when pictures fail me…
A dapper anomaly in those still shaggy post-Woodstock years, he walked with purpose and panache to the Saks Fifth Avenue offices where he took up residence at the drawing table. Handsome. Diminutive yet self-assured, debonaire, even–an outdated word, but it suited. With a full head of white hair waving back from a fulcrum of dark eyebrows, and an aura of authority and ease draped about him like layered cashmere sweaters, Al Pimsler evoked a masculine, fashionable world I had not grown up in.
We trooped into the classroom in our army jackets and Landlubber bellbottoms, clutching 18 X 24 newsprint pads and khaki green tackle boxes filled with soft charcoal pencils, single edge razor blades to sharpen them, and kneaded erasers to soften our blunders. The class was Fashion Drawing. Waiting for us behind the partition was a model, often male. Waiting in front was our instructor. Both entranced and intimidated, I wasn’t sure if my princess-doodling childhood had the oomph to catapult me into the trenches there at Parsons School of Design. An assertive, testosterone-injected line was what Al Pimsler demanded. I wanted to deliver.
He harkened to the “Mad Men” era and even earlier–the 1940s golden age of fashion art–when illustrators such as Carl “Eric” Erickson and René Bouché easily crossed over the commercial line into fine art. They reigned at Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, and by the 1960s, despite the new topsy-turvy caused by the Beatles and Mary Quant and Twiggy and Roy Lichtenstein (and Antonio Lopez, riding a new wave of illustration), their influence was still felt, the torch carried on by a few working artists like Al Pimsler. When he wasn’t turning out his own strong, linear gestures in full page retail advertising in The New York Times on a weekly basis, he shared his experience and knowledge with us in a characteristic low key.
He stressed drawing, and drawing well, insisting (and proving) that fashion artists were not third class citizens of the art world. Encouraging us to rely on our eye and our hand (the flourish would follow), Mr. Pimsler (I still can’t call him anything but that) saw something in my work that he liked, maybe even recognized. He didn’t shower with compliments, so the subtlety with which I felt coaxed was all the more precious to me.
There were other instructors in the fashion illustration department at Parsons in 1972 that seemed more in tune with the times, urging all kinds of envelope-pushing, gender bending, and creative mayhem. One guest assignment was given to us by Al Goldstein of Screw magazine. Barbara Pearlman, Albert Elia, Katerina Denzinger–all possessed the cult of personality that had us slavishly following. I was stimulated by them as well, in varying degrees. But it was Mr. Pimsler whose respect I craved.
And here I am, forty-odd years later, ostensibly downsizing. I plow through the archives of schoolwork done while under the influence of all these disparate instructors, right on the cusp (unknown to us at the time) of fashion illustration being rudely eclipsed by photography, to never quite claim its hierarchy again as a fine art. It strikes me that, as I surround myself with old newsprint pad drawings and illustration boards bearing classroom assignments, what holds up best is the work I did in Al Pimsler’s class. Looking at one drawing of mine in particular, a man in a pinstripe shirt, I seem to remember him saying that if he didn’t know otherwise, this was one he might have done himself. His demeanor was such that a compliment of that magnitude has me wondering even now–did he really say that? Mean that? Or did I mishear, misconstrue, misremember? Regardless, I’ve carried the glow all these years.
I got to thinking about him recently. Of course, I wondered if he was still alive. A google search revealed that he died just a few months ago. A little kick in my gut reverberated all the way back to that day in his classroom–any day, really–when there was nowhere else on earth I would have rather been. At 96, I bet he was still a handsome devil, and most assuredly, a class act all the way. One thing about Al Pimsler, I don’t imagine that he was ever out of style.
And my art, under the influence…
copyright 2015 Sharon Watts
reprinted in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood
Al Pimsler art reproduced from North Light Magazine
Sharon Watts art copyright 1972, 1978