Art Paul, the Playboy Rabbit and the Merging of Fine with Pop Art

“It was an essential thing to have a signature that talked about the lifestyle that Hef was interested in [promoting]…. What came to mind was a rabbit.”

Art Paul

“Hard Heads, Sweet Knees, Forked Tongues” at the Ukraininan Institute of Modern Art (UIMA) puts some of Paul’s most recent work on display.

That’s Art Paul, now 90 years old, on the simple genesis of the Playboy rabbit—an image that has endured long beyond the magazine’s centerfolds. Debuted in the magazine’s first issue, a permanent cover fixture by the second, the rabbit was used by Paul—the magazine’s art director and only other employee—as a way to garner excitement around each issue; starting with the third issue, he hid the bunny somewhere on every cover, so that eager readers would seek it out. Over the years, the image has come to represent something more than Hugh Hefner’s vision: It’s a visual representation of the intersection of art, graphic design and commerce, a marketing ploy that relied on a winking playfulness over gray-flannel-suit ad techniques.

Paul is the rare artist whose work has always straddled the commercial and the fine. A trained artist and graphic designer, he took the position at Playboy because the idea of “designing a book that had no history” excited him, and he used the magazine as a blank canvas for the most avant garde of pop art and design. “Hard Heads, Sweet Knees, Forked Tongues,” currently on display at the Ukraininan Institute of Modern Art (UIMA) through July 26, puts his post-Playboy fine art work on display, an eclectic grouping of sketches and paintings from the late 1980s through last year.

A Chicago native, Paul grew up on the Southwest Side, a wide-eyed child who honed his craft sketching the unusual people he saw on the El on his weekend commute to classes at the Art Institute. He went on to study at the then-new Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Through all of this, Paul’s art never lost its childlike qualities. His wife Suzanne Seed, a writer, calls his approach “crazy, off-the-top-of-the-head, playful creativity.” The very names of the pieces on display at the UIMA are a testament to that humor: “Alien Eye,” “Octopus in Hat,” “In Search of a Moon: Cow Jumps Over the Cow” are just a few, as is the more autobiographical “Man Angry at Drawing (Two Parts).”

In fact, his art is becoming ever more autobiographical, with recent portrait series centered on aging and his deteriorating eyesight. In true Art Paul fashion, they’re portraits on serious subjects laced, always, with a generous dose of humor.

Cover photo credit: Suzanne Seed.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

Comments (1)

  • Kathryn

    Can’t wait to go to the UIMA to see this in person.


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