“Surface. Texture. Form. Line. Color. Only words, until an artist uses them.”
“When you risk becoming an artist, you risk taking your art seriously.”
“At 35, Paul Gauguin worked in a bank; it is never too late.”
If you’ve been in New York long enough, chances are you’ve seen all of these headlines, and many more, on subway posters advertising the School of Visual Arts (SVA). The campaign, which began in 1947, continues to this day, with new posters produced three times a year and hung at 160 different subway stops throughout the city.
Silas H. Rhodes, a founder of the school, began the campaign when the institution opened as the Cartoonist & Illustrators School. Nine years later, the name was changed to reflect an expanded curriculum that included classes in the humanities and social sciences, as well as the arts. A poster designed by George Tscherny in 1956 announced the change of name to School of Visual Arts, with large orange and purple letters showcasing the school’s new acronym, S-V-A.
In 1997 the school organized an exhibition to celebrate the golden anniversary of the subway posters, simultaneously releasing a commemorative book, SVA Gold, 50 Years of Creative Graphic Design. In the book’s foreword Steven Heller notes that the school’s print material served over the years to “show how design, illustration, and photography based on ideas, not ethereal trends and fleeting fashions, is the backbone of memorable communications.” This milestone also prompted a series of posters based on the theme “Art is…Fifty Years.”
The poster campaign has now grown to 170 pieces by more than 50 artists and designers—all working professionals who teach at the school—evincing a wide variety of visions and approaches, their makers offered a great deal of creative freedom. “You’re the artist,” says Anthony P. Rhodes, SVA’s executive vice president and campaign art director. “Let’s see what you come up with. It’s up to you.”
Art is Whatever…, designed by Milton Glaser to commemorate the fifty-year anniversary, sheds light on what it means to be an artist, showing four representations of a bowler hat: a photograph of an actual hat, the word “hat” embedded in the word “whatever,” a shadow of a man wearing said hat, and a flat graphic shape of a bowler. In other words, there are numerous ways to express art.
Other posters interpret a quotation, which in this case was provided by Rhodes. Inspired by a line from President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address—“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.”—Rhodes shared the quote with designer Gail Anderson, who was also moved by the President’s words. She worked with illustrator Terry Allen to create a series of five visual and typographic interpretations of Obama’s aspirational message. These adorned subway platforms and inspired commuters throughout the 2009–10 academic year.
In Louise Fili’s 2011 poster, the headline, “It’s never too late to get where you’re going,” reached out to potential students while paying homage to the New York’s mosaic artisans of the early 20th century, who skilfully crafted ceramic-tile lettering for subway signage, along with decorative patterns and mosaics. Fili noted that after hours of painstaking Photoshop work to create 8,400 digital mosaic tiles, it might have been easier to create the image out of actual tiles.
“A good poster,” said Fili, “has to convey an idea clearly and succinctly and, especially in the case of SVA, as a subway poster it has to be seen from a distance, from a moving train, or from the other side of the platform.”
In 2013, 52 posters were selected from 130 in the school’s archive to be featured in Underground Images, a traveling exhibition curated by Anthony Rhodes and organized by Mirko Iliç, who teaches graduate illustration at the school. The exhibition introduces the school to art and design communities overseas and across America, celebrating the talent and ingenuity of the faculty, past and present, and continuing the conversation about creativity begun by Silas Rhodes when he introduced the campaign back in 1947.
The exhibition’s first stop was the National Museum of Contemporary History in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It then traveled throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and within the United States before ending up in 2016 at the A38 Exhibition Space in Budapest, Hungary.
“I think all the posters are great,” said Rhodes at the time. “So when I had to narrow down the initial selection to 52, I tried to make sure that there was a good mix from all the decades.” The posters selected for the exhibition are professionally photographed and reproduced as high-end digital prints on a fine quality art paper. As the show continues to travel and new posters are produced, earlier pieces are swapped out with more recent examples making this a truly dynamic exhibition.
The collection of original posters is in the care of the SVA Archives under the watchful eye of archivist Beth Kleber. To provide historical context to the exhibition, her lecture, Underground Images: The School of Visual Arts Subway Posters as Public Art, explores trends in illustration, photography, and graphic design and includes additional posters that aren’t in the exhibition.
“A unifying message,” says Kleber, “is that pursuing an artistic life is a risk worth taking.”
“While the posters were designed to advertise the college, the second message was that advertising need not be ugly,” says Francis Di Tomasso, SVA’s gallery director. “The whole idea was to put something beautiful in the subway by top illustrators and designers. This speaks to the core value of the college. It was a stroke of genius to do this and to keep it up over all these years.”
“There is no better purpose in life than to start the work you love.”
“If someone says you shouldn’t, ask them who should.”
“It’s never too late to get where you’re going.”