Murray Tinkelman Profile
posted: July 25, 2007
Before his career as an illustrator and educator, Murray Tinkelman, age 73, had won some recognition in the gallery world of fine art, but it made him uneasy; it was too much of a performance, too shallow, and he abandoned it in favor of where his heart really was: in illustration. Much later, in the 1980s, he followed his heart again, and returned to the subjects that fascinated him as boy, things like the old West and sports. 

"I grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and I remember, as a little teeny kid, that everyone was always bitching about not having any money. So my first drawing had a net up in the sky and money coming down: God was giving us money. He was sprinkling it. I wish I still had it, because it was pretty good.

"Also around that time I found out I was color blind. I was using green to color a face in kindergarten and I was humiliated when they told me that people don’t have green faces. But it didn't stop me.

"In elementary school I did comicbook superhero stuff. But I was never the best artist in class. I was maybe the second or third best; I was never the first. You know what happened to the two best artists in elementary school? One went to jail when he held up a school yard crap game with a 45 and pistol whipped some kid across the side of his head and the other one was killed by drugs; he could draw like an angel.

"In junior high, we had an assistant principal, Mrs. Goodheart. She called for my parents and my mother came up and she said, 'You better send him to the High School of Industrial Art, because if you send him to an academic school he’ll wind up in jail.' I was a terrible student, and a real shit.

"That was good with my parents, because it was better than jail. They didn’t give a shit about me, all they cared about was what they would tell the neighbors. They never took the art thing seriously. So I went to school with these incredible, talented guys, and I was no longer the third best, I was like the 15th best. But I did well in high school.

"I always figured I'd be an artist. I was the most insecure, quivering piece of flesh on the planet, but there was no other choice. Purely, simply, no choice. I never thought for a minute that I could do anything else, because I can’t add, I can’t subtract, I don’t know fractions, I don’t know a dangling participle from a belly button. I know nothing, except how to make art. And then along the way I learned that I could teach art.

"After high school, I went into the army for a couple of years, and when I came out, I started getting jobs with greeting card companies and going to school nights at Cooper Union. I hated Cooper Union. I still hate it to this day, because I wanted to be an illustrator and they have nothing but contempt for illustration. If you want to be a graphic designer or if you want to be a painter, fine, go there; an architect, an engineer, fine. But illustration? No.

"I got a call from them about a year ago: do I want to appear in this volume of graduates?

"I say, 'Yeah fine.'

"And they say, 'How do you want to be listed?'

"And I say, 'Illustrator.'

"And they say, 'Wait a minute, there’s no heading for illustrator.'

" 'Well, that’s why I quit your fucking school!' I said, and hung up.

"While I'm going to Cooper Union, I meet this guy who tells me about the Brooklyn Museum Art School and what a neat place it is. I used to go to the Brooklyn Museum when I was a kid and I loved it. So I called and made an appointment with the assistant director of the school, Lou Finkelstein, to apply for a mentorship. But I get a call back from his secretary saying, 'There are no mentorships here. He won't cancel the appointment, however, because he made the appointment and will honor that, but there is no mentorship and you're really wasting your time.'

"I go to the Brooklyn Museum anyway, and I meet with him and he was a real mumbler. He was this slender guy wearing a smock and he’s mumbling and I don’t understand a word he's saying. He was a terrific painter, I knew his work, and he's mumbling away and I can't understand what he's saying except at the very end, when he says, 'Be here on Monday.' I had gotten a full painting scholarship!

"My teacher there was the greatest person I've ever met in my life, Reuben Tam, who was basically an abstract painter. I was a terrible person when I was young, hostile and stupid, and I finally met somebody who spoke so quietly that I was forced to listen. Everything I know about art and criticism, I learned from this one man. So he saved my life.

"I used to count the minutes till his class critiques. The class would be about 22, 24 people, all doing really good quality work. And he would line everything up on easels and prop them up against the easels on the floor and then start critiquing each piece.

"Once again, I was way down on the wrong end of this curve, because this was a whole new world to me, making abstract imagery: academic drawing or realistic drawing was irrelevant.

He spoke so quietly and he was small of stature and mild mannered, but he turned into Superman during the critiques. But very low key. He would approach each painting as a totality, and he would discuss what you were trying to do and how consistent this piece of art was with who you were and does it belong in that world.

"Before any real recognition came to me as an illustrator, I was starting to get recognized in the painting world. I was showing in competitive shows, winning awards as an abstract painter, getting good reviews in the New York Times, getting a piece hung in a Whitney show and being bought by serious collectors and knowing that it was all full of shit, because I really didn’t believe in it. It was like a performing art for me and I was a performing dog or a dancing bear or something. And I went through all the motions, but way down deep it was shallow.

"I wound up being accepted into Charles E. Cooper studio in the late ‘50s. It’s no longer in existence, but it was the greatest art studio in the history of illustration and I’m not exaggerating. They represented the top illustrators in the world, like Coby Whitmore and Jon Whitcomb and Joe DeMers, Joe Bowler, and Lorraine Fox, who is my hero. I had never met her, but she was my favorite artist in the world.

"I was taken on as a commission artist. They represented me, gave me space, gave me supplies, took my samples out and I starved the first year: I made $1,800. And then a couple of good jobs came along and everything started going well.

"I had really distinctly different styles, for periods of time. I was the second best Lorraine Fox in New York City. And I could do a really adequate Milton Glaser. At one time I was doing a one-man Push Pin Studio. I never met any of the people, though one of them tried to sue me later on. And he’s still pissed about it -- this happened in 1963 and he’s still steamed about it! Fuck him. But when I met Lorraine, she became one of my dearest and closest friends, and I was so grateful that she never sued me.

"When I first met Marshall Arisman, he was showing his portfolio to my then-agent and I looked over his shoulder and thought, 'He’s copying the same guys I’m copying! His stuff looks just like Andre Francois, too.' And both of us were too dumb to know how great Francois was. Marshall and I still laugh about that.

"I was doing this decorative stuff in all these styles for about 20 years. And then one day, I was drawing abstractly in a sketchpad, and I was messing around with crosshatching. Actually, a lot of good things happen to me just by poking around without an idea, starting abstractly and then it turns figurative. But this was just purely abstract, it was a landscape of crosshatching, just stream-of-consciousness stuff.  Then I looked at a photograph of a rhinoceros, and I started doing a cross-hatching drawing of the rhino with the same technique, but with putting some kind of form to it. And it won a gold medal at the Society of Illustrators.

"My whole feeling about art and illustration changed, really very dramatically, in the ‘80s. Before then, I used to get nervous if the phone didn’t ring, because I didn’t have an agent, but in the '80s I got nervous if the phone DID ring, because I didn't want to do the jobs. I just wasn't interested in the subject matter anymore. I became interested in going back to where I started as a little kid. I became interested in rediscovering cowboys and Indians and airplanes and baseball and all these prepubescent male fantasies.

"I was using photographic reference and I was using a light box, and I would trace parts of it and invent parts. But I became as interested in the people that I was doing as how I was drawing them. I took it for granted that I could draw anything; I could make it look smooth, I could make it look shaggy, I could do all of that. But was it worth doing? So my work began being subject matter driven. But then I am such a born-at-heart illustrator, that it wasn’t complete until I sold it and it got reproduced.

"My first series was about cowboy stuff. I wrote the text and it started: 'Billy the Kid was born in Brooklyn, Annie Oakley lived in Buckley, New Jersey, so why not a rodeo in New York City?' My first publication was U&LC -- it was a tabloid-sized newspaper and it was published by international type founders. So the exposure was simply unbelievable, and the phone just jumped off the hook.

"I did a lot of commercial stuff that was also Western-oriented and then I just moved on and I thought, 'I already did cowboys, so now I’ll do Indians,' and so I followed the pow wow circuit for about a year, did a huge body of  work and some of my favorite drawings in the world.

"You should understand that all along, I'd been teaching. In ’63, I got a call for an interview at Parson’s School of Design. There was no illustration program at Parsons and the chair of the fashion illustration department was a painter. So I come in with my ring binder portfolio and he looks at it and is singularly unimpressed. He says, 'Tell me, where did you go to school?'

"I said, 'I went to Cooper Union for awhile, but I had a painting scholarship at the Brooklyn Museum.'

 "He said, 'Oh? Who did you work with?'

"And I said, 'Reuben Tam.'

"So he said, 'Oh, then fine, if you worked with Reuben, that’s good enough, you’re hired."

"At first I did it just to get out of the studio and to keep from going stir crazy. But I came to see that the challenge was going into a classroom and identifying with 20 different people and trying to see the world through their eyes and then watching them flourish. That, to me, is the magic. And it's a very gratifying thing to know that you didn’t fuck up their lives.

"I was there for two years and I wrote a little proposal to start an illustration program at Parsons, and I wound up with the malcontents, people who were no longer interested in fashion illustration. My responsibility was to give them something to do so the school wouldn’t lose the tuition, because they were strapped for money. Then the work that my students did really shone in the annual show, and it attracted more people to the program. So I literally had the opportunity to create an illustration program from scratch, and within a very short time, I began the largest program in the school. I'm the founding chair of the illustration department at Parsons, and I was there for almost 15 years.

"Then I got an offer I couldn't refuse from Syracuse University. Their independent study Masters program had just started and I was able to reconfigure the illustration part of it in my image. Right now I'm director of the MFA in Illustration program at the University of Hartford, and I'm working with a bunch of lovely people. But that could change in a nanosecond.

"I have no general respect for the education structure; I think it and the military are the two last bastions for incompetence and nitwits, and I really mean that. But being a director of a program gives me all the freedom I need. I could be selling snake oil, but as long as they're making money, they don’t care. If somebody shook me awake at 3 o'clock in the morning and said, 'What are you?' I’d say I’m an illustrator. I would never say I’m a teacher."