Category Archives: Review

Sincerely Yours

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True confession: if I wasn’t an artist and designer, I’d probably be an archivist (and a kick-ass one, at that). The recent book Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art resonated with me because it dovetails those two personal loves – art and archiving – so well. Mary Savig, curator of manuscripts at the Archives, selected 55 standout examples of artists’ letters from the museum’s files to be reproduced in these pages. Each letter gets printed on a full page (or more), alongside context-setting descriptions of what happening in each artist’s life written by an art historian.

Once one gets through Savig’s scholarly, too-analytical introduction, these letters offer a lot of enjoyment and surprises. More often than not, they afford glimpses of the casual, candid sides of otherwise dusty names. Several letters are simple, lovely salutations to family and friends, while others delve into weightier matters.

The correspondence in Pen to Paper came from the desks and workspaces of many big names, including Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Cornell, Mary Cassatt, Isamu Noguchi and Eero Saarninen (gee, but Mr. Saarinen’s writing sure was precise). Arranged alphabetically by artist’s name, the letters range in age from the early 19th century up through 2004, when handwritten letters had been replaced by e-mail. Superficially, it’s a cool book to page through and drink in all the different handwriting and paper styles on display. Many of the mid-20th century letters’ descriptions make reference to the Palmer Method, the classic “cursive” penmanship style commonly taught in U.S. schools. Although the writing is often hard to decipher (on purpose, in the case of The New Yorker‘s Saul Steinberg), the full contents of the letters thankfully get neatly typeset in the back. Which were my favorites? Content-wise, the one that resonated deepest came from earth artist Robert Smithson, who lamented in 1971 (rather presciently) about art being prized for its material, investment value over its life-enriching properties. There’s also an excellent letter from the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (an artist I’d never heard of) that delves into racial identity in a way that seems strikingly contemporary.

Pen to Paper is available at Princeton Architectural Press or Amazon.com.

Pen to Paper spread with Ray Johnston letter.

Pen to Paper spread with Ray Johnston letter.

Maxfielf Parrish letter with his elegant handwriting (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Maxfield Parrish letter with his elegant handwriting (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Howard Finster letter with funky portraits (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Howard Finster letter with funky portraits (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Edward Weston spread with a 1936 letter.

Edward Weston spread with a 1936 letter.

Look What I Found: Loyd Tireman’s Cocky

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We saw a lot of terrific things on a recent visit to the Heard Museum, a local institution here in Phoenix which focuses on Native American art, past and present. Something that really stoked my imagination could be found not in the museum, proper, but in the bookstore. Neatly lined up on a shelf, there was a group of kids’ books – colorful volumes focusing on animals of the Southwest, done in a vivid 1940s style. It was the Mesaland series: a set of seven volumes written by Loyd Tireman and published by his employer, The University of New Mexico, from 1943 to 1949. These enchanting books were brought back into print by the University press in 2015. As evidenced by Cocky, Tireman’s tale of a feisty road runner and his young family, the books are well worth checking out.

The fourth Mesaland book, Cocky (1946) takes place in a contemporary desert setting brimming with wildlife, with some intrusions by humans (like Felix Slatkin’s classic Bambi, although not quite as preachy). Cocky arrives to set up a nest with his mate, Mrs. Cocky, his odd appearance puzzling a jackrabbit named Hop-A-Long (introduced in a previous Mesaland volume). While attempting to raise chicks with Mrs. Cocky, Cocky encounters a variety of foes, including a rattlesnake and a hunting human. He also sneaks into a farm’s chicken coop to pilfer some food, annoying a hot-blooded rooster. Tireman, a long-tenured professor of elementary education, makes the story both educational and entertaining. The story is fairly realistic and attuned to how real animals behave – like Bambi, it’s not sugar-coated. Having lived and worked in New Mexico for so long (32 years at the University alone), Tireman imbues the story with the ambiance of the Southwestern desert – something totally unprecedented in the ’40s!

All of the Mesaland books are enlivened by dynamic, Dr. Seuss-ish artwork from Ralph Douglass, one of Tireman’s colleagues at the University. Along with Cocky, the series included Baby Jack and Jumping Rabbit, Hop-a-Long (both about rabbits), Dumbee (focusing on a bee!), Big Fat (a groundhog), Quills (a porcupine) and 3 Toes (a wolf).

The reprinted Mesaland volumes are unabridged and nicely bound as compact, dust jacket-free hardbacks. The original two-color printing is done a bit differently in the 2015 books as a standard four-color process, a difference which likely will be only noticed by graphic designers. Cocky can be purchased at the University of New Mexico website, or at Amazon.com. Since the original books have long gone out of print, commanding high prices on the used market, it’s excellent that these wonderful books are back on shelves.

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And Now, Florida’s Own Cecil B. DeMille

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Love kitschy old drive-in movies? A new documentary, They Came from the Swamp, provides a glimpse into the ’60s-’70s exploitative cinema scene with a comprehensive look at the career of Florida-based filmmaker William Grefé. This two-DVD set was lovingly put together by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, the folks responsible for those enjoyable extras on Shout Factory’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 sets.

Like Ballyhoo’s feature-length doc on American International Pictures (included on last year’s MST3k XXXIV box set), It Came from the Swamp benefits from interviews from the actual participants (including Grefé himself, lucid and gentlemanly) and a host of actors, crew members, and knowledgeable film fans. This’ll be especially eye-opening for those who dug the MST3k skewering of Grefé’s The Wild Rebels (1967), the draggy biker flick about a hapless stock car driver (pop singer Steve Alaimo) who becomes an undercover hood in a motorcycle gang. This film delves deeply into the wild, off-the-cuff production on that flick – along with a dozen-odd others ranging from 1963’s stock racing opus The Checkered Flag up through 1977’s Deliverance knockoff Whiskey Mountain. While most of Grefé’s movies were blatant, cheap-o copies of other, more successful films, they had a certain goofy charm owing to actors’ apparent ease with Grefé (he used a regular cast from film to film, in addition to employing his entire family in various on- and offscreen duties), and the creative use of various central Florida locales. As hard as it is to believe that a non-Hollywood film colony could thrive on the drive-in circuit, Grefé and distributors Crown International carved out a way for it to pay off handsomely. Eventually, his films had enough pull to draw the attention of actual stars like Rita Hayworth (1970’s The Naked Zoo) and William Shatner (1974’s Impulse). Absurd and schlocky as the movies could be, it’s actually a lot of fun to hear Grefé and others’ reminiscences, along with the usual Ballyhoo boatload of campy, tightly edited clips. Grefé ultimately moved on from drive-in fare to a lucrative gig directing promotional films for Bacardi Rum, genuinely grateful for the opportunities he got. Thanks to this documentary, we’re grateful, too.

Produced in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, this “Extended Roadshow Version” edition of They Came from the Swamp supplants the documentary with a bunch of tasty bonus materials. Among them is the breezy half-hour documentary The Crown Jewels, which delves into the history of Crown International (surprisingly still in business to this day). Disc Two is highlighted by a complete Grefé feature film, 1977’s Whiskey Mountain, presented in widescreen for the first time. Shot in remote parts of North Carolina, this tense action flick stars ’70s stalwarts Christopher George and Linda Borgeson as a couple searching the backwoods for a valuable cache of Civil War-era firearms once belonging to the woman’s grandfather. Along with their friends Dan (Preston Pierce) and Diana (Roberta Collins), Bill and Jamie find resistance from a sadistic group of rednecks who mistakenly think the outsiders are after their marijuana crop! Did I mention that the Charlie Daniels Band did the soundtrack? Cheesy fun, I tell you, although the print is faded and in rough shape. Other extras include bonus short films (including a Bacardi promo starring Shatner), an intro from cult actor Bruce Campbell, still and trailer galleries, trailers and deleted scenes.

They Came from the Swamp can be purchased at Ballyhoo’s website for the not-bad price of $29.99. For cheesy movie buffs, it’s a gas, gas, gas.

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The Wild Rebels poster, 1967.

The Wild Rebels poster, 1967.

Stanley Japanese poster, 1972.

Stanley Japanese poster, 1972.

The Jaws of Death poster, 1976.

The Jaws of Death poster, 1976.

The Kings of Cartoons

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It was a happy surprise when the folks at Thunderbean Animation sent along a couple of their vintage cartoon collections to us here at Chez Scrubbles. This is a company that’s guided by actual cartoon fans wanting to share their love of animation with others. The passion they have for top-quality product shows in their Blu-ray collections of digitally restored shorts, presented with all the trimmings cartoon fans love. Their latest offerings put the spotlight on Willie Whopper, a yarn-spinning little boy dreamt up by the legendary Ub Iwerks in the ’30s, and Private SNAFU, the hapless soldier created by Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) to instruct World War II enlistees on what not to do.

I was delighted to discover what Willie Whopper was all about – despite enjoying all sorts of 1930s cartoons, I’d never heard of this guy! Iwerks made the Willies in 1933-34, shortly after his Flip the Frog series fizzled out. For those familiar with the workmanlike, dull Flip cartoons, the Willie Whoppers improve greatly on the simple visual-gag format of those with wild animation, clever stories, and jazzy soundtracks. Most of these shorts involve Willie attempting to impress his friend, Goofy, with a tall tale. His outrageous adventures involve daring plane acrobatics (Spite Flight), a surreal trip to the fiery depths (Hell’s Fire), and scrapes with bandits (Viva Willie) and savages (Jungle Jitters) – usually with his girlfriend Mary and a shaggy, perky pooch at his side.

Iwerks kept the Willie Whopper series running for a total of thirteen shorts before distributor MGM pulled the plug after the studio’s 1933-34 season. All of his cartoons are included on this DVD/Blu-ray set, along with an intriguing “pilot” short, The Air Race, which MGM passed on for not being funny enough (the story was eventually retooled and released as Willie’s second cartoon, Spite Flight). The cartoons as a whole have an effervescent, jazzy feel with surreal gags and constant motion – many feel a whole lot like the era’s Max Fleischer cartoons (Fleischer animator Grim Natwick had his hands in these). Early on, Willie himself got made over from a dark-haired ruffian into a roly-poly redhead, although he still had a distinct lack of personality. Another inconsistency comes with Willie’s girlfriend, Mary, who is shown as either an innocent little girl or a saucy, Betty Boop-like coquette depending on the cartoon. Overall, however, the set makes a good case for Willie as one of the more overlooked ’30s cartoon stars, best highlighted in two beautifully presented Cinecolor efforts (Hell’s Fire and Davy Jones’ Locker). It seemed as if Iwerks and company settled on a modern groove for the tightly-paced later cartoons, only to have MGM yank it all away.

Produced by Warner Bros. in 1943-46, the Private Snafu shorts are slightly more familiar to vintage cartoon lovers. Although Warner Home Video included a few scratched-up Snafu shorts on their Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs, Thunderbean’s collection improves on that by presenting all 26 of the original Snafu shorts, digitally restored and with a veritable knapsack-full of bonus materials. These brief films, each shorter than a standard one-reel cartoon, were produced as part of a package of “Stars and Stripes” educational films geared toward military personnel during World War II. With the dim-witted Private Snafu (“Situation Normal, All — Fouled Up”) and the cigar-chomping Private First Class Fairy as our guides, slangy dialogue and funny situations inform soldiers on topics such as security, malaria, proper use of firearms and the dangers of idle gossip. Since they were targeted for an audience of randy, adult-aged men, these films use the wildest and wackiest abilities of the top directors in Warners’ cartoon unit, including Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin. For Looney Tunes fans, it’s actually quite cool to see what the Termite Terrace crew did with the added freedom of more ribald gags – the results are quite non-PC but unequivocally hilarious.

Although the Snafu cartoons are loaded with WWII-specific gags that would likely go over the heads of most casual viewers, they hold up remarkably well as priceless bits of wartime morale-boosting. Probably the most iconic gag comes during Chuck Jones’ 1943 cartoon Spies – inebriated by a sexy seductress, Snafu blabs out confidential info to the alert miss, whose round boobs become superimposed with Nazi insignia-bearing microphones. Loose lips sink ships, indeed! Mark Harris’ recent book Five Came Back supplies a lot of fascinating background on how the Snafu series came to be, a story also included (in shorter form) in this Blu-ray’s booklet. In a nutshell, the cartoons were hugely popular with the troops, taking the U.S. government by surprise. Because the lessons they taught were cloaked in wild, wacky humor, the troops were hugely entertained often without realizing that they were being educated as well.

As with Thunderbean’s other releases, Private Snafu and Willie Whopper come with informative booklets with essays from cartoon experts Steve Stanchfield, J.B. Kaufman and Chris Buchman. While the Willie set is a dual Blu/DVD package, the Snafu cartoons are sold as separate Blu-ray or DVD products. They can be purchased at Thunderbean Animation or Amazon.com.

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Screen shot from Davy Jones' Locker (1933).

Screen shot from Davy Jones’ Locker (1933).

Screen shot from Reducing Creme (1934).

Screen shot from Reducing Creme (1934).

Back of a vintage Willie Whopper pencil case.

Back of a vintage Willie Whopper pencil case.

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Private Snafu cel and background setup.

Private Snafu cel and background setup.

Snafu and Private First Class Fairy model sheet.

Snafu and Private First Class Technical Fairy model sheet.

Cel and background setup from Spies (1943).

Cel and background setup from Spies (1943).

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Discovering John Alcorn: Evolution by Design

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As a birthday gift to myself, I bought a coffee table book titled John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. This is one time when it’s appropriate to call it a gift, since this tribute to possibly the most prolific ’50s-to-’80s-era illustrator shares Alcorn’s gifts with the world – corny, yet true!

Co-authored by Alcorn’s son, Stephen, and design historian Marta Sironi, Evolution by Design succeeds as both a comprehensive career overview and a personal remembrance (Alcorn died in 1992). Packed full of beautifully reproduced original art, this volume was an eye-opener. For someone like me who knew Alcorn from his groovy late ’60s commercial peak (e.g., The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs), the breadth and sheer talent displayed within these pages is nothing short of revelatory. This man was a true artist, always searching for the next horizon to explore. Alcorn started out with New York’s legendary Pushpin Studios, branched out on his own to incredible success in the ’60s, then helped shape America’s visual zeitgeist with a vocabulary of sinuous shapes, natural forms, and wild colors. He wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, however. In the early ’70s, Alcorn and his family uprooted to Italy, where he studied the country’s master painters and craftsmen. He remained astonishingly prolific during this time – becoming a favorite of the iconic film director Federico Fellini, among others – although most of this period’s output never made it to the U.S. Returning to these shores in the late ’70s, Alcorn continued to thrive with a gorgeous, mature style highlighted by a thoughtful attention to detail that never appeared fussy. The book closes out with a chapter devoted to one of the artist’s recurring visual motifs, the blooming flower.

John Alcorn: Evolution by Design was published by Moleskine, the notebook company, in 2013. It can be purchased at the Moleskine website or at Amazon.com.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-'50s.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-’50s.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Children's book illustrations, 1969.

Children’s book illustrations, 1969.

Various book jacket designs from the late '60s and early '70s.

Various book jacket designs from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig


I purchased Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig as a birthday gift to myself last year. While the imagery in this beautifully done artist’s monograph impressed me right away, I didn’t get around to reading Steven Heller’s comprehensive text until this summer (Heller was assisted on this book by Lustig’s widow, Elaine, who wrote the introduction). Although death at the young age of forty snuffed out his career, Alvin Lustig still stands out as a design icon and one of the more outstanding proponents of modernism. It’s revealed not just with his famous, inventive New Directions book covers, but in everything he did. This book delves into all facets of a life that was sadly short-lived, yet brimming with innovation.

While Lustig remains best known for his graphic design, this book goes to great lengths to prove that he was the 20th Century equivalent of a Renaissance Man. Lustig’s devotion to the purest tenets of Modernism extended not just to graphic design, but also interior design, architecture, furniture, education and theory. Following a short biography, Heller structures the book by discipline (print design, three dimensional design, education, and theory). Like most Chronicle books, the text is supplemented with plenty of beautifully reproduced visuals (including dozens of those fabulous book covers) to linger over. What a talent! One definitely gets a sense of Lustig’s passion for design – and an undercurrent of urgency. Lustig accomplished more in twenty years than many get to do in a lifetime.

Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig was published by Chronicle in 2010. Click here to purchase at Amazon.com.

A sampling of Lustig’s many fantastic New Directions book covers, 1947-55.

The modern and primitive blend in his fabric and interior design.

Graphic identity and interiors for Monte Factor, Ltd. clothing store, 1947.

Playful interoffice memo letterhead for Look magazine, 1944.

More iconic book jacket designs for New Directions, 1946-49.

The cool endpapers are based on Lustig’s 1947 Incantation fabric pattern.