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Remembering Jason Polan, the artist who drew every person in New York

Whether you were wandering around MoMA or eating a burrito at Taco Bell, Polan saw you.

Remembering Jason Polan, the artist who drew every person in New York
Jason Polan [Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images]

New York is a city dense with people who are making, doing, and living. One of them was illustrator Jason Polan, who was prolific in his quality of observation and the quantity in which he did so, sketching as many of his fellow New Yorkers as he could put to paper. As of 2015, with the publication of Every Person in New York, a compilation of his line drawings, he had reached 30,000 portraits. The project continued on his blog by the same name. The last post was on November 27, 2019, but he remains a daily inspiration for many. Polan died yesterday, at age 37, according to the New York Times. The cause was cancer, his family said.

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What was incredible about Polan was his ability to take a city like New York, with its skyscrapers and subways stretching hundreds of feet above ground and more than a hundred feet below it, and flatten it, each quiet observation bringing us a little closer together. For Every Person in New York, Polan sought out the faces around him on the subway, where most people living in the city have learned to avoid eye contact. Sometimes his subject would notice Polan sketching them, but he didn’t seem to mind: he just jotted it down (“Man on E Train / 11.6.2019 / He knows I’m drawing him“).

In addition to Every Person in New York, Polan is well known for drawing every piece of work in the Museum of Modern Art, purportedly in an effort to get a job at the museum. Polan captured the museum’s work in his own way, in black line drawings absent of the museum’s reputation for pretension.

In 2005, Polan launched the Taco Bell Drawing Club at a Taco Bell in the Union Square neighborhood of New York, with a significantly lower barrier to entry (“If you draw at a Taco Bell, you’re a member,” Polan said). MoMA and that Taco Bell are about 40 blocks and an art world apart; Polan flattened them. And while Polan didn’t get the job at MoMA, he became his own sort of New York institution.

[Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images]
In response to the news of Polan’s death, Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, called Polan “a very special New Yorker and a wonderful human being.” Jerry Saltz, Senior art critic for New York Magazine, said he “was smitten instantly by his wild drawing mind.” Polan’s work has been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and even in a series called The Sketch for the Audubon Society, among others. He was captured in action by WNYC, and yes, MoMA.

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And yet, while well-established institutions noticed him, Polan’s own work philosophy remained couched in his role as a chronicler of the world around him. “I draw in Subway stations and museums and restaurants and on street corners. I try not to be in the way when I am drawing or be too noticeable,” Polan wrote of his Every Person in New York project. He ended the description of the rather insurmountable project by writing, “When the project is completed we will all have a get together.” In some sense, Polan had already done that: in his effort to capture every object in MoMa, every person in New York, and everything in between equally—in his effort to capture everything, he captured the humanity in each of us.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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