Nine summers ago, shortly after returning in steerage from a last year of study in Scotland on the G.I. Bill of Rights, and making New York my new home very much like an immigrant myself because I got off the boat with about ten borrowed dollars in pocket—not enough for plane, train or bus fare back to Chicago where I had started from, I was painting in my first Manhattan studio, a walk-up and cold-water loft, exactly under one of the stately new marble columns of Philip Johnson’s New York State Theater, under whose elegant portico now hang more examples of my work than I produced that long-ago, sad, uncertain summer. It was therefore with a special feeling that I accepted Lincoln Center’s invitation* to do the inaugural poster.
There on that grim teeming block of West 63rd, bulldozed into obliteration for this civic improvement a few years later, an improvident band of lean young painters found cheap pads on the turf of San Juan Hill, truly a bit of the West Side Story which probably only in Bernsteinian terms will ever return to ply these boards being christened now. Each new wave of the city’s population surged forth in temporary immigrant confusion and nonassimilation into the decayed Old Law tenements; every high brownstone stoop was balcony for multiple romeo-juliet situations by night; by day every window above had old people hanging out on pillows to escape the heat, sometimes silent, other times not so silent, witnesses to the pageant below. The never-ending stickball game that went on raucously in the crowded street meant broken windows for my painter friend Rosenquist who occupied a lower and more vulnerable loft. Often the violence was more than a wild ball.
Now all traces of that lively scene are covered over with imported marbles and grandeur and the most splendiferous architecture New York has seen, but the memories were strong when I went back to the construction site to gather ideas for the painting that would become the poster. In the half-completed Lincoln Center Plaza, which those few years before was a dark jumble of untidy backyards where an indefinable number of cats used to prowl and howl on the fire escapes and under the trees of heaven, were the beginnings of Johnson’s fountain: the very hub of Lincoln Center and the core for my poster which sprang into design from its radiating spokes and concentric wheels of travertine and mosaic. I could neither find nor invent a more appropriate motif for center since it is the one most conspicuous configuration about, being as it is in full view of not only the State Theater, but also Philharmonic Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House.
To complete the design I turned back to the Theater itself. The auditorium was already a dark red and gilders were hard at work on the gold of the ring faces and the vast ceiling of the Promenade; thus the key colors of red and yellow, a fortuitous combination in that I use them frequently. From the architectural pattern set up by the thin vertical bronze struts of the upper Promenade decks I found the basis for the seven red bars and thin yellow stripes. The yellow discs which contain the separate stenciled letters are meant to suggest the round diamond-faceted lights that punctuate and adorn those spaces, but also not inadvertently to recall the theatrical tradition of footlights and the flashing Broadway marquee, here, alas, tastefully absent in the Euclidian calm of the performing arts’ new Acropolis.
*Through a grant from the Albert A. List Foundation.