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Alan Cober is a pioneering visual journalist and one of America's most respected illustrators. That means diddly to a new generation of art professionals, he says.

"You've got young art directors coming out of school today who never heard of me," said Cober, 54. "I can't even take it personally -- they haven't heard of anybody else, either."

What these young art professionals need, Cober says, is a history lesson, and they are about to get it.

Cober, a visiting professor of illustration and distinguished visiting artist at the University at Buffalo, was a driving force in bringing a national traveling exhibition showcasing the work of 20 major contemporary American illustrators to UB.

"Innovators of American Illustration" will be presented Thursday to Feb. 21 in Bethune Gallery, Bethune Hall, 2719 Main St. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 7 to 9 p.m. Thursdays.

A lecture series, Feb. 8 to April 5, will feature some of this country's best illustrators. The lectures will be held at 8 p.m. Thursdays in UB's Butler Auditorium on the South Campus and in the auditorium of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.

This will be the last stop on the exhibition's national tour, and it will be open to the public.

The exhibition and lecture series stemmed from the book "Innovators of American Illustration" by Steven Heller, senior art director of the New York Times. Heller will speak in Buffalo on Feb. 15.

Heller said he would like the exhibition to give people an "overview" of the role of illustrators in America. "It would be nice if people knew that this was a significant part of our culture," Heller said. "I know we're not going to change the world in terms of life-and-death issues. At best, we hope to give people a sense of history."

Other illustrators who will lecture include Milton Glaser (April 5), whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Esquire and the Village Voice; and Sue Coe (Feb. 22), who has worked for Rolling Stone, Newsday and the New York Times.

Also, Thomas B. Allen (Feb. 8), professor of design at the University of Kansas; Guy Billout (March 1), illustrator; Marshall Arisman (March 8), illustrator, and Brad Holland (March 22), illustrator and art director.

"They are all expressionistic and conceptual," Heller said. "They dealt in the world of ideas, instead of just decorations. Their work was grittier than what came before."

Cober, who will lecture on March 29, offers examples of that gritty work in his illustrations. He is known for his book "Willowbrook," an account of life in the New York mental institution. Cober's reports on prison life and problems of the elderly were contained in the book "The Forgotten Society."

Cober's work and that of the other illustrators in the exhibition demonstrate changes over the past three decades. Illustration has evolved from Norman Rockwell's realism into a form of personal expression.

"I think of myself as an artist who happens to be an illustrator," Cober said.

Illustrators do more than just create pictures to go with text. They make statements on politics, taste and culture.

"It is artist-initiated journalism in a sense," said artist Kathleen Howell, founder and director of the UB program in illustration. "People see an illustration in a magazine and take it for granted. There's much more artistic and emotional content than people think."

Unlike writers, illustrators usually lack recognition with the general public and fellow artists.

"Tell someone you're an illustrator, and the first thing they are likely to ask is whether you also do paintings for yourself in your spare time -- these, presumably, would be the real art as opposed to the terrible hack work one does to avoid starvation," illustrator Robert Grossman stated in Steven Heller's book.

Grossman added: "I don't feel I have to apologize because my art appears on a magazine instead of a gallery wall."

Cober hopes the lecture series and exhibition at UB will offer insights into illustration as an art form.

"I think these people brought another kind of life to illustration," Cober said of the artists in the exhibition. "They were doing expressionistic work and taking more chances with new images and new looks."

Thanks to those breakthroughs, Cober is confident the future of illustration is open for more creative efforts and personal statements. "Now," he said, "the possibilities are endless."

The Art Directors/Communicators of Buffalo will sponsor a dinner on Feb. 8 to preview the program. It will be held at 5:30 p.m. at the Bethune Hall Gallery. Cost is $25. For information, call 693-1060.

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