LUSTIG, ALVIN. Alfred Young Fisher: THE GHOST IN THE UNDERBLOWS. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1940. First edition [#126 of 300].

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THE GHOST IN THE UNDERBLOWS

Alfred Young Fisher, Alvin Lustig [Designer]

Alfred Young Fisher, Alvin Lustig [Designer]: THE GHOST IN THE UNDERBLOWS. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1940. First edition [#126 of 300]. Embossed black cloth titled in gilt. Letterpress dust jacket printed in black and orange. [xxiv] 304 pp. Black and orange letterpress decoration to title page spread. Ten black and orange full page letterpress decorations for each manuscript canto. Colophon hand numbered 126 [of 300]. Black cloth tail faintly touched. Uncoated dust jacket spine uniformly sunned, mild nicks to joints and tips and hinge folds rubbed. A fine copy in a very good or better dust jacket. Rare.

6.25 x 9.25 hardcover book designed by Alvin Lustig and printed by the Ward Ritchie Press in Los Angeles in an edition of 300 copies. The book is an illustrated epic poem with an introduction by Lawrence Clarke Powell.

"Lustig was experimenting with non-representational constructions made from slugs of metal typographic material, revealing the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom he studied for three months at Taliesin East. The most interesting of these slug compositions was for Ghost in the Underblows (1940) for Ward Ritchie Press, which echoed Constructivist typecase experiments from the early twenties yet revealed a distinctly native American aesthetic." —Steven Heller

“Just as James Joyce had used the Odyssey to build a modern structure, [Alfred] wanted to use the sixty-two books of the Bible as a framework for his epic poem. Reading and assimilating the findings of the new astrophysicists, he distanced himself from the strong religious beliefs of his father, and from his vantage point at the Café de Paris, he wrote page after page of his vision of life at the end of the third decade of the twentieth century. It was an incredibly ambitious undertaking.” —Joan Reardon, Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M. F. K. Fisher

“It poured up from the Earth; it spread out across the heavens. On the one hand, it seemed like a well of artesian music; on the other something prophetic and necessitarian from above . . . I have been asked what “underblows” means. The word is not in my dictionary, but still I know. It means something like the hold of a ship, a cellarage, a secret room behind the brain and the heart, a room inhabited by dreams, visions, and another personage—a ghost. The ghost in the underblows is an eternal traveling companion, an abecedary in the highest as well as the lowest schools, and the fellow who knows the most about death, sleep, and love; the one, too, who is strongest in battle, and the most courageous swimmer after the drowning soul.” — Alfred Young Fisher

Publisher and printer Ward Ritchie considered the books’ design “as outstanding as any printed this century.” Ritchie and Fischer were lifelong friends, meeting while students at Occidental College, the Liberal Arts College in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. Fischer also met his future wife M. F. K. Fisher, as well as Lawrence Powell and Robinson Jeffers on the Occidental campus. These young Modernists would all eventually contribute to the rich tapestry of California Modernism in the fields of, publishing, poetry, literature, and education.

James Laughlin, the Publisher of New Directions wrote in Print Magazine, Oct/Nov 1956: "The first jacket which Lustig did for a New Directions Book - the one for the 1941 edition of Henry Miller's Wisdom of the Heart- was quite unlike anything then in vogue, but it scarcely hinted at the extraordinary flowering which was to follow. It was rather stiff and severe - a non-representational construction made from little pieces of type metal chosen from the cases in the experimental printing shop he had set up in the hinter regions of a drugstore in Brentwood. A less fecund talent might have been content to work that vein for years, but not Lustig. A few months later, I remember, he was showing me how he made extraordinary forms by exposing raw film to different kinds of light in a friend's darkroom.

"Whatever the medium, he could make it do new things, make it extend itself under the prodding of his imagination. What the true nature of that imagination was I never fully understood until the last year, when he had lost his sight, and when, to our amazement, he not only continued to work, directing the eyes and hands of his wife and assistants as if they were his own, but produced some of his finest pieces, such as the final cover design for the magazine Perspectives USA.

"In the middle years, when opening each envelop from Lustig was a new excitement because the range of fresh invention seemed to have no limits, I had supposed that his gift was a purely visual faculty. Or, watching him play with a pencil on a drawing pad, I thought that he had some special magic in his hands. Only at the end, when I knew he could not see the forms evolving on paper, did I realize that his creative instinct was akin to that of the poet or composer. The forms took shape in his mind, drawn from a reservoir seemingly as inexhaustible as that of a Klee of Picasso.

"Lustig's solution of a book jacket problem was seldom a literary solution. He was no verbalizer; as a matter of fact, writing came hard to him. His method was to read a text and get the feel of the author's creative drive, then to restate it in his own graphic terms. Naturally these reformulations were most successful when there was an identity of interest, but it was remarkable how far he could go on alien ground.

"In discussions of values in art the positiveness of his assertions occasionally suggested egotism; he would submit himself to it fully and with humility. I have heard people speak of the "Lustig style" but no one of them has been able to tell me, in fifty words or five hundred, what it was. Because each time, with each new book, there was a new creation. The only repetitions were those imposed by the physical media.

"I often wish that Lustig had chosen to be a painter. It is sad to think that so many of his designs must live in hiding on the sides of books on shelves. I would like to have his beautiful Mallarme crystal or his Nightwood abstraction on my living room wall. But he was compelled to work in the field he chose because he had had his great vision of a new realm of art, of a wider social role for art, which would bring it closer to each and every one of us, out of the museums into our homes and offices, closer to everything we use and see. He was not alone, of course, in this; he was, and is, part of a continuing and growing movement. His distinction lay in the intensity and the purity with which he dedicated his genius to his ideal vision."

"By the time he died at the age of forty in 1955, [Lustig] had already introduced principles of Modern art to graphic design that have had a long-term influence on contemporary practice. He was in the vanguard of a relatively small group who fervently, indeed religiously, believed in the curative power of good design when applied to all aspects of American life. He was a generalist, and yet in the specific media in which he excelled he established standards that are viable today.

"Lustig created monuments of ingenuity and objects of aesthetic pleasure. Whereas graphic design history is replete with artifacts that define certain disciplines and are also works of art, for a design to be so considered it must overcome the vicissitudes of fashion and be accepted as an integral part of the visual language." -- Steven Heller

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