For many of the artists whose work decorates the jewel cases of today's CDs, a major influence is a man most have never heard of: an illustrator of record albums in the 1940s and '50s whose work can be found today in thrift shops and flea markets and hardly anyplace else.
For this generation of artists and illustrators, Jim Flora is sort of an unknown creative granddaddy. His atomic age album covers for Columbia and RCA featured grotesque yet comic Picasso-like figures rendered in a cartoonish, two-dimensional panic. They set a standard of fresh design, bringing Surrealism and geometric abstractions reminiscent of those of Stuart Davis to commercial art and were widely imitated at the time. But by the '60s, with the arrival of rock 'n' roll and a new aesthetic, Flora's covers ended up in the dustbin of discarded pop culture.
And according to Irwin Chusid's new book, "The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora" (Fantagraphics, $28.95), the dustbin is where numerous artists and pop-culture aficionados over the last several decades have encountered Flora's work and discovered the origin of a style that has become irresistibly retro-chic.
One fan, the California artist Shag, made a thrift-store find 17 years ago, "Inside Sauter-Finegan," a 1954 jazz album on RCA. It has a devilish Flora illustration of two men joined like Siamese twins and dancing madly, with mouths like dinosaurs' and what seems to be an X-ray panel over their midsections, revealing a riot of confetti, musical instruments and maybe some organs.
"I pulled it out and looked at it all the time, long before I knew who he was," Shag said, noting that he has still never listened to the record inside. "I was just amazed by the way everything was rendered. The hands and feet are so expressive. It has a bit of grotesqueness and otherworldliness that runs through my own work."
Chusid, known to fans of musical scavengery as the chief force behind the rediscoveries of the music of Esquivel and Raymond Scott, and the author of "Songs in the Key of Z," about outsider musicians, came across Flora's work in much the same way. He found "Inside Sauter-Finegan" at a garage sale sometime in the '70s and, like Shag, hung the record up without ever bothering to listen to it.
"I didn't even notice the name Flora on the cover," he said by telephone from his home in Hoboken, N.J. "I just wanted to stare at it."
Then in 1997, through illustrator friends,
he found a group of Flora fans who had, with enterprising detective work, tracked down the artist to his home in Rowayton, Conn., and had begun pilgrimages there. Chusid began to collect Flora's work, though there was no catalog and much of the original art had been lost or destroyed. Before Flora died in 1998 at 84, he gave Chusid a stash of his work.
As Flora's rescued reputation has spread, artists already steeped in the '90s retro trend discovered a founding father. After years of being buried anonymously in the collective memory of design, Flora began to have a palpable effect on artists.
"I came across his work in 1993," said Michael Bartalos, a San Francisco-based illustrator who was among the first to locate Flora. "Our styles were very similar — strangely similar, actually — but after I met him I was even more influenced."
Among the other prominent artists and illustrators today who are strongly influenced by Flora's art are Tim Biskup, Gary Baseman, J.D. King and Melinda Beck, who all wrote appreciations for Chusid's book, each praising his effortlessly jazzy spirit. Gene Deitch, a contemporary of Flora's, admits that through the '40s and '50s he was "brazenly imitating his style."
Bartalos said: "He's a cultural asset. His work lends a lot of flavor and joy to whatever he was working on, and he paved the way for that zaniness in illustration that still exists today."
Flora's designs are magically simple distillations of Cubism, Surrealism and cartoon madness, with playful figures and instruments floating in planes of color. From the smiling Beatnik kitties on "Mambo for Cats" (RCA, 1955) to the five-armed, four-legged Cubist Gene Krupa bashing away with his mouth open on a Columbia cover from 1947, each figure seems to be on a childlike tear.
Yet despite their apparent innocence, the images also have a jagged, volatile energy.
"You can cut your finger," Chusid said, "touching a Flora illustration."