Identification card for the School of Visual Arts, circa December 1970.

This article is an excerpt from Growing Up Underground, the new coming-of-age memoir by Steven Heller published by Princeton Architectural Press. You can purchase your copy here.

 

This book is about, you guessed it, me. However, it is not a trek through the hills and valleys of my autobiographical topology. I focus instead on how blind luck put me in intriguing places with curious people when, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, between ages sixteen to my mid-twenties, as an art director, graphic designer, cartoonist, and writer, I was sometimes on the fringes and sometimes in the center of New York’s youth culture—the alternative-sex-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll-socially-politically-active generation, aka the boomer generation.

That said, there are a few questions that need addressing regarding my bona fides. For instance, if you can remember the sixties, were you really there? Well, how can I really be taken seriously as a counterculturist if I can vividly remember those years? Easy! I was conscious. I never experimented with psychedelic drugs or narcotics of any kind, not even a minute toke of grass (I got plenty of contact highs, though). Over-the-counter caffeinated NoDoz and St. Joseph Aspirin for Children were my uppers and downers of choice. The only mind-altering chemical I allowed in my body was helium from a tank delivered to my door on a hand truck by the High Times “Laff Brigade” (as a group of the editors called themselves). I never smoked cigarettes after my mother allowed me to puff on one of her Kents when I was five (presumably to teach me an avoidance lesson). As far as stimulants go, I drank alcohol for a very short period until I ran down MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village on a bitter cold February evening with my pants off and realized I couldn’t handle it.

Musically, I listened to show tunes. My pop tastes were limited to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, and folk-rock in general. I never liked Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” or “Mellow Yellow” (quite rightly), and, sorry, I couldn’t stomach most of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire and still cannot listen to their records, except for “Uncle John’s Band.” As the art director of the tabloid Rock (a Rolling Stone never-be), I designed some concert graphics for hard rock/psychedelic bands like Grand Funk Railroad and Blue Cheer but couldn’t be bothered to listen to their albums. As for my generation’s rite of passage, Woodstock, I was arrested by NYPD vice squad detectives minutes before leaving New York City for Max Yasgur’s farm, thus missing that once-in-a-lifetime bragging right.

Oh yeah, sexual orientation? Straight as a ramrod. Although I lost my virginity in my early teens, it was more or less through an act of God. My nascent sex life was otherwise on the pathetic scale despite opportunities to the contrary. That arrest I mentioned above was as the “underage” co-publisher of the New York Review of Sex & Politics. (I was involved with other underground sex tabloids, too, which I will describe later.) “Precocious” was a word frequently used to describe me, but in truth I was painfully naïve.

All featured images are from Growing Up Underground: A Memoir of Counterculture New York by Steven Heller, published by Princeton Architectural Press

For this book I’ve decided to relate memories that are entertaining or enlightening—or both. At least the few friends who’ve already heard one or more of these stories have told me they are—unless, of course, they are being polite. I had considered postponing writing this for five or ten more years, believing that the delay might stir up more page-turning content. Yet I think at my age the only stirring I’ll be doing is a teaspoon of Metamucil in orange juice twice daily.

I started binge-reading dystopian novels after Donald J. Trump won the 2016 election, as if the future wasn’t bleak enough. This had an unintended consequence. I came to relish George Orwell and reread the classics 1984 and Animal Farm, as well as Homage to Catalonia, his searing memoir about the Spanish Civil War. Included in my orgy of Orwellian delights was his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” which I read for the first time and which inspired me. I am not making comparisons between the great Orwell and myself, other than we both write in English (well, I try to). Yet I relate to virtually every word he wrote in “Why I Write” and have no compunction about borrowing entire passages from him when I am unable to phrase my own thoughts well enough. Take this statement:

“[I] take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.” 

Drawing pictures was once my daily ritual. Now writing is. I write for four or more hours daily about a range of weighty and frivolous subjects for my blog, The Daily Heller. I have a goal in mind that is also best expressed by Orwell:

“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

I wish I could accomplish a similar ambition with Orwellian passion and eloquence. I’m afraid I lack the same acuity.

I was an English major at New York University (NYU), one of two colleges (the other was Pratt Institute) out of the eight I applied to that accepted me as a freshman in 1968. I went to classes when they weren’t closed down by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), but never really buckled down. Instead, I worked happily making cartoons and comics for a few New York underground newspapers, the New York Free Press (the Freep), Screw: The Sex Review, New York Avatar, and the Rat. It was in these publications that I stitched together writing and drawing into one practice. To be honest, I was a third-rate Jules Feiffer, the first-rate humorist, satirist, cartoonist, playwright, and novelist whose twenty-five-year anthology I helped to edit in 1982.

New York Review of Sex and Politics, October 15, 1969. Brad Holland refreshed the type and used only illustration in the next four issues. Co-publisher and art director: Steven Heller.

That said, I did publish a comic strip in the first issue of Screw (in 1968 I became its founding art director). It received some notoriety at NYU because I used my freshman philosophy professor’s name in the strip. Professor Glickman paired with his buddy Saint Anselm, who developed the ontological rationale for the existence of God, were the antiheroic duo in my mildly obscene, puerile gag, best left undescribed. The comic came to the attention of the administration—I am not sure how—and I was remanded to the university’s clinical psychologist, who threatened me with expulsion if I did not submit to weekly one-on-one therapy sessions to address the root cause of my cartoon’s perversity. I wasn’t interested.

I refused the free counseling and accepted the consequences, forfeiting my II-S student deferment from the draft. The prospect of being sent to the Vietnam War put me in a panic. From NYU I transferred to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) illustration and cartoon program. As a white, middle-class kid living on the liberal isle of Manhattan, where so many poor African American and Latino kids voluntarily enlisted, I reported to a draft board with a very low quota to fill, and my deferment was immediately reinstated. White privilege writ large. At SVA, despite the efforts of teachers like Harvey Kurtzman—the founder of Mad, Help, and Trump satirical magazines—I was still a defiantly mediocre student and lackluster artist with some occasionally brilliant editorial ideas, which kept me afloat.

While I was a putative student at SVA, I worked as a cartoonist and ersatz layout artist/art director for one of the previously mentioned underground newspapers. Long story short: I preferred working at the papers every day to dutifully schlepping to boring foundation classes, like Environmental Studies. The result? Within a year I logged 90 percent absenteeism and was politely asked by the department chairperson, Marshall Arisman, to either attend my classes or leave the school. He even offered to promote me straight from a freshman to a senior because of what he referred to as the “work-study program” I was doing at my job.

Preferring to take my chances with the draft, I either opted to quit or was officially expelled, depending on how you interpret the official record. I managed to get a I-Y temporary health deferment for acute epiglottis, before being quickly reclassified I-A, ripe for army induction. Yet despite my low lottery number (fifty), I was not drafted.

“The exaggeratedly (I hope) worded psychiatrist’s letter that earned me I-Y status (a one-year temporary deferment from military service). I was ultimately classified 1-A, eligible for the draft.”

Ironically, I was hired a year later to teach a newspaper design class at SVA, and Marshall subsequently became my very close friend. I assigned him to do some covers for Screw, and later, when I was hired as art director for the New York Times Op-Ed page, where he was already a contributor, I continued to use him often. Eventually, I taught a class in his innovative SVA MFA/Illustration as Visual Essay program, and over time we coauthored four books about illustration. Years later, I also became friendly with Harvey and assigned him to write a story on the origin of Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman for the Times Op-Ed page. He died shortly afterward.

Thus was the bumpy yet gratifying path to becoming a self-taught, not-so-bad magazine and newspaper designer. Or as Kurt Vonnegut says in Slaughterhouse-Five, “And so it goes.”

In 1974, at twenty-four years old, while serving a second stint as art director of Screw (which I had left in a huff a few years earlier), to everyone’s surprise—notably my own—I was hired as the youngest art director (and occasional illustrator) for the New York Times Op-Ed page by the pioneering newspaper design director Louis Silverstein. I was recommended by the former Harper’s Bazaar and, at that time, New York Times Magazine art director Ruth Ansel, after I showed her my Screw portfolio. I owe my career to her!

Rock, cover, May 10, 1971. The PhotoTypositor allowed for very fluid settings, providing the chance to work more creatively with typography. Art director: Steven Heller.

Over the years, the Times job evolved from an avocation into a profession as an expert—a historian, you might say—on the legacy of cartoons, illustrations, and graphic design. I stayed at the Times for thirty-three years (mostly as art director of the Book Review) with the inflated title of senior art director. I also wrote bylined stories about visual themes, including obituaries of designers and illustrators, in some of the Times feature and news sections.

I had once fantasized about being a scholar or fellow at a major university (or community college, whatever) studying tumultuous periods in political history, especially the emergence of right- and left-wing tyrannies and the hypnotic seduction of totalitarianism in pre–World War II Europe. A lack of academic follow-through thwarted that plan (I never graduated college but was awarded two honorary doctorates much later). However, I discovered a practical way of doing this scholarship thing on my own, by looking through the lens of graphic design and typographic artifacts, researching and writing on the use and abuse of propaganda. I have published a few books on these themes.

Why do I write? So that I can further discover and share what I’ve learned with others. I also want to validate leaving college (which I do sometimes regret). I am voraciously curious, so researching and writing have been enjoyable processes of self-education. I am fortunate to have been published in a great many outlets, including Print magazine, edited by Marty Fox, where I’ve written articles for thirty years. Currently I am a co-proprietor with five partners of the online Printmag.com, which runs my eponymous (I am smitten by that lyrical word) column, The Daily Heller.

Identification card for the School of Visual Arts, circa September 1970.

I compulsively publish everything I write. I hate letting anything go to waste. Around half of the published pieces are well edited by expert professionals, while the other half are barely touched by a copy editor’s or grammarian’s hand. What I write about is broad yet almost exclusively within the bounds of mass communication and popular culture, which includes graphic design, typography, satiric art, editorial illustration, film, and TV (I love BBC mysteries) on themes ranging from politics to technology, commerce, culture, aesthetic movements, fashion, and style. I conduct interviews for oral histories and write biographical profiles on individual artists and designers. I have authored and coauthored books, essays, interviews, articles, reviews, prefaces, forewords, introductions, and postscripts; I’ve done reportage, criticism, and even a couple of scripts for short video documentaries that I have narrated. Among my favorite assignments are the obituaries I write for the New York Times, because they combine reportage and analysis and document various individual achievements for the historical record. The subjects never complain, either. Moreover, I had a great editor, C. Claiborne Ray, who taught me a lot about structure, particularly writing compelling beginnings and snappy endings. How am I doing?

Another motivation to write is that I have trouble sleeping. I frequently used to get night terrors, which have stopped thanks to a nightly anti-demon pill. Still, I often cannot fall asleep because my mind is coursed (and cursed) with ideas for stories I want to pitch or have deadlines to write. This book is a case in point. I keep obsessing over every phrase and mull over each again and again. My ideas back up during the day, then they overflow like a clogged drain the minute my head hits the pillow. I write notes, and occasionally entire drafts, when I should be deep in REM slumberland.

I am obsessed with designed objects and graphic design as an art form that manipulates and communicates, and, as I said, design is my lens; there is always something worth examining through this camera obscura. I presume that what Orwell calls the “solid objects and scraps of useless information” that are discussed in this book will be worthy of the time it takes for you to read them. I write for myself but to serve an audience. So, I am open to comments, critiques, tips, and suggestions.

That is why I write. Now, how I write.

I start with some degree of fixation on a subject, then I free-associate based on some personal knowledge or other connection to the subject. When research is demanded, I’ll take as much time as necessary to find (or hire an assistant to help find) primary, secondary, and, yes, hearsay sources. I don’t fool myself that I am a trained journalist, but I’ve been kicking around the field long enough to use its tools.

When I think for myself and don’t just regurgitate the quotes of others, I write my thoughts and craft them into a collection of satisfying sentences, paragraphs, and chapters that are usually massaged by wonderful editors. (God created editors for the likes of me.) When I have nothing original to say, I will quote or paraphrase others. Here’s another Orwellian bit:

“Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. Using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

I agree and I subscribe to these. Obviously, if I could say it any better, I would have done so. But often others say what I’d like to say with more flair. So, thanks, George! I owe you!



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By Peter