And Then I Read: EMSHWILLER, INFINITY X TWO

When I was young and discovering science fiction in the early 1960s, I began reading The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. There were many wonders within those pages, but what grabbed me first were the covers, lush color paintings of fantastic scenes. The magazine featured many artists, but my favorite was the one who signed his name EMSH, and was listed inside as Ed Emsh. His work captured the scenes in the magazine in wonderful detail, but more than that, they combined realism and abstract techniques in varying amounts, with great color (despite the poor reproduction) and terrific compositions.

Later I learned the artist’s full name was Ed Emshwiller. One clue was the occasional publication in the magazine of stories by his wife, Carol Emshwiller, stories I liked. This book is a coffee-table art book written by Luis Ortiz (with Alex Eisentein writing captions) and also a dual biography of both Ed and Carol, who surely had one of the more unusual marriages in the arts. A fascinating read, and full of wonderful art beautifully reproduced. Here’s a sample:

I don’t know how Ortiz gathered so many fine paintings by Ed to reproduce here, but he does mention that Emshwiller was one of the few artists who routinely asked for and was given his work back by the publishers he worked for. As an example, here’s the image at lower right above on the original magazine cover from my collection:

Even on old, browning pulp paper this one still works for me. I remember first seeing it, studying it, and after reading the story, realizing how clever Emsh was in his design. The artificial world shown is a sort of space-brothel, and he’s made it the color of a caucasian breast, with the red structure/terminal as the nipple. I think I made sure my mom didn’t see this one!

Here’s another favorite, illustrating Robert Heinlein’s “Glory Road.” With the enchanting main figure as the focal point, Emsh is free to render the rest in nearly abstract negative-space outlines and high-contrast shorthand. Contrast was always one of Emshwiller’s favorite things, as the book reveals, contrasts of every kind, such as the contrasts here between realism and abstraction, light and shadow, foreground and extreme distance, and so on.

Emsh was also a master of technique. Here’s another favorite from my collection, a book cover this time. The figure is done in scratchboard, using only two colors, red and white, with the background bright yellow until one reaches the moonscape at the top. What a great combination of realistic detail on the space suit with an extremely simple and abstract color treatment. So effective is it that, until I thought about it just now, it never occurred to me how UNrealistic the colors are!

Carol’s writing career is something I knew nothing about, and it’s well covered here, as is Ed’s second career as a filmmaker. In the later 1960s he began leaving illustration behind for that, though he’d long been interested in film. I remember wondering back then why the Emsh covers were growing ever fewer. Then in 1969-70 I found out first hand when Ed came to the School of Visual Arts, where I was then a student, to show some of his experimental films. They were terrific, again wonderful and strange, full of odd contrasts, without any story as such, but open to personal interpretation. In the book, Emsh says he needed to move on from painting because he was bored to death with it. Film, and later video and very early computer animation became his new fascination. I also remember seeing his computer animated short film “Sunstone” on TV some time in the early 1980s and being blown away by it. In the book I found out what really primitive tools he used to make it, and am now even more impressed.

This is a terrific book. If you have any interest in science fiction art you’ll want to get it, and study it, and enjoy it. Lots of Emshwiller art here I’d never seen, and all of it is wonderful. Lots of great reading, too.

One thought on “And Then I Read: EMSHWILLER, INFINITY X TWO

  1. Jared

    I love Emsh art. Between Emshwiller, Gray Morrow and Jack Gaughan, pretty much every single Ace paperback published for twenty years is worth keeping…

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