David Pelham: The Art of Inner Space
Author: James Pardey • Feb 26th, 2012 •
Category: America , Brigid Marlin , deep time , dystopia , Eduardo Paolozzi , entropy , enviro-disaster , inner space , interviews , Lead Story , visual art
David Pelham: The Art of Inner Space
David Pelham’s painting for JG Ballard’s short story, My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974). Signed print courtesy wire-frame .
by James Pardey
David Pelham was Art Director at Penguin Books from 1968 to 1979 and created some of the publisher’s most celebrated cover art, including his famous cog-eyed droog for Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange in 1972 and his series of paintings for The Drought , The Drowned World , The Terminal Beach and other JG Ballard titles in the mid 1970s. Pelham’s paintings gave Ballard’s apocalyptic fiction its own unique mode of visual expression and are widely regarded as being the definitive Ballardian art.
Now, almost four decades later, David Pelham’s paintings are being released, actual size, as a series of limited edition signed prints by wire-frame. Here, Pelham discusses his paintings with James Pardey, whose essay on Ballard, Pelham and modern art, Landscapes From a Dream , was featured on Ballardian.com in 2010.
LEFT: David Pelham. Photo via .
JAMES PARDEY: You have been a great admirer of Ballard’s fiction since the 1960s. What drew you to it?
DAVID PELHAM: I was introduced to Jim Ballard through my friend the sculptor and printmaker Eduardo Paolozzi some time in the 1960s. As a student at St Martin’s School of Art back in the mid 1950s I had already established a nodding aquaintance with Paolozzi, who at that time was teaching in the sculpture department. Though I was greatly attracted to his sculpture, at that time it was his obsession for creating ‘junk’ art from discarded printed material and his screenprints that most appealed to me. His montages cut from American movie and science-fiction fan mags featured such diverse elements as pin-ups, automobile and fast food ads, from Mickey Mouse characters to images of space junk; any bits of printed ephemera that excited his mind or his eye were roughly assembled – though skillfully juxtaposed – to make fresh, vibrant and intelligent art.
Paolozzi had first and famously presented the results of his notions to an assembly of influential artists and critics at a lecture delivered to the Independent Group of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Dover Street, London, in 1952. Titling his slide lecture Bunk , among the fast moving myriad of images that assaulted his unsuspecting audience was his collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything. The projected image was that of a montage featuring the cover of a trashy American magazine called Intimate Confessions . Among the other elements that made up this montage – alongside the inevitable garish pin-up – was a cloud of gunsmoke containing the word ‘POP’. Paolozzi’s wild slide-show had established him as one of the founding fathers of the Pop Art movement in the UK.
Both his graphic and sculptural work examined ideas that lay far beyond the prosaic academic methodology that was currently being taught. Paolozzi had delivered a well-aimed knee straight into the groin of the genteel middle-class art of the time, and you needed to have been there at that time to fully appreciate the shock and excitement that his ideas provoked. The thrilling 1960s had begun.
David Pelham’s cover painting for JG Ballard’s novel, The Drought (Penguin edition, 1974). Signed print courtesy wire-frame .
I occasionally saw Eduardo at private views and art-related events between leaving St Martin’s and beginning a five-year stint as Art Editor of the art magazine Studio International in 1962. Paolozzi was an exceptionally generous and gregarious man whose conversation was as varied and original as his art. Whatever the occasion he appeared to know everybody in the room, and his generosity extended to widely sharing his many friends and aquaintances, skillfully introducing people who he felt might either share common interests or who might benefit in some oblique way from meeting each other.
It was at such a gathering at one of the Cork Street galleries where Eduardo introduced me to JG Ballard. I can still sense the excitement of that first meeting. Along with some enchanting exchanges and insights which augmented my belief in the interconnectedness of their virtual worlds, what struck me most was that, throughout the high-octane exchanges, Paolozzi – an extremely widely read man – would repeatedly attempt to swing the conversation around to literature. But Ballard would have none of it, constantly and ingeniously manoeuvring the conversation back to the visual arts. So much so that I got the sense that, not only did Ballard find Eduardo’s work as stimulating as I did, but he also left me with the distinct impression that he would rather have been a painter than a writer. Thankfully he never abandoned the typewriter for the paintbrush.
The next time I met Ballard was at a house party somewhere in Notting Hill. It must have been the early ’70s because I remember we not only discussed The Drought, which Cape had published in 1965, but also Eduardo’s strange and wonderful book Abba Zabba which had been published in an edition of 500 copies in 1970. The pages of Abba Zabba are stuffed with pungent and even worrying newsprint images that appear to catalogue the remnants of our civilization’s descent into chaos. This brilliant selection of apocalyptic imagery is accompanied by extended fragmentary captions which I can only describe as evoking a witty iconoclastic text by Ballard that has been cut and pasted by William Burroughs.
Throughout the pages of Abba Zabba we see the Ballardian highways, the high-rise concrete blocks, the wrecked automobiles, corpse-strewn beaches and scenes of violent unrest, military intervention and shattered landscapes alarmingly juxtaposed with incongruous photographs of smiling pin-ups and domestic scenes. One only has to riffle through its pages to appreciate how closely these two brilliant artists pivoted upon a common fulcrum. Indeed they both moved effortlessly into the art of no boundaries, fusing the powerful quasi-scientific realms of their imagination, leading us into their studied worlds of nihilism and chaos, and it remains a great disappointment to me that all my attempts to instigate a large format special collaboratory Ballard/Paolozzi publication when I was Art Director of Penguin Books were repeatedly rejected.
David Pelham’s cover painting for JG Ballard’s novel, The Drowned World (Penguin edition, 1974). Signed print courtesy wire-frame .
Your Ballard paintings are suffused with a haunting beauty. What was your inspiration?
That’s easy. Jim Ballard and his remarkable writing was my inspiration. It went like this. My first visits to Ballard’s home in Shepperton, ‘the paradigm of nowhere’ as he called it, were with Paolozzi. The animated conversations at these very convivial occasions were far more directed to the visual arts, painting in particular, but also sculpture, cinema, theatre and so forth, rather than to literature. Once again Jim was showing a far greater interest in painting rather than writing.
Were it not for my fierce and long-standing admiration for their obsessions and appreciation of their work, I think it unlikely that I could have made much sense of – let alone taken part in – the oblique conversational ciphers and elaborated codes that brought that rather soulless suburban front room to sparking and electrifying life on those occasions. Enthusiastic references to the mundane flotsam of society such as supermarkets, car wrecks, motorways, high-rise towers, popular science, Pacific islands, office blocks, fan mags, movies, airlines, war, the military, atomic tests and advertising art; all were among the ingredients mixed into this potent conversational cocktail, an elixir that tended to leave me reeling. But as the years go by the more I realise how very privileged I was to have witnessed these two creative giants discussing their similar aesthetic obsessions, the very stuff of their creativity.
And so it was that when Penguin Books scheduled four Ballard titles in the mid 1970s, because of our previous association and my admiration of his writing, I called Jim to discuss his covers. I explained that I was a great admirer of the work of the German artist Konrad Klapheck, painter of monumentalised everyday machinery such as typewriters and sewing machines. The dynamic, low eye-line perspective and cold precision of Klapheck’s imagery struck me as a good starting point for a set of visually strong and related covers, and at that point I was considering commissioning the project to Klapheck.
I duly posted examples of Klapheck’s work to Ballard. He was enthusiastic, and we arranged another visit to discuss the project. In anticipation of that meeting I quickly airbrushed a thumbnail sketch of a wrecked jukebox half buried in the sand, a reference from The Terminal Beach . I positioned the jukebox at an angle, suggestive of a neglected tombstone. Satisfied with the impact of the image, I then produced a variety of objects half buried in sand, all of which shared a common horizon, a strong yet simple device that related all four covers and clearly signalled that these books belonged together.
David Pelham’s cover painting for JG Ballard’s short-story collection, The Terminal Beach (Penguin edition, 1977). Signed print courtesy wire-frame .
Why a Cadillac, the Chrysler Building, the atom bomb and so on?
Bunkers, crash-test dummies, Coca Cola bottles, a jukebox as I have said, a variety of objects were tried before we settled on the Cadillac, the Fat Boy bomb, the TV console and the Chrysler Building. These were chosen for their looks and their relevance at that time. Remember that this was back in the mid ’70s, and that these objects had an edgy fashionability and were very much part of the zeitgiest.
When I showed the thumbnails to Ballard he became very enthusiastic, and despite his admiration of Klapheck’s work he insisted – on the evidence of my sketches – that I should paint the images myself. I still have some of those early thumbnails, and I notice in the margin of one of them are my notes, quickly scribbled at that meeting and obviously suggested by Ballard. The notes say ‘monumental / tombstones / airless thermonuclear landscape / horizons / a zone devoid of time’.
That was a great brief and I set about attempting to do it justice. I started with extensive experiments with different inks and colour combinations, reading and re-reading Ballard’s texts for clues, admiring once again how vividly and effortlessly he was able to transfer the fabric of his extraordinary inventions – his fascinating mental landscapes – from his mind’s eye to that of the reader. Wishing to avoid the well-trodden representational avenues of science fiction illustrators, and also wishing to pay homage to Ballard’s playful involvement with paradox and surrealism, I found myself needing to represent the landscape in which the ‘monuments’ were to be situated as not so much the evocation of a place, but rather of a state of mind: the airless zone, devoid of time, that Jim had asked for.
In my view the sense of eternal silence that I strived to achieve in these paintings should only be broken by the military TV console that appeared on The Four-Dimensional Nightmare . Were it possible, this painting alone should have audio accompaniment: sounds of Micky Mouse music and his squeaky voice clashing with the scratchy radio crackles of Mission Control, a jagged cacophony jabbering to nobody in an empty, airless thermonuclear zone devoid of time. Yes, that carries a particular romance for me.
All four paintings for these covers are rendered in considerable detail, which suggests careful research. Can you recall your references?
At that time you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or a magazine without seeing images of the Fat Boy atomic bomb. Rough monochrome halftones of it appeared everywhere, and the TV console was probably cut from an article about US military security from Scientific American or some such magazine.
However, reference for the Cadillac and the Chrysler Building came by courtesy of the famous German photographer Evelyn Hofer from photographs that appeared in her fine book New York Proclaimed , one of her ‘city’ series published in 1964 by Chatto & Windus and William Heinemann. Evelyn’s photographs accompanied a sparkling text by V. S. Pritchett. She was married to my great friend, the photographer Humphrey Sutton, and over lunch one day, with characteristic charm, Evelyn gave me permission to use her photographs as reference.
David Pelham’s cover painting for JG Ballard’s short-story collection, The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (Penguin edition, 1977). Signed print courtesy wire-frame .