interview: Marin artist Michael Schwab talks about his latest poster for San Francisco Opera’s “Nixon in China”
Well before John Adams’ opera Nixon in China opened San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season, a striking poster featuring Richard Nixon’s silhouette in profile set the mood across the Bay Area. That artwork was created by Marin artist Michael Schwab, one of our country’s leading graphic artists, whose iconic posters, images and logos for the Golden Gate National Parks, Major League Baseball, Robert Mondavi, Peet’s Coffee, Muhammad Ali, Nike, and others dynamically capture our lifestyle. With his signature use of large, flat areas of color, dramatic perspectives, and bold, graphic images of archetypal human forms, Schwab’s work also lends itself perfectly to opera. His Nixon in China poster was especially commissioned by San Francisco Opera to celebrate the first time San Francisco Opera is presenting the work, the 25th anniversary of the opera’s premiere, and the 40th anniversary of the historic trip that President Nixon made to Communist China in 1972. The artwork, which also graces the opera’s program cover and appears as a huge three-sheet outside War Memorial Opera House, completely transcends Nixon’s dubious post-China legacy and is destined to become a classic.
Schwab’s sense of color is integral to his memorable compositions. Nixon’s huge silhouette is executed in a subdued gray-red-mauve, an unusual color, that is set against a vivid orange-red background, evoking the red field of the Chinese flag. As Nixon hovers in the background, the viewer’s eye is directed to the expectant figure in a black suit at the bottom, on stage, with outstretched arms, beckoning. Behind him, in a darker hue of that unique gray-red-mauve, there’s a crowd of onlookers, in silhouette, that form a strong horizontal. Together, they evoke a poignant scene in the opera’s last act. Blazoned across the top in a custom typeface, in a bright yellow gold that recalls the stars of the Chinese flag, is “John Adams Alice Goldman Nixon in China,” set against a black backdrop. And on the bottom, in gray text, surrounded by black, is “San Francisco Opera June July 2012.” In terms of mood, the poster has an ominous feel and lends itself to endless reflection on the fascinating personalities associated with this historic trip, primarily Nixon, but also Kissinger, Chairman Mao, Pat Nixon, and Chaing Ch’ing (Madame Mao) and their aspirations as individuals and as public figures.
Twenty years ago, in 1992, San Francisco Opera commissioned Schwab to create a poster to commemorate Mussorgsky’s great Russian opera, Boris Godunov, and last year, after interviewing several artists, SF Opera again commissioned Schwab to create a poster to commemorate Francesca Zambello’s new production of Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). And did he deliver! His poster features a striking image of the heroic Brünnhilde, silhouetted against a fiery orange background evocative of the final immolation scene in Götterdämmerung, the cycle’s concluding opera.
“People came to the Ring from the four corners of the globe,” said Jon Finck, SF Opera’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs. “They bought that poster and took it home and it serves as reminder of that extraordinary experience they had here in San Francisco. We’re looking at these posters as artworks, not advertising and we don’t include a lot of wording, we don’t need that. Michael’s work has a lot of energy in it and it marks with a punch, evoking the drama and splendor of our operas. There’s just no second guessing that this is Michael Schwab’s work. His palette is bold and the typography is exciting and is a combination of a contemporary look that also harkens back to a more classic look from the 1930’s and 40’s, so it’s very classic but contemporary.”
San Francisco Opera has also commissioned Schwab to create three additional posters, so that there will be a set of five posters, not counting the Boris Godunov poster, that will mark the final five years of David Gockley’s tenure as General Director of San Francisco Opera. In addition to The Ring (2011) and Nixon in China (2012), Schwab will create a poster for Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene that has its world premiere at SF Opera next summer and two additional, yet to be named, commissions. “There will be not only local but national and international attention on Adamo’s work,” said Jon Finck. “It will be a very daring and provocative opera given the libretto which suggests a particular relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. This will be powerful on stage and David Gockley felt that we needed to have a powerful counterpart in terms of the image and Michael’s our guy, no question.”
After last Sunday’s riveting performance of Nixon in China at the War Memorial Opera House, I caught up with Michael Schwab in the Opera Shop, where he was busy greeting audience members and signing the poster he created to commemorate San Francisco Opera’s production. Earlier in the week, I had conducted a phone interview with him about his artwork for San Francisco Opera. Below is our conversation—
Are posters really influential in people’s decision to go to an event?
Michael Schwab: Absolutely. A poster is like a label on a bottle of wine―it’s visually representing what’s inside. There’s creativity in that bottle – and the label, like the poster for the opera, should evoke the personality of the wine. It’s an integral part of the opera. It’s exciting to arrive dressed for the evening and walk up the steps of the War Memorial Opera House. The 3-sheet poster out in front and the program that you are handed are the first creative impressions of the evening and should reflect the excitement, thrill and integrity of the opera.
What makes a really effective poster? And, why are so many posters today so bad?
Michael Schwab: Simplicity. There’s way too much visual noise out there. Graphic messages are conveyed much more effectively when the design is simple, bold and efficient.
What was your conception for the Nixon in China poster and how did you approach a design project like this?
Michael Schwab: I started out attempting to portray the two men, Mao and Nixon, shaking hands in that historic moment. I eventually realized that the image of Nixon alone was more intriguing. It was more powerful to have the big Nixon head as opposed to two men with more detail, shaking hands. It was a more effective composition. More dynamic.
My designs work better when they are very singular in subject matter. People typically want to say too many things with one design – rarely the best strategy. You’ve only got one or two seconds to earn someone’s attention. For me, less is more.
Because this was a poster for opera, was there anything inherently different about it?
Michael Schwab: As a graphic artist, I have much more freedom with these projects. The artwork should be lyrical and unique. It’s like an album cover—it’s part of the event. If I wasn’t a graphic designer, working on posters and logos, I would probably be involved in theatre somehow. Part of the success of my work is drama – there’s some theatre in my artwork. At least, I hope so.
Did you listen to the opera or music from Nixon in China while working on the poster?
Michael Schwab: Yes, and it is a great opera. I was able to watch the video of the Vancouver Opera (VO) production (March, 2010) whose physical sets, scenery and costumes are the ones that San Francisco Opera is using in its production. I usually listen to music in the studio. Typically jazz.
What types of source materials do normally you use?
Michael Schwab: When appropriate, I work with models—human or otherwise. I pose and shoot my own photos myself. For Nixon, of course, there was no model, so I had to rely on historic photographs.
How much of your work is done on a computer and how has that changed over time? Do you start with freehand drawing?
Michael Schwab: When computers first came out, most of my illustrator and designer pals were going over to the digital world. I knew that I really enjoyed working at the drawing table – not a keyboard. I decided to go in the opposite direction and keep my work very hand-drawn, with obvious craftsmanship. And I still work at a drawing table, with pencil and paper, and then pen and ink. I first draw rough pencil sketches, then create technical pen and ink drawings that eventually get digitally scanned. We then work with Adobe Illustrator fine tuning the colors and shapes precisely.
How did you settle on the colors?
Michael Schwab: For the Nixon project, I knew up front that my poster was going to be a very strong red with golden yellow evoking the Chinese flag.
After you’ve nailed the image you’ll use, how do you decide on a font and it’s size and positioning?
Michael Schwab: Many times, I use my own font, “Schwab Poster,” created back in the ‘90’s. I work with that typeface a lot. It’s not commercially available but I have it here in the studio. I used that for the National Parks series. For the Nixon poster, I used an old wood block font because it just felt right. We altered several of the letters to make it just right.
In your creative process, do you work up several different images, or, focus on just one?
Michael Schwab: I usually work up two or three ideas for myself and typically show those to the client. With Nixon in China, I shared 3 or 4 sketches with Jon Finck and David Gockley and told them why I thought the singular image worked best and they agreed.
What is your lead time in developing a poster like this?
Michael Schwab: Is this case, I had a month or two, so it wasn’t too bad. Sometimes deadlines are two weeks and sometimes two years. There are no rules.
When I see some of your images, the word ‘bold’ comes to mind, but there is also a romantic/nostalgic aspect as well, harkening back to old woodcuts. I get that sense from the color, strong line and the overall energy in a lot of your works.
Michael Schwab: My heroes were always the old European poster artists—Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and A.M. Cassandre, from France, and Ludwig Holwein, from Germany, and the Beggarstaff Brothers from England. There’s lots of graphic romance and drama in those images. I also have a deep respect for old Japanese woodcuts.
What’s the first poster you made?
Michael Schwab: My first professional poster was for Levi’s, back in 1975, for creative director, Chris Blum. I’ve been a graphic artist now for almost 40 years. My first opera poster was for San Francisco Opera’s Boris Godunov in 1992. Talk about bold and simple—that was extremely bold and simple.
Yes, not much more than a silhouette but it really communicated the pagentry of that opera.
Michael Schwab: Next time you look at it, tell me if you’re in the audience looking at him from the audience or if you feel like you’re on the stage behind him. That was a silk-screen poster with gold metallic ink border, which was probably toxic as hell…but it was gorgeous. A couple of decades went by and here I am, at the opera again and thoroughly enjoying it.
Is silk-screen still used?
Michael Schwab: Yes, but it’s so much easier and cleaner to create a digital print. They can really match colors beautifully on archival paper. However, I still love serigraphs (silkscreen prints). They are like paint on the paper.
Do you do your own print work as well or do you work with a printer?
Michael Schwab: I work with several printers, but for the opera posters, I work with David Coyle at ArtBrokers Inc. in Sausalito. He is a master printer and publishes many artists and photographers. He and his staff did a stunning job.
Your website has a fabulous gallery of work, which are your favorites and why?
Michael Schwab: It’s kind of like asking which children I like the best. I’ve had a few home runs, not everything works incredibly well, but the images for the Golden Gate Parks are a favorite. I’m also proud of the work I’ve created for Amtrak over the past several years. Several individual logos I feel very good about—the Robert Mondavi corporate logo, Pebble Beach, David Sedaris, to name a few. And the opera posters—Nixon is my third. I have a commission for the next 4 years with them.
What are you working on right now?
Michael Schwab: The big project on my drawing table now is the poster for America’s Cup 2013. It hasn’t been printed at the time of this interview, yet but it’s been approved, and everybody seems to like it. I’m also working on the graphic for a highway project up in British Columbia—The Sea to Sky Highway. It seems like I always have a wine label project going on too. Currently, it’s Area Code Wine Company.
Information about Purchasing Schwab’s posters:
Michael Schwab’s Nixon in China poster is printed on archival fine art paper and is available as an unsigned 16″x24″ poster ($75) and a signed 24″x36″ collector’s poster ($150) through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House and online at www.sfopera.com . A limited number of his out of print Boris Godunov posters, 24″ x 36″ are available for $625 through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House.
To visit Michael Schwab’s website, click here.
To read ARThound’s previous coverage of Michael Schwab, click here.
Details about Nixon in China performances: San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China runs for seven performances June 8-July 3, 2012 at the War Memorial Opera House. Tickets and information: www.sfopera.com or call (415) 864-3330.
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