Glimpse of a Master Illustrator at Work

A retrospective of James McMullan’s posters for the Lincoln Center Theater
James McMullan’s posters for Lincoln Center Theater and his original artwork for them are on view at Lincoln Center through June. Durell Godfrey Photos

    A retrospective of James McMullan’s posters for the Lincoln Center Theater is a natural for the gallery at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. What is surprising is that with 25 years’ worth of posters to choose from, no one thought of it sooner.
    Mr. McMullan, who lives in Sag Harbor, said recently that the show, which is on view until June, features 20 of his large posters and all of the original artwork for them. He has done 65 posters in total for the theater and 5 others for Alexander H. Cohen, a producer of more than 100 plays who died in 2000.
    The show allows viewers to see the artist’s process, which is very particular to him. “The originals are pretty small, only 11 inches high in some cases,” Mr. McMullan said. “Some are 14 inches, but all are pretty small.” Their size is a surprise to some who have seen the show, he said, since the posters themselves tend to be 84 inches in height. “They are shocked and amazed that they can be so small when it doesn’t seem to harm the blowup.”
    He said working a smaller format “gives me a chance to control the whole composition and design rather than working larger where I lose track of what’s in the far corner. I can control the gestalt better at the comfortable size I work.”
    The calligraphic strokes of his brush translate well from the small to the large format. “That sense of immediacy gets blown up with the image.” He said if he were to use tiny, illusionistic brushstrokes, it might be uncomfortable to see the change in scale.
    Because he can’t see the production before the poster is due for it, Mr. McMullan’s process typically includes reading the play through two times and then talking to the directors to get a sense of how they are interpreting the text.
    “With all of my work I’m very much a reader. I love translating written ideas into some kind of metaphor,” whether it is for these posters or for his books, record covers, or magazine illustrations. “It’s a pleasure to read and think about a complex piece of material and how I can represent it metaphorically in one image.”
    He may think of something very quickly or struggle for a while. “I’m not good at laboring on something, days and days meticulously painting at something. The actual work may only take a few hours to arrive at, but those perfect few hours may take weeks.” He might try a few different ideas, but he won’t refine an existing one. If the producers at the theater do not like an idea, he scraps it entirely and starts anew.
    “I work with a lot of risk. I can’t go through very controlled stages. My process jumps around a lot.” As a result, “what I’m giving the theater is a fait accompli, not really sketches. If they don’t like them I will go back and do something else.”
    And he doesn’t love every play that he makes a poster for, but sometimes that can be an opportunity. “The Front Page” was a play that Mr. McMullan didn’t like, but many people told him that they thought it was his best. “Sometimes a play, in terms of its content, I may not emotionally relate to, but then I find a visual opportunity that is a terrific opportunity.”
    He finds comedies, such as “The Rivals,” a Restoration comedy, and “Century 21” by Paul Rudnick, challenging. Yet two Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals ended up inspiring Mr. McMullan for their darker aspects that were overlooked in the 1950s. “Carousel” has a murder in the middle of it, he noted, and “South Pacific” is a “romantic quest of racial stereotypes.” He added that the theme of American forces imposing themselves on other cultures “made it possible to do Gauguinist watercolors violated with figures of an American nurse and sailors.”
    His favorite projects included plays by Jon Robin Baitz, such as “A Fair Country” and “10 Unknowns.” He also liked Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” Mr. McMullan said these were “plays I really was able to relate to and find my own metaphor.”
    His various assignments do not always neatly align. In fact, they often overlap. “I juggle different stuff and it’s great to have different kinds of work to think about. In this climate, this is what it takes to make a living.”
    In addition to his children’s books, he has written columns for The New York Times and taught at the School of Visual Arts for 40 years. A few of his students will join him in July at the Southampton Writers Conference, where they will draw from models and talk with one another in front of an audience. The exhibit has a clip of him doing something similar and “people are really intrigued with it.”