The internet can allow those wanting to electronically paint themselves as experts and consultants on the most esoteric topics (after all…everything is just a Google search away), but occasionally, just occasionally, you’ve got to hold your hands up and concede that you were oblivious to something brilliant.One of the best movie sequences of the year this far (Yeah, last year if you’re an American… documentaries do seem to hang in distribution limbo for the longest. I know I’ve spent at least a third of my lifespan waiting for studies of a number of subjects to appear) comes twenty minutes or so into Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor’s Barney Rossett portrait ‘Obscene’ where Roy Kuhlman’s Beckett cover art is brought to life via Alex Meillier’s motion graphics and soundtracked by Jim Carroll’s ‘Falling Down Laughing.’
Please note, Kuhlman-heads, you’re not going mad – the above images are mid-movement screen grabs from Meillier’s animations.
I won’t plead to total ignorance – I knew that Roy Kuhlman’s freeform expressionism defined Grove Press’s aesthetic in the same way that Reid Miles defined Blue Note, Berhthold Wolpe defined Faber and George Lois set a standard on ‘Esquire’. Grove’s cover art go-to seemed to be given free reign between 1951 and his departure in 1971 (passing away in 2007), and while his definitive ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’ cover remains in circulation, added to the non-Grove Bloomsbury edition on these shores circa 2000 and the Random House edition of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ retained Kuhlman’s stylish Grove-era recycle of random fonts, but the ‘Watt’, ‘Unnamable’, ‘Murphy’, ‘Molloy’, ‘Cascando’, ‘Malone Dies’, ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Proust’ covers under the Grove/Evergreen banners are classics.
The brief to illustrate Samuel Beckett’s work must be a challenge for any designer – notably, as his work descends into minimalism in the late 60s and 70s, the imagery seems to become less striking, but each piece captures the mood between the covers without becoming generic. I was weaned on some great Penguin Modern Classics editions of Beckett novels and plays, plus some weaker old Faber editions with unnatractive art. Faber’s recent recruitment of the talented a2/sw/hk crew to create a uniform cover style for Beckett’s full literary pantheon is a good move, and as a whole, the look is stunning, but standing alone, each tome is merely effective in appearance. At his best, Kuhlman afforded each cover it’s own unique identity.
Whereas this post would usually cannibalise Flickr and other easy visual e-fixes for images of Roy Kuhlman’s Beckett covers, they’re strangely scarce online, which is baffling. You can see plenty of his other Grove works, but it’s curiously unspecific. Whereas Reid, Berthold and George have comprehensive galleries in various corners of the web, many Roy retrospectives merely scratch the surface. It seems that the 2004 ‘Roy Kuhlman: The Grove Covers’ exhibition dedicated a section to his Beckett works, but any links to a hi-res collection of cover art or scans would be very welcome indeed…
Check here for the definitive online piece of Kuhlman’s Grove work. Oh, and do yourself a favour by watching ‘Obscene’…
Below is a few amassed Grove and Grove/Evergreen covers for Beckett works. Many are Kuhlman designs, though a couple may be the handiwork of other Grove design minds.