Saturday, December 9, 2023

William Ekgren's Cosmic Psychadelia, St. John Comics, and Girl Playing Piano

A quick and unplanned post today of a few cover restorations I've done this week along with discoveries (of another historian's discoveries) I've made along the way -

Last weekend, I noticed a colorful if low grade copy of Weird Horrors #7 from 1952 for sale at Heritage Auctions.  I can never afford books at the high end auction sites, but I do like to look at them, and I was instantly reminded at having been struck by Ekgren's covers for St. John when I first encountered them fifteen years ago.  They are so out of place on a comic cover and so intricately wild that comics enthusiasts and art lovers alike stare in wonder.  I took the opportunity to "restore" the auction image and went ahead and found images to work for his other two comics covers.

Weird Horrors #7, April 1953

Strange Terrors, November 1952

 Weird Horrors #6, February 1953

The detailed linework in every inch, the exploding colors, and the mystic wonder and horror make these comic covers unique (the closest contemporary work would be from L.B. Cole whose covers I've also been working on in a gallery here).

When I first encountered Ekgren, I'd read Ken Quattro's sidebar in Alter Ego #77, "Who is WILLIAM EKGREN?" in which he shares his wonder at these covers and describes his intense curiosity at just what the fuck is going on here with these three amazing covers on the St. John comics.  Quattro finds the Larsens, a family, who knew him in New York in the 50s and finds some paintings the family has along with some basic biography.

What I hadn't seen until this week is the amazing follow-up on Ken's blog from back in 2010, A Letter from William Ekgren.  In this absolutely fabulous post (and all this being a great piece of unfolding comics history), Ekgren, amazingly still alive after all those years, reaches out and shares the story of how these paintings became comics covers:

“One day in the Spring of 1952--at the Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Show--three men and a woman were murmuring between themselves looking at one of my paintings…after less than 5 minutes they had bought the publication right to it--for 100 dollars. After a week they gave me the painting back so that I could sell it again…the same procedure came about at the next Outdoor Show (and then the next after that)…the same persons coming back, acting in an almost impolite way and paying 100 dollars for each picture. The editor’s name was Archer St. John (one of the four).”

Marion McDermott (the woman here and Editor at St. John) and Archer had bought these paintings off the street.   Quattro also manages to ask him about rumors of schizophrenia which those who have looked long at these images will understand.  My man was seeing things differently.  Psychedelic is an adjective that gets used, and those who've experimented with substances such as LSD might know there are different realms of perception that might influence art like this.  Ekgren responds:

“About that and that: yes, of course, I’m schizophrenic, thus being more nutty than a fine fruitcake. But thus far I’ve been able to handle this “mental thing” rather nicely, by using ingredients, as well as wholeness, as basic measures giving informative vividness and strength to all my creative activities.”

Fuel for his art. 

But maybe the coolest find for me in this new look at Ekgren is a piece I discovered that sold at Heritage in 2007,  Girl Playing Piano


This piece was sold by someone who had known Ekgren in the early 50s and is very likely contemporary to his comics work.  Absolutely stunning and alive with colorful energy.  Girl on fire, Woo!

Along with the painting, the seller offered two pictures of Ekgren at work.  Art in the streets, we need more of that - what neat photos.


Big, zoomable images of all of these can be seen a Flickr gallery for William Ekgren here.

No comments: