Luis Ortiz’ Emshwiller: Infinity x Two — The Art and Life of Ed and Carol Emshwiller

Ortiz-Emshwiller“I like the idea of going through different careers. It’s like being reborn a number of times.”

That is probably the best summation of Ed Emshwiller’s life, from the horse’s mouth. Known to science-fiction fans of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s as one of the premier illustrators in the field, Emsh, as he signed himself, was also a prize-winning avant-garde filmmaker and video artist, a lecturer and teacher, and dean of the School of Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts, the college founded by Walt and Roy Disney that rapidly became one of the most highly regarded art schools in the country. Carol Emshwiller, who had herself studied art at the University of Michigan, after a slow start due largely to the demands of child-rearing and a certain lack of support from Ed, whom she had met at Michigan and married in 1949, eventually established herself as one of the most imaginative and least classifiable writers in science fiction.

In spite of the “x Two” in the title, Ed and his career dominate this book as, one suspects with very little reading between the lines, he did the marriage. I don’t mean to imply that there is any evidence of Ed Emshwiller being a domineering brute, but simply that, like so many extremely talented, driven people, it was always his work that occupied his attention. It stands as a credit to Carol’s patience and strength that she not only took most of the responsibility for raising their children, but also pursued her own career, although slowly and at first tentatively. Even more than Ed, Carol does not seem to be one who bowed readily to the demands of marketability. I think perhaps her “late blooming” may have been at least in part because popular literature, and especially science fiction, had to catch up with her. At this point, it seems almost impossible to talk intelligently about slipstream or interfiction without mentioning at some point the work of Carol Emshwiller.

The book is also, as so many biographies of figures of the Golden Age seem to be, as much about the history of science fiction as about individual lives. In this case, it is the history of science fiction illustration, with later references to that of avant-garde filmmaking and video art. Ed’s concerns in those areas mirrored the ones he displayed in his cover art and line art for science fiction publications: the complex and constantly shifting relationship between the abstract formal considerations of design and the interplay of narrative, time and motion. His success is measured by the fact that not only was he able to reach intelligent and sometimes breathtaking balances among all those elements, but also managed to capture the imagination and enthusiasm of his audience.

This is an absorbing and more than usually interesting narrative, mostly because the Emshwillers were themselves absorbing and more than usually interesting people, and by no means conventional. One of the delicious ironies here is that Carol and Ed, both bohemian to the core, were among the first to move into Levittown, NY, which has become the paradigm of the cookie-cutter suburb stuffed to the brim with conventionality. Somehow, the Emshwillers managed not to be run out of town on a rail, although there are comments by their children in the book about how little they had in common with their neighbors. Although Ortiz tends to downplay this sort of thing in the narrative, it’s obvious that life as lived by the Emshwillers was often laden with conflict.

My complaints about the book, and there are several, center around editorial and design questions. Design is an important part of any book. When the book is about a visual artist, it becomes a critical component. Ortiz makes numerous references to other major science fiction illustrators, often comparing their work directly to Ed’s, but never offers us any visual examples. The layout and treatment of the illustrations would have been much helped by the simple inclusion of figure numbers, as is fairly standard for any art book, which, when all is said and done, this is. And, as often as not, images discussed in the text appear nowhere near the discussion, necessitating a break in concentration while the reader leafs to page 71 to find the damned picture. The monochromes also often have lengthy captions that spills over to the next page, making the layout even more problematic. The pages of color illustrations feel terribly crowded, with plates bleeding into each other, which is not my idea of an intelligible way to treat images in a book. In a word, the design is disastrous. (I will readily grant that budget considerations can severely limit the freedom of a designer, but most people do a signature or two of color, designate those images as “plates” and cite them that way in the text, saving enough money to allow for sensible borders that highlight the important works and a cogent layout of the black-and-white images, which are generally labeled “figures.” This is something that’s been working quite nicely in art books for quite a while now.)

So, it’s a mixed bag. The text is valuable and focuses on what I think are the important aspects of Ed Emshwiller’s works and career. (Those eager for hot gossip will have to wait, I guess: Ed’s failings are acknowledged, but not dwelled upon.) I would have liked to have seen more about Carol’s work, especially after Ed’s death, when her career as a writer took off. And, as long as I’m doing a wish list, it would have been fun to get at DVD or video CD of one of Ed’s films or video works, since they were important to his oeuvre and his thought. The layout and design are not good, but the images are there, at least, complete with the garish 1950s color that was so much a part of their appeal. It’s certainly a book worth reading, no doubt about that, and important for anyone interested in where science fiction came from.

(Nonstop Press, 2007)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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