Artist's Statement: The New Yorker's Mark Ulriksen Explains Himself

Categories: Art, Interview

It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our weekly interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, we speak to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.


Mark Ulriksen may be the most prolific painter and illustrator in San Francisco. Besides his work for The New Yorker magazine and many books, Ulriksen is the regular illustrator for the San Francisco Jazz Festival. His work is in many private collections, as well as the Smithsonian's. Through April 30, Wine & Wall (30 Steuart Street, on the Embarcadero) is exhibiting many of Ulriksen's best paintings.

Ulriksen's work is instantly recognizable for its whimsical exaggeration, as in 2006 when he painted Dick Cheney and George Bush as a couple a la Brokeback Mountain. He tells us about the hate mail he got for the Bush-Cheney cover, his circuitous route to being a New Yorker contributor, his creative process, how he copes with an eye disease, and other subjects that -- to Ulriksen -- are both very serious and very, very funny.

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Q: You've become one of The New Yorker's best-known cover artists, with more than 40 covers since 1994. You did the recent Oscars cover with Abraham Lincoln sitting in the Academy Awards audience amidst celebrities like Denzel Washington and Jessica Chastain. What's not to love about your life?

A: It's ephemeral what I do. It doesn't have a long shelf life, some times. The New Yorker is nice because they put books together, and people put the covers on their walls. You realize that people are going to see it, but you're not really cognizant of who's seeing it or paying attention to it. So when you hear that, "Oh, I had it on my wall" or something like that, it's good. It's still surreal to me that it's out there and people are seeing it. For the Academy Awards cover, I figure that all the people in Hollywood are seeing it, but I didn't hear from anyone.

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Q: You've never gotten an email from, say, Dustin Hoffman?

A: No, no. I know Barry Blitt, another New Yorker artist, who's a friend, and he does amazing covers. He says he once got a letter from photographer Irving Penn congratulating him on a cover, but it was a Harry Bliss cover, not a Barry Blitt cover. I've never even gotten the Irving Penn letter. I very rarely hear from someone you'd like to hear from.

Q: What's been the strongest reaction you've gotten? I'm sure you got a ton of response from your Brokeback Mountain cover, which shows Cheney blowing out smoke from his gun and Bush looking at him closely. That cover ran a few weeks after Cheney shot a hunting partner in what was called an accident.

A: Well, that cover got a lot of response because it was so controversial and timely. The response was great because The New Yorker sent me all the irate letters they got - people canceling their subscriptions, and stuff like that. And The New Yorker loved it. They fluctuate between courting controversy and avoiding it, depending on what the response is. When I did my very first New Yorker cover back in 1994 -- that was back in the day of faxes -- I got a ton of faxes, postcards, and phone calls. I thought, "This is so fantastic." And then I'll do a cover now and I might hear from three people.

The Brokeback Mountain cover, though, did generate almost the response from my very first cover, which was about Hillary Clinton. She was at the White House, and on her head she had like a Beach Blanket Babylon thing. Inside that issue there was a whole profile of Hillary, and they had me do like 17 pieces for that one story, and it was a splash. Tina Brown (The New Yorker's then-editor) was out to make a splash. That started my career as an illustrator.

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Q: Did the letters about the Bush-Cheney cover malign you for suggesting they had a gay relationship?

A: No, no. It was more like, "You're disrespecting the vice president," and "How can you do that?" and, "We were having a cocktail party last night, and we couldn't tell who that was with Cheney -- was that supposed to be Bush, or is that the guy he's hunting with?"

Q: In the year 2000, for Valentine's Day, The New Yorker ran a cover of your work, Love the One You're With, which features a series of opposites kissing. A rabbi kisses a devout Muslim woman in hijab. A dog kisses a cat. A Yankees fan kisses a Mets fan. That's one of my favorite covers.

A: The one thing The New Yorker didn't allow me to have was a priest kissing a nun. And I had a Yankee fan kissing a Mets fan, but it should have been a Yankee fan kissing a Red Sox fan. So, Art Spiegelman had done a very notorious, famous cover of a kissing couple -- a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman after the Crown Heights riots [in 1991], and so I thought I should riff on that for Valentine's Day, and I'll have every type of unpolitically correct couple kissing, and just say, "Forget it. Just love people. Who cares about where they're from." So I was trying to figure every combination I could -- cop and robber, patient and doctor, hippie and yuppie.

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Q: You began contributing to The New Yorker in 1993 -- the same year you were art director for San Francisco Focus, which is now San Francisco magazine. Being art director of a major magazine is a big deal -- but you went through what you call "an early mid-life crisis." What happened?

A: Well, I was associate art director for a while, and that meant the second among two, which was great, because I got to be creative and I loved collaborating with everyone -- the editors and writers and photographers -- and when there was a problem, I could point down the hall and say, "Talk to the boss," because I wasn't the boss. But when he left to become the first art director of Men's Journal, it was like, "Do I work for a new boss? Do I quit? Or do I try to become the boss?" And I became the boss.

Be careful what you wish for. Because once I was boss, I was an administrator and a manager. I hated it. I had to fire someone. I'm a terrible manager. I felt guilty asking the secretary to make copies of something. That's their job but I felt really bad. I'd go to work on Mondays and my shoulders would ache. And I thought, "What would it be like if I could just draw and paint all day long every day?" Because I would do it at night and on weekends. And I got good enough in 1993 that I thought, "I'm going to go out in 1994 and be a freelancer." Even though I had a 2-year-old kid. I was 37. My first assignment from The New Yorker was to do a portrait of [stand-up comic] Marga Gomez, who we'd just photographed for Focus.

Q: You always wanted to be an artist, but you actually got sidetracked for years, right?

A: I was always good at art but afraid to try to make a living at it. I grew up in San Carlos [on the San Francisco Peninsula] and I had a horrible art teacher. He said I should go to Art Center in Pasadena. And I'm of the generation where your parents weren't hovering over you about college. And I remember going to a party before the SAT test. It was a totally different day and age. And I thought I could go to the Art Center after I get a degree from somewhere else. So my best friend's older sister went to Chico State and I went to visit the campus and thought, "Wow." That's how I shop for everything.

At Chico, I studied journalism. I always like current events and newspapers and magazines. And when I was in the journalism department, they said, "Do you know about graphic design? You should look into it." They have a great program at Chico. And when I found out that I could do editorial design, it was a way into journalism on the art side. Once I did that, I said, "I don't want to go to art school. I found my calling. I'm a graphic designer. And I did that for 13 years after I graduated. Until I burned out on being a boss."

Q: You're the illustrator for SFJAZZ. Everyone who gets a program sees your work. Are you a big jazz fan?

A: Jazz is just part of my love of music. Jazz imagery is more interesting to paint than rock 'n' roll. But I listen to everything. My tastes are very eclectic. But I'd rather paint a jazz musician than some long-haired rock 'n' roll guy. There's just something cool about it -- whether it's the coolness of the way they dress or the instruments they play. A stand-up bass is more interesting than just a bass over your shoulder. A trombone is more interesting than an electric guitar. The musicians. The history. I like painting blues musicians, too.

Rock 'n' roll seems to be a young person's medium. There's something about looking at the Rolling Stones these days, and they haven't done anything new forever. But you can listen to Duke Ellington or Count Basie when they'd been doing it for 30-40 years and it still sounds fresh. But rock 'n' roll seems to have a shelf life, at least for the performers, who just repeat themselves. I set out purposefully to paint the things I like. I don't want to do things about corporate big-wigs or computers or technology or things I'm not interested in.

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Q: What's on the horizon for Mark Ulriksen?

A: There's a bunch of interesting things that may happen or may not. Last week, I presented my work to the 49ers for their new stadium. A company is soliciting artists for the new stadium. I would love to do something for that. I don't know if they're going to pick me. They implied they will. But I don't know if they can afford me. The thing about what I do -- people rarely pay what my time is worth. They say, "Oh, but you're going to get all this great exposure." Exposure is good when you're starting out, but in my 20th year -- thanks to The New Yorker, I have exposure.

It's frustrating. I have a mortgage in San Francisco. A kid in college. Health insurance, which costs me like $24,000 a year because I'm self-employed. We had to make my wife my employee, so we'd have more choices for health insurance.

Q: So, how long does a New Yorker cover take to make?

A: About a week. They pay well for that week.

Q: Your health insurance covers your eye condition, right?

A: I have an eye disease that makes it really hard to read. It's called generic idiopathic obliterative peripheral retinal vasculopothy. Basically, I have blind spots in my eyes. It happened when I was 25. It really affects reading. It affects seeing things from a distance. There's nothing you can do about the disease. I wear progressive lenses. I also have reading glasses. So when I'm working up close, I wear the reading glasses. Then when I'm pulling back, I put the progressives on. I'm switching all day long.

Every once in a while, it's like, "Oh, I didn't paint the sky in between those trees." Usually when I'm done with a painting -- almost like an editor will go over and make sure everything is spelled right and punctuation is right -- I'll go through and see if I did everything I was supposed to do. Or I'll put notes on the side that say, "Remember to change this guy's hair color," or whatever.

Q: Some New Yorker artists do their work strictly on the computer or even a smartphone. You paint the old-fashioned way -- on paper.

A: I like making one-of-a-kind things. If you do it strictly on the computer, it's not a one-of-a-kind. For a cover, The New Yorker will want my original painting. A lot of times, though, they just want a digital file. My wife, who's a photographer and really good at this stuff, will scan it and it might be in four pieces. I've decided I want to learn how to paint better than to spend the time to learn how to use the computer. I'd have to take a class. I'm not that intuitive. I don't even have enough time to read a book. There's never enough time. So I have my stack of New Yorkers, and if I can get through the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle every day, I feel I've at least accomplished the bare minimum.

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Arion Press
Arion Press

On March 27, Mark Ulriksen goes “Under the Covers” and gives an illustrated talk on his work for The New Yorker. Reception at 5 p.m. Talk at 6 p.m. RSVP: 415-668-2542 or grabhorn@arionpress.com. Sponsored by National Endowment for the Arts and the Grabhorn Institute. http://www.arionpress.com/events.htm#anchor338904

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