You could call it fate that Mort Künstler became an artist—Künstler means artist in German—but it might have something to do with the way he approached every piece of work.
“My attitude is that if you’re going to tell the story, tell the story,” Künstler said. “I use every element that I’ve learned over the years such as line and values, color, etc. etc. to compose a picture and tell the story.”
Künstler has told thousands of stories over the course of his lifetime, from cartoons on the cover of Mad Magazine to the book cover for The Godfather to the Civil War scenes he became famous for in the 1980s. Many of those images are on display at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, about an hour away from his home in Oyster Bay, as part of Mort Künstler the Art of Adventure.
The exhibit, a chronological retrospective of his illustrious decades-long career, doesn’t begin with his first commissioned piece of work. It starts with a meticulously detailed pencil drawing of Künstler’s childhood bedroom in Brooklyn that he did at five years old. Clearly, he was a natural.
“My talent was discovered at an early age by my parents and they encouraged me,” Künstler recalled. “As a child, I was sick a lot with I don’t know what, childhood stuff. They gave me supplies, pads and pencils and they used to say, ‘Put down what you see.’ I just kept drawing and it got better and better.”
When he was feeling well, Künstler’s mother took him to morning art classes at the Brooklyn Museum, and he went on to study art at Brooklyn College, U.C.L.A. and Pratt Institute before beginning his career as an illustrator. And when the work became commissioned, when he was no longer simply doing art for art’s sake but for advertisers and agencies, Künstler’s passion and approach remained the same.
“The drive was pretty much any art,” he said. “I did a Mad Magazine cover and I did it as well as I could and it became a classic. I saw that it didn’t matter what the assignment as long as it’s good. I love doing this.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t challenges, back-and-forths with agencies, movie posters like the one for 1972 action-adventure flick The Poseidon Adventure that needed to be specifically scaled to highlight the bigger stars and tight deadlines, but Künstler embraced those, too. He used calipers to draw the heads of people on movie posters to the agency’s desired scale and when illustrating for Newsweek on deadline, he’d save time by doing originals small and in watercolor.
“I just had fun solving a problem, it’s problem solving,” Künstler said.
After more than a decade of putting his nose to the canvas, Künstler took illustrations, including one of a Civil War soldier drinking out of a canteen he did for an adventure magazine, to National Geographic. They gave him some assignments on historical subject matter, one thing led to another, and soon he was doing paintings on historical subject matter for calendars and the CBS miniseries The Blue and the Gray and having 200 of his artworks published in The American Spirit: The Paintings of Mort Künstler. Some may call that the pinnacle, but Künstler simply loved every minute.
“I enjoyed painting the woman’s hand with a bar of soap just as much as everything else,” he said.
Then it should come as no surprise that Künstler, whose exhibit has also made stops in Texas and Virginia, is happy that it’s found a home close to his home on Long Island.
“I get a lot of pleasure out of it, so does my family,” said Künstler, who has done three separate exhibits at Nassau County Museum of Art since 1998, of his first show in Suffolk. “For it to end up here on Long Island has been very exciting. It’s just wonderful.”
If You Go:
Mort Künstler the Art of Adventure
Organized by Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
When: Now through May 30
Where: Long Island Museum, Stony Brook