Charley Harper died in Dayton, Ohio on a Sunday ten years ago this past June. He was just shy of his 85th birthday and had been battling complications stemming from pneumonia for months. A prolific illustrator and modernist painter, Harper’s textbook illustrations, landscapes, acrylic paintings, posters, and more amount to a treasury of once-widely overlooked marvels that have only recently gotten some of the attention they deserve in the form of exhibitions and tireless advocacy on behalf of his son Brett and designer Todd Oldham. The West Virginia farm-born artist is celebrated for the revolutionary flair that he brought to commercial art in America’s postwar years.
Harper’s playful and immediately striking editorial illustrations for Ford Times magazine, a lifestyle publication that Ford Motor Company produced for its customers, at first accompanied recipes but subsequently appeared throughout the monthly’s full-color pages and on its covers. Harper initially got his foot in the door at the magazine by mailing the editors paintings he’d done on his honeymoon (his wife Edie was also an artist). The relationship he forged with then-art director Arthur Lougee would yield freelance illustration assignments for all kinds of subjects that would see Harper’s name in the magazine for nearly 40 years.
In April of 1951, his first cover commission for Ford Times depicted an uncomplicated handful of fish navigating dangling fishing hooks. In lieu of a prominent network of scales or detailed fins, Harper’s textures materialize from his application of layers of color. He peppers the fish’s undersides with incandescent flecks that suggest depth and roundness. Harper’s illustrations of fish and birds for the magazine in the early 1950s, with their systems of clean curved spheres and hovering angular planes, seemed to owe more often to Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings than to the field guides that he said he referenced. Brett wrote about his father’s fussy research for Discovery Channel magazine.
“Sometimes,” Brett wrote, “he even borrowed the skins of birds from Cincinnati’s Museum of Natural History and Science, or would pull photo files of actual incidents … from the public library’s reference collection.”
Harper’s art at Ford Times generated so much attention that the editors made prints of his available by mail order. First, there was a series of fish prints and then, birds. Harper said later that he received one hundred percent of the profits from the prints.
In the years that followed, nature became a cornerstone of Harper’s work. His clients included the U.S. National Parks Service, the Cincinnati Nature Center, the Audubon Society, and more. A year before his death in 2007, Harper turned in his last commissioned project — a poster for the Cape May Bird Observatory in Cape May, New Jersey. The state is critical to birds flying in and out of New England and Canada, and Cape May County, with its wealth of varied habitats, is of particular importance in the fall, “when millions of birds of over 330 species arrive,” according to the New Jersey Audubon’s Director of Conservation. Harper’s “Mainline Migration” poster, a somewhat miraculous representation of this wonder in an arrangement of ornate geometric forms dressed in crisp and vibrant hues, rewards a close look.
My partner brought Harper’s work into my life. I’m grateful for all that she’s introduced me to, and this is something I’ve really only begun to get my arms around. Shannon picked up the oversized landscape volume authored by Todd Oldham — Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life — some seven or eight years ago, and it has moved with us between a couple of our Brooklyn apartments. It’s everything — a completist monograph that collects hundreds of Harper’s broad-ranging works, each broken-out according to the source material. Oldham discovered the artist when he was leafing through old magazines in a Pennsylvania thrift store back in 2001.
“Charley’s inspired, yet accurate, color sense is undeniable and, when combined with the precision he exacts on rendering only the most important details, one is always left with a sense of awe,” writes Oldham in the tome’s introduction.
Shannon recently moved An Illustrated Life from the bookcase in our bedroom out to our living room, so that Harper’s wealth of curious and beautiful paintings are exposed and in the open, getting a bit of attention on our credenza instead of having been tucked away. It’s a nice change. I think we’ll keep it out here for now.
All images by Charley Harper. Photographs of Todd Oldham’s book © 2017 Dominic Umile. Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life is available from Ammo Books. There are extensive essays on the life of Charley and Edie Harper at Codex 99.