Milton Glaser is so intelligent and articulate an artist and thinker that any documentary about him would have to be grossly inept for it to be anything less than likeable. Thankfully, we’re in smooth, sure territory in Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight, Wendy Keys’s warm, affectionate portrait of the iconic New York City commercial artist. As a seasoned director of several tribute films for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Keys is skilled at biographical profiles of her subjects, and that facility serves her beautifully in crafting an in-depth look at Glaser’s art and career, as well as his work’s social and philosophical underpinnings.
Glaser is best known for his “I ♥ NY” campaign (for which he’s never earned a penny), and his prints, posters, and magazine and album covers have been widely circulated, even anthologized. Keys’s film is useful in giving political, social, and aesthetic context to Glaser’s body of work. Through interviews with colleagues, clients, contemporary art historians, and writers, Keys illuminates multiple facets for an appreciation of Glaser’s contribution to post-modern graphic design. Indeed, much of the dominant artistic currents wending from ‘60s psychedelia onward were shaped in large part by Glaser and his art agency cohorts.
A “greatest hits” sampler of Glaser’s portfolio might include his influential cover designs for New York Magazine (which he co-founded), a host of European magazines (France’s L’Express and Spain’s ABC, among them), and brands (Campari, for instance), American supermarket chains, museums, and cultural events. It makes for a rich visual tapestry, but even more exciting are Glaser’s “self-initiated” artworks, i.e. his noncommercial pastels and drawings, suggesting his deep art-historical grounding. Whether commercial or not, we find flashes of humor, even subversion, in all of Glaser’s work; Keys gives the example of Glaser’s sketch of the Monet family, copied from a photograph, in which Glaser has interpolated a snake slithering in the foreground. The addition gleefully throws the mood and implication of the group portrait into unexpected directions.
And who better to explain and enrich our understanding of all this material than Glaser himself? Indeed, his avuncular good spirits, modesty, and erudition make him the ideal guide and teacher, elucidating a range of topics, from the nature of art, to the puzzle box-like function of the best commercial art, to the joys of teaching and being a New Yorker. Benefiting from an inherently brilliant subject, Keys succeeds in limning an engaging portrait of an artist and mentor who’s spent a lifetime affirming the power of art to inform and delight, and, if he can help it, effect positive social change.