The book in question, "American Illustration 4," a lavishly produced four-color anthology of contemporary approaches to the medium, sets an enviably high standard for the quality of its reproduction and printing. That, and a limited press run, accounts for its imposing price.
Illustration is a funny field. Essentially it uses Fine Art techniques in the service of a pre-existing printed text, whether ad, book, periodical or promotional piece. This book defines it as variations on the representational--expressionistic, surrealistic, cartoonlike, theatrical, posterlike, in a staggering display of technical virtuosity in every imaginable traditional medium--gouache, airbrush, crayon, shading films, acrylic, pastel, pencil, ink, watercolor, scratch board, tempera, collage. You name it.
Some examples stand out. Guy Billout's mesmerizing visual puns, people in predicaments, set in precise, detailed, and appropriate vacant vistas. Gene Grief's versions of Herbert Matter on LSD. Walter Bernard and Milton Glaser's wry, hyperrealistic painting of Karl Marx lighting a cigar with a dollar bill.
But, gradually, doubt enters in. The book (which tends to slide off your knees and onto the floor unless you remain alert) begins to feel heavy. Why? Perhaps it's the realization that most of what you're looking at, you've seen before, in its original incarnation. Everything reworks the familiar; Jim Buckels evokes Grant Wood and the Emerald City of Oz; Robert Giusti merges Leonardo (including the cracks of age on the surface of the painting) with the Time cover look. Elwood H. Smith clones George Herriman, the legendary '40s cartoonist. Steve Carver apes Thomas Hart Benton. Paul Rogers performs a witty rip-off of Soviet constructivism. And so on. The editor, Edward Booth-Clibborn, in his one-page introduction asks the question, "What makes for originality? And what price does it exact?" Exactly.