BOOK REVIEW: "Outermost: The Art and Life of Jack Gaughan" by Luis Ortiz

Robert Bee
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Outermost is a well-illustrated biography of Jack Gaughan, one of the most important SF artists of the 60s. The generous and beautifully reproduced selection of art – some in black and white but the majority in color -- is accompanied by a modest amount of biographical text. Overall, I enjoyed the pictures and the biographical information, but would have preferred more analysis and criticism of Gaughan’s art.

Ortiz does a credible job providing the details of Gaughan’s life, and the book’s most compelling sections detail Gaughan’s struggles at making a living as an artist for SF magazines and publishers. If you’re as interested in the history of SF as I am, you’ll be intrigued with Gaughan’s interactions with various famous editors. He did not get along well with John W. Campbell, who published little of his work in Astounding/Analog and suggested in a private letter that Gaughan won the Hugo for best Pro Artist because of his social standing with the fans rather than his artistic ability (128). Avram Davidson insisted that Gaughan make a lot of idiosyncratic changes in his paintings when Davidson was editor of F&SF, although in many cases Gaughan was pleased with the results after he revised the art.

Gaughan’s 1st big break was illustrating Jack Vance’s short novel The Dragon Masters in Galaxy. The novella contains an enormous number of bizarre alien creatures, something Vance is superb at creating, and the editor Frederick Pohl wanted art helping the readers imagine those creatures. Gaughan’s work on that story was so well received that the fans nominated him for a Hugo, before that his work had appeared in magazines and book covers but had not been widely noticed. Oddly, the book doesn’t reprint any of that art, but I pulled the issue from my collection of SF magazines, and was impressed with the fact that Gaughan not only realistically portrays the exotic alien creatures (which indeed helps the reader imagine them better), but also gives an impressionist and unique style to the portrayals.

One of Gaughan’s strengths as an illustrator derived from the fact that he was a life long reader of SF. Editors appreciated Gaughan’s affinity for the field because they too often had to settle for illustrators who did not care for SF or who did not illustrate it well. Gaughan would read a manuscript in a day, do rough sketches the next, and, after getting an approval from the art editor, produce the finished art on the third day. The tight deadlines resulted in work that was not overly slick and that maintained a sense of “spontaneity” (108).

I greatly enjoy Gaughan’s magazine and book covers, but my favorite Gaughan work is his black and white interior work from Worlds of If and Galaxy. Ortiz points out that some of Gaughan’s interior appears “rushed” (110), but I don’t mind the occasional awkwardness, since it’s the imagination and impressionist sweep of Gaughin’s art that impresses me. After all, Gaughan was probably not the best technical artist or anatomical draftsmanship in SF illustration.

Gaughan was a popular illustrator partly because his work was modern and somewhat impressionistic but not as outré as that of Richard Powers. His art contained modern or surrealistic touches at times, but was close enough to the representational tradition of SF art to be acceptable to editors like Donald Wollheim at Ace.

When producing book covers, Gaughan tried to produce eye-catching art, little posters that told the buyers the books was SF (136). Gaughan’s style was flexible enough that he could change with the trends, producing art that was modern, surrealistic, or traditional based on editorial demand. When a brief trend for psychedelic art flared in the late 60s, he produced that style.

When Ortiz does give us an analysis of Gaughan’s art, he often makes interesting points. In the late 60s, Gaughan became the art editor at Galaxy and If, which because of the short deadlines, essentially meant he produced the art and magazine designs, often without time for initial drafts or revision, while attempting to vary the style to make it look like Galaxy was using more than one artist. “[F]or an all-too-short period of time Gaughan was able to introduce mass culture and a bit of modernism into his art and to extend and even push the self-life of genre imagery. In some cases speed and simplicity was the mother of creativity, like the Impressionist and Minimalist ink washes that came into focus on the pages of Galaxy and If as alien creatures or out-worldly landscapes” (162). That sentence gives us a sense of Gaughan’s importance to the field and explains why there’s a book about him in the first place. A biography should explain a figure’s importance, not just recite the facts of their life and reproduce illustrations. Ultimately, the limitations of this book make it a good reference source but hardly a definitive book on Gaughan.

However, despite the book’s limitations, if you’re interested in SF illustration or Gaughan, I recommend picking it up because it is a reasonably priced, well-illustrated, and informative work. I was disappointed that Outermost didn’t include more of Gaughan’s interior illustrations for Galaxy and If. After reading this book, I spent a couple of days paging through old SF magazines and looking at the enormous amount of magazine art Gaughan produced in the 60s. Spending some time with the old magazines gives you a strong sense of why Gaughan is important for the field.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Yes, if you’re interested in SF illustration or Gaughan. Despite the book’s limitations, I recommend picking it up because it is a reasonably priced, well-illustrated, and informative work. I was disappointed that Outermost didn’t include more of Gaughan’s interior illustrations for Galaxy and If. After reading this book, I spent a couple of days paging through old SF magazines and looking at the enormous amount of magazine art Gaughan produced in the 60s. Spending some time with the old magazines gives you a strong sense of why Gaughan is important for the field.

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Robert Bee is a professional librarian and a freelance writer operating out of New Jersey. He can be reached at rightrob@republibot.com

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