The Daily Heller: Remembering John Alcorn

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Today marks the 30th anniversary of illustrator, designer and former Push Pin Studio member John Alcorn’s passing. Alcorn’s oeuvre is preserved in the Archivio Alcorn. Founded in 2011 by the University of Milano research center APICE (Archivi della Parola, dell’Immagine e della Comunicazione Editoriale—Words, Images and Publishing Communication Archives) in collaboration with his son, Stephen Alcorn, and the historian Marta Sironi, the archive contains approximately 3,000 artifacts. In 2014 Stephen and Marta co-authored the critically acclaimed monograph John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. The following is a remembrance in words and images by Stephen.

Cooper Union Yearbook, 1955.

“My father, John Alcorn (Feb. 10, 1935–Jan. 27, 1992), the designer whom Milton Glaser once referred to as ‘the baby-faced design prodigy with the golden hands,’ compiled a list of accomplishments and honors unexcelled in the field of the applied arts. From his early years at Esquire, Push Pin Studios and CBS, he helped to define and expand the boundaries of modern visual communication. He was among the few who has affected the way our world looks, functions and communicates. His presence in the world of publishing is legendary. The work done for Rizzoli of Milan, Italy, stands as a remarkable example of effective visual marketing of product and corporate image. The scope, virtuosity and enormous volume of Alcorn’s efforts for Longanesi & Co., Mondadori, and numerous U.S. publishers of books and magazines confirm his preeminence in this field. His power and charm as an illustrator was so pervasive that it often threatened to eclipse his identity as a designer and problem-solver. Indeed, his immaculate sense of concept and message gives his pictorial solutions a sense of inevitability. Versatile by nature and prodigiously prolific, his influence would be felt on virtually every aspect of print media. There is scarcely an aspect of design and illustration that would not come to bear his distinctive mark. An artist with a hand on the pulse of his age, his work both shaped—and was shaped by—the prevailing fashions and mores of his times. A steady stream of book jackets, award-winning children’s books, editorial illustrations, posters, logos—even billboards advertising icons of pop consumer culture—flowed from his hand.

(Top) Imaginary Cityscape; first published work, mixed media on chipboard, c. 1952. (Middle) Weaver Fine Printing; advertisement, papier collè and India ink, Push Pin Graphic, c. 1956. (Bottom) Christmas Alphabet; McCall’s magazine illustration, dip pen, India ink and watercolor on paper, December, 1958.

“In addition to his accomplishments in the areas of book publishing, packaging and corporate and dimensional design, my father designed the opening titles for several Fellini films. Accolades came from art directors, film and illustrators’ societies around the world. His work has been exhibited at the Louvre in Paris, the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, and the Venice Biennale. In 1970, he was the recipient of the prestigious Augustus Saint-Gaudens Medal from Cooper Union. That same year, he was selected as the first graphic artist to be Artist-in-Residence at Dartmouth College. In 1987 he was Artist-in-Residence at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“Much has happened in the 30 years since my father’s passing. Without realizing it, weeks quickly turned into months, months into years, and years into three decades. In the process we witnessed the close of one century and the dawn of another. With the inexorable passage of time, however, came an unexpected blessing: that of hindsight, which in turn put into perspective my father’s contribution to the history of visual communications. In many ways his work constitutes a microcosm of the history of art of the last century, one in which virtually every major movement can be seen. The influences including Cubism (and specifically Picasso’s synthetic Cubism), surrealism, Russian constructivism, Italian metaphysical painting, pop art, dada, folk art and 1960s psychedelia, are paid homage in the form of judiciously applied, historically accurate and stylistically fitting citazioni. The echoes of previous epochs permeating his oeuvre transcend the constraints of their initial commercial application, only to become a reflection of a far larger whole. Despite the passage of time, the work remains as culturally relevant today as the day it was created, albeit for entirely different reasons. The inherent humanism of my father’s vision, made manifest by his propensity to think metaphorically and to see connections between seemingly disparate elements, is a quality I have learned to cherish, and now aim to instill in my students.

“Looking back, I can see that his death, paradoxically, coincided with a birth—that of the digital revolution (‘digital’ may be something of a misnomer, considering the diminished role that the fingers may play in the creative process spawned by said revolution). For better or for worse, we now live in a world that he might no longer recognize. My father’s approach to his work was in essence artisanal; at its root lies a highly sensitive eye/mind/hand coordination. The unbridled fondness he had for all that is handmade assured that virtually every aspect of his craft—even the least illustrative and most technical aspects of his work, e.g., the setting of mechanical typography and related disciplines—exudes a warmth that is at odds with the technology-driven sensibilities of our age. As an artist he used all his senses; the hands-on nature of his working habit, his love of artists’ materials and his appreciation for tactile qualities ensured that there was no mechanical divide between the work itself and the mind and hands creating it. As a photographer, he built his own darkroom, opted to develop his own film and attended to the execution of each photograph proof. As a graphic designer he was personally responsible for the manual setting of each individual letterform, thus ensuring optimum kerning and tracking. If a layout called for a decorative element, he would conceive said element from scratch. The very idea of using clip art was anathema to him—as was an undue reliance on photographic reference materials. No aspect of the craft was too small or too incidental for his thoughtful consideration and undivided attention. In the end, it is the contrast between my father’s artisanal ethos and today’s technology-driven ethos that makes his work so relevant to our age and its celebration so timely.”

(Top row, left to right) Florida’s Gulf Coast; Redbook magazine illustration, dip pen India ink and watercolor on paper, January, 1966. Magic Moments of Ballet; poster, papier collè, 1966. Virgo; magazine illustration, casein on matte board, c. 1968. (Above) Garden of Earthly Delights; Eros Magazine illustration, dip pen and India ink on paper, c. 1968.
(Top row, left to right) Mirror Image (of Love); Redbook magazine, editorial Illustration, dip pen India ink and watercolor on paper, 1969. Hot Rocks & Cool Rolls; poster, Cooper Union fundraiser event, graphite, India ink and Pantone process color, 1969. Bourbon Street; Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine, editorial illustration, acrylic on canvas board, 1970.(Above) Uncanny in Cans; billboard poster, dip pen and Pantone process color, 1969.
(Top row, left to right) Peace; magazine illustration, acrylic on canvas board, c. 1970. The Magnificent Mr. Handel; Columbia Records album cover, acrylic on canvas, 1970. (Above) Italy Casts Her Spell; illustration, dip pen, sepia ink and watercolor on paper, c. 1972.

(Top row, left to right) Il lbro della vita; book jacket illustration, watercolor on paper, 1974. Il Casanova di Federico Fellini; gouache on paper, 1976. (Above) Logos Galore; selected logos, dip pen, brush and India ink, 1960s -1980s.
(Top row, left to right) Amore tra le rovine; book jacket illustration, tempera on panel, c. 1973. Mystery! Agatha Christie Stories; advertisement, Masterpiece Theater, Mobil; dip pen, sepia ink, colored pencil, watercolor and gouache on paper, c. 1983. (Above) Stephen Alcorn. Spirit in the Sky (Homage to My Father); mixed media on paper, 22 in. x 17 in.