Rich Silverstein

If you’ve ever caught yourself laughing out loud at an advertisement, it’s probably because of Rich Silverstein. As the creative impetus for such unconventional and massively successful ad campaigns as the croaking Budweiser frogs, E*Trade and “Got Milk?” Silverstein and his equal half Jeff Goodby banded together two decades ago to found Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, one of the most eccentric and successful advertising firms in history. With a clear penchant for analyzing how the public responds to both image and text, Silverstein has now focused his eye on the rapidly changing world of print media with his new collection “News Print, an observation by Rich Silverstein,” now on display at 619 Sansome St. in San Francisco. A lifelong news junkie, Silverstein takes some of the most striking images and text over the last year and blows them up to a scale that overwhelms the viewer with its significance—whether it be humorous, ironic or solemn. In doing so, Silverstein hopes to share his love of the profundity of the printed press and express nostalgia for a tradition that is rapidly changing in the face of the digital revolution.

Tell me about your relationship with print news. Have you always been a news junkie?
I’m totally a news junkie. As long as I can remember as a kid, I was interested in the social affairs of the world—the mighty Soviet Union against America, the Cuban Missile Crisis and, well, Doctor Strangelove is the best movie of all time. But it is all that intrigue of world events. I remember being on the school bus during the Cuban Missile Crisis wondering, “Are we going to blow each other up tomorrow?” I love the newspaper, the immediacy, the texture, the touch, and the morning coffee ritual, and I started noticing that the images looked like they could be paintings. The ink on paper and the world events just seem so tragic and funny and ironic and beautiful. I started observing the news in a different way, and it just had a life of its own.

Did working at Rolling Stone and other magazines heighten your interest in print news and world events?
Just that connectivity to news. There is one image in here of Hunter S. Thompson having his ashes blown into the sky, and that kind of brings it full circle for me, working at Rolling Stone and having to wait all night for his stories to come in so I could lay them out. I know that feeling of putting out a magazine and that excitement and exhaustion and the deadline, which made you have to think very quickly. But at the heart of my DNA, I am a graphic designer.

Print news, along with other news outlets like cable and radio, is obviously shaped and packaged in a way that draws in and retains readers, just like advertising. Being both an artist who focuses on print news and an ad man, you are probably more aware of this than anyone else.
Yes. On one level, the show is very accessible, because my job is to make companies part of popular culture and sell a product. At the same time I hope there is some depth to it, in the way it looks. Don’t just read the paper—think about images and what they mean. I’m very aware of the power of the media. And we don’t get all our news from the newspapers anymore. But I still feel that the newspaper has integrity. I want to believe that. And I am all about integrity. I like typesetting. I like photography. I like paper. I like ink. I know people read USA Today and The New York Times online, but I think it’s a shame.

Have you seen print news change over time to draw more readers, and, if so, has that influenced the kind of pieces that you are attracted to for your art?
Yeah, you are right. I mean, USA Today came out with the full-color weather map. This was like, “Oh my God.” It was quite exciting. Then when the Times came out, it felt like it added more integrity to the color. The news has always been packaged. William Hearst, my God, he caused a war. Papers have always been packaged; they are probably just trying to keep up with the electronic world. And I just happened to like the beauty of where it was going. It was probably a happy accident that newspapers went into color and I played with them. I probably wouldn’t have done this if newspapers had stayed black and white. Do you find that American print media lends itself more to what you are looking for than foreign media? Is there more sensationalism? More controversial photographs? That wasn’t even an issue. It really was: look at that image—that could have been a Norman Rockwell painting. Like in the Saturday Evening Post when you see [Condoleezza] Rice with her hand in the air, when she’s giving the oath, it could have been a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s amazing. And then if you look at this other one, which I call “1917 meets 2004,” it’s Kiev in the Ukraine, where the Orange Revolution overthrew the dirty election and threw out Communism in 2004. And, I swear, there is nothing in the image that says 2004, it could have been 1917, the flags, the smoke, the clothing. So I love that, I mean, I started the whole idea [of the show] because of that one image—it’s staggering.

When you use photographs in your pieces, you seem to be drawn to the power and the beauty of the photographs, and the symbolism of them. When you use the actual articles as pieces, what are the criteria?
Basically, they are so colorful that they don’t need pictures. “Man bowls perfect game and dies.” You can’t get better than that. I don’t think a photograph can help that one.

And then there’s this one, “Man hangs himself in airplane restroom.” Well, I guess you could have used a picture, like how did he do it?
So when they are just text, I actually love them just as much, because of the beauty of the text. I love typography. I was right on the bubble of all the new technologies. When I was in art school, phototype was just coming out. And handset was still around, but just barely. And letterpress was still being used, but just barely. So I got real touches of craftsmanship, and I want to hang onto that.

How much does politics play into your work?
Clearly, I’m a Democrat—there is a lot of Bush/Cheney in this. But they are like the comedians of the day. My God, we have heavy fodder. They do it to themselves. Bush takes a pretty stupid photograph.  And Bush, whether it is strictly politics—the Iraq War—or whether it’s through his malaprops that appear in print, provides a lot of material for, say, The Daily Show and other comedians.

Would you be doing this work if it wasn’t for the Bush administration?
That is a really good question. You are making me pause because I really don’t know. I think I could have, but it’s been a lot more fun with them. There is a shot I have that looks like Alfred E. Neuman, where it is just Bush, and a line that says, “Bush listens to Judge Samuel Alito.” But Bush doesn’t listen to anyone. And then there is [Lynndie] England, the woman from Abu Ghraib, who walked [the prisoners] around on all fours—I didn’t see that as the Bush administration as much as the ugliness of humanity.

Beyond the pure aestheticism of your work, do you think there are other motives for you?
Is there a hope that more people will read the news? Well, my business is mass media. I’m hoping that people will look at the images and maybe broaden themselves to looking closer at things.

– Hunter Holcombe

Reading by Lena, who has no idea this palm belongs to Rich Silverstein.

1. Has a king’s ring—innately kind and considerate to those of less means or circumstances specifically those working for him.

2. His best communication is not in words, but by body language, feeling and vibe. He could walk into a room and turn everyone happy by his vibe. Conversely you don’t want to be around him when he’s depressed.

3. Extremely intense in all of his doings. Will drive too fast in a fun car, eat too much if the food is good or forget to eat if it’s bad, pursue lovers with great ardor and scare them, all of it is intensely done. Not that he like everything too intense, but tends to move too fast too hard and too quickly towards all goals and therefore scares off anything or anyone timid.

4. This one’s romantic feelings are perhaps the most complex this palmist has ever seen! Would do best to mate with a highly intelligent alien life form of another gender altogether but will have to settle for an interesting and eccentric human being. The process of finding this person will be stormy. Nonetheless, they WILL find this person towards midlife. And, to his and everyone’s vast surprise—will live happily ever after.

5. A very intense and spiritual individual. Occasionally prone to bouts of religious ecstasy. This won’t be about what everyone else necessarily considers “religion.” However—he’d make a fine whirling dervish!

6. Strong intelligence with a practical ability combined with an intuitive dream ability. This person can see outside the box, hook it and drag it inside the box.