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.