By: BOBBY LISSE
It would be unusual to find someone raised on horror, that has not been exposed to Basil Gogos and his illustrious portraits that donned the cover of “Famous Monsters of Filmland”. Even if you did not know his name, Basil spoke to a legion of horror fans with his sympathetic portrayals of creatures and monsters with an unparalleled understanding of the colour wheel. Using four different light sources and yellow backlighting, Basil took a black and white reference photo and turned it into a living, moving creature. His illustrations transcended not only the medium, into an almost fine art space, but also the films his subjects crawled out of. Those classic films, as ground breaking as they were ninety years ago, struggle to live up to the brilliance that Basil wrested out of them.
Basil was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1929, to a family saturated in artistic genes and tradition. His father was a writer, his mother a fashion designer in Paris, his brother a photographer, and his uncle a painter in Paris. In his teens, Basil moved to New York, continuing his exposure to art rich cities, and entrenching his desire to remain on the vein of a cosmopolitan lifestyle. He spent twelve years at art school, and throughout his life he never let his resume get in the way of his eagerness to keep learning. That inclination to expand and experiment led him to an art class in the 1980’s taught by Linda Touby, a brilliant abstract artist herself. Linda recalls a generous and charismatic man, who would sketch models passionately. The class would sketch in the park, and Basil would bring sandwiches for everyone, she remembers. These endearing qualities found Basil sketching in the seat right next to Linda, which he would tell her is the biggest reason for him coming back to the class. Nine months of friendship and shared expression found Linda and Basil in an inevitable romantic relationship.
Artists have been commissioned for work as far back as Ancient Rome. Whether it was a monumental order such as the Colosseum by Vespasian or a statuary display of propaganda, commissioned to steer public opinion, the artists were held in very low esteem. Not until the Renaissance did those who crafted the pieces earn equal or greater status than their work. Basil Gogos drew inspiration from both periods, and much to our benefit, cherry picked the greatest qualities from each. From the Renaissance he took the brush strokes of masters such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. From the unheralded artists of the tyrannical Roman period, he extracted their self-effacing demeanour. Busy with her own work, Linda would normally not accompany Basil to conventions, until one time he asked her if she would like to join him, and see what the circus was all about. She obliged, and they headed to Albany, New York. She had known the man. She had known the artist. But it was not until they descended on the state capital that she was introduced to the Legend. With only three lithograph prints and some pens to sign, Linda could not have expected the lines that wrapped and coiled through the convention center waiting to get a signature or picture with the Monster Master himself. It was her first exposure to these beautiful illustrations that had preceded all she had come to know about Basil. He was such a beautifully humble human being, he saw no reason to brag about the Monsters he had released upon the world. Which brings us to our story. A continuation of the legacy of Basil Gogos, in that same, concealed manner.
Just as Basil was an unpresuming man, walking around with hands in his pockets that had crafted images that had singed into the minds of generations of horror fans, Sodi Kasper posits a modest interpretation of himself. Kasper is the director of an underground art community producing screen printed posters, known as “The Furtive Coterie”. Screen printing is a process where every colour is a layer and the ink is hand or machine pulled across the paper. It holds a feverish fandom, which have been celebrated in films such as the Kevin Burke documentary 24×36 (2016). Kasper hires top notch artists to create new art for well ingrained horror and genre flicks, much like Basil being hired by Warren Publishing to bring the classics back to the “Famous Monsters” covers. Kasper defers all credit to the members of the art collective rather than his own novel concepts and art direction. “The Coterie is more theirs than mine. It’s nothing without the members,” Kasper genuinely claims. Yet the process has his hands on every step. He finds the perfect artist for a specific property, works out the concept with the artist, handles the funds paid by supporting members who “buy in”, hires and coordinates with a printer, and then hand rolls and ships every print himself. The result is a unique, super limited poster for movies and TV shows we all cherish. These posters are not publicly sold or advertised. Their print run ends up being in the 30 to 50 range. Subjects range from HBO’s Westworld (2016) to Clive Barker’s Sadomasochist masterpiece, Hellraiser (1987). So why all the secrecy? Why not share this art with the rest of the world? “Larger poster companies create many great posters for the general public, but we prefer to keep these projects smaller and more personal. Secrecy just adds to the allure,” explains Kasper. There is no profit for Kasper through these projects. Some even end up putting him “in the red”. Making the art not publicly available or shown eliminates ego from the equation. It boils the whole process down to a visceral love for art. “I do this because I love it. It gives me purpose beyond an 8-12-hour work day. It helps make life worth living,” says Kasper.
When Kasper started “The Furtive Coterie”, he did so with two dream projects in mind: “The two artists I wanted to reach out to about working with were Matthew Peak (The artist responsible for that iconic Nightmare on Elm Street poster that is forever in our psyche)… and Basil Gogos.” With two projects locked up with Matthew Peak, including a new poster for the near flawless supernatural smash, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014), Kasper turned his attention to working with one of his artistic heroes, Basil Gogos, to create a new poster. “I hoped we could take his iconic portraits and apply it to a more modern subject, maybe even something like Freddy Kruger,” Kasper says. Unfortunately, Basil was no longer taking new commissions. His focus had turned away from the monsters he had come to know so well, towards experimenting with different styles, from abstract to dripping. “He would have been great even as a fine artist,” Linda declares. “He really knew what was good and what was not. He had impeccable taste.” Kasper had to improvise and turn attention to perhaps using an old or unused piece. “There were a few options he presented, mostly rough sketches, none of which you could create a finished poster with, so rather than abandon the idea, it evolved into taking one of these sketches and having another artist collaborate on finishing the artwork as a movie poster.” One of those sketches was a profile shot of Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein. Linda recalls Basil loving the Bride character, and specifically the scene in which the sketch originated from, where The Monster meets his Bride for the first time. “Basil always cracked up at that scene. He thought it was so funny.” Kasper’s first choice to take the reins was artist Sara Deck. “I thought she did particularly good work on female likeness, but most importantly she has a painter-like style. I thought that would mesh well with Gogos’s classic style.” Sara’s art has graced the cover of several horror magazines, including Rue Morgue #178, as well as work for Fright Rags, Arrow Video and 20th Century Fox. Sara is known for her vibrant colour saturation, and spot on likeness. Her poster for Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1959), as well as Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), which was also a Kasper project, stand out, but her entire body of work is stunning.
Now that Basil and Sara are on board, the task of reworking Basil’s sketch lies ahead. “The idea wasn’t to try to 100% reproduce a Gogos, but to use the sketch to create something that would be a mix of Sara and Basil.” While Kasper had all the confidence possible having put the project in Sara’s hands, Sara understood the responsibility bestowed upon her, “As soon as I agreed to do the project I felt a huge weight fall on my shoulders. I didn’t want to disappoint his fans,” explains Sarah. Sara is a fan herself, through the covers of “Famous Monsters”. “I’ve always been a huge fan of classic horror films, and so I was naturally drawn to those images. Basil’s work represents the golden era of movie monsters.” Sara’s focus on the women of horror, and her inspiration from such classic artists as Post-Impressionist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and portrait master John Singer Sargent, made for a beautiful marriage of style for The Bride. “I take a lot of inspiration from master painters. Although I now work primarily in a digital format, I used to only use traditional methods for my illustrations.” Sara did a few colour mock ups, using Basil’s other work as a template, before doing a black and white rough painting to test for shading. Once all was approved, by Basil, it was on to final rendering until we land at the beautiful images now immortalized on 18×24 metallic paper. The two versions (Colour – Regular, and Black and White – Variant) are stunning in person. The colour version hangs like an original painting, forbidding you to offend it with the insult of dubbing it just a “poster”.
With the art done and printed, and Basil’s Artist Proof copies in hand, Linda brought them up to the hospital to show Basil. “I didn’t say anything, I just hung it on the wall next to the TV. He couldn’t take his eyes off it for hours. He just stared at it, even with the TV on.” Kasper, having felt he had just completed his most rewarding project yet, hoped to continue working with Basil. They had discussed using another sketch, this time of Lon Cheney’s Wolfman. Kasper had signed up French artist, Evlisdead, who has done some beautiful classic monster work in the past for galleries like Mondo. Unfortunately, on September 13th, the day before they were supposed to shore up details to move forward with the project, Basil Gogos passed away at the age of 88. “Having been a huge Basil Gogos fan before ever working with him, his death would have had a huge effect on me even if I hadn’t. I’m glad Basil saw the finished Bride poster in hand before he had passed. Basil’s talent is irreplaceable, but thankfully his artwork has inspired countless new artists throughout the world,” says Kasper.
When you have something that is so peerless, you often take for granted that one day it could cease. Basil’s art took on an immortal status, but now, we were all left to deal with the reality that he was no longer here. None more so, than his wife Linda. “He was my best friend. He was so gentle and compassionate, and generous. When we would go out for lunch, he would start sketching on the tablecloth. We both would. He was a big tipper too. At the end of our meal, he would take the tablecloth and sign it, and give it to the waiter.” With more than enough on her proverbial plate to deal with, on top of grief, if Kasper never heard from Linda again about the Wolfman project, no one could blame her. Instead, she reached out to Kasper, reassuring him that the project would go on. “I’m not sure if it’s what Basil would have wanted, I can only assume, and hope that it is,”said Linda. Kasper has that same hope, and feels the pressure of Basil’s mammoth legacy on his back.
Evlisdead is currently working on “The Wolfman”, and Sara continues putting out top notch art that are instant wall pieces. Asking Kasper, what epic project he has lined up next, with a smile and a wink, he says “Can’t say.” As for Linda, she continues with her own art, with a painful, yet indelible layer to add to her canvas. She has gone through Basil’s studio and found a treasure trove of sketches and warm up paintings, as Basil would usually do sketches and 3 to 5 test paintings before his final. Her wish would be to turn the studio into a museum, displaying the process sketches along with the finished pieces, but most of Basil’s originals rest in private collections, and real estate prices in NYC do not make maintaining the studio space a viable option. Nonetheless, she plans on creating a proper tribute to Basil and his legacy, in due time.