Fabled director Joe Pytka called him "the idiot savant of advertising."
Newsweek called him one of the 100 most influential people in American culture.
But no one has ever called him retiring. Until now. Because he is-to create art.
There are those of us who would argue that Riswold, 48, has been creating art for years-at least since the day in late 1984 when he walked into a presentation for the Honda scooters advertising account, propped an album cover against a wall, played a tape of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," and persuaded the Japanese company that a dissipated singer's ode to transvestism and urban decay was just the thing to sell its vehicles. This "meta-commercial," as its editor labeled it, with its homage to French New Wave film and Sontagian camp, ushered in the era of the new advertising. It put Wieden & Kennedy, the Portland, Ore., advertising agency for which Riswold had scribbled and scratched, on the national cultural radar.
And it changed America's (and perhaps the Western world's) audiovisual landscape. For it was Riswold who, having seen the young Spike Lee's second independent film, thought to team the director and his cinematic character Mars Blackmon with basketball superstar Michael Jordan to market Nike with a wink and a nod to visions of transubstantiation. Riswold's influence (with Dan Wieden's enthusiastic, occasionally fretting backing and David Kennedy's gleefully subversive support) helped lure Jean-Luc Godard to direct TV spots, transformed Bugs Bunny into a Gen X icon, and basically overturned decades-old conventions of marketing. Once a haven for the inoffensive, advertising under the hands of Riswold and his brethren became, if I might be forgiven for quoting an earlier me, "a picture postcard of the postmodern esthetic ," a canvas for "ironic annotation" of the culture itself.
So how can he be retiring to do art?
"I've been dealing with leukemia for five years; the advertising always gave me a creative outlet to not think about it, because I was using the fun part of my brain," explained Riswold, from his home in Portland. He'd picked up the phone, a little breathless, he explained, because "I was out in the street yelling at cars riding by my house."
He'd been dabbling in art, and when his treatments starting sapping serious energy from him, "I said, I have to finish at least one of these things." He did-about, as he would later write, "toys, irony, ridicule, satire, Hitler and hubris." He created photographs posing dictator dolls among the detritus of domesticity. He had a showing. "And it was my logo at the end of it! I found it to be as rewarding as my glory days in advertising." There was no turning back.
Riswold describes his new career as exploring "the absurdity of hubris." But press him, and he will freely concede that underlying his old art and his new has been a single theme: unlikely juxtapositions. A drug abuser and Honda Scooters. Bo Jackson and Bo Diddley. "What kind of research or logical thinking would get you that?" he asked.
Those works-and many more-will be on display at New York's One Club, on East 26th Street, starting Feb. 15. Yet to this day, even as he exchanges the TV for the gallery, Riswold says he never intended this art-his old art-to undermine marketing, or create new cultural archetypes. "I don't think I did this to pursue my big ego," Riswold told me, "but just to see what might work and what might not."
"I've always said that when I go, I want 'oops' on my tombstone," Jim Riswold concluded. He hung up and went out again, presumably to chase more cars.
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton