing on his 91st birthday, the same day that Chicago auction house Wright released on schedule its catalog for the 188-lot sale he singularly curated, “To Inform & Delight: The Collection of Milton Glaser,” which crossed the block July 14. The auction went 84 percent sold by lot and grossed $291,250.
Wright and Glaser had been working on the sale for more than a year at that point. It was only the firm’s second graphic design auction; the first, in September 2018, focused on American graphic designer Paul Rand.
Chief executive officer Richard Wright said, “Graphic design is pretty hard to sell at auction. It’s not really a big field per se, it’s still very niche. You need to be a very big name with high standing, which Milton had. He’s a singular American voice.”
Contrasting the two sales, Wright said, “Paul Rand is a graphic design icon of the Swiss school, which is considered very rational. He had some playfulness, but Milton is really an exploration of the opposite.”
That is to say, Glaser was a very colorful designer.
His “I♥NY” design is perhaps the most iconic and enduring symbol of New York to have been created in the entire Twentieth Century. It is ubiquitously emblazoned across all manner of collateral, including mugs, T-shirts, bags and stickers, and extends statewide to road signs and massive turf installations along highways that greet visitors passing over the New York state line. The design appears as a square of four characters, like a nuclear family connected by pride.
Glaser’s long career stretched back decades but his work rarely if ever appeared at auction. Wright laughed when he said that this sale set every one of his auction records. Glaser was famously generous with his designs, having produced “I♥NY” pro bono for an advertising campaign commissioned by the New York State Department of Commerce. The original sketches and presentation boards are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Many of the works Glaser chose for the sale were New York-centric.
“He had an obvious love for New York,” Wright said. “He very much identified with the city and many of his clients were based there.”
One of sale’s top lots at $8,750 was a collotype in colors, titled “New York is About New York,” produced in 1976 for New York magazine. The Empire State Building is seen piercing Earth’s atmosphere, with rings uniformly pulsing around, up and away from its spire into the universe, suggesting the grand stature and vast expanse of the city’s echo.
At the same price was a vivid still life titled “LaGuardia Vase,” produced with colored inks, colored pencils and pen on paper in 1994 for the 20th anniversary poster for Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY. It had been exhibited at the Visual Arts Museum at the School of Visual Arts, New York in 1989 at a short three-week exhibition on the designer titled “Milton Glaser: The Masters Series.”
In that same exhibition was “Night of the Snow Leopard,” a 1983 ink wash and colored pencil on paper executed for the New York Zoological Society. A snow leopard is seen in every hue but white, draped in a kaleidoscope of color. It sold for $8,125.
At the same price was a 1975 pen, ink and cello-tak on paper titled, “Mit der 5. Farbe machen Sie den Sprung nach vorn,” featuring a dog jumping through a series of five colored rings, each one imparting geometric designs in that color onto its fur.
Of Glaser’s process, Wright said, “He had a unique working method, creating a unique original as a starting point, which is unlike how other graphic designers work. He really had a fine art practice that drove his design.”
Glaser’s inclusion of posters into the sale was meant to provide affordability. One from 1975 for the Temple University Music Festival sold for $325; a “Take a Trip to Lotus Land” poster brought $375.
Wright said that many of the buyers were from the East Coast, people who felt connection to that seaboard’s greatest hub and the man who captured its spirit.
On the impetus for the auction, Wright said, “Milton was interested in seeing this work go out into the world.”
Coupled with the news of his death, interest was high in the designer and the sale naturally built some momentum. The auction was a release in many ways, then – the graphic designer’s last curated show, an autobiographical selling exhibition that spanned his entire career and released many of his originals to the market in a great torrent, much like the manner in which they were always published: en masse and front cover, grabbing the attention of all.
Prices, with buyer’s premium, as reported by the auction house. For additional information, www.wright20.com or 312-563-0020.
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