Editor's note: The following essay is rekeyed and reprinted on February 28, 2003 with the permission of the author and the Norman Rockwell Museum. The essay first appeared in the 2002 exhibition catalogue titled "Dancing by the Light of the Moon: The Art of Fred Marcellino," published by the Norman Rockwell Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or if you would like to obtain a copy of the catalogue, please contact The Norman Rockwell Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Fred Marcellino: Master of Sky
by Steven Heller
Every generation or so an artist emerges who leaves an indelible mark on the book arts. Fred Marcellino will best be remembered as the one who cornered the market on mood and atmosphere with his book covers and jackets produced from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s. His surreal landscapes, exotic backdrops, impressionist palette, and precisionist typography defined a particular kind of literary genre. By "defined" I mean Marcellino gave authors including Anne Tyler, Tom Wolfe, Milan Kundera, Judith Rossner, Margaret Atwood, and Primo Levi, to name but a few, a visual persona that underscored their words and ideas.
Marcellino's distinctive personal style never conflicted with the writers' character, but like the best graphic interpreters he added dimension that was not always there. He also, and perhaps most importantly, challenged the strict marketing conventions imposed on packaging fiction and non-fiction blockbusters that required gigantic type for the author's name and a small, literal illustration of the plot or theme. Although these kinds of covers grabbed attention there was little aesthetic resonance. Marcellino introduced subtly painted and smartly lettered mini-posters that established allure. He was a master of sky and many of his book jacket illustrations use rich, cloud-studded skyscapes as backdrops and dramatic light sources for effect. He typically rendered the light of early dawn and late afternoon in pastel hues and airbrush smoothness to create surreal auras. The way in which he manipulated light on such subjects as walls, chairs, and doors enabled him to transform the commonplace into charged graphic symbols.
One of my most favorite jackets was the 1989 The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi, not because it is his best but it is indeed his most sublime. By not showing the horror of Auschwitz that Levi so vividly described in the narrative, but rather rendering the late afternoon light subtly caressing the red brick of what appears to be a chimney, with the shadow of the title's typography impressed on the brick, he expresses greater despair through the revelation that even the sun shines in hell.
Marcellino had the rare ability to "in one image, translate the whole feeling and style of a book," said Nan Talese of Houghton Mifflin, who published and edited Rossner's August and Atwood's The Housemaid's Tale. He also had the rare talent to create iconic images -- logos if you will -- for many of the books he jacketed. Regularly commissioned by Random House, Simon & Schuster, Knopf, and Houghton Mifflin, ultimately his approach was mimicked by other publishers.
Born in Brooklyn, October 25, 1939, Marcellino wanted to be a painter and studied for a year in Venice. In 1969 he turned from the muse to record album cover designer for Capitol, Decca and Polygram and fine tuned his genius for conveying a lot with a minimalist graphic vocabulary. By 1975 he shifted his practice to book publishing and for over fifteen years produced more than 40 jackets a year at an exhausting pace. Marcellino abruptly ended his book jacket career to become a children's book illustrator initially just reinterpreting classics and later authoring and illustrating original tales. Throughout this time, he designed his own books, which is a fairly uncommon practice. Marcellino received a 1990 Caldecott Honor for his illustrations for Puss in Boots and his first self-authored book, I, Crocodile, about a crocodile abducted by Napoleon, was one of the 1999 New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books.
For book jackets, Marcellino always illustrated ideas rather than literal scenes from a particular book. But his children's book drawings were rich in the texture and details of the story. For the 1992 retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier, J.D. Landis wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "Also triumphant is the art, which illuminates the story in ways to which the simple language cannot aspire. The warm opulessence of the home; the clean solidity of the houses that line the canal; the very fibers of the gorgeous rug that lies before the hearth; the wide eyes of innocence shared by the boy and his beloved tin soldier ... every single picture in this subversively beautiful and beautifully subversive storybook has something meaningful to say."
Marcellino had many more years of ingenuity left in him, and his premature passing is a great loss. But he produced so much in the time he had -- enough to fill the galleries of this museum -- that his legacy will live, and for this I am grateful.
About the author:
Steven Heller is Senior Art Director of the New York Times
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