Friday, March 16, 2007

Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora

Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora
By Irwin Chusid & Barbara Economon
Fantagraphics Books tradepaper

Alex Kallao’s An Evening At the Embers LP is just okay (it is one of the thousands of sessions recorded by the beloved bassist Milt “the Judge” Hinton), but it is eagerly sought after by record collectors for its distinctive cover art by Jim Flora (website here), renown for his long stints with the Columbia and RCA record labels. While Chusid & Economon’s second collection of Flora’s work has far fewer LP covers than the first, it includes many images that will be of interest to jazz collectors in The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora.

Baroque and subversive, Flora’s art has attracted a cult following. JD King’s forward recaps elements of Flora’s style: “At times we see the cubism of Picasso peeking out, Dali’s dreaminess drifting in, Klee’s linear quality, Miro’s absurdity, and Stuart Davis’s graphic color and shapes.” (p. 31) Chusid trenchantly writes:

“He didn’t simply paint the human face; he admitted to ‘tearing it apart, making it into something grotesque, or something sweet.’ He dismembered bodies, then rewired them like Calder sculptures.” (p. 13)

While there is only a smattering of LP covers included, Sinister has a large section devoted to Flora’s commercial art for Columbia Records that have been almost untirely unseen for years. There are banners, brochures, and point-of-sale materials featuring images of Gene Krupa, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, and Benny Goodman. Of particular historical interest are the promotional booklets Flora mocked-up and sent to Columbia to encourage more promotional efforts for their jazz reissues, which ultimately led to his employment with the label.

Flora had a clear affinity for jazz. Apart from his Columbia and RCA years, he produced images of Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson and a Mardi Gras inspired series. Illustrations like that for Marguerite Young’s short story “The Great Juke,” published in the October 1947 issue of Mademoiselle makes one curious to read the accompanying prose. There are even images of political interest, like those for “The Welfare State is Here to Stay” from Look magazine and “The FCC’s Expanding, Demanding Universe” for Fortune, which illustrate the growth of the government leviathan.

Chusid, the “public editor” of Donald Luskin’s Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid blog, writes with wit and authority. Together with Economon, he has assembled a striking collection of Flora’s art that most record collectors will flip over. They also maintain a Jim Flora blog, where you can find regularly updated Flora images and commentary.