Year Zero in the Flora Revival was 1992 when Michael Bartalos cold-called the 78-year-old artist to ask about his 1940s and '50s album cover illustrations, which evoked a mothballed era to the robust, productive retiree. Recalling Mike's curiosity, Flora later said, "I felt like a fossil that had just been dug up."
Thus began the archaeology, which continues to unearth ancient marvels. The above flashbulb-bleached vignette was snapped at A-D Gallery in June 1943 during Flora's first NYC exhibit. Flora (R) is seen chatting with Alex Steinweiss, the man credited with (at least) two major artistic developments: 1) the invention of the illustrated record album cover (for Columbia, in 1938); and 2) the hiring of Jim Flora (also at Columbia, 1942). Flora's quirky illustrations for the label's ads and new release monthlies attracted enough attention in one year to warrant an exhibit at this very prestigious gallery.
But—what are those inscrutable petroglyphs on the wall behind these gents?
The photo, provided by Flora's son Joel around 2003, appeared in our 2004 book The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora. Naturally, we puzzled over the whereabouts of those amazing artifacts viewable only in grainy black & white and partly obscured.
When the Flora family accorded us access to their late father's immense private collection in 2005, we discovered the following:
This tempera on paper matches the lower work displayed between Flora and Steinweiss. A name scribbled on the back reveals that it's a portrait of the aptly named New Orleans jazz legend "Bunk" Johnson, an early trumpeter whose lips blew smoke in more ways than one.
However, the topmost work on the A-D Gallery wall was not in the collection. Barbara scanned the pic at very high resolution and sharpened the image in Photoshop to reveal the following:
A procession of Calder-strung cowboys and cattle heads. The whereabouts of the work remains a mystery.
In late 2006, Joel discovered a number of his father's sketchbooks in a trunk. Among them was a deteriorating scrapbook in which the artist had glued several hundred pen and pencil drawings from the early 1940s. One sketch depicts a rough outline of the above work, and supplies the title:
Our search for the finished version of Stampede continues.