At 83 years old, illustrator and animator R.O. Blechman finds himself riding a new wave of recognition.
His ninth decade began in 2010 with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonists Society, followed last year by his induction into the distinguished Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame -- Norman Rockwell was its first inductee. On Saturday, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge will open a retrospective exhibit of his 60-year career, "R.O. Blechman: The Inquiring Line," which will run through June.
A sought-after illustrator and cartoonist for advertising campaigns and publications from the New Yorker to the New York Times and Village Voice, Blechman received widespread acclaim for his groundbreaking classic 1967 Alka-Seltzer "Talking Stomach" animated TV commercial. His early books for children anticipated the advent of graphic novels, while his compelling 1984 Emmy Award-winning adaptation of Igor Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" for PBS, starring the voice of Max von Sydow as the Devil, set new boundaries for a feature-length cartoon.
With his trademark shaky, hesitant lines and everyman characters, his art frequently highlights his native New York, exuding warmth and wit while often considering serious topics such as politics, religion and societal ills.
The Rockwell exhibit will primarily show his work from the last 25 years, along with examples from his earlier career, in a variety of media including ink, gouache, collage and his favorite medium, watercolors.
"My style evolved over time," he said.
While he considers animation his first love, he sees himself as basically a storyteller, whether he is using still or moving images. His primary creative influence remains legendary New Yorker cover artist Saul Steinberg.
"He invented a whole vocabulary," Blechman explained.
He occasionally finds himself following Steinberg's style.
"Like a little planet, I can't resist the gravity of a larger body," he said.
Chance and opportunity have played prominent roles throughout his life.
"The Soldier's Tale," he said, came about through "a whole series of odd coincidences," including the convergence in Milan of a PBS executive and a La Scala Stravinsky poster.
His gift of a cover illustration to Story magazine led him to design all of its covers for the next 10 years, resulting in some of his best work, he said.
Still, he considers turning down the chance to animate "Curious George" a "major blunder" -- after doing "The Soldier's Tale," he had thought, he wasn't about to start drawing monkeys!
Putting the exhibit together has allowed Joyce Schiller, curator of the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, not only to honor Blechman but also at the same time to satisfy her own personal interest in artists who re-use art from the past in a new way.
"Bob [Blechman] does that spectacularly," she said. "He did a New Yorker cover of a robot sitting and thinking which is based on Rodin's Thinker," she noted, "as well as a version with a rodent -- Rodin's Rodent."
The exhibit also includes two versions of the iconic painting "Whistler's Mother." One is a New Yorker cover with tiny people offering Mother's Day gifts, while the other is a watercolor of her sitting in a modernist Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair with Picasso's colorful "Demoiselles d'Avignon" hanging behind her.
As Schiller explained, re-using art makes the assumption that people looking at it are going to recognize it. From the point of view of a museum professional, "there something about that that I find really reassuring," she said.
People viewing Blechman's images "will be pushed to think about their politics a little bit," she said, "and they'll be reminded that they recognize his work even when they don't go looking for it."
"And I hope they all laugh a lot," she added. "Even the serious work has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to it."
If you go ...
What: 'R.O. Blechman:The Inquiring Line' -- opening reception with celebrated graphic artist, animator, illustrator and cartoonist.
When: Saturday, 6 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Norman Rockwell Museum,
Route 183, Stockbridge