Mao Zedong wrote poetry. Bill Clinton played saxophone. Winston Churchill and George W. Bush both turned to painting. For some politicians, only art can calm the passions after a long day — and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, now steering New York to a cautious reopening after the deaths of 32,000 citizens, has lately taken solace in the discipline of graphic design.
“What if somebody said, ‘OK, no words? Paint me a picture that tells the story of what you’re trying to say,” Mr. Cuomo asked himself Monday. Depicting his response to the coronavirus outbreak in images was “like a relief valve,” he went on; “I could go and just use a different side of my brain.”
Do bear in mind the governor’s admission that he relied on a less exercised lobe when you examine his new poster — his second this year — bearing the slogan “New York Tough.” This synthesis of the state’s coronavirus ordeal, on whose themes the governor expatiated during a New York City news conference, appears like a lysergic imitation of a Victorian public reform campaign — translating the nightmare of the pandemic into an equally nightmarish vision of an island mountain, festooned with icons of death and decline, overlaid with text flying in every direction.
The virus arrives via a propeller plane, its wings scrawled with “EUROPEANS” and “COVID-19,” soaring to the mountain of death through clouds labeled “WH TASK FORCE” and “FED CLOUDS OF CONFUSION.”
The president, identified by his overlength red tie, sits idle on a crescent moon, under the label “It’s just the flu.”
A disembodied nose gets a swab, a surgical mask floats near the summit, prisoner-bottled hand sanitizer stands at the ready.
To the poster’s right (a little strange, this), a crew of rappellers hold a rope to slow the rate of infection, though they do not dam up the cascading waterfall on which dollar signs plunge to the sea. (Mr. Cuomo, at his news conference: “Get it? Economy Falls, like Niagara Falls?”)
Upon Death Mountain appear various telltale emblems of the health emergency: New Rochelle, site of the state’s first infection cluster, has been rendered as a generic flame, next to a little “Sorry We’re Closed” clip art.
Up at the peak, at what is meant to signify the moment of maximum fatality in the State of New York, is a breezy rainbow, topped by a ribbon emblazoned with the motto “Love Wins.” Mr. Cuomo is fond of this L.G.B.T. rights bumper-sticker slogan, but perhaps it should not adorn a summit denoting the acme of New York’s suffering.
There are strange typographical outbursts, mostly in an old-time variation of Cheltenham (incidentally the typeface of headlines in The New York Times), variously sized, variously capitalized, variously colored, variously angled. And there is a strange outcropping called “Boyfriend Cliff,” from which a young man, presumably the partner of one of Mr. Cuomo’s daughters, holds on for dear life.
Your average TikTok video displays more careful graphic execution than this, though I suppose the poster’s designer means with these many captions to echo the dense information of a 19th-century political campaign advertisement. Also seemingly borrowed from the late 19th century is a gross Orientalist stereotype: a zephyr at the poster’s left, labeled “Winds of Fear,” has outrageously been given the horns and flamelike eyebrows of a Chinese demon.
As a work of political propaganda, this poster gets at least one job done: the federal government bears all the blame, the State of New York is diligent and triumphant. As a work of graphic design, well, it certainly stands apart from either the high-contrast progressivism that Shepard Fairey masterminded for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign or the all-over-the-shop digital effluvia of Donald J. Trump’s Twitter account. It scores very high on curiosity, and rather lower on legibility. You might think of those illustrated old-timey History of the World charts that once adorned schoolrooms, or perhaps an old promotion for a dinner-theater production of “The Sound of Music.”
Really, the poster’s nostalgic style is belated even so far as retro trends go — hasn’t it been a decade since bars in Brooklyn were flooded with “heritage hipsters,” drinking moonshine while wearing vintage tweeds and waxed mustaches? Yet Mr. Cuomo has an abiding taste for circa-1900 political imagery: at his news conference he shouted out William Jennings Bryan’s campaign posters as a particular inspiration.
In the past Mr. Cuomo has collaborated with a designer named Rusty Zimmerman, who earlier this year drew a far superior poster for the governor that pictured New York as a trusty schooner plowing through “the sea of division” and “the squalls of hate.”
This time the governor sketched out a design that was executed by another artist, whose name the governor’s spokespeople were unable to provide. At this point we ought to name the designer of this poster as Andrew Cuomo himself, directing production like Rubens in his studio, or Jeff Koons in his factory.
Indeed, amid the most severe state crisis in decades, the governor has nourished his deep-running creative streak, whether in his graphically inventive PowerPoint presentations, where word and image jostle against one another as discordantly as in a W.G. Sebald novel, or else in his unexpected display, during the mortal month of April, of a quilt made of hundreds of cloth face masks.
“I am an artist,” the governor announced last month when he unveiled another surreal artwork: a human-scale mountain that aimed to depict the quick climb and gradual fall in Covid-19 cases across New York. Like a high school science project, this three-dimensional precipice of infection had a certain bizarre power, with its transubstantiation of public misery into Styrofoam. (I do hope the sculptor Rachel Harrison, whose astute conjunctions of lumpish forms and out-there imagery filled the Whitney Museum last year, has been watching.)
If you know your Renaissance painting, you won’t need long to identify the symbol of the giant mountain rising from the sea in this week’s poster. The mountain is Purgatory, and it is a place of suffering and maturation, where the pilgrim must pass through successive trials on the way to paradise — here known as “The Sun on the Other Side.”
Even if the health crisis is not over (a sign at the mountain’s foot reads “Caution Ahead”), our pilgrim has been purified by his agony on the mount, guided through his ordeals by fellow New Yorkers, health care workers, and his equally prominent daughters and Siberian-shepherd dog.
The mountain in the sea is a place where, as Dante had it, “the human spirit is purged, and becomes fit to climb to Heaven.” Perhaps that is how Mr. Cuomo, as artist rather than public official, sees our ongoing ordeal: a political purgatory whose tests have molded him into a public-health paladin. But even if your pride is as big as the Adirondack Mountains, you don’t need to exult with kitsch like this.