November 18, 1985 12:00 PM

When David Suter was growing up, his father, a CIA man involved in deducing the truth about Iron Curtain countries from their media, had a taste for puzzles off the job as well. Some days, his son remembers, he would read the dense, difficult poems of Wallace Stevens and try to find a phrase, a “key,” that would unlock their meaning. Other times he would survey the puzzles in Scientific American, trying to solve the mysteries of logic or musing over optical illusions such as the Necker Cube, in which the front and back surfaces seemed to be constantly interchanging. The magazine also published illustrations by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, who incorporated tricks like the cube in his art. A few years later, Escher would become a cult figure to the psychedelic generation. But the younger Suter was already fascinated by “this guy who could draw pictures that made you feel like you were upside down.”

David Suter, now 36, sits in a Greek restaurant in Manhattan, sketching on a place mat. With a No. 2 pencil he draws a Star Wars device—the familiar stacked garbage can emitting X rays that has become part of every American’s visual vocabulary—as it orbits earth. Minutes later, the picture is finished, or seemingly so. Suter adds a line here, erases another there, and a disquieting change takes place; what the mind’s eye saw seconds ago is suddenly something different. The orbiting mechanism has turned into an ominous hooded figure, the gentle curvature of the earth into the wicked blade of a scythe. Satisfied with the metamorphosis, Suter sits back and says, “Star Wars devices remind me of the grim reaper.”

Suter is current master—perhaps the only successful regular practitioner—of a discipline that combines the concerns of the CIA with those of an Escher. He is an illustrator on topics concerning national and international affairs for TIME, the New York Times and a dozen other publications. But “illustrate” may be too narrow a word: Suter creates—at a rate of one a day—Escher-like optical illusions, visual puns, that, while bamboozling the eye, manage to elucidate the text they accompany. In his work, a hammer and sickle may evolve mysteriously into a bear trap to indicate the U.S.S.R.’s continued pull on its émigrés; or the face of Ronald Reagan (accompanying a text criticizing Reaganomics) transform itself into an empty factory with idle workers reading the employment ads in front of it. Anything, it seems, may turn into anything else—usually with great rhetorical impact. “David not only blows the minds of the readers, he blows the minds of other artists,” says Jerelle Kraus, art director of the Times’ op-ed and editorial pages, where Suter appears more than any other illustrator. “He doesn’t simply create a striking accompaniment to the text, like most of my artists. His method actually transforms the author’s argument into a new visual symbol.” Kraus calls the illustrations “Suterisms: No one can do them like him.”

“I don’t think of them as puns,” says Suter. “I like to think of them as equations.” He is a shy man whose Dutch Boy face seems to promise friendly candidness but (first glances being deceiving) whose blue eyes, rather than welcoming, study and shield. “Every story suggests a certain number of images. And then there are other images, the visual clichés that are in everybody’s mind and sort of make up their mental scenery, like the Pentagon, the Statue of Liberty, or the Cross. My mind is like a slot machine: You pull the lever and eventually one of the images from the article comes to rest next to a cliche that looks something like it.” From then on, he says, “it’s a little like algebra. I try to combine the two images through a process of finding similarities and canceling out dissimilar aspects.”

The resulting double images often seem to be tricks of the subconscious, rather than of the artist. The best of them have the force of dreams. An article about the Army training Latin American interrogators is illustrated by a military instructor pointing to a blackboard whose supports, at second glance, reveal themselves as two men hanging by their ankles. A serious-looking nuclear submarine resolves itself into a face poised in a gigantic, taunting raspberry. Suter explains that in psychology such images (often illustrated in textbooks by the hourglass that is also a kissing couple) are known as “bistable” or “metastable,” and have been theorized since 1915 to result from the brain’s temporary inability to distinguish a figure from its background. In art, they have an even longer pedigree: They date at least to the 16th century, when Giuseppe Arcimboldo created human faces out of vegetables and artists doctored maps of European countries into caricatures of their inhabitants. Over the years, Suter notes, “serious artists have usually looked at this kind of thing as a cheap trick, in bad taste, a little like painting pictures of dogs shooting pool.” The challenge, he says, is “to maintain the aesthetic standard and still come up with an entertaining and concise metaphor.”

Suter’s champions feel he succeeds with room to spare. “Even his mediocre things are good, and his best things are brilliant,” says Steven Heller, art director of the New York Times Book Review. Says TIME’S Executive Art Director Nigel Holmes: “In some cases David gets to the essence of a subject more quickly and economically than the writer. If people say it’s visual trickery, it’s bloody good visual trickery. His work will stand up.”

Suter did not go directly from marveling at Escher in Scientific American to creating mini-Eschers. After high school and four attempts at college (“that was sort of a problem of the late ’60s—staying in school”), he was drafted and sent to West Germany as a radio operator. When his hitch was over he took a job welding, but his mind wandered. “Several years before, this stepfather of a friend of mine told me, ‘Why don’t you do a picture, we’ print it.’ ” Suter did—a portrait of Richard Nixon with a wart on his forehead that looked like a little Nixon. The stepfather, who happened to be Ben Brad-lee of the Washington Post, did print it—although somewhere along the way the wart disappeared. Soon Suter was free-lancing regularly for the newspaper. In the years that followed, he drew technical illustrations, crime reconstructions and even Watergate portraits for the Post. It was only in 1977, when he moved to New York, that his bistable style developed.

Since then Suter has turned hundreds of hammers and sickles, missiles and political portraits into something else entirely before the bedazzled eyes of his readers. “You enter into an era when a particular symbol is on people’s minds all the time,” he says. “When I was starting out, there was a shift in the politicial climate toward a harder view of the Soviets, and so I did a lot of hammers and sickles. In the last couple of years, I’ve drawn a lot of missiles.” Suter finds that bad news is easier to illustrate than good (the images stick in people’s minds) and admires the graphics, though not the politics, of many totalitarian regimes. “The hammer and sickle is very well designed,” he says. “Hitler’s uniforms and emblems were graphically sophisticated. The American flag is pretty but it doesn’t have that iconic simplicity.”

He maintains that despite the use of symbols, his work is not political cartooning. “Political cartoonists take a stand,” he says. “My own opinions tend to vacillate. My work is more like scientific illustration, a demonstration of principles: powerfully neutral.”

Others disagree. “Occasionally we’ve been unable to use David’s work because, although it was perfectly valid, it was just too strong,” says Holmes. New York Times foreign correspondent David Shipler once fired off an angry letter from Moscow to his editors because he felt that one of Suter’s hammer-and-sickle metamorphoses was anything but neutral: Even now Shipler describes it as a “crude oversimplification that drained away the nuances of a complex story.”

To which Suter replies, “He’s probably right. But I think I’ve gotten better.” In any case, he has moved on, iconographically. “I’m experimenting with symbols that are less ideological than the hammer and sickle and more concerned with the nature of the Russian people,” he says. He thinks the most appropriate symbol may be an onion dome: “It expresses the property of being made up of many layers, of being a ‘secret wrapped in an enigma.’ Whatever I pick, I need something new—I think the era of confrontation between the Soviet Union and the U.S. has almost passed.”

There will be those who disagree with such a premise. And some will not understand the next optical joke. But still others may look at it and judge that he has hit the mark again. “A lot of my work is a matter of forcing together images that go together only reluctantly,” says the illustrator. “Or, on the other hand, making use of two that go together too easily. But once in awhile, I draw a combination that almost seems to exist independently from my work, as if it were already there and I just came along and found it. Those drawings are exceptional: They seem to have an intrinsic, necessary truth.”

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