Jason Polan died in late January. He was fighting cancer but his passing nonetheless came as a shock. He was perhaps best known for his incessant sketching, in particular the grandly titled Every Person in New York, being representations of thousands of people in his beloved city. “These were not sit-for-a-portrait-style drawings,” Neil Genlinger wrote in Polan’s Jan. 27 New York Times obit. “They were quick sketches of people who often didn’t know they were being sketched, done on the fly, with delightfully unfinished results.” His loyal friends included many artists, designers, writers, filmmakers and more. He left a void that some are trying to fill with a memorial to his short life: a commemorative postage stamp. I asked one of his passionate advocates, Richard McGuire, to comment on Polan’s life, art and the plans for getting such a stamp produced. (Kelli Anderson created the stamp mock-ups.)
Why is Jason Polan such a significant artist?
Jason Polan found his voice and it was one with real urgency. He was always drawing, always documenting, he was a deep witness of his lived experience. His work is always saying, look at this, and THIS, and THIS!!
His Every Person In New York book is just teaming with life! I looked at it again this morning and it seems especially bustling since the coronavirus lock-down. He was very sensitive to the human drama unfolding all around him. In the most simple, economic way, he would record what he saw, and there is a joyfulness in what he made. The act of looking would take over the act of drawing, so his line can be kind of jumpy and disjointed, and this became his signature style. These were real life moments, things that go unnoticed by many—it could be a very tender moment of a dad with his son, or someone sleeping on a subway, or someone eating in a diner.
Being so hyper-aware of his surroundings, his radar was especially good at spotting all sorts of celebrities in the wild. It became a kind of sport with him. He would jot a few lines and add a name along the side. Many of these drawings look unfinished but are unquestionable. A curl of hair, the curve of a forehead—yes, I see it, of course it’s Danny Devito! I loved that he got a few of these celebs to sign the drawings he made. Suddenly it became a collaboration, or a kind of a performance as they added their line to his. It’s another example of his inclusiveness. A famous face or a complete unknown, they are equal; his work is about everyone and for everyone.
For years Jason would have a booth at the Printed Matter Art Book Fair at PS1 in Queens. He sold drawings, prints and zines. Somewhere along the way he developed a relationship with the Japanese store Uniqlo. I remember I was in a taxi one night passing the store on Broadway, and I saw his name written really large in the window. I recognized it was written in his own handwriting. He had produced a line of T-shirts for them. His work was presented alongside other T-shirt designs by Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. It was a brilliant move, to be seen on equal footing with these famous artists, and it made perfect sense that he was there.
When he was first starting out, he organized an informal get-together that he named the Taco Bell Drawing Club (I think it started at a Taco Bell but then it started to float from place to place). There was a memorial this past February at the Uniqlo store on Fifth Avenue—they hosted “The World’s Biggest Drawing Club.” There was a large video of Jason at a book signing in Japan from a few years before. Drawing stations were set up in the store, and they had pens available, the kind of pen he preferred to use (Uni-ball Vision Elite)—but these pens had his name printed on the side. Drawings were then posted on the walls and online. This event also extended to MoMA around the corner. He had established a relationship with the museum after he made his book Every Object in the Museum of Modern Art.
Later that evening there was a memorial for his family and friends at The New York Times. Jason had contributed many drawings over the years so it was an appropriate place for a large gathering. As you walked out of the elevator there was a long table with all sorts of Jason products, which led to a very large reception room. There were hundreds of friends and family there, and stories were told while three screens projected images of Jason and his work. It was very moving and heartwarming.
What does his loss mean to American Art?
He was a kind soul in a world that needs more kindness. It hurts to lose such a genuinely good person. He was young, only 37, and it pains me to think what could have been.
He was always finding interesting and fun ways to get his work out there and be noticed, blurring the line of high and low. He grew up admiring the work of Keith Haring and I feel there is a similar generous feeling in both of their work. Kids could connect easily to Jason’s work as easily as adults. His work could be both ubiquitous and could also be subversive in it’s placement.
He did this funny project with an ATM machine on Canal Street—you can punch in a code and out comes hand-drawn money that he made. The rainbow cash ATM is associated with The Color Factory, at Canal Street Market. Jason created a new colored bill every two months. The bills are free, but you need the map to know which code to enter. From what I understand it is still operating.
He did a project with the Strathmore paper company (I think it was made possible with the help of the Special Projects Department of the Whitney Museum). He got a drawing of his printed on the cover of the small Strathmore sketch pads that he always used. It was another brilliant move: He branded the pad and made it “his.” What I love is that it’s only for those who know about it, or have the eye for it, otherwise it’s the kind of thing that’s invisible.
His projects all had an element of fun to them. He got a drawing of his on the cover of a Spider-Man comic! He was super proud of that. Maybe this was the kind of dream he had as a kid, but knowing Jason’s work it seems totally crazy that this even happened. After that it seemed anything could be possible.
He once had an exhibition called: “As Many As I Can.” It was a show of nothing but drawings of giraffes. The art was priced depending on how many giraffes were in the drawing. There was also a wall with a grid of a thousand index cards, each with a singular giraffe drawing. They sold for one dollar each. They were all basically the same but people chose the one that they liked the best. At the end of the show the grid looked very random without the drawings that sold. He then put together another exhibition called: “What was Left From As Many As I Can,” that recreated the grid with the spaces of the missing drawings. It was fun, everyone could appreciate the joke of it, and his giraffe became ubiquitous like a graffiti tag, or his personal brand.
Why are you lobbying so hard to have a postage stamp made in his honor?
Jason was a big fan of mail. He once took out an ad in The New Yorker just to promote the U.S. Postal Service. It was a handwritten ad that pointed out the fact that for a few cents you can connect with anyone, anywhere, and how that is a wonderful thing. Who would do that? I heard it cost him $1,700 to place that ad. Why? He saw the joy in it. It was fun and he knew the people who noticed it would share in that joke, but it wasn’t a joke really—he was very sincere about it. That was so him. A postage stamp in his honor seems like a perfect Jason thing to do. A group of Jason’s friends got together just before he passed away and I was talking with Kelli Anderson; she was the first to mention how cool a Jason stamp would be. A few days later another friend, Laura Regensdorf, posted the same idea on her Instagram. I felt that I should try to keep the momentum going.
A few days after he passed away a tribute appeared on the side of the Canal Street Post Office, which was where he had a P.O. Box. People added photos and drawings to it and someone added postage stamps. It was such a nice memorial to him. Jason died of cancer and a stamp in his honor could also promote early cancer screening and would be a nice tribute to his memory. It’s a humble thing and could be seen by millions, and I think he would really dig that. Kelli mocked up some designs that made the idea feel more real. The Postal Service is now in danger and needs emergency funding so I pray for its survival, and I hope it can produce a stamp tribute to the memory of Jason Polan, who was one of its biggest fans!