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Book Review: Charley Harper

Charley Harper book coverAbout five or six years ago, me and my partner stumbled across some excellent framed prints of stylized birds in a dusty antique store. They looked to be from the ’50s, but the prints’ appealing freshness and simplicity had a timeless quality. The birds literally appeared to fly off the paper they were printed on. Naturally, we took them home. After some research, we discovered these serigraphs were handmade by a man named Charles Harper as mail-in premiums for a now-defunct magazine geared towards Ford auto owners. Amazingly, one could buy these gorgeous nature prints very cheaply back in the ’50s. Immediately we became fascinated with Harper and tried to find out everything we could about him.

It surprised me to find out that celebrity designer Todd Oldham shared a similar introduction to Harper’s work, a story that he tells in the foreword to his monograph Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life. In fact, just about everybody I know who’s come into contact with his art becomes an instant fan — he’s that special.

As for the book, it’s encyclopedic. Beautiful to look at, sure, but more importantly you get a tangible sense of the man behind the art. It includes just about eveything he’s done over the last half-century. Much of the classic Ford Times stuff is here, along with his eye-popping illustrations for the Betty Crocker Dinner for Two Cook Book (1958), The Giant Golden Book of Biology (1961), and The Animal Kingdom (1968). In addition, the book showcases the many poster and mural designs he’s done throughout the years. Although I haven’t yet seen the book proper (just an early online version), the tome is neatly organized and gorgeously designed with a streamlined look appropriate to the subject. It appears that they photographed the artwork directly from Harper’s original art and not a secondary printed source. Harper is still alive and active, although recently I’ve heard that he’s been having health problems. He couldn’t have asked for a more perfect tribute within these pages. This brick of a book sports a retail price of $200 (discounted to $126 at Amazon), but I just might have to skip a few lunches to nab a copy.

Ammo also has a nifty limited edition slipcovered version of the book with a signed print, produced in four different styles, for (cough) $400. For a cheaper C.H. experience, visit the flickr group devoted to him.

Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life will be available later this month from Ammo Books. Pre-order at Amazon here.

Charley Harper book spread

6 Thoughts on “Book Review: Charley Harper

  1. Hilary on June 11, 2007 at 3:01 pm said:

    Sadly, Charley passed away this morning after a bout with pneumonia. I’m truly saddened by his loss. I am an enormous admirer of his work as well. Here’s to Charley, one of the greats.

  2. Michele on July 5, 2007 at 12:30 am said:

    Delighted to see Charley Harper and his unique “minimal realism” style getting well-deserved recognition beyond Cincinnati.
    Although he just passed away June 10, 2007, Edie & Brett, his wife & son, are artists in a somewhat similar minimalist style.
    Another book with a TON of Harper art in one easy stop is “Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper” (Flower Valley Press, 1994). Features well over 100 prints, and the punny titles and clever commentaries for each give a taste for Charley’s verbal as well as visual playfulness. Cheaper too, at $45.

  3. Damn I just stumbled across this today… youre always one step ahead of the game…

  4. Joanne Kennedy on March 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm said:

    I am looking for a copy of The Animal Kingdon illustrated by Charles Harper, printed in 1968. Can you help?

  5. Timothy on March 20, 2011 at 4:40 pm said:

    It looks like your print of Grey Crowned Rosy Finch is signed in the image frame. He did that only on a few… that’s worth $395.00. The Passenger Pigeon is rare, and $595.00.
    I’m the archivist for the estate, so if you’re wanting more information e-mail me.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Timothy. Those two bird prints are a spread from this book, but we do have the Passenger Pigeon one on the right hanging in our living room. I’m glad to know it’s valuable – it’s priceless to us!

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