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Alan Aldridge's kaleidoscopic vision

February 28, 2009 | 11:11 am

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From 1965 to 1967, British artist Alan Aldridge was the art director of Penguin UK, bringing an edgy, growingly psychedelic design sensibility to its always iconic paperbacks. Eventually, Aldridge and the publisher parted ways and he spent time designing for rock stars such as Elton John, Mick Jagger and John Lennon. The snapshots are a fun addition to the art in his book, "The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Art of Alan Aldridge," released in the U.S. this year after an exhibit of the same name at the British Design Museum.

Alanaldridge2_0228 Aldridge's book flows with a bit of the burbling and elaborate illustration he brought to the cover of "The Penguin Book of Comics" and "The Beatles Sinister Songbook," a 1967 interview he did with Paul McCartney that lasted three hours and first appeared in the NY Observer (this is also his own book's cover, at right). Unlike most retrospectives, this book doesn't set up a clear chronology or thesis -- instead, it leads visually, letting the art and design create the narrative. In it, text and illustration have traded roles.

The text does provide some context. For "The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics," an award-winning anthology, Aldridge writes, "I approached seventy of the world's best illustrators to contribute. What was left, or what needed to be replaced because it was too risque to be published, I did myself. I saw the book as an illustration of the sixties."

If Aldridge's name is less well known than that of Peter Max, another 1960s Beatles-associated illustrator, it may be because he's got a broader vision. He went from novice outsider illustrator to Penguin and then rock art -- he did the Elton John "Captain Fantastic" album cover, which is after the jump -- but he didn't stop there. In 1973, his children's book "The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast" (with William Plomer) won the Whitbread Award. And he also applies his talents to creating images for others, like the logos for the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues; he remained in-house creative director at the latter for two years. In later years, the glossy, airbrushed style of his '60s illustration has been joined by the hand-hewn feel of block prints and hand-inked drawings.

The one set of illustrations I wish was included is represented only by this anecdote. Back in 1967, Aldridge was sitting in an airport bar doodling in his copy of "The Hobbit." In walks a noisy entourage which, it turns out, includes Salvador Dali. The artist sees the doodles and, in Spanish -- which Aldridge finds incomprehensibl -- challenges him to a draw-off. Dali draws a rearing unicorn and signs it. Aldridge draws Dali as the Mad Hatter from "Alice in Wonderland" and gets a big laugh. Dali draws a winged dragon being lanced by a horse-mounted knight, calling it "St. George da Inglaterra" (Aldridge gets that this is skewering his homeland, England). "The drawing is exquisite," Aldridge writes. "Dali, his raging machismo restored, slowly pushes the pen and book back to me." Although Dali's plane is ready, he refuses to leave, waiting to see Aldridge's response. Aldridge draws a fishtailed plane with Dali as the nose, complete with oversized mustache. When Dali left, Aldridge kept the book, but it was lost in a fire years later in his studio in Los Angeles, which he now makes his home.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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Illustrations: Alan Aldridge

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