Grove Press at the Vanguard


Steven Brower and John Gall

Excerpt originally published in Print Magazine March 1994 and featured in The Evergreen Review Issue 107 in 2004.
Barney Rosset was the force behind the legendary publishing house, but Roy Kuhlman contributed strongly to its renown with his innovative book covers.

The legacy of Grove Press is well known within literary circles - how Barney Rosset bought a fledgling but failing publishing company in the early 1950s and changed the world of letters in America, and perhaps the very culture as well; how during the early years of post-World War II disillusionment and materialism - the era of the gray-flannel suit and suburban expansion, the Korean conflict, and the rise of McCarthyism - Grove Press brought to national prominence the writers, art, and artists of the avant-garde. Grove offered many readers their first introduction to the European dramatists of the Absurd, the French Surrealists, the San Francisco and New York "Beat" poets, and the New York Abstract Expressionists. Such groundbreaking works as Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby and Naked Lunch by William Burroughs represented a literary vanguard. Grove went on to champion African American, ethnic, and Third World literature, the politics of the New Left, while at the same time fighting some of the earliest and most important anti-censorship battles, setting legal precedents that still stand today.

All but forgotten is the concurrent history of design at Grove Press. Equally innovative, and ultimately almost as influential, Grove Press book covers reflected not only the work inside, but also the prevailing zeitgeist. The iconoclastic writing was echoed in the packaging, a marriage of imagery and the written word that had not been seen before, or, perhaps, since.

Rosset became famous as an intrepid trail-blazer who brought banned and avant-garde literature to a deprived American public. Guided by his quixotic spirit, and by such talented editors as Fred Jordan, Richard Seaver, Donald Allen, and later Kent Carroll and John Oakes, Grove Press established itself as a force in publishing. The covers, the work of a young artist named Roy Kuhlman, who arrived on Grove's doorstep in 1951, contributed notably to the company's image as a distinguished and innovative publishing house.


Unless otherwise noted, Roy Kuhlman was the designer for all the work shown.

3. As this example from the 1950s shows, Kuhlman was the first to apply Abstract Expressionist ideas to the design of book covers.

4. Kuhlman's first abstract designs were painterly, but later, as in this cover, he began to apply abstract motifs in a more graphic way.

5. Known primarily for publishing avant-garde literature, Grove also published many alternative clinical texts. This cover clearly shows Kuhlman's "zen" approach to design.

6. The erotic novel Story of O by Dominique Aury, published in 1965, was packaged in a plain white jacket.

7, 8. Kuhlman's playful use of type defined the "Beat" look.

9,10. In these early Kuhlman covers from the 1950s, Paul Rand's influence is evident. Rand and Alvin Lustig (at New Directions) were applying to their designs abstract notions based on the work of Matisse, Klee, and Miro. Kuhlman advanced these ideas.

11. A playful cover for one of the many plays Grove published over the years.

12,13. Kuhlman designed many covers using whatever he had on hand, such as scraps of type, Zipatone sheets, and rubber stamps.

14. Rather than pay for type, Kuhlman often hand-lettered all the words on the front cover.


A contemporary of Rosset's, Kuhlman was born in 1923 and raised in Glendale, California. Deciding to become a painter, he moved east to attend the Art Students League in Manhattan and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Then, as Kuhlman recounts, "I literally goofed off for ten years of my life on working scholarships, thinking I was going to be Rembrandt reincarnated or whoever my latest love was. Art was going to make me rich and well known." Kuhlman eventually realized that he wasn't a great painter but that he needed to make a living. Reluctantly putting together what "was probably the worst portfolio ever seen in New York," he set out to find freelance work. With the idea that small presses would be the best places to try, Kuhlman went to see Rosset.

Rosset had designed the first Grove covers himself, taking his inspiration from New Directions book jackets by Alvin Lustig. That completely changed his mind. When Kuhlman arrived and showed his portfolio, Rosset was not impressed. Just as Kuhlman was putting away his book, two pieces of abstract art that he had not intended to show fell from one of the side pockets.

Covers were designed and printed in two or three colors, four at a time. He prepared the comp in the same size as the final mechanical because he felt there was a loss of quality if the art was resized: thus, the mechanical was already done at the comp stage. He found Rosset very receptive, rejecting comparatively very few designs. Kuhlman never adjusted rejected designs to suit editorial dictates, but instead would submit a completely new design.

Kuhlman rarely visited bookstores and didn't particularly pay attention to what other designers were doing. Although he cites Lustig and Paul Rand, who were a generation before him as influences, it was the new generation of painters, the Abstract Expressionists, particularly the "strong, simple" style of Franz Kline, that truly inspired him. Kuhlman gradually began to apply abstract art in a more graphic way, not only to imagery, but also to type. Rosset describes Kuhlman's designs as an attempt to "go between being a purely creative act and a commercial one." His work was occasionally representational and conceptually based as well. Rosset saw in Kuhlman's designs the perfect counterpoint to the texts he was publishing.

In 1957, Rosset, with Donald Allen, began to publish the Evergreen Review, a quarterly literary magazine. Originally quarto sized, it featured many authors who were published for the first time. Issue number two, in 1957, was entitled "The San Francisco Scene" and included work by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso, as well as Allen Ginsberg's famous poem, Howl. A recording of the poets reciting their work was released along with this issue, a sign of increasing eclecticism at Grove. Many fine artists of the time, such as Jackson Pollock and Larry Rivers, were also featured in the magazine, and the work of photographers, such as Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, and Mary Ellen Mark, graced both covers and interior spreads.


21. Grove published many foreign and Third World titles for the first time in the U.S.These covers, though abstract in design, reflected the ethnic origins of the works.

22-24. Kuhlman's solutions were sometimes conceptual, sometimes abstract, and sometimes a combination of the two.


25-28. Spreads from Robert Massin's typographical interpretation of The Bald Soprano by Eugene lonesco, 1965. Originally published in French, this book introduced an avant-garde design that was based in the texture of the language. Because of this, Massin had to redesign the entire book for Grove's English-language edition.

29. Cover of Evergreen Review, no. 51, February 1968. Illustrator: Paul Davis. It was redesigned from a 1967 poster by Richard Hess in the format shown here and in Figs.32 and 33.

30. Barney Rosset, January 1991.
Photo: by Astrid Myers


31. Cover of Evergreen Review, no 45, February 1967. Designer: Richard Hess; Illustrator: Tomi Ungerer.

32. Cover of Evergreen Review, no. 49, October 1967. Designer: Richard Hess; Illustrator: Peter Max.

33. Cover of Evergreen Review, no. 67, June 1969. Designer: Richard Hess; Illustrator: Paul Davis,


In its congenial, small, and austere format, the Evergreen Revievv joined the Modernist little-literary magazine tradition, though its circulation soon exceeded what was normal for a magazine of this type. After its redesign in a larger format with issue 32, it became a Postmodern stewpot of literature, politics, sex. and art. A glossy 8"-by-11" monthly it included work by many popular illustrators and designers such as Tomi Ungerer, Peter Max, and Paul Davis. Circulation jumped to between 100,000 and 250,000 per issue.

Throughout the '60s, Grove was enormously successful in creating an audience, and like Evergreen Review, reflected Rosset's expanding visual and literary acumen. He acquired from its French publisher, a book version of Ionesco's play The Bald Soprano with a graphic interpretation by the French designer Robert Massin. A visual tour de force, the entire book had to be redesigned for Grove's English edition, no simple matter.

As Grove grew, its interests diversified. Drawing on his prior film experience, Rosset commissioned Beckett, Harold Pinter, Marguerite Duras, Eugene lonesco, and Alain Robbe-Grillet to write scripts. Grove Press subsequently produced Beckett's scenario. Titled Film, it was directed by Alan Schneider and starred Buster Keaton.

In 1988, Rosset was awarded the Ninth Publisher Citation by Pen International for "distinction and continuous service to international letters, to the dignity of writers, and the free transmission of the printed word across the barrier of poverty, ignorance, censorship and repression."

Steven Brower is the Creative Director of Print Magazine in New York City. John Gall is the Art Director of Vintage Books in New York City.