Al Pimsler: A Man’s Men’s Illustrator

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01/20/2015

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Al Pimsler: A Man’s Men’s Illustrator
Photo by Wendell

A dapper anomaly in those still shaggy post-Woodstock years, he walked with purpose and panache to the Saks Fifth Avenue offices where he took up residence at the drawing table. Handsome. Diminutive yet self-assured, debonaire, even–an outdated word, but it suited. With a full head of white hair waving back from a fulcrum of dark eyebrows and an aura of authority and ease draped about him like layered cashmere sweaters, Al Pimsler evoked a masculine, fashionable world I had not grown up in.

We trooped into the classroom in our army jackets and Landlubber bellbottoms, clutching 18 X 24 newsprint pads and khaki green tackle boxes filled with soft charcoal pencils, single edge razor blades to sharpen them, and kneaded erasers to soften our blunders. The class was Fashion Drawing. Waiting for us behind the partition was a model, often male. Waiting in front was our instructor. Both entranced and intimidated, I wasn’t sure if my princess-doodling childhood had the oomph to catapult me into the trenches there at Parsons School of Design. An assertive, testosterone-injected line was what Al Pimsler demanded. I wanted to deliver.

He harkened to the “Mad Men” era–and even earlier–the 1940s golden age of fashion art, when illustrators such as Carl “Eric” Erickson and René Bouché easily crossed over the commercial line into fine art. They reigned at Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, and by the 1960s, despite the new topsy-turvy caused by the Beatles and Mary Quant and Twiggy and Roy Lichtenstein (and Antonio Lopez, riding a new wave of illustration), their influence was still felt, the torch carried on by a few working artists like Al Pimsler. When he wasn’t turning out his own strong, linear gestures in full page retail advertising in The New York Times on a weekly basis, he shared his experience and knowledge with us in a characteristic low key.

He stressed drawing, and drawing well, insisting (and proving) that fashion artists were not third class citizens of the art world. Encouraging us to rely on our eye and our hand (the flourish would follow), Mr. Pimsler (I still can’t call him anything but that) saw something in my work that he liked, maybe even recognized. He didn’t shower me with compliments, so the subtlety with which I felt coaxed was all the more precious to me.

There were other instructors in the fashion illustration department at Parsons in 1972 that seemed more in tune with the times, urging all kinds of envelope-pushing, gender bending, and creative mayhem. One guest assignment was given to us by Al Goldstein of Screw magazine. Barbara Pearlman, Albert Elia, Katerina Denzinger, Kes Zapkus–all possessed the cult of personality that had us slavishly following. I was influenced and stimulated by them as well, in varying degrees, but it was Mr. Pimsler whose respect I craved.

And here I am, forty-odd years later, ostensibly downsizing. I plow through the archives of schoolwork done while under the influence of all these disparate instructors, right on the cusp (unknown to us at the time) of fashion illustration being rudely eclipsed by photography, to never quite claim its hierarchy again as a fine art. It strikes me that, as I surround myself with old newsprint pad drawings and illustration boards bearing classroom assignments, what holds up best is the work I did in Al Pimsler’s class. Looking at one drawing of mine in particular, a man in a pinstripe shirt, I seem to remember him saying something along the lines of, that if he didn’t know otherwise he would think that this was one he might have done. His demeanor was such that a compliment of that magnitude has me wondering even now–did he really say that? Mean that? Or did I mishear, misconstrue, misremember? Regardless, I’ve carried the glow all these years.

I got to thinking about him recently. Of course, I wondered if he was still alive. A google search revealed that he died just a few months ago. A little kick in my gut reverberated all the way back to that day in his classroom–any day, really–when there was nowhere else on earth I would have rather been. At 96, I bet he was still a handsome devil, and most assuredly, a class act all the way. One thing about Al Pimsler, I don’t imagine that he was ever out of style.

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§ 3 Responses to “Al Pimsler: A Man’s Men’s Illustrator”

  • I’ve just spent most of the afternoon correcting the drawings of students (menswear fashion designers) from FIT. And for some reason Al Pimsler popped into my head. I haven’t thought about him for …decades. So, I googled his name – ah the wonders of the digital world – and came across your blog.

    I was a fashion illustration major at Parsons from 1974 to 77 and Mr. Pimsler was one of my instructors. Your article brought it all back: the stuffy classrooms, the 18′ X 24″ newsprint pads, the disco music, but most of all Al Pimsler.

    He really was as you described him, a gentleman in form and figure. What a lovely tribute. Thank you for the memories.

  • Sharon Watts says:

    I am so happy that you found this! I was just a few years before you, so there was no disco music, mostly Cat Stevens 🙂 The fact that we each succeeded in becoming illustrators ourselves is really the best tribute to Al Pimsler, right? Those were the days, my friend . . .

  • Rosemary Fraites says:

    A year late but such a nice article. Al was always a gentleman and yes when I look at my old college portfoli0 not so shabby. I am sorry he passed. He certainly gave great advice and we worked to please for positive reinforcement. We could engage in our work as students because he was upbeat and honest in giving advice.

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