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N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo is touting a new pandemic poster that artists call an ‘incoherent’ mess

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo translated the nightmare of the pandemic into a graphic poster of an island mountain, festooned with icons of death, decline and accomplishment.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo translated the nightmare of the pandemic into a graphic poster of an island mountain, festooned with icons of death, decline and accomplishment.Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo via New York Times

A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes - but what if it takes a thousand words from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to explain his office's own picture?

Cuomo unveiled his latest political art Monday during a news briefing in Manhattan - an image intended to depict how the state of New York has handled the treacherous experience that is the covid-19 pandemic. And the sprawling collision of symbols and concepts has invited wide-ranging reactions, including quips from social-media influencers and criticism from professional artists.

At the center of the "New York Tough" poster, which Cuomo's office is offering for order online, is a mountain with the uphill face labeled, "Pulling Down the Curve Together," and the downhill face, peopled with essential workers, labeled, "The Power of 'We.' " At the top is a rainbow with a "Love Wins" banner and a quote from Cuomo: "Wake Up America! Forget the Politics, Get Smart!"

Within this treasure map of captions, the mountain is bordered by "the Sea of Division" and spans "111 Days of Hell."

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In trying to unpack the many meanings behind his poster, Cuomo said at Monday's briefing that New York went up the mountain, then "we curved the mountain" and "we came down the other side."

The art's big upward arrow labeled "Projection Models," Cuomo added, represents "the economic models," including accounting for beds and ventilators. The arrow crosses the downward line of "Economy Falls." Explained Cuomo: "Get it, Economy Falls? ... Like Niagara Falls."

The poster is replete with "little visuals of what was going on," Cuomo said, including the flame of a "New Rochelle Hot Spot"; a reference to fictional philosopher AJ Parkinson, who was created by the governor's father, former New York governor Mario Cuomo; and President Donald Trump sitting on a crescent moon, with the caption "It's Just the Flu." The art also includes "Boyfriend Cliff," a reference to how Cuomo has invoked his daughter's significant other at his coronavirus news conferences.

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Rich Azzopardi, senior adviser to Cuomo, says some of the most significant signs on the poster include the mask at the top of the mountain - meant to signify just how crucial the facial coverings have been to New York's response - and the "caution" sign in the lower right corner.

On social media, the positive responses included one fan who tweeted: "I want the new Cuomo COVID poster more than I've wanted anything in a while."

Jason Conwall, deputy communications director in Cuomo's office, says "a lot of people wanted" the previous Cuomo poster in January, and "we've had an overall positive response" to the new one - Cuomo's office has received about 12,000 orders for it.

Others on social media used the poster as an opportunity to critique Cuomo's coronavirus response, such as CNN's Jake Tapper, who tweeted, "New York's leaders were late and made many mistakes; it's been an absolute tragedy."

What do professional artists and art editors think of Cuomo's latest "throwback" poster that nods to some political art of the 19th century? Well, some contacted by The Washington Post say they would throw it back.

"I'm sorry to give it a bad review," says Steve Brodner, the acclaimed artist and political caricaturist who teaches illustration at New York's School of Visual Arts.

"It suffers from a lack of focus as a story," Brodner says. "It ignores the rules of composition. There's no sense of design. It's a complete waste of space."

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And Barry Blitt, the frequent New Yorker magazine cover artist who won the Pulitzer Prize this year for cartooning, says that the poster "seems to be a satire of an infographic."

"As a parody, I think it's very successful indeed," Blitt says tongue-in-cheek, "with all the disparate images labeled in minuscule lettering and the chaotic placement of the items."

New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly does see one possible success in the poster: "It's effective," she says in an email, "if its only goal was to flatter Cuomo's ego."

"Clearly this is something he made - it fits his personality," she says of the Democratic governor. "It's a representation of his lengthy, folksy, off-the-cuff press conferences.

"But if you're talking about his stated goal, which is to use state power and money to create something that people would want or that would inspire them to be proud to be New Yorkers? It's an absolute disaster," Mouly says. "It's incoherent, which is antithetical to the idea of a poster. A poster has to be unified."

Mouly contrasts "New York Tough" with the earlier Cuomo poster that evoked poster art for American politician and orator William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee for president more than a century ago. That Cuomo poster, Mouly says, was "both more honest and more effective."

Brooklyn artist Rusty Zimmerman, who has worked with Cuomo's team on previous art - including the Bryan-nodding poster - makes clear that he was not involved with "New York Tough." The new poster's artist has not been revealed by Cuomo's office, which confirms that the governor was involved in its design. Zimmerman tells The Washington Post: "I had a great time working with the governor and his team on the previous posters."

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Sara W. Duke, curator in the Popular and Applied Graphic Art division at the Library of Congress, says that "New York Tough" "evokes 19th-century Christian prints that showed people the correct path to salvation, or images of (John) Bunyan's (Christian allegory) Pilgrim's Progress, which literally include mountains, salvation and progress."

Duke notes that there "all sorts of ways to look at overdesigned images," including in those 19th-century Christian prints, "where the attempt to represent everything means that nothing is seen." Cuomo's art also nods to historical political campaign posters in which it's almost impossible to tell who is running for office," she says.

Still, some visual experts say that even a commercial poster with metaphorical imagery needs a graphic logic and greater reflection of realism. The mountain's symmetry doesn't correspond to the curve of New York cases, they say. The pulled rope is slack. Is this scene day or night? And why are some of our leaders seated, looking immobilized, instead of actively responding to the virus?

"It appears the work was designed by a committee," Blitt says, "or perhaps a committee made up of several smaller committees."

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And the New Yorker's Mouly says, "This is a good example of a work in which there was no art director mediating between the client - Cuomo - and the poor artist.

“The only way it could be saved,” she says, “is by firing the client.”