Reflections on the Life and Art of My Father John Alcorn (1935-1992)

Una lettura della figura di John Alcorn dalla penna del figlio Stephen

As an aspiring artist, I had the good fortune to spend the better part of my childhood drawing alongside my father in his studio. The environment he created was a rich and fanciful world – one in which a magical confluence of wit, humour, decorative charm, graphic elegance, and the power to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary unfolded before my eyes. Although our artistic temperaments could not have been more different our shared passion for the visual arts, and its history, enabled us to cultivate and enjoy a profoundly symbiotic relationship. Over the years this bond would lead to a series of inspired collaborations. Because I witnessed first-hand the creation of many of the works featured herein, each page of this book represents a stepping-stone down my memory lane. One of the goals of this book is to celebrate the underlying humanism of his vision by providing an intimate as well as a historical perspective on my father’s life and work.

At the time of writing, nearly a quarter of a century has passed since my father’s passing, yet despite the passage of time, his work remains as culturally relevant today as the day it was created. Looking back, I can see that his death, paradoxically, coincided with the birth of the digital revolution; for better or worse, we now live in a world that he might no longer recognize. My father’s approach to work was in essence artisanal; at its root lay a highly sensitive eye-mind-hand coordination. 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 graphic designer he was personally responsible for the manual setting of each individual letter form, thus ensuring optimum kerning and tracking. If a layout called for a decorative element, he would conceive that element from scratch rather than resort to using a pre-existing motif. As a photographer, he built his own darkroom, developed his own film, and made his own prints. No aspect of his craft was too small or incidental for his thoughtful consideration and undivided attention. It is the contrast between my father’s artisanal ethos and today’s technology-driven ethos that paradoxically makes his work so relevant to our age, and its rediscovery so timely.

The designer whom Milton Glaser once referred to as “the baby-faced design prodigy with the golden hands” had enjoyed a meteoric rise in his youth. His pivotal roles in the formative years of Push Pin Studios and subsequent development of psychedelia, one of the archetypal styles of the 1960s, secured his prominence in the annals of the visual communications of his day. An artist versatile by nature and prodigiously prolific, his influence would be felt on virtually every aspect of print media. His work both shaped – and was shaped by – the prevailing fashions and mores of his time. A steady stream of book jackets, award-winning children’s books, editorial illustrations, posters, logos, and even billboards advertising icons of pop consumer culture flowed from his hand.

A fear of lapsing into mannerism ensured that he thought of style not as an end unto itself, but rather as a means to an end. This, coupled with his commitment to accord each assignment a style tailored to suit its particular needs, pushed him to expand his visual vocabulary. Looking back on the evolution of his work, one is struck not just by the variety of mediums and styles he employed, but by the range of sensibilities he expressed. My father was correct when he claimed not to possess a style in the conventional sense of the word. The power and charm of my father’s illustration work are so pervasive that throughout his career they threatened to eclipse his identity as a designer and problem solver. In truth he was first and foremost a designer. To those familiar with the richly floral quality that permeates so much of the illustration work for which he has perhaps come to be best known, it may be a surprise to learn that my father came to embrace illustration not by way of drawing in the conventional sense, but by way of two-dimensional design.

The drawings of my father’s late-childhood period possess a decidedly analytical quality befitting the aspiring architect that he was at the time. Two high-school notebooks dated 1952 – containing blueprints for a series of tool components along with plans for a bungalow he built shortly thereafter with his father – attest to his interests in mathematics, the science of perspective, and all things quantifiably measurable. Despite their mechanical nature, these drawings are beautiful surfaces to observe; the delicacy and precision of his touch and the subtle range of tone achieved through the use of a graphite pencil, are perfectly in keeping with the demands of the task at hand. One can see why, approximately fifteen years later, in the late 1960s, when he discovered his Italian heritage and came under the spell of the Italian Renaissance, he felt irresistibly drawn to the works of Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello. One can also appreciate the role these formal youthful exercises involving the representation of objects in space played in his understanding of form, and in the development of his organizational skills as a designer.

My father spent the majority of his childhood on Long Island in Great Neck, New York, which at the time was a pastoral community dotted with horse farms and pastures and located a mere half-hour from Manhattan by train. From this world he derived an unbridled passion for horses, and throughout his childhood wanted more than anything to be a jockey. Today, little is left of the bygone world my father knew as a child; former pastures are either gated suburban communities or strip malls. He enjoyed a very happy and secure childhood, which in itself is remarkable, for his mother had contracted multiple sclerosis when he was still a teenager. The happiness my father and his two younger brothers, Richard and Robert, experienced would not have been possible had it not been for their grandmother, who lived with them, and their father. Their father, Herbert Melville Alcorn, worked his entire life as a statistician for New York Life insurance company. A self-reliant yet compassionate Roosevelt-era-styled democrat, he was a voracious reader, talented carpenter, accomplished photographer, potter, and an avid draftsman; he passed on his passion for drawing to his son at an early age. Several surviving life drawings my grandfather executed as a young man in the late 1920s attest to his natural talent and ability. Had the circumstances of his life been different, he would have been a very fine artist. He always encouraged my father to draw and, through prints and books and trips to museums, exposed him to art. He kept my father supplied with paper and paints and pencils. He never told him what to draw, or how; he just gave him materials and encouragement.

As well as his passion for horses, my father also loved the outdoors, and in particular any activity related to the ocean. His family had a cottage on Eastern Long Island, and his happiest memories were of the summers they spent there. He later recalled with great fondness and nostalgia the unpaved roads, the fresh water from the pump, the wagon trips to buy blocks of ice, and the fishing. He loved to go down to the shore at daybreak, alone, and venture out in his little dinghy, which he and his father had built.

The formative years my father spent in close proximity to farm animals and the Atlantic Ocean left an indelible mark on his psyche. Here he established a lasting bond with nature – one reflected in the role that all creatures, great and small, played in the imagery he created throughout his life. “I enjoy contributing to making an object which is useful and can be simply a pleasure to have in one’s home or to hold.” With these words, stated in an interview on the occasion of an exhibition at Dartmouth University in the fall of 1981 while my father was an artist-in-residence there, he expressed, with characteristic modesty and sense of purpose, the underlying impetus for his graphic art. The genesis of this impulse may be traced, I believe, to the inspiring presence throughout his youth of his maternal grandmother, Maria Comotto. She was a talented seamstress capable of constructing entirely from scratch beautifully tailored dresses and bonnets for his mother, who according to family lore never once purchased a ready-made garment. Quiet and gentle by nature, and inclined to teach by example, she instilled in my father an appreciation for the eye-mind-hand coordination that lay at the root of all genuine craftsmanship. Furthermore, her example fostered a profound respect for artist’s tools and materials and inspired an inventive resourcefulness – one that would serve him well in years to come, and ultimately become a trademark of his work.

Beyond this remarkable confluence of influences, there is the less concrete but nonetheless important inspiration that my father derived from the knowledge that his grandfather had been a professional die-cutter. Although he never knew his paternal grandfather, evidence of the man’s talent was given to him by his father in the form of a beautifully shaped French curve metal die, replete with an elegantly incised signature, dated 1927. Painted matte black, this lovely abstract shape, a cross between Art Nouveau and Picasso at his most curvaceous, adorned a wall in every studio my father occupied, where it served as votive image, and as a testament to the genetic imprint that propelled my father and his vocation. The deadline-driven commercial world in which my father came of age – and more specifically the increasingly swift rhythms of the burgeoning print media to which he found himself drawn – required that he conceive images and graphic design solutions capable of being observed and appreciated by an audience perpetually “on the move”. What is more, the world he entered was that of mass communication, one dictated by the rhythms of commerce and its accompanying deadlines. Just as importantly, it was a world in which the artist drew inspiration from stimuli that were almost entirely externally generated. The nature and content of the assignment, over which the graphic artist had little control, provided the creative impetus. My father came to rely on these external stimuli for inspiration; in fact, the vast majority of the art he made was conceived in direct response to an assignment. Time and production constraints (in those days, possibilities of full-colour process reproduction remained few and far between) required that he be efficient and resourceful and think conceptually, all the while devising a stylistic shorthand that would be so seductive as to invite repeated viewings on the part of the public.


In 1962, my parents moved to Ossining, New York, where they made a seventeenthcentury farmhouse their home. Shortly thereafter, my father converted the adjacent guesthouse into a studio. Located on a winding country lane named Barnes Road, their home was surrounded by nineteenth-century horse stables, algae-covered ponds, gently sloping hills, apple orchards, and a variety of ancient trees. This country setting permitted daily interaction with nature and fostered an appreciation of the animal kingdom and the changing seasons; for nine years it was the centre of my father’s universe – a safe haven in which he and my mother raised their four children. Despite its bucolic setting, it was by no means isolated.

The hustle and bustle of New York City – where the majority of my father’s work was sourced – was only half an hour away by car, and the town of Ossining was located a mere two or three miles away. The great issues of the day – those concerning the trials and tribulations of the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and, last but not least, the youth movement – resonated profoundly with my parents, and as a result all made their way into our home, becoming frequent topics of conversation. This political awareness, coupled with the influx of the very best popular music of the day, guaranteed that, despite our tender age, my three brothers (Tommy, Johnny, and Ken) and I would be steeped in the more edifying aspects of the counter-culture of the day. While the outside world made its way into our home, the environment my father lovingly created for his family found its way into his work. The most obvious and abundant of these references paid homage to my mother, his muse. Permutations of the immediately identifiable, archetypal likeness he established for her early on in their marriage weave in and out of his work like the threads in a medieval tapestry, thus becoming an integral part of it. My mother’s presence in his oeuvre constitutes the most eloquent expression of the union of art and life he so steadfastly cultivated.

By the late 1960s, he had come to be identified first and foremost with psychedelia, the quintessential style that he helped invent and make popular. The advent of “flower power” had reached its zenith and, like the bloom on the style most associated with it, begun to wilt. Within a few years a profoundly satisfying style comprised of a marriage of angular and curvilinear elements gave rise to another design predicated almost entirely upon the use of amorphous curves that bore little or no relation to the natural world. A brilliant style was becoming an end in itself and the fruits of his labour no longer seemed fresh. Familiarity had begun to breed contempt; thus his dread of mannerism was proving prophetic. The graphic artist born under the sign of Aquarius, and whose talents had so perfectly suited the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, had begun to feel an urgent need to return, in his words, “to some form of reality”. He was not alone in the desire to reconnect with a more grounded, earthly world – witness the pivotal changes that took place at precisely the same time in the directions of such influential musicians as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and the Band. The work of these artists resonated with my father, wafting in and out from the rooms of our house and his studio. Something was in the air. This yearning for change, coupled with the even greater disenchantment with the socio-political climate that prevailed in the United States at the time (the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the assassinations of JFK, RFK, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr), led to an existential malaise that would compel him and his family to leave the United States.

A first step in that direction came in 1968, the year in which he visited Settimo Rottaro, a small, agrarian village located in the northern region of Piedmont, Italy, where his maternal grandparents were born. Through the discovery of his Italian heritage, he found both the inspiration and fertile ground he had been longing for. Drawn to this new source of inspiration, he led the entire family on a summer-long trip to Italy the following year, and repeated the adventure in 1970. On both occasions we travelled across the entire peninsula, and even visited the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. In the end, the city he felt most drawn to was Florence. With its relatively intimate scale, vibrant, centuries-old neighbourhoods, and ever-present reminders of its glorious role in the history of art, the fabled “cradle of the Renaissance” seemed an ideal place in which to raise a family. And so, in June of 1971, we moved to an apartment on Via dei Serragli, around the corner from the Boboli Gardens. Our new home was surrounded by the bustle of a thriving, working-class neighbourhood epitomized by the presence of archetypal Florentine botteghe: shops in which artisans and vendors plied their trade in full view of residents and passersby. This confluence of history, commerce, applied arts, and daily routine – one in which the lines between past and present were often blurred – appealed immensely to my father; it proved a veritable feast for his eyes, and brought a refreshingly tangible weight and solidity to the forms he drew. The amorphous, aquatic rhythms and shapes of the late 1960s soon gave way to a decidedly earthier sensibility, one more indebted to the healthy, purposeful pragmatism of the Florentine artisan than to the machinations of Madison Avenue. In an effort to immerse himself in the culture of the city, for the first time in approximately ten years, he opted to work outside of the home. In a matter of months following his entry into the rich and vibrant world of Italian publishing, book and art lovers from all walks of life found themselves irresistibly drawn to stop in the course of their ritual strolls through ancient city streets to admire the bookshop display of a cornucopia of book jackets bearing the refreshingly vibrant synergy of drawing and design skills that had by now become my father’s trademark. Forty years after the fact, the impact that this edifying marriage of commerce and art had on Italian culture continues to resonate in the minds of those who had the good fortune to witness and experience first-hand the flowering of his unique contribution to the realm of Italian publishing.

When my older brother, Tommy, died tragically in 1974 at the age of seventeen, he left behind an extraordinary series of black-and-white photographs chronicling his first encounters with his Italian heritage. In the wake of his death, my father set about conceiving and designing a monograph portraying my brother’s photographic endeavours. To accomplish this he spent months of solitary nights working in a darkroom created expressly for the task. He embraced the bittersweet challenge with courage and devotion. By sublimating his love and grief through a celebration of Tommy’s work, he taught by example, one that would prove the embodiment of the philosopher Khalil Gibran’s words, “Work is Love made visible”. The resulting book, titled simply Thomas Alcorn, Fotografie (Rizzoli Editore, 1976), is a testament to that love.

Among the photographs selected and prepared for inclusion in the book are a series of judiciously composed and disarmingly direct landscapes. Solemn and timeless by virtue of their monumental stillness, I believe they had a profound effect on my father’s art. I can recall detecting at the time a pivotal shift in certain aspects of his work, as I witnessed the emergence of a new aesthetic sensibility, particularly with regard to his approach to watercolour. Up until that point my father had for the most part used watercolour as a means of adorning a firmly grasped pen-and-ink line drawing. Suddenly images began to emerge that were entirely devoid of such defining delineations. These modest-size watercolours on paper represented a new sensibility in my father’s work – one of a beguilingly quiet and contemplative nature born of experience and sorrow. Deep within the recesses of his soul, my father had discovered his alter ego, a sombre, twilit counterpart to his once singularly solar temperament. Although the bright, cheerful disposition would always prevail, from this point forward it would be tempered by a wistful awareness of the ephemeral nature of life. Five years into his collaboration with Rizzoli Editore, my father was beginning to feel as if he had exhausted the creative challenges and professional opportunities Italy had to offer. Restless once again and ready for a change, he moved our family back to the United States in 1977. For the next six years my father lived and worked from a home in Cold Spring, New York, located along the Hudson River just an hour north of New York City. In 1983, my parents moved again, this time to Hamburg Cove, a picturesque hamlet by the shores of the Connecticut River, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream of his to live and work near the Long Island Sound. There he spent the remaining nine years of his life, working in close proximity to the water, restoring the boat he christened Gradisca, in honour of Fellini’s Amarcord, tending to his ever-expanding vegetable and flower gardens, and enjoying his grandchildren. With his children grown and himself removed from the busy social life he once thrived upon, my father led a relatively monastic life, characterized by reflection, introspection, and retrospection. The years of his maturity were defined as much by a further refinement and restating of the archetypal conceptual, stylistic, and technical devices for which he had been celebrated, as by novelty of invention. This retrospection came about, in part, as a result of his having begun the process of archiving his work. Thus we find him revisiting a host of archetypal images from his youth, breathing new life into them, and bestowing upon them a technical mastery afforded by a lifetime of experience.

“When I was young”, wrote Albrecht Dürer, “I craved variety and novelty; now in my old age I have come to understand that simplicity is the ultimate goal of art.” As my father approached the autumn years of his life, he came to a similar realization. This understanding would inspire a bold resurgence of his interest in purely typographical design work. Spurred in part by the satisfaction he had derived from the creation of entirely new typefaces, along with a variety of mastheads stemming from a 1989 commission to redesign three Italian newspapers, my father reengaged himself in the formal challenges first embraced in his youth, well before his emergence as a decorative and fanciful illustrator. The artist who for three decades had showered the realm of the graphic arts with rich and colourful imagery now sought refuge in the devising of powerful, new juxtapositions of positive and negative forms without the embellishment of ornamental, illustrative elements. A series of strictly design-related projects provided him with a welcome respite from the rigours of his illustration work, and renewed his love of two-dimensional design and refreshed his appreciation for the indelible economy of means that discipline requires. With this phase his career came full circle, leading him back to the black-and-white purity of his first forays into the world of graphic design, the very genesis of his genius as a designer.

(estratto da John Alcorn. Evolution by Design, a cura di Stephen Alcorn e Marta Sironi, Milano, Moleskine, 2013, pp. 11-27)



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