A rock star Among designers, Alan Aldridge survives, prevails and
looks good doing it
By Ron Garmon
Confronted along with the rest of 1960s England with the bent
shapes, ballooning voluptuousness and radioactive colors favored by
Alan Aldridge, Francis Bacon wasted no words. The dean of the English
art world and no mean hand at shock himself, Bacon surveyed
Aldridge's psychedelic work hanging near his own at the fashionable
Arthur Tooth Gallery and pronounced sentence: "Alan is the only
artist I know who never learned to draw a straight line."
Aldridge an L.A. resident now and for many years, currently
celebrating the release this weekend of the comprehensive The Man
with Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Art of Alan Aldridge (Abrams) is only
now being remembered and celebrated as the man who almost
singlehandedly invented the instantly recognizable "look" of the
Britain's Swinging '60s, through book jackets, album art and myriad
eye-grabbing innovations. He giggles, with a rasp, telling this story
about the time the old school met the no-school-at-all and departed
aghast, leaving it to the listener to realize that those unsteady
lines were foundation of an uncommon legacy. In Alan Aldridge's
heyday, anything straight was of little use.
In 1936, Walter Benjamin warned that painting as a popular culture
form was dying out an archaic individual art overtaken by
mechanical reproduction and soon to be superseded by the motion
picture. But by the 1960s, the painter was back with a vengeance in
the form of the designer, as Andy Warhol's mass-produced
representations of junk products and Roy Liechtenstein's giant comics
panels helped usher in revolutions in graphic art. Floods of
paperbacks with gaudy, surreal covers only notionally related to
contents found favor in most of the industrial West, supplanting
increasingly bland Hollywood product Marxist philosophers like
Benjamin thought would democratize culture. The bales of comic books
and detective, SF and girlie magazines publishers had been churning
out since the 1930s actually did do the democratizing trick, having
had a nearly incalculable effect on what Benjamin would call
"exhibition art." At some point, "art" becomes once again something
more than what gets shown in galleries. That's where we must begin to
reckon with Alan Aldridge.
"My group," Aldridge explains now, including with him an entire
generation of musicians, writers and artists, "that came into
existence in the Swinging '60s, was certainly the first 20-somethings
to ever have any power in Britain at all. That was primarily through
the Beatles, but we all had the confidence. There was electricity in
the air and we wanted to rip down the self-conscious class society
that England was. There was a rejection of everything from the 1950s.
For my part, certainly, the official art was all gray there was
nothing I wanted to look at."
John Lennon made him design consultant to the Beatles, which led to a
line of puckish Apple-shaped clocks and other tchotchkes and, more
importantly, to the innovative book, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics,
which is how most of us in Fab-obsessed L.A. know him. He hung with
Hendrix, fought off Salvador Dali in an airport drawing duel, and his
album covers for the likes of Cream and the Who are likely better
known today than the music etched therein. He lives far from a recent
career retrospective at the Design Museum in London timed to the
release of The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes.
His nearest analogue is Aubrey Beardsley, the illustrator who put his
spidery, whimsical stamp on 1890s Art Nouveau and the Aestheticist
movement that grew up around Oscar Wilde. A self-taught outsider who
fluked into the job of art director for Penguin Books, Aldridge
oversaw the fusty publisher's design upgrade, flooding Great Britain
with scores of covers blobs of vibrant color within the pervading
Airstrip One gray of the eras of Wilson and Heath. British Poet
Laureate Sir John Betjeman told The Times of London that "no one
comes close to matching his influence on illustration in the 20th century."
The only thing interesting is that how I got into this game was an
accident," says the 65-year-old artist, his low, confiding voice
marinated in the East London glottals of Terence Stamp in The Limey.
"I worked in a slaughterhouse, killing chickens. There were a lot of
butchers in the East End and that was probably the lowest you could
get on the totem pole. I went from that to what we call it in London
'blagging my way in.' It means to present a front. A girlfriend of
mine was going to an art studio for a job and I said I'd walk with
her and we got to this place Charlotte Studios, which was in a back
alley an atrocious, filthy looking place. She didn't want to go in,
so I borrowed her bag and talked my way in. I hauled this huge bag
upstairs and I opened the bag and he said 'Did you draw these key
lines?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' 'Did you take this photograph?' 'Yes,
sir.' 'Then you got the job.' If he'd have asked how I'd drawn the
key line, I'd have been destroyed!"
His family was against this eccentric career choice "There was an
artist in the family," he says. "Me Uncle Sid. He was the black sheep
and he died of drugs, women and syphilis, only me mum pronounced it
'sisasis.'" But to prepare for a life of art and moral ruin, young
Aldridge had an early-1960s fling in Paris, living the Hemingway
dream on an Orwell budget.
"Ah," says Aldridge, warming to mention of Down and Out in Paris and
London. "I, too, was a plangeur, like Orwell," referring to the
hellish conditions and short pay that were the lot of the lowest
class of restaurant dishwasher. "A very tough existence long hours
in huge, steamy kitchens, and certainly the one I worked in wouldn't
pass muster, or even get a C rating today," he laughs. "In Paris and
environs, the only way I thought I could make a living once I'd
gotten fired in the kitchen was by drawing. I thought I could go into
a bar and palm it off for a free drink. Didn't work very well. I came
back from Paris with a suitcase full of terrible drawings, took them
round to all the art galleries and everyone said, 'No, they're
terrible.' That was the end of it."
The text of Kaleidoscope Eyes prepares us for the seeming-sudden
conquest of the U.K. art world by this winsome fellow not so much
by a this-then-that list of steps as by capturing an irresistible
Alfie-like character who isn't so much man as unstoppable mixture of
charm and front.
"Most illustrators I've met over the years are very sheepish and
mousy, as if embarrassed by their careers," he says. "I was anxious
to be different; didn't see any point in being the same. I chose a
career in which the overwhelming majority of people in it are
anonymous shadowless, almost."
Aldridge projected an outsized personality to go along with the
walleyed art then plastered all over London, from the cover of A
Quick One by the Who to the creepy campaign ads he worked up for the
Labor Party, featuring a gallery of corpse-like Tories over the
legend "Yesterday's Men, They've Failed Before." Attention from
peers, the press and the ultra-fashionable rock set also drew
attention from authorities, most notably Detective Sergeant Norman
Pilcher, the notorious British drug cop (and framer of rock stars
like Mick Jagger and George Harrison) whose lads tried to plant
hashish in the artist's jacket pocket while they posed as maintenance men.
Kaleidoscope Eyes might well force mainstream art to reconsider
Aldridge's influence, which, by the time one turns the last
color-slathered page, bulks to R. Crumb's dimensions if not Gustave
Dore's. Of the hundreds of artists he's arguably influenced since,
one may see his influence plainest in Keith Haring's fat, funky
figures, or the anthropomorphic smears of Kenny Scharf. But the idea
of artist as pop-culture star let alone wiseass hipster wouldn't
exist without his example.
Beyond that, Aldridge has kept alive a tradition of outsized whimsy
in British art that goes all the way back to Hogarth's fleshy
hedonists. Even his more outlandish projects, like a luxuriantly
weird 1973 expansion of William Roscoe's 1802 poem The Butterfly's
Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast, went on to notable success, and he
still sells ideas to movie and TV producers based on odd or arresting
images, like the idea of a Humpty Dumpty murdered by electric frying,
that tickled one mogul enough to option a story based on it.
Even so, he's still not without detractors a casual call to the
press office at MOCA met with a pointed refusal to even discuss him.
And Francis Bacon's above dismissal is an estimation Aldridge loves
to cite because it rates him as that most irritating of figures the
"I wasn't part of any time of official illustrative society in
London," Aldridge says. "I never went to the Royal College of Art,
didn't join the Royal Art Society, I was never a member of any club
associated with art," he continues, flicking away each with a dainty
gesture. "I was a total loner and that's how I lived anyway. Painting
on refrigerators and having the Sunday Times come and cover it was
the sort of thing I did. I felt that if I couldn't draw, I was savvy
enough to come up with alternatives to hide that, so I painted on
girls, on cars I learned to catch the eye in other ways."
Though arguably as well known today for being father to fashion
photog Miles or model/journalist Saffron, Aldridge knew considerable
post Summer of Love success, both for the fantastically ornate cover
for Elton John's 1975 LP Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.
E.J.'s confession of bisexuality was enough to cancel Aldridge's
projected film of the album, and the artist eventually landed in
L.A., spending the past several decades working on children's books,
a stint as creative director at the House of Blues and peddling the
odd higher-than-high-concept. Among the many
just-so-loony-it-can't-help-but-work notions is "Fee Fi Fo Fum,"
which he describes as "a children's playground I designed, like
installation art. It arrives in town in the dead of night, like a
magical inflatable tent with actual antibacterial games inside," he
laughed. "Very eco."
While his cadre has long since gone on to glory and the world
considerably less gray, Aldridge still plugs away with characteristic
immodesty, as befits the owner of one of the world's most instantly
recognizable visual styles. Along with the retrospective from Abrams
and assorted other projects, Aldridge is working away at an
"illustrated memoir" and is hard at work setting up Alan Aldridge,
Inc., which will license all the images he's created down through the
years. He's also planning his first trip to Burning Man this summer,
so any idea the Guv'nor has retired to purely career-curatorial
functions should be dismissed, as no established artist without big
plans for installation work would bother with such a hellish ordeal.
As with much else, this is part of an old, old obsession.
"I've always tried to tell people, particularly in interviews,"
Aldridge winds up, gesturing at the posters he designed flecking the
bare white walls. "There's nothing more magical than the journey you
go on when you look at a piece of white paper and you have an idea in
your head. The minute your pencil begins its manipulation on the
paper, you enter this crack into another dimension and nothing else
matters. A little like writing. You can work for 10, 15 hours
straight and go to places beyond the periphery of the drawing. You're
being bombarded with images; I find myself laughing or being sad.
It's hard to explain the seductiveness of it, since most of my life
I've spent on that trip."
The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Art of Alan Aldridge is out March 1.