It’s hard to dislike the work of Charley Harper. Best known for his quirky yet scrupulous natural history illustrations of the 1950s and ’60s, which featured in The Golden Book of Biology (1961) and Ford Times magazine, the rediscovery of this previously overlooked American artist and illustrator was the subject of a modestly sized exhibition at the Kunstverein in Hamburg. Unconventionally displayed in the exhibition on black and white wallpaper of forests and seascapes, Harper’s merging of caricature with the Modernist imperative to simplify projected a sophisticated Americana that was surprisingly difficult to resist.
Since his death in 2007, interest in Harper’s artistic career has spread steadily, due in larger part to the release of Todd Oldham’s excellent publication Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life (2007) and a retrospective exhibition held in his hometown of Cincinnati. As the first significant presentation of his work outside the US, the Kunstverein exhibition naturally foregrounded the uncertainty surrounding his precise art-historical position. Although Harper described his own work as ‘minimal realism’, it would be more accurate to consider him within a history of American Pop art, combining Andy Warhol’s delicate blotted illustrations of the 1950s with John Wesley’s sparse compositions and Alex Katz’s cool depictions of nature. When understood as a kind of provincial or ‘outsider’ strain of Pop art, his career as a commercial artist and its considerable blurring of fine art with graphic design (and even children’s illustration) acquires greater legitimacy.
More than 60 of the works exhibited were depictions of the natural world, the majority of which featured birds of different species. Harper’s aesthetic sensibility was remarkably consistent throughout his 50-year career. Utilizing as few visual elements as possible, he assumed an orthographic approach to representation, always relating the two-dimensional nature of his depictions to a three-dimensional source. The legs of his subjects were often delicately executed with single lines, exaggerating spatial tensions between mass and support, which are present in the creatures themselves. This was exemplified in almost all of Harper’s bird prints, but it was perhaps best exploited in his depiction of insects and crustaceans, with Shadow Dancers (1958) and Beetle Battle (1971) being some of the most inventive. Here, he assumes an overhead perspective that highlights the disproportionate legs and modular bodies of the insects, making them appear like small machines or robots.
Composed with precise geometric shapes and unusual colour combinations, aspects of Harper’s work resemble the abbreviated graphic style of Russian Constructivist posters. But Harper used his lines and curves to communicate a beauty, simplicity and order that he considered fundamental to the natural world, with the shapes of his animals almost always harmoniously echoed by the surrounding environment. He was obviously attracted to the notion of nature as sympathetic, ignoring its ugliness in an effort to promote the fantasy over the reality. Whilst this affirmative quality is now an important part of the appeal of his work, it is also one of the reasons why it was not more widely recognized earlier, conflicting with the critical and political agendas that were encouraged in the Postmodern era. He may have matched Warhol’s excellent skills as a designer and colourist but, unlike Warhol, his earnest celebration of nature appeared inconsequential in relation to the social and political changes that were affecting post-1960s culture.
Harper’s proficiency for composition and the notoriously difficult medium of silkscreen printing was suitably showcased by the Kunstverein curators. The decision to display his work on photographic backgrounds of American landscapes was initially distracting; however, it successfully emphasized the intense distillation of his designs from real-life observation. Motivated by contemporary concerns about the environment, the conflation of fine and commercial art and the post-critical tendencies of contemporary art, the exhibition recognized the complex visual language underpinning Harper’s unassuming and refreshing body of work.
First published in Issue 142