Mort Kunstler: Making the Strongest Image
Long Island-based artist Mort Kunstler is an expert in a now-obsolete art form: the pop imagery of pulp. Before photoshop, illustrators like Kunstler created images for magazines, films, and adventure stories with bright color and intricate detail. His work is emblematic of an era, and his depiction of Don Vito Corleone inspired the casting of Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's classic film.
Our first date, he invited me to a very famous pool in Brooklyn.
I said, "Okay." I'm very nearsighted,
and I couldn't be seen dead in glasses,
so we go to St. George,
and I'm sitting by the side of the pool,
or I'm swimming or whatever,
and I see someone on the diving board,
you know, doing all kinds of tricks and dives.
I didn't know who it was because I couldn't see
to the end of the pool,
and he comes back, and he's waiting for me to say,
"Hey, you were really terrific," but I didn't know.
[ Laughs ]
That was our first date.
[ Birds chirping ]
Mort: Debbie was a freshman at Pratt,
just gotten out of high school,
and I was a senior at Pratt, my third school.
I'd been going to college for seven years,
and I have the great distinction of going to college-level
for seven years and never getting a degree.
I studied textile design.
I studied textile design even in high school.
I was a major in art.
Mort: Deb ended up quitting school when we got engaged
to support us because I couldn't make a living,
and Debbie was making $85 a week,
which was big-time.
Deborah: I did support us but not for that long.
Mort was a very hard worker.
He worked from, I would say,
10:00 in the morning till 11:00 at night.
This was his life.
Well, my art, I came by naturally.
My father was a very talented artist, amateur artist,
and I showed signs of talent when I was very young.
My mother was a school teacher, and she was very ambitious
for me and took me to Saturday morning art classes
at the Brooklyn Museum and encouraged me in every way.
I had a method that was where I'd look
in book stores and magazine racks and things
and see art that I knew I could do better than.
I would then write down in a notebook
the name of the publisher and make phone calls
and see if I could get an appointment,
which they usually would see you one way or another.
And, in fact, I had some that were straightforward.
They said, "Look, your work is better than what I'm getting,
but you're a young guy.
I don't know if I can rely on you,
and this guy, I've been working with for years."
But, of course, eventually,
I got some work from various art directors.
I had one thing for sure that I did, and that was that
I do my very best on every single picture.
When I first saw my first pictures reproduced on covers,
oh, my God.
I came home, showed Debbie the reproduction.
I said, "Can you imagine? And they pay you for this, too."
[ Laughs ] I couldn't get over it.
I loved what I did.
Particularly after World War II, a great industry was developed,
and admittedly, I think It had a lot to do with
the returning vets because all of a sudden,
you see illustrated magazines
popping up likeArgosy andMen's Adventure
andTrue Magazine, and they were pictorial.
I mean, so therefore -- and that was really before
photography was that popular in magazines.
So there was a tremendous need for talented illustrators,
but the finished product had to be terrific.
It had to be salable.
It had to be attractive to the public,
and, indeed, it was the best illustrators
with their illustrations
would capture the eye of the public in a minute.
Mort: You'd try to pick out moments that will entice
the reader, catch their attention,
and want them to read the text.
You figure out what is going to be visually the strongest
image you can make to get people interested.
The whole goal is for them to --
If they're going through a magazine
and thumbing through, you want to have them stop and say,
"Hey, what's going on here?" and, "Hey."
Start to read the thing, and then they get caught.
And I was always backed up and working seven days a week,
weeks and weeks at time without a day off,
and I think it went on so long
that Debbie was really ready to leave.
She couldn't stand it anymore.
When we told people we were moving to Mexico,
it was a very funny reaction.
A lot of people said, "Oh, my God.
The Kunstlers must be in trouble with the law.
Maybe the police are after them."
Some people said, "It's the IRS. They didn't pay their taxes."
I mean, we got such a funny reaction because in the '60s,
no one really moved out of the country,
but we did, and it was really --
I would say it's the best experience of our married lives.
Mort: It was the first time that I had leisure time,
and I could take my time painting a picture.
We'd try to take advantage of the culture completely,
the things you would not get here,
such as the food, the music.
Whatever it was that you could get here,
we wanted to take advantage of there.
My son was going to be a matador.
I'm not kidding you.
This Dr. Barbabosa who owned the ranch and raised bulls said,
"David really has intuición -- intuition.
He's a natural."
I said to Mort, "I think we'd better go home."
[ Laughs ]
Jane: My father always worked at home, and it was very standard.
You know, it was normal for me.
I was really thrilled when he didMad Magazine covers.
He did a front cover, which is a very famous one,
which is the "Jaws" spoof cover,
so it's of the famous "Jaws" poster,
but instead of the shark coming up and with a, you know,
beautiful woman swimming, it's Alfred E. Neuman,
and the shark has his eyes crossed
and his tongue sticking out, and he's going, "Yecch!"
So it was a lot of fun.
One of the paintings I've seen with my father
with a paintbrush, it says,
"Mario Puzo", with his phone number.
You actually are the person who created the image of
Don Corleone for "The Godfather."
I understand... Well...
...that was before the movie and before...
Absolutely. ...anybody heard of it.
Mario was the, as I said,
the editor at Magazine Management,
the editor ofMale Magazine in particular.
I would always see Mario because
I'd be illustrating his stories.
He started to say, "I'm going to write a killer book.
I'm going to write a book on the Mafia,"
and he always called it his Mafia book.
And I thought he was doing a documentary on the Mafia,
the way he referred to it all the time.
Mario, in any case, knew exactly what he wanted,
but what he asked for was various scenes
that actually took place, and there was this girl.
This is when Don Corleone gets shot in the street.
This is Sonny, undoubtedly, and this is when...
Oh, yes. ...Michael shoots
the detective, I would assume.
Now, this was my idea, but without having read
the book, and look at the character,
and I wanted to make sure the gun was prominent.
Typically, you would do the cover picture,
which was a portrait of the "The Godfather,"
my interpretation and then two different
events that I picked.
You open the cover, and inside was a double-page spread,
the introductory spread, so I have that.
So it was Michael and Kay,
and he's comforting her and saying, you know,
"The business is going to be legitimate."
Okay. Wow. So I did that,
those four pictures in 1969,
and, of course, the movie didn't come out until 1973.
The cover became the model for the Marlon Brando character.
You can see the likeness of it.
And it was quite exciting to be connected with,
you know, the great success that Mario had.
Schantz: And I wish we had a space where I could have
the Mort Kunstler Gallery of American Illustrations.
The body of work that he's produced is enormous.
It's important, and to think, he's a local, local guy.
I mean, that's what a local museum would do.
And he spans so many different genres
and so many different, you know, decades, you know,
because he's been painting, you know, as you can see,
literally, all of his life.
It's so accessible, his art.
It's something, you know, that is, you know,
from an historical American-history standpoint
and just artistic standpoint that people can really
appreciate and easily identify with.
Schantz: I thought I'd bring with "The Godfather" aspect
into it, as well, and, you know, title it
"Mort Kunstler: The Godfather of Illustrative Pulp Fiction."
Now, this one brings up something new.
Oh. You're beginning.
And, you know, a lot of the men's magazines
always had a little titillation in it.
Oh. You're talking about sexy girls.
Not that you ever participated in that,
but there's often a few slightly clad women.
Jane: The art that Mort did in the '60s and '70s is called
"men's adventure art," and it's really interesting art
because it's considered, I'm sure,
completely politically incorrect because
he does all these great paintings of,
you know, some realistic scenes,
you know, military or bank robberies
or crime or things like that, but he also does them where,
you know, the women in them, they're always women,
and why is it that they're always in their underwear?
Yeah, well, this is about as risque as they got.
I read where... Oh, yeah?
I read where either Mario or Bruce Friedman said,
"There never was such... Okay.
...a thing that promised more and delivered less."
[ Laughs ]
Michael sees this art as something
that should be exhibited,
so it's really nice that all these years later,
there's going to be an exhibit of his men's adventure art
to be seen, really, for the first time.
Mort: People very often ask me
what is my most favorite painting.
And I really don't have one.
My standard answer, and it's still true,
is the one I'm working on now.
I think I have this intensity that when I get involved with
a picture, I have to do it as well as I can.
He's always prided himself with how much effort he puts in
and going beyond what's expected of him.
I do appreciate my father instilling that in me,
you know, to work hard and do the best you can
and to be honest about it.
I think the best thing is that you love
what you're doing.
When people have jobs and they don't enjoy them,
it's very sad.
Mort: When I saw Debbie, she became my favorite model.
Aside from the fact that she's beautiful,
she didn't charge me.
It was sort of natural.
We just grew together with our tastes being similar,
and she refined my taste,
and I refined her taste in terms of illustration
and the knowledge I had of how to put a picture together,
and so she gained knowledge, and I gained knowledge,
and that was the beginning of a collaboration.
But she didn't paint on the pictures, honest.
I've done them all myself.
[ Laughs ]
[ Birds chirping ]