The Invention of Mid-Century Cool


“Between 1951, when Barney Rosset purchased it for $3000, and 1970, Grove Press became a veritable communications center for the counterculture, defined in many ways by the visual sensibility of legendary cover designer Roy Kuhlman. Rosset shared Kuhlman’s aesthetic taste—which had been formed by Abstract Expressionist pioneers of the post-war era—and their loose collaboration would provide Grove with an instantly identifiable, internationally renowned avant-garde look. Kuhlman didn’t read the books whose covers he designed. Rather, working from a brief description, he would subordinate textual content to experimental form, creating a consistent graphic language integrating Grove’s title list with a single style and providing a visual context for the colophon, which frequently constituted an element of the design. In 1958, Grove began publishing original avant-garde texts as inexpensive ‘quality’ (now commonly known as ‘trade’) paperbacks. Typically larger and better made than mass-market paperback reprints, quality paperbacks were quickly recognized in the industry as marking a new and significant stage in the paperback revolution. One of the first authors to benefit from this line would be Samuel Beckett. Virtually unknown in the early fifties, he would be Rosset’s most important acquisition for Grove Press. The eighteenth title in Grove’s Evergreen Series, Beckett’s Molloy is hailed on the back cover by Kenneth Rexroth as ‘a major modern classic.’ Kuhlman’s cover design encourages the analogies to abstract painting that were common in critical appraisals of Beckett’s difficult post-war trilogy. Over the course of the fifties and sixties, Grove published and distributed numerous translations and studies of Asian literature and culture, including studies of Zen Buddhism, both by Japanese scholars such as D.T. Suzuki and by American popularizers such as Alan Watts. Kuhlman’s designs were particularly appropriate to this most ‘abstract’ of spiritual disciplines. Grove also contributed to the Latin-American Boom, publishing translations of Borges, Vargas Llosa, and Pablo Neruda, who was a hero of Barney Rosset’s. Kuhlman’s cover hovers at the threshold between abstraction and figural reference, allowing him to gesture toward cultural specificity without sacrificing his signature style. …”
LitHub
Roy Kuhlman: Graphic improvisation
W – Roy Kuhlman

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