Birds were Arthur Singer’s bread and butter. For five decades, the New York-based artist provided avian illustrations for an array of books, magazines, U.S. postage stamps and even commemorative plates, creating a collection that rivaled his idol, John Audubon. But his images were so much more than spoonbills and grosbeaks, flamingos and finches; they were about his subjects’ struggles, their grit and determination. Giving them personalities and relatable perspectives previously unconsidered, Singer made his animal subjects remarkably human, remarkably relatable. As David Wagner wrote earlier this year, “[Singer captured] what might be called the ‘inner consciousness’ of avian subjects…. [He] shows us what they must endure and negotiate as birds trying to survive.” And it all started in the unlikeliest of places, that urban jungle, New York City.
Well, Washington Heights to be exact. That’s where young Singer spent hours studying and then depicting the neighborhood’s stray cats. Later he was enraptured by the animals at the Bronx Zoo, where he spent even more hours honing his eye to see beyond the fur and hides to the hearts and minds behinds the beasts. It was therefore no surprise to his family that Singer enrolled in Cooper Union, the famed arts school in the East Village.
Following his studies, which were punctuated by trips to Harlem to listen to and later befriend legendary figures Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, Singer went to work in the ad business — and perhaps he would have stayed in that field had World War II not upended his and the rest of the globe’s existence. But even in a war involving millions, Singer was unique: part of the small, elite “Ghost Army,” his mission was to deploy inflatable tanks, fake radio calls and other deceptions that confused the Axis powers, providing cover for their allies to sneak across borders and front lines. His equally creative compatriots included Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly and fashion and music photographer Art Kane.
Landing safely on his feet after armistice, Singer was back to the drawing board in New York, taking on a range of freelance projects, including a 1958 print assignment for American Home magazine and a smattering of wildlife illustrations for Sports Illustrated, illustrations that helped earn him an eleven-page spread in the World Book Encyclopedia. The rest, as they say, is history…
Singer’s self-assured, touching and at-times hauntingly detailed images were soon published in the Field Guide to Birds of North America, which has since sold over 5 million copies, as well as European, West Indies and Global editions He also illustrated the 1962 book Birds of Colour and the massive Birds of the World that same year; the 1967 title Water and Marsh Birds of the World; 1970’s The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe; and in 1973, produced rare non-avian editions, Cats and the more wide-ranging, Wild Animals from Alligator to Zebra.
There were many more books in the years ahead, including a tome on Greenland’s fauna and one about houseplants, and many honors, too: the government invited in 1982 him to illustrate state bird stamps for all fifty states, the Hammer Gallery held retrospectives of his work in 1982 and 1984; and he was recognized with the Audubon Society’s Hal Borland Award in 1985, the society’s namesake’s 200th birthday.
Though Singer’s star faded a bit after his 1990 death, it never truly went out, kept alive by scores of fans and, of course, by his two sons, Paul and Alan, both artists: Alan illustrated state flowers alongside his father’s 1982 stamp project and Paul worked as a graphic designer. Now the Singer brothers and the Rochester Institute of Technology are bringing some of the elder Singer’s greatest hits back in focus, collaborating both on a traveling retrospective and a biography, Arthur Singer: The Wildlife Art of an American Master, which also includes some of his portraits of the jazz legends with whom he was friends, as well as sketches from his army career.
Wrapping its appearance in Rochester later this month, the exhibition will then travel to Ithaca and New York City, and, the organizers hope, elsewhere in the years to come. Until then, though, you can catch a copy of your own over at RIT’s online shop.