Reynold Ruffins’ vibrant, fanciful-exotic take on Adam and Eve shows why this multiple award–winning native New Yorker and long-time Sag Harbor resident has been called a revolutionary force in the field of graphic art.
A founding associate in Push Pin Studios, one of the country’s most prestigious art firms, Ruffins worked alongside Milton Glaser, Edward Sorel and Seymour Chwast to create innovative logos and designs for world-famous clients and has helped to chart a commercial style recognizable for its expressionistic juxtapositions and exaggerated forms. Ruffins also collaborated with Whoopi Goldberg and famed jazz musician Herbie Hancock on the acclaimed children’s video Koi and the Kola Nuts.
Ruffins’s many awards reflect his reputation as one of Cooper Union’s most prominent graduates. He received the school’s Presidential Citation and was a recipient as well of its Augustus St. Gaudens Award for outstanding professional achievement in the arts. Other honors include The New York Art Directors Club Award, The Society of Illustrators’ Silver Medal and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for the numerous children’s books he collaborated on, doing the illustrations but also contributing riddles and anecdotes. At the ripe young age of 86, Ruffins, professor emeritus at Queens College, CUNY, is happily painting away.
You’ve been described as an “American painter, illustrator, graphic designer.” Do you like the word order?
American illustrator, graphic designer, painter might be good. The cover piece is more of an illustration. I don’t want to draw the line between “illustration” and “painting,” though. The words are unclear. I’ve seen a lot of lousy paintings in my day and so many wonderful illustrations. The stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle are illustrations because they tell a story.
I’ve worked all my life in acrylic except when I did oils as a student. Because acrylic is fast-drying and the illustration world is always on deadline, I’m not that crazy about acrylic, but I still work in it, maybe with more leisure nowadays to consider tactility—you can work thin or let paint pile up. I’ve been painting about 20 years, since I’ve been out here a lot, but these days, I don’t feel pressed to finish anything. In some cases, I pull out an old work and think, hmm…that could use a blob of red. So maybe I’ll do some touch-up from the past. It doesn’t matter to me if I don’t complete a painting. I like entertaining myself. I’ll do a sketch and maybe I’ll crumple it up or save it.
Your paintings are non-representational but your training was academic traditional. What led you toward the abstract?
Klee, Kandinsky and Picasso were early influences when my father took me to the Modern [MoMA]. I still remember going up the stairs and seeing Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror.” Design was always essential, starting with my days at The High School of Music and Art, which changed my life.
I recall the pleasure I had doing other [non-abstract] stuff, such as the map and flyer materials I did for the Bronx Botanical Garden. One day when Aaron Copland was performing on the lawn there and people were filing in with my materials, my kids said, “Daddy did that?”
Reynold Ruffins will be joined by his daughter, Lynn Ruffins Cave, on July 19 and 20 at Ashawagh Hall, where she will be exhibiting her beadwork, along with the work of three other artists. Ruffins will show a range of pieces. Viewers can also see a partial exhibition list that includes Paris, Milan, Bologna and Tokyo at reynoldruffins.com.