DAVID WEIDMAN: MR. MIDCENTURY IS AGAIN AN ARTIST FOR OUR TIMEBy Theo Douglas
Viewing a David Weidman print is like doing things you’ve never done in places you’ve already been. That’s because Weidman, a nonagenarian with a fresh sense of humor, plays with color, layer and subject in ways that make every glance a new look.
So it’s a little odd to hear the man refer to himself as “a tool”—even if he is using the traditional meaning (“A device … used to carry out a function”) and not the Urban Dictionary definition (“A fool. A cretin.”). Perhaps working exactly 60 years in one business has brought familiarity with a tiny bit of contempt. Or not.
Either way, the years Weidman spent sketching such classics of animation as Fractured Fairy Tales (the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” feature), Gerald McBoingBoing, and a sadly stillborn Finian’s Rainbow have left him with a singular view of the art business, an unshakeable sense of his own self worth, and wry sense of humor about it all.
“Well, the uh, the thing about the animation … ” Weidman begins, speaking by telephone from his home and studio in Highland Park, where his wife, Dorothy, and daughter, Lenna, are listening and periodically chiming in, “… I became one of the tools.”
Weidman brought his art to animation in 1953 and worked regularly into the 1960s. But most projects were imagined, created and assembled with production systems that tended to compartmentalize the work.
“They have a ‘story man,’ and then they have a man that makes the storyboard from the story,” Weidman recites. “And then they have a director who takes that, works on that, and then they have a ‘layout man’ who works with the ‘background man.’ It became a very involved group of people who made the cartoons.”
Weidman didn’t much enjoy creating art on an assembly line.
“That’s one of the things that was a little disturbing to me,” he continues. “I always ended up doing a little piece of the work, and I was never at the point where I could complete anything. That’s one of the reasons I went into printmaking—because I was able to do the whole thing.”
Weidman trained at Jepson Art Institute in Los Angeles (founded by Herb Jepson, a former Chouinard instructor), but only after he had trained and served in the Navy during World War II. The timing was good—Weidman met his future wife, Dorothy, in a screen printing class. She was the teacher.
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The skill Weidman subsequently developed at silk screening opened a new window on the craft. He weaved layers and color, animals and abstractions, into work that influenced everyone from greeting card designers to the makers of those ’70s doe-eyed plastic statuettes. Weidman remembers that technique as vividly as its colors still pop.
“I worked out a blotting technique, and after the second [color], I’d bend over the paper and blot and get a different kind of an image,” Weidman says. “The nature of the print is determined by the technique of blotting.”
Runaway fame may have eluded him during some of his most active years, but the artist—born in 1921—is enjoying a bona fide renaissance.
During seasons five and six of “Man Men,” several Weidman pieces hang on the walls of fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce; Urban Outfitters recently offered pillows adorned with Weidman’s imagery; and the Fourth Street store inretrospect—whose owners adore him—has a vintage flat file full of Weidman’s work for sale. (Sometimes, customers want to buy the flat file, but are politely declined.)
“I noticed on ‘Mad Men,’ one of my prints called ‘Forms,’ that was basically a blotting print,” says Weidman, who spotted that piece on the first episode of “Mad Men’s” sixth season. “I think that was probably an original technique for making a print.”
Weidman will be in Long Beach on May 4—that’s a Saturday—when inretrospect presents the artist and his art from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. (The artist arrives at 6 p.m.)
“Myself, I first saw one of his pieces at a yard sale here in Long Beach,” says Dawn Geary, who owns inretrospect. “I had no idea what it was but I gravitated to it immediately. I paid my $10 for it and took it home and put it in a frame, and thanks to the Internet was immediately exposed to his work.”
Today, the store’s collection—much of it derived directly from unsold prints the artist saved—numbers around 200 pieces. Geary is not his only fan in residence. Employees Chris Giaco and Dave Eaton are also drawn to Weidman’s work, and both are struck by its impact on people.
Giaco: “It’s the type of [work] that you can’t own just one. I think it’s a really rare combination of technical proficiency and accessibility. At the time, nobody was really that interested in buying them, but now people are more interested.”
Eaton: “Really, when people are looking at it, it just brings a sort of joy to everyone. Especially people my age [in his 40s], realizing we’ve been looking at his art our whole lives. Once you meet David Weidman, he’s just so charming and his sense of humor comes through in the pieces. He’s just such a nice man and I think people respond to that.”
But the reporter who had just met Weidman over the telephone was a little taken aback a few minutes into their conversation.
“You can’t ask me technical questions!” Weidman snapped—or pretty convincingly pretended to—during the interview, before telling the reporter, “That’s part humor.” He’s too modest: it’s all humor.
“He is the consummate artist—he just wanted to work and have people find him,” Giaco says of Weidman. “I’ve found there are two kinds of artists: the self-centered, aggressive type who think anything they do is golden, and then there are the other kind. It’s a shame that the egotistical ones usually bully their way into the public consciousness.”
Weidman’s aesthetic may be percolating back into our visual consciousness, but his deconstructed, neat-messy, less-is-more style started infiltrating our brains when Eisenhower was still in office.
“The [animation] business was very seasonal and that was disturbing to me,” says Weidman, whose bosses included the legendary John Hubley.
Hubley’s refusal to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the Communism scare of the 1950s doomed an animated adaptation of Finian’s Rainbow with voices by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald—and it made animation’s temporal nature seem even more fleeting.
“I had a family and I needed to feed them,” says Weidman, whose work at McBoingBoing home United Productions of America (UPA) was followed by time at Cascade film studios, Storyboard Studios, Crescent Studios (“Fractured Fairy Tales”) and Hanna-Barbera. “The idea was to find a source of income that was less dependent on seasonal work. Finding my own—controlling my income.”
From humble origins behind a liquor store sprang Weidman’s framing and prints store on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, and his creation of an unmistakably mid-20th century American style.
“For me, it’s the sense of color that he has. If you look at any piece that he does, the way that he works with color is amazing,” Geary says. “And the screen print technique that he has, people are starting to recognize it for what it is, which is extremely technical—choosing the colors and printing it just right so it’s not all just one big mush.”
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Mush is never on the menu. Rather, panels of period-perfect earth-tones blend like reshaped Venn diagrams: purples and greens yielding to browns and blues; variations on red and yellow birthing a stray orange or ochre.
“It could be like a beautiful melody—you work one with the other, and against, and for it. It’s like composing, you know,” Weidman says mellifluously. “And I did color in such a way that I didn’t try to do the whole [color] wheel all at once. I worked in parts of the wheel. I worked in opposites across the wheel.
“My things basically are, they’re dominant in one area. It’s in the blue-greens or the red-oranges,” Weidman says, and you can hear his analytical eye narrowing. “I had my own, uh, my own ways of solving the problem. All of my things are problem solving.” His sharp gaze extends to his many subjects—images of nature that read cute to us, but not to him.
“Birds and cats and things were very often just the props to make the prints,” Weidman says. “The animal was usually an excuse to make an object that could then grow into a total image.”
You’re ever so slightly tempted to write him off as an unflinching cynic, especially when the artist discusses the series of faux event posters he did in the 1960s—for pageants that never happened, like the Miss Tomato Queen 1967 extravaganza; for products based on clashes that did (suntan lotion and the Watts Riots); even for Biblical scenes like Jonah in the whale.
“The posters were designed to express, usually, a political or a social problem,” he says, calling them “cynical and humorous.” “They were statements that expressed a political or a social idea, or my own ideas, and so my work turned out to be two categories–aesthetic and editorial.”
“From your perspective they were cynical—nobody knows that but you,” she tells him.
It’s true: a look at “Home Sweet Home,” Weidman’s take on Jonah, reveals an image rendered in calm blues and greens—man and whale under the waves, ship and sailors above—that is so matter-of-fact as to be touchingly sweet.
You would hang this in your home seriously, perhaps because it was screened before everything was ironic.
“Cynical is the one word I would not use, in this age of irony,” Giaco says of the artist. “It’s all genuine.”
True to form, the artist politely declines to take all that credit.
“I think I performed an unusual group of prints in that time,” Weidman says, and he is absolutely correct.
A WHIMSICAL EVENING WITH DAVID WEIDMAN IN RETROSPECT • 2122 E. 4TH ST. • LONG BEACH 90814 • 562.433.6600 INRETROSPECT.COM •MAY 4 2PM-6 PM PORTFOLIOL PREVIEW 6PM TO 8PM MEET & GREET WITH ARTIST DAVID WEIDMAN • FREE