The art of Fitz and Van.
Boredom helped me to discover them. In the early seventies, I needed to find a way to keep myself entertained during our monthly weekend visits to my grandmother who lived in a small village in rural Belgium. As there was not much to do for me there and no children of my age to play with, I resorted to wandering around the house; that is where I at some point discovered stacks of old magazines in an old wardrobe closet. Among them were old TV guides and home decoration magazines but also issues of Readers Digest, LIFE and National Geographic.
Cars – and drawing them in particular – were my main point of interest and the plentiful car advertisements in those old magazines in my grandmother’s house provided an excellent source of inspiration. The ones that made the biggest impression on me were those of Pontiac in the magazines of American origin, and the Opel advertisements in the other more recent publications.
Those cars looked so fantastic – how on earth did they make the chrome shine like that? And the whole atmosphere, the play with different types of light and shade, the lush background locations: I wanted to be able to do that too. Of course, even though my technique would improve enough over time to even win a few prizes in national competitions I never came close to realising that desire.
Little wonder, as those magnificent advertisements were the work of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman, the undisputed masters of their craft. This duo were the artists behind the mysterious letters VK/AF present on most of their joint work. Fitzpatrick was the one who drew the cars, while Kaufman tended himself to the backgrounds. This in itself is unusual enough as most drawn or painted works are the product of a single individual; that it worked so well in this case is even more noteworthy.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1919 Art Fitzpatrick spent most of his youth in Detroit. His talent for drawing apparent from a very young age, he wanted to become a car designer, or stylist as is was more often called in those days. In 1937 Fitzpatrick got an apprenticeship under John Tjaarda at the Briggs Body Manufacturing Company enabling him to further develop his skills; the next year while in California with the idea of finding work in Hollywood’s set painting and design sector he spotted a car showroom on Sunset Boulevard with Darrin of Paris in large letters on its store front.
Intrigued by the beautiful custom-bodied Packards parked in front, the young Fitzpatrick walked inside and encountered owner Dutch Darrin, who hired him virtually on the spot. Fitzpatrick realised his dream and had become a car stylist – in the year he worked for Darrin he designed the four-door Darrin Packard One-Eighty closed sedan. His next stop was General Electric where he worked as a consulting industrial designer until he had to report for military duty in the U.S. Navy.
Recognising his specific talent, the Navy stationed Fitzpatrick not on a war vessel but rather in New York city where they ran an office that produced copy and artwork for recruiting posters, service and instruction manuals and related publications. It was in this capacity that Fitzpatrick was reunited with none other than Bill Mitchell whom he had already met a few times during his apprenticeship at Briggs.
One day, over lunch Mitchell told Fitzpatrick that Harley Earl was desperate to get Mitchell back into the GM styling studio, but that the admiral running the division refused to let him go because he was tasked with illustrating the pilot’s handbook for the Helldiver warplane. It transpired that the admiral would only agree to letting Mitchell go if he found somebody else to do the job; as Fitzpatrick still had another six months to serve he told Mitchell he would take over the job from him. Thus Mitchell was able to get out of the Navy early; the two men remaining good friends thereafter.
Early work- ads for Plymouth and Mercury
When the war was over Fitzpatrick started work with the J. Walther Thompson advertising agency in New York, being put in charge of illustrating ads for Mercury. Two years later, J. Walter Thompson lost the Mercury account to rival agency Kenyon & Eckhardt. Its director was impressed enough with Fitzpatrick’s work for Mercury that he lured the talented artist to him by offering him to do the ads for Lincoln as well – to which Fitzpatrick agreed, but only on a freelance basis instead of an exclusive contract. This enabled him to do some work for competing car manufacturers such as Nash and Plymouth as well. By 1953 he would add Buick to his portfolio and therewith the seeds for a longstanding GM connection were sown.
Buick’s general manager Ivan Wiles approached Fitzpatrick with the suggestion of an exclusive contract but Fitzpatrick, who enjoyed the freedom freelancing provided him, was not enthusiastic about the idea. However, since he and Wiles got along very well and he did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings Fitzpatrick resorted to a strategy of making his financial demands so excessive that Buick would never agree to them. A few days after those negotiations however, Fitzpatrick received a telephone call from Buick asking him to come over and sign the contract.
AF and VK really took off when they tackled Buick publicity
Van Justin Kaufman was born in the state of Georgia in 1918. He worked at Disney before the second world war where he drew cartoon animations for Fantasia and Dumbo; during World War II Kaufman was in the Army Air Corps First Motion Picture Unit, working with big names such as Clark Gable, William Holden, Alan Ladd and Ronald Reagan. He also designed around 100 war insignias during this period. When peace broke out Kaufman moved to New York and became an illustrator; his wife Gertrude possessed artistic talent as well – she had drawn Woody Woodpecker cartoons for Warner Brothers.
His agent in New York was the same one that Fitzpatrick used and this is how the two met. Mercury would regularly switch artists to do the backgrounds for the car advertisements, and Fitzpatrick who was familiar with his work suggested that Kaufman do them – to which they agreed. In 1951, the AF/VK tandem was born.
Sunshine or shade, home or away
The process involving their combined advertising work roughly went as follows: first a rudimentary sketch of the background was made, and an appropriate main colour scheme was decided upon. Then another sketch, in colour this time, was made which now also included the car so the vehicle could be made to fit into the perspective.
The media used was gouache, opaque watercolours and later acrylic paint as well. When the actual artwork was started, Fitzpatrick drew the car on art board and cut it out so it could be pasted onto Kaufman’s background. In some Pontiac advertisements for the Grand Prix a different approach was used whereby Fitzpatrick drew the car directly onto the existing background so that part of it would be visible through the car itself.
Hot or cold, work or play
As one of the very few outside of the GM Design inner circle, Fitzpatrick was allowed to take photographs of the upcoming new Pontiacs months before they would be available to the public – these were mostly non-functional styling clays but were as far as appearance was concerned the definitive version released by GM Design for production.
For inspirational backgrounds both Fitzpatrick and Kaufman would take periodical trips to Europe and places like Hawaii and Mexico where they separately roamed the area for suitable locations. A few dozen rolls of film were used up by each and upon returning home the duo would examine all the slides together and select the best ones. There were some of course within the organisation that questioned these vacations but Fitzpatrick stated that they was never on vacation but rather traveling on business…..
Dusk or dawn, day or night
Kaufman and Fitzpatrick lived about 25 miles apart, and over time became so attuned to the other’s artistic senses that they were able to produce a finished background and car separately by discussing their respective work over the telephone, which would blend together perfectly in the end. This happened on a few occasions where an unexpected rush job forced them to do so but it was certainly not their normal – or preferred – modus operandi.
Kaufman’s son once asked his father how long it took him to paint the scenes for the auto ads. “20 years and three days”, his father replied. Three days to paint one and 20 years to learn how. The sheer quality of their artwork was such that the duo won several awards for their Pontiac work.
Wet or dry, town or country
In the mid sixties photography was definitely starting to push out the drawn cars in advertising, and although Pontiac remained firmly committed to Fitzpatrick and Kaufman’s work, the division did switch to photography early that decade, but only for the smaller Tempest and Le Mans models. However, when John Z. DeLorean became general manager at Pontiac, being a fan of AF/VK’s art (together with Bill Mitchell) the flamboyant manager switched all ad work for the complete Pontiac model lineup back to Fitzpatrick and Kaufman – practically doubling their income overnight.
When later DeLorean became general manager of Chevrolet he offered the duo to quit Pontiac and move to Chevrolet but Fitzpatrick and Kaufman felt that they would not be happy working under Chevrolet’s advertising agency Campbell Ewald so they declined the offer. A big strike at GM in October of 1970 would mean that the illustrious duo’s thirteen-year long association with Pontiac came to an end when then Pontiac boss Jim McDonald cut back heavily on the publicity budget as a result.
As Fitzpatrick and Kaufman were deemed too expensive – the fact that their work for Pontiac had been an important factor in moving Pontiac from seventh to third place in the US sales charts notwithstanding – they were out. For Pontiac alone the duo produced 285 different ads, not including the brochure images which are for the most part entirely different.
Fly or float, dark or light
Fitz and Van found temporary refuge at Opel courtesy of their marketing director Bob Lutz who was also a fan; they produced their last advertising work for GM in 1973.
Art Fitzpatrick made real estate ads for some years afterwards, again in cooperation with Kaufman. The latter started to develop health problems at this time which eventually prevented him from creating any more of the art he so loved. He passed away in 1995.
Fitzpatrick would continue to create art after his retirement, among which a commission by the US Post Office for a series of stamps depicting famous American cars of the past; thirty-eight million of them were sold. He would also produce work on commission and served as a consultant with Pixar for their popular animated movie Cars. An honorary member of the Automotive Fine Arts Society and the Classic Car Club of America, Art Fitzpatrick left us in 2015 after a life well lived.
Later work for Opel and some brochure artwork
Handmade art is all but absent in today’s advertising realm, but Fitzpatrick and Kaufman have made a lasting impression and their work published in advertisements and brochures is still avidly collected; designer Peter Stevens is among their admirers.
Anyone who has ever opened up a vintage American magazine like LIFE or the Saturday Evening Post to discover a stunningly rendered wide-track Pontiac, seductively posed in front of opulent scenery, will realise why.
All images, except where indicated, from the author’s collection.