Table of Contents: Books


Flight Risk

Flight_Risk_Martin_Schoeller

Riveting cover photograph by Martin Schoeller for the New York Times Magazine. He also shot the best photo ever of Jeff Koons, below. It’s the best photo because it trumps the billions of words this cat has kicked up in his wake and lays bare the artifice, calculation, perfection, mischievousness, & joy that makes Koons at all worthwhile. Also, the ski cover looks like a vérité Phil Noto, below, below. Phil Noto? Folks… Phil Noto.

Martin_Schoeller_Jeff_Koons

 

Phil_Noto_Jet_Seven

 

 

Under the covers

ValleyOfTheDolls

Problems_Updike

ImageDuplicator_Lichtenstein

So, recently, at one time or another I was reading these three books. As I piled then up to be re-shelved they struck me as having some strange communion with one another. Each spare, simple and striking, sharing some essential tone that I adore — perfect pop design in three modes, fashionable, nerdy, and electric. Each in there own right a great read, too. Updike and Lichtenstein need no additional cheerleading, but let me make a impassioned plea for Valley of the Dolls. What a empurpled pleasure. Read it, luxuriate in its plush vulgarity, then treat yourself to the Wiki rabbit hole you get to go down matching each character and melodramatic scenario with the real people and incidents that inspired then. Then the movie. Then the Roger Ebert / Russ Meyer luridly psychedelic quasi sequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Then buy that film’s equally boss groovy soundtrack. You’re welcome.

Bright Young Things

From 1915 till about 1940 or so, the Brinkley Girl cut a feverish swath through the cultural imagination. As drawn by illustrator Nell Brinkley, she was like the Gibson Girl on an absinthe bender – exuberant line, riots of splashy color, and buckets of joie de vivre. Girls obsessed over her adventures, hairstyles and fashion shifted in her wake, and she was feted in songs, films and theater.

Nell Brinkley’s specialty was the episodic themed series. Golden Eyes and Her Hero followed our heroine’s exploits and derring-do during World War One. Betty and Billy and Their Love Through the Ages, my personal favorite, featured a besotted glamorous couple in various romantic historical vignettes – intrigue in Southern plantation society, among Medieval troubadours, Phoenician swashbucklers, etc… The format begins to open up in the 20’s with sophisticated frothy flapper larks like the Fortunes of Flossie.

Fantagraphics Book’s wonderful new survey, The Brinkley Girls, collects these series and more, along with a fascinating introduction by the book’s editor, Trina Robbins. Aces.

Royal Bodies

Lose yourselves in this utterly engrossing essay by Hilary Mantel, currently free to read at the London Review of Books. Entitled Royal Bodies, it considers the construct of this utterly peculiar institution, it’s basest aspects and its most unworldly character, in Mantel’s typically direct, painterly, and slightly off kilter way — In looking at royalty we are always looking at what is archaic, what is mysterious by its nature, and my feeling is that it will only ever half-reveal itself… Royal persons are both gods and beasts.

Mantel wrote the incomparable historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, two thirds of a trilogy centered around Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and the founding of the Anglican Church. So skewed and revelatory is her lens, and so brilliantly constructed is her authorial voice that I waited for the release of the second book with an anticipation usually reserved for a new record by a beloved band — as much as I wanted to hear the story continue, it was the style of the writing, the sound of her language that I couldn’t wait to submerge in…

The essay caused, and is still causing, a retarded kurfuffle in the UK for her gimlet eyed assessment of Kate Middleton. Umbrage, in this case, relies on classic non-reading or a stubborn non-comprehension of the essay’s essential humanism. Read on here

Maurice Prendergast

So I finally went to visit the Barnes Collection at its new home on the Philadelphia parkway. My affinity for it has always been somewhat obligatory — I know why this art matters, but have appreciated it mostly as a bridge between older traditions I adore to modern currents I admire. As before, I find myself deaf to Matisse’s signals, and still feel an abject revulsion to Renoir — the smeary, overripe nudes struck me, this time around, like they were painted with bacon fat. Feh.

Revelatory though, were the few paintings tucked into various clumps throughout the collection by Maurice Prendergast. Each was a bravura demonstration of seeing, directly interpreted in painting. They were definitive and re-invigorating examples of the idea of impressionism as I understand it, painting animated by an exquisite receptivity of what it “felt like” to visually drink in a scene, its atmosphere, its flickering and transitory nature.

Later on, as I delved deeper into his work, scene after scene, I stopped thinking of them in terms of technique or theory but in terms of a kind of magic. He seemed to capture on paper an endless loop of the living essence of a moment, as if he could pin a a butterfly without stilling its movement or shimmer.

 

Hmm… That’s quite a drop.

The first page of the legendary comic Watchmen sold last weekend at auction for $33,460. Aptly described as the “Call me Ishmael” of comics, it’s one of the icons of the genre. All of the formal inventiveness that author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons established in their 12 issue 1986 masterpiece is prefigured here. (Fascinating to see it stark black and white – the page also came with an ace bonus, an annotated color guide. Gander here, and here at larger images) Notice especially the convergences between Rorschach’s psycho-noir-messiah narration and the visuals in each panel. This tight choreography between seemingly unrelated visual and verbal elements is one the the primary sources of the book’s tremendous impact. It adds a crucial layer to the storytelling, one uniquely rooted in the format of comic books – the ability to directly interweave elements from one part of the story into another and thereby elicit new interpretations, resonances, and meanings. Watchmen established Moore as a virtuoso of this technique. So, so good…

Great story behind the provenance of the comic page itself. It was bought in 1987, in a comic bookshop in Covent Garden one morning by a bleary-eyed, hungover Stephen “Krusher” Joule for $180. Krusher was an artist and designer who worked with Motorhead, Uriah Heep, Blondie, Sex Pistols, Hawkwind, and Japan. He designed the covers for Iron Maiden’s Live After Death and Ozzy’s Diary of a Madman. In 1982 he became the art director for the legendary British heavy metal magazine Kerrang! In short, he’s exactly the kind of wonderful freak who deserves to score the first page of the Watchmen one hungover morning for a hundred and eighty bucks.

Ryan Donnell’s Polling Place Project

Sure, the election hoopla has settled, with the reality based community the world over oscillating between exhilaration and queasy relief. But before we return to our regularly scheduled enthusiasms let’s celebrate an easily overlooked aspect of the the kaleidoscopic nature of American democracy – the polling place. Here in Philadelphia, for instance, you’re as likely to vote in a basement party room, mosque, roller skating rink, private backyard, body shop, or wallpaper store (all above) as a school gymnasium. For documenting these unlikely outposts we have photographer  Ryan Donnell to thank. Donnell, a pal, is a savvy, gifted journalistic & commercial photographer based in Philly. Behind the Curtain is his ongoing project documenting the nation’s unlikely polling places. He’s covered Philly and Chicago and just completed a swath of Los Angeles as well. Take a gander, here … and check out the balance of Donnell’s work, here.

 

Quandry

My favorite Doctor Seuss art by a country mile… It’s a QUANDRY, who lives on a shelf, in a hole in the ocean alone by himself. And he worries from dawn’s early light. And he worries, just worries, far into the night. He stands there and worries. He simply can’t stop… Is his top side his bottom? Or bottom side top? (Seuss’ September 26th, 1991,New York Times obituary, here)

Serielle Buchgestaltung

Serial cover designs by the German imprint Suhrkamp. Exquisite, masterful lessons in restraint and spare, deliberate composition. Suhrkamp is a 50 or so year old publisher of literature, philosophy and essays. A more, um, impressionistic description courtesy of a certain Siegfried Unseld and the inimitable Google Translate: On the question of how in the shortest form of the Suhrkamp publishing house was to characterize, I answer generally: Here are no books publish authors.

 

Never Mind the Pollacks

Talking Covers, an ace new blog about book cover design, is featuring my artwork for NEVER MIND THE POLLACKS,  with my recollections along with author Neal Pollack’s… Shout-outs and walk-ons abound, including Jim Roll’s amazing record Inhabiting the Ball, my old label The Telegraph Company, and a meandering discursion on the Harvest Records roster… the blog is curated by author Sean Manning.  Neal and I are in ridiculously great company – Ben Marcus’ Flame Alphabet, Francine Prose’s My New American Life, and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire are featured, among others… check it.

Some Literature

Carter Brown? Here, and more here on the blog soon-ish… On Paul Ilton nothing, sadly, but he seems learned and earnest. Not sure the wanton luridness of the cover is what he had in mind. Oh well. The rest are self evident…

Nemo

Captain Nemo, illustration by N.C. Wyeth from a 1918 edition of The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. (courtesy of Mike Dubisch)

Agent Diana Prince

wonderwoman2

Wonder Woman is really confusing.

Consider the other members of the comic book trinity. Batman: Bruce Wayne, Gotham, detective. Superman: Clark Kent, Metropolis, boy scout. Their essences are schematic. Wonder Woman has been an Amazon and an Olympian. She’s been a god, a mortal, and a mix of both. She’s Diana Prince sometimes, she’s Diana Prince always, she’s never been Diana Prince. She had the invisible plane, gained the power of flight, then gotten the plane back – which I guess she uses when… she…umm… flyes back home? Yes home, which is on the island of Themyscira… or is it Boston, Gateway City, New York? Severe shifts in character and narrative continuity are endemic in comics, sure, but this schizoid blackboard eraser approach is more than a little nuts. It has left her less an icon than a notion of one.

That said, one of Wonder Woman’s most random, and most enjoyable, phases was her 60’s incarnation as a mod boutique owner and secret agent. Pop culture was undergoing a massive collective spy fantasia. Bond movies were at the height of their popularity and surreality. Every flavor of espionage was in vogue – Harry Palmer, Michael Caine’s working class spy, Italian comic book adaptations like Danger: Diabolik and Modesty Blaise, and Dean Martin’s candy colored Matt Helm absurdities. The genre’s high point is probably James Coburn’s peerless set of Flint movies (don’t miss this extended montage of highlights). They all shared a common widescreen Technicolor palette – mod fashions, mid century modern design, a taste for a splashy op art and the occasional dose of the lysergic. On television, Aaron Spelling’s pioneering swinging lady detective series Honey West had just been annihilated by the arrival of a fab new import from the UK – the Avengers.

The Avengers featured the espionage escapades of dapper Victorian John Steed and incomparable hepcat Emma Peel. In Peel, played by Diana Rigg, the genre had found it’s female icon. She was a stone cold fox, a brain box, a wit, and singularly, unforgettably stylish. (Peel’s wardrobe is virtually a case study in 60’s mod fashions – saturated pop colors, geometric patterns and cuts)

Emma Peel became the explicit model for the 60’s manifestation of Wonder Woman. She shed her powers and permanently adopted her mortal alter ego Diana Prince. She opened a fashionable clothing store. She rebuilt her fighting skills under the tutelage of her new sidekick, the wise, blind kung fu sage, I-Ching. The art was fantastic – a perfect blend of 50’s Romance comics, Good Girl Art, and Dan DeCarlo’s Josie and the Pussycats. The result was derivative, obvious, and absolutely delightful. (DC has recently reissued 3 volumes of this era – all are worthwhile, all easily found).

Meow

Score! The Walter T. Foster art manuals are peerless texts in the instructional techniques of vintage illustration. As a series they’re a subject for a later post. Suffice it to say that anyone trying to reverse engineer the gritty, matte, gestural seduction of pulp paperback illustration should look no further. OK.

Now? Cats! Cats people, cats! This How to Draw Cats is magnificent. Walter Foster’s illustrations nail the scrappy majesty of these creatures. In every sketch I can feel their essential nature – miniature tigers that live with us, mercenary fierceness held tenuously at bay, in total, blissful, ambivalent satisfaction.

Casanova

Thoroughly fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine by Tony Perrottet on the overlooked biographical details of that legendary Casanova, Giacomo Casanova. The piece opens with a gob-smacking accounting of the serpentine path his celebrated memoir took, ending in its exalted cubby in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Suffice it to say it includes a stop during the 19th century in a special cupboard for illicit books in the French National Library, called L’Enfer, or “the Hell.”

The story then turns to a vividly sketched outline of Casanova’s life – establishing a far, far more interesting character than, as Perrottet puts it, “a frivolous sexual adventurer, a cad and a wastrel.” In fact,

Giacomo Girolamo Casanova lived from 1725 to 1798, and was a far more intellectual figure than the gadabout playboy portrayed on film. He was a true Enlightenment polymath, whose many achievements would put the likes of Hugh Hefner to shame. He hobnobbed with Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin and probably Mozart; survived as a gambler, an astrologer and spy; translated The Iliad into his Venetian dialect; and wrote a science fiction novel, a proto-feminist pamphlet and a range of mathematical treatises. He was also one of history’s great travelers, crisscrossing Europe from Madrid to Moscow. And yet he wrote his legendary memoir, the innocuously named Story of My Life, in his penniless old age, while working as a librarian (of all things!) at the obscure Castle Dux, in the mountains of Bohemia in the modern-day Czech Republic.

In British terms, let’s say, this is all much more Richard Francis Burton than Flashman. Fascinating, and as Blackadder would say, “as French as a pair of self-removing trousers.”

As far as the art goes, above are some frisky watercolors by Auguste Leroux from the 1932 French edition of Casanova’s Histoire de ma Vie. Leroux was a celebrated illustrator who worked with Huysmans, Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert… below are some fetching prints by Milo Manara inspired the the 1976 Fellini film. (My appreciation of their finest collaboration, A Trip to Tullum, here.)

Also, for your pleasure, a live cut of Roxy Music’s strutting tribute.

Roxy Music: Casanova:

 

Hilton Kramer

The death of art critic and New Criterion founder Hilton Kramer is sad news down ‘ere… Kramer was among my favorite conservative cultural critics… his passion and rigor were always bracing and worthwhile as either an affirmation or a provocation. His early collection of essays – The Age of the Avant Garde – has been indispensable, and, frankly, I always find something spot on, or at least worth considering, in every edition of the New Criterion. (Oh, one other thing – the Criterion’s serial cover design scheme is aces…)