Mahlon Blaine :: 1894-1969
Mahlon Blaine’s best work walked the razor's edge between the grotesque
and beautiful. Though few facts of his life are verifiable, insomuch as
anyone can gather, he lived in that no man’s land as well. A childhood
accident left the artist – who was born in 1894 - blind in his left eye,
an accident that contributes to the flattened perspective that marks his
work. Though he alleged to have seen combat in World War I, the Army rarely
drafted the half blind. A well-documented chronic injury to his left arm
was unlikely to have come from a war wound. The plate in his head of which
he boasted was probably fictional. Few photographs of the artist survive,
but his self-portraits further the likely fake war hero persona.
In 1928, Blaine depicted himself as a typical, pipe-smoking veteran
from the Lost Generation, an archetype that could be mistaken for a Hemingway
dust jacket. After the war years, Blaine led a transient existence, toiling
in Hollywood in the era of avant-garde silent films, and bouncing back
and forth from the West Coast to New York City as his marriage to b-movie
actress Duskal Blaine smoldered, exploded, and then reignited.
According to his own count, Blaine and his wife married and divorced
no fewer than three times. But of course, Blaine’s count is not to be trusted.
Though he was beloved by his friends for his poetic approach to life—-his
storytelling style was once compared to haiku, containing just a glimmer
of meaning for the listener to deduce—-his life is best pieced back together
by tracking his career. For decades Blaine labored in the factory-like
setting of the underground New York erotic literature scene. Working closely
with Jack Brussel, the energetic antiquarian book dealer who published
and sold erotica first at his Ortelius Book Shop and then at other Fourth
Avenue locations, Blaine illustrated symbolist classics like Paul Verlaine’s
Hashish and Incense, the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, fast-money low-market
fetish pornographic booklets, and everything in between. Befriending a
young John Steinbeck in the early 1920s, Blaine illustrated the book jacket
of Steinbeck's first novel Cup of Gold.
The apocryphal story of the meeting between Steinbeck and Blaine finds
the two men on the Panama Canal. Steinbeck, a recent college graduate was
moving from Canada to Greenwich Village to try his luck as a writer. "Standing
at the railing, John remarked spontaneously to the passenger next to him:
"Isn't 'Iowa by the Sea' beautiful?" To which Blaine replied-- "My God,
you speak English!"- amazed to find an English speaker (with a clever sense
of humor) amidst the mostly immigrant crew. On arriving in New York, they
lived on different floors at the Parkwood Hotel and explored the city together.
Blaine was impressed with some of John's stories and introduced him to
an editor he worked with at Robert McBride & Co., the eventual publishers
of Cup of Gold. Blaine would subsequently design the dust jackets and endpapers
for both Cup of Gold and To a God Unknown."
Though Steinbeck's star would keep rising throughout his career, Blaine
increasingly struggled for respectable work in the 1930s. Unlike many of
the illustrators who were sweating it out uptown for the pulps and refusing
to sign their names to their completed creations, Blaine took pride in
his Aubrey Beardsley-derived yet wildly original, groundbreaking and explicit
artworks. He would work steadily in this genre until the end of his career
in the 1960s, accepting commissions for freelance work from clients as
diverse as Arizona Highways Magazine and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land
the Time Forgot. Blacklisted from the ranks of working illustrators for
his work as a pornographer, Blaine began using the pseudonym G. Christopher
Hudson for some of his more mainstream endeavors.
Blaine’s devotion to the macabre, the bizarre, and the sexual aspects
of his art put the brakes on his commercial career. Though, patrons bought
his original works during his lifetime, his cult status today emerged only
through his rediscovery by sci-fi collectors and underground cartoonists.
Still, Blaine’s admirers during his lifetime were fierce. Along with magician
Joseph Dunninger, who literally kept Blaine fed during lean times (often
complaining about the artist's prodigious appetite), Blaine gathered fans
in the elite of New York City's design world.
In the late 1930s, Blaine began work on one of his most ambitious projects.
With the noted interior designer Paul Ritter MacAlister, Blaine created
a series of ten mural concept paintings for MacAlister’s proposed New York
City showroom. The final murals, with images featuring haunting and surreal
takes on the hyper-sexualized and industrial machine-age culture of modernist
Manhattan, were never executed. The concept paintings feature giantesses
in coitus with skyscrapers, and nudes on "gadgets" invented with obsessional
detail. These are some of the most realized color artworks that have emerged
by the artist to date. It’s hard to imagine that even Blaine could foresee
these images becoming part of the midtown Manhattan urban cityscape. Certainly
MacAlister - who would later go on to become a TV personality in Chicago
with the first precursor to today’s HGTV programming – never did. However,
the project gained at least some traction, and MacAlister created a 1:12
miniature room with his rough tempura sketches of the Blaine's proposed
murals seen throughout.
How much of Blaine’s obscurity in his lifetime came from his emergence
during the depression years, when high end glossy work was scarce, and
how much was due to a form of self-sabotage may never be entirely clear.
Haunted by his own demons, Blaine spent the early 1940s under the psychiatric
care of Greystone Hospital’s Dr. Archie Crandall. This period (coming directly
after the completion of his work for MacAlister) marks the only known break
in Blaine’s working life. After ironically completing illustrations for
a reissue of E. Thelmar’s 1909 autobiography of madness The Maniac, Blaine
slipped out of public view, before returning to the New York art scene
in the 1950s.
His last significant contract would come in 1962, when the early fantasy
& science fiction publishing house Canaveral Press hired Blaine to
illustrate their reprints of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the
time, Blaine was living over the small bookshop out of which the publishing
house was run, and considered an elder statesman in the world of specialty
publishing. Though by the 60s, Blaine was in fact elderly, his work remained
before its time. Though Blaine's illustration's for the Burroughs's line
are far from his most technically proficient, the series represented a
turning away from the heroic, literal-minded approach to book illustration.
The images were widely disparaged at the time but they introduced a generation
of artists and cartoonists to Blaine’s genius. His influence on the underground
cartoonists of the 1970s is powerful, with visionaries like Robert Crumb
and Art Spiegelman referencing his work.
No one, least of all Blaine, ever sorted out fact from fiction regarding
his life story, but that doesn't matter. Blaine emobodied the myth of the
artist throughout his dynamic career. Mahlon Blaine died in poverty and
obscurity in 1969.