JUXTAPOZ Issue #33, July 2001

Zapped! The Anti-Psychedelic Artistry of CAL SCHENKEL
by George Petros

For decades Cal Schenkel’s drawings, collages, and constructions adorned Frank Zappa’s album covers. Schenkel’s signature style — a mixture of cartooning, science graphics, and Surrealism — looked the way Zappa’s music sounded: simultaneously beautiful and ugly. His radical graphics came to visually represent the unique Zappa experience, forever linking him to the great Rock composer. All other artists doing Zappa album art — Gary Panter, Gabor Csupo, Neon Park et al. — paid homage to Schenkel. He also created the cover for Captain Beefheart’s classic Trout Mask Replica and The Fugs’ obscene epic Golden Filth.

Frank Zappa, from early in his prolific career, was a superstar. His group, The Mothers Of Invention, routinely shared bills with the best of the psychedelic bands. Scruffy, long-haired Zappa resembled the freaks constituting his fan base, but in his head he stood in stark contrast to most of them — he didn’t get high and opposed drugs (though he smoked plenty of cigarettes), important facts in understanding the art his projects used. Drugs became a divisive issue in the late Sixties; drug culture developed a distinct look and feel. In a paradoxical inversion of philosophies, Zappa incorporated elements of it, so his music meshed with the avant-garde styles of the day. He created a parallel universe of pseudo-Psychedelia, appropriating Dadaist and absurdist mechanisms to assault his audience. He presented his stuff with the assumption that his fans were fucked up on something or other. Cynically, he made fun of everything. Artist Cal Schenkel fit perfectly into his universe.

Schenkel was born in 1947 in Philadelphia and grew up in nearby Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, where he now lives. He’s one of those quintessential American character types — Italian & Swiss — a bit shy and cautious, quiet and, of course, full of ideas and inspirations. An improviser by nature, he studied at The Philadelphia College Of Art in 1965. Of those times he says, “I was doing art in between hitchhiking around the country. I was doing collage and assemblage, and also graphics. I was influenced by Duchamp, Ernst, Man Ray, and the LA artist Ed Kienholz — and of course Mad magazine and EC Comics, and particularly Carl Barks, the Disney duck artist. I was doing things with cigar boxes where you open the door and there’s goofy things inside. Kinetic sculpture was a big influence on me.” In 1966 he went to California. Memories of his first encounter with Zappa still delight him: “I was hitchhiking down Sunset and this carload of chicks came along and they said that they were going to a session and did I want to come along and I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ We wound up at one of the Freak Out! album sessions where Frank had just put a call out to bring people in from off the street to shout and scream for ‘Son Of Monster Magnet.’ It was a fluke thing.”

Essra Mohawk, occasional vocalist with The Mothers and occasional Schenkel ex-girlfriend, showed Frank the artist’s portfolio, impressing the Rock Star. (In a later interview with Trouser Press, Zappa said: “I used to practice, when I was a kid, drawing dollar bills. A lot of kids do that, I’m sure. Cal Schenkel was so good at it, he drew a five-dollar bill one time and passed it.”)

Both schooled and “self-taught,” Schenkel absorbed information from advertising, television, weird books, obscure records, and racy magazines, combining in an edgy stew everything he encountered in Pop Culture and in the chronicles of history and science. He honed his own highly personalized version of Americana, drawing upon the vernacular of the everyday to see beauty where others saw ugliness. In the Sixties hipsters twisted concepts into Orwellian doublethink — make love not war; an iron butterfly — but Schenkel never lost sight of the fundamentals, or the bottom line. He came to be, above all, an artist-slash-technician.

Partly as a result of his contrarian nature, partly through an aversion to drug users, he produced essentially anti-psychedelic work — or, conversely, parodied Psychedelia. Merely by accentuating the mundane he diverged from mainstream creative currents; his love of gushing ugliness, slimy and sublime, placed him in opposition to Flower Power. Yet somehow his stuff exuded the look and feel of Psychedelia: the free-for-all of techniques (drawing, painting, collage, typography, photography, cut paper, spray paint, et cetera) and confrontative imagery echoing the issues of the day — especially issues relating to sexuality.

In 1967 he went to work on the cover of We’re Only In It For The Money, an elaborate parody of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band jacket. On both appeared a pantheon of historical personages — Sgt. Pepper harbored the likenesses of Marilyn Monroe and Mick Jagger, conveying an air of hip sophistication (The Beatles in pristine happy uniforms, for example), while Zappa’s cover featured images of Nosferatu and Lee Harvey Oswald, as well as Jimi Hendrix, and conveyed an air of sickness (The Mothers as sneering ugly guys in tattered dresses). Schenkel: “My first big project was We’re Only In It For The Money. My job was to handle the props and build the mannequins and then help Frank set it all up. Then most of the people that he invited to appear in the photo shoot either weren’t available or they just didn’t show up. Except for Jimi Hendrix — he showed up. Frank had been hanging out with Hendrix that summer — Hendrix was still playing small clubs; it was just before he got big. He was a very friendly guy.

“So we added the collage element because there wasn’t any budget to do a bunch of cut-outs. It’s really so foggy that it’s hard to say which idea was whose — some were Frank’s and some were what I thought would look good.” That album established Zappa — and Schenkel — as an intellectual presence capable of poking fun at the world’s number-one Rock band.

Cal’s quirky style soon found notoriety. Throughout his tenure with Zappa he served as graphic designer, illustrator, art director, creative director, set designer, and so on, initially for Frank’s Warner Bros.-distributed label, Bizarre. Essentially the “art engineer,” he made the whole machine run smoothly on the relatively low budget doled out by Frank’s manager and label partner, Herb Cohen. Cal lived and worked in a treehouse next to Frank’s house. “The first illustration for an album cover that I did was Cruising With Ruben And The Jets. At the time I was an employee of Zappa’s record company, Bizarre. I also did An Evening With Wild Man Fischer and Lord Buckley’s record, and I did Trout Mask Replica. I introduced Alice Cooper to Frank.”

The cover of Cruising With Ruben And The Jets bore a cartoon caricature of The Mothers as a 1950s-style Doo-Wop greaser band. Today that creation gives Schenkel an opportunity to consider his relationship with Frank and with his own art: “I’m self-taught. I never finished school. I started one semester and I dropped out and then I met Frank and started working. I just developed my style working with Frank — one thing about working with him was the chance to always try something new. I never felt that I fell into any one niche. I never became an illustrator in the sense that I developed an ‘illustration style.’ I figured out how to do it and did it. I used paint, pencil and collage. Part of Ruben And The Jets is cut-outs of colored paper — solid colors — that are painted, for further effect. I always had fun mixing the cartoon with the comic.

“Frank and I worked off each other. The whole drawing was cut out and glued onto a background that was airbrushed with spraypaint — a can of Krylon, because I didn’t have an airbrush at the time — to give it that flat-background look. It was easier to cut out the drawing and paste it down than to work with frisket paper and mask it all out. Frisket is a nightmare. That’s why I did it that way. Also, I was new, so I wasn’t using the most sophisticated techniques.

Ruben And The Jets was a reaction to all the flowery psychedelic stuff that was all so beautiful, that I couldn’t get into — or achieve if I wanted to. Since I wasn’t in the drug culture, ‘psychedelic’ didn’t appeal to me particularly, and I also was not really interested in that look. I liked the rougher-edged, funky look. Herb Cohen had me do a poster for Linda Rondstadt and it was horrible; I couldn’t do it. He wanted this psychedelic thing and since I couldn’t work in that style I never finished it — I threw it away. I kept going off into weird tangents.

“I never did Acid; I experimented with pot in high school. I drank occasionally when I was working with Frank but it never was an issue. My influences were so much more the Dadaists — I liked that rougher-looking stuff. I don’t know why.”

As Zappa’s catalog grew, Schenkel’s style helped define it. In those days the album cover served as the premiere artistic venue — and Cal’s work emerged as some of the strongest stuff on the market. There was no precedent for his graphics, or his relationship to his employer. He was the first artist to become specifically associated with a big-league Rock group, and to create a consistent look by which the group could sell itself. He did the advertising art. He used a broad range of techniques while maintaining a consistent “look.” He was the first Pop Artist to appropriate old science graphics. The first guy to be proudly “low-budget,” cheesy, just plain wrong — sins in an age when design know-how emanated from the hallowed halls of Madison Avenue and Carnaby Street. “I was making one hundred dollars a week,” he states.

Among the highlights of his work stand the collage/assemblage covers, Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich, which are very gory — and loaded with subliminal titillation. Schenkel: “It’s very difficult to talk about my collage and assemblage stuff — when I do something like that I’m utilizing existing art and found pieces and stuff. It’s more like a dance: I just grab stuff and start playing with it and see what works. It’s really as if I’m doing an abstract painting.”

Working under the pressure of the Zappa juggernaut posed problems for Schenkel’s sensitive soul. An official (but temporary) “break-up” occured after a few years: “I left working for Frank because I was unhappy about the pay deal. I was getting very little and I had all these responsibilities. Suddenly, after a year, it was a job. We were always on a shoestring. Also, I was tired of working. Basically I’m a slacker at heart and I didn’t feel like working that hard, so I said, ‘You know, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ So I split and came back East, and Frank had Neon Park do that other cover, which I like but I don’t think it was as great as everybody else thinks it was — I like Neon’s Little Feat work better.” Note Schenkel’s reference to Weasels Ripped My Flesh as “that other cover.” Park’s masterpiece rendition of a painfully normal guy shaving his face with a combination weasel’s claws/electric razor became the most famous of Frank’s many album-cover icons.

Time and money healed the animosities between Zappa and Schenkel. Frank had a long-range plan involving artistic continuity. His ever-mutating musical project provided a form around which Cal composed his own ongoing art diary. Apparently both parties bounced ideas off each other in a semi-comedic continuum of creative input, with the succinct understanding that Frank had the final word on almost everything. While the large concepts obviously grew out of Zappa’s marketing plans, there is little doubt Schenkel, the genius graphics guy, brought Zappa’s ideas to life and afforded the composer opportunities to entrench himself in the public mind. Schenkel seems happy about their collaborations, acknowledging Zappa’s ultimate authority yet very aware of his own important place in that ancient hierarchy.

However, Frank’s widow Gail Zappa, spiritual administrator of the Zappa legacy, takes a different view of the relationship. In her interview with Seconds, the interviewer referred to Schenkel (and others close to Frank) as a “cohort,” to which Gail replied, “These are people who worked for hire; they’re not cohorts. Let’s be clear about that. Frank recognized talent in people that they didn’t even know they had. He had his own personal vision and he hired people to play his music and he hired people to render the images he wanted to use to sell his product. He was his own marketer; he even did the design of the packages.” When this writer reminded Cal of that interview, the artist remarked, “It didn’t do me much justice. She said that I was no more than a hired hand.”

Whatever the case may be, Zappa and Schenkel obviously had a good thing together. Frank associated with technical whizzes who got inexorably intertwined with the Zappa legacy. Schenkel’s one of those whizzes. Zappa defined him; it’s difficult imagining his art reaching such a high level of visibility back in the beautiful Sixties without what was essentially the patronage of the composer. But who knows? Testifying to Schenkel’s essential indispensability, Frank continued to employ him throughout the prolific composer’s career. Schenkel worked with Zappa longer than anyone else.

Even when Schenkel did not produce Zappa’s album art, Frank’s business kept him busy. For example, Cal went to England to serve as the production and animation designer for Zappa’s feature film, 200 Motels. From then on, his contributions ranged from full-blown front-and-back-cover illustrations to border design and typography — yet every cover he touched took on the characteristic Cal Schenkel aura, like a patina of soot on an old portrait.

Two notable covers demand discussion: those for The Grand Wazoo and One Size Fits All. Schenkel’s densely detailed drawing for The Grand Wazoo reveals his extensive knowledge of both history and cartooning. In it he stretched out and produced a masterpiece: “The schedule is what dictated the way these covers looked. The ones that are more detailed, I had more time to do.” The illustration depicts a pitched battle between two opposing orchestras — one much cooler than the other, both dressed as Sumerian-style warriors. Schenkel’s skillful renditions of arcane armaments and monuments rank as high points of Rock Art. What does the artist think of his seminal work? “If you look at it closely, it’s kind of bad. The anatomy is way off. I always felt it was appropriate to utilize your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Everything is inked right on the art with acrylic and marker — that one’s really naive.”

The front and back covers of One Size Fits All adapted old science graphics, revealing a sarcastic-but-majestic Pop relationship with outer-space imagery. Schenkel: “The only time I felt a real challenge was on One Size Fits All, which is probably my most polished piece — not that it makes it that much better, but it’s the one I put the most effort into. And, I love astronomy. I took direction as to what Frank wanted on the front cover. The back cover was mostly mine. It came about from star charts in National Geographic. Everything is just a satire of what was on a real star chart.”

As Frank and Cal's relationship matured, the two talked less and less. “I left LA in ’77. Because of Frank's legal problems with Warner Bros., there was little work, so I moved back to Pennsylvania and painted houses to make ends meet. That's when Gary Panter was hired to do Sleep Dirt and Studio Tan. I went back in ’80 and hooked up with Frank again and did the cover of Tinseltown Rebellion. I produced a limited-edition print of that cover, and Frank let me advertise it on the album, so for the first time I was able to sell my work directly to the fans — and that more than anything made me decide to do more of my own work. That's when I began painting again. After that, our relationship changed; there wasn't any animosity, we just weren't in touch that much. But I still got a job from him now and then. In ’87 I did a series of video packages for Uncle Meat, and in the early Nineties I did The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, Playground Psychotics, and Ahead Of Their Time. I started working on an illustration for Does Humor Belong In Music?, but it wasn't used until Rykodisc released the entire catalog after Frank died.”

Cal Schenkel occupies a strange position in American Art. No one can dissociate him from Zappa’s Universe. Except for the half-dozen album covers familiar to many (but totally unknown to many more), his work only appears today scaled-down on CD covers. Due to his reluctantance to hawk his own stuff, he must have patience. He perseveres; a monument of interest slowly arises. As Frank Zappa’s amazing body of music propels itself through the ages, Schenkel will take his place among the hip names-to-drop of tomorrow.

Too laid-back to get out there and promote his output in an often brutal marketplace, Cal’s also shy about his stuff. “I don’t promote myself at all. The little bit of work I do is for people that track me down because they’ve seen my work with Zappa. I’d much rather just sell my art, anyway. I’ve been spending time developing my website and personal relationships instead of going out and looking for jobs. Any commercial work I do is for clients that I already have. I would like to do a CD package now and then because it’s really visible. It gets your work out there for people to see, but I just hate that whole business. I’m not a promoter. That’s why I like the Internet.

“Right now I’m painting, printmaking, and selling my stuff on my website. I had a show in Amsterdam. I’ve been doing some big pieces that are really weird. Mostly I use house paint — I like to mix oil and acrylics. You're not supposed to, but I like the way they curdle. And sometimes I throw other junk into it. I just drag it all out back, get the lawn mower, run over old books and magazines, shred it up and mix it in with the paint. Just like I mix the imagery — animals, body parts, machinery, food, whatever. I’ve been doing these really funky prints where I mix processes — I’ll lithograph part of it, then use spray paint with stencils. Sometimes I silk-screen on top of that.”

Schenkel’s current work echoes his older stuff — still plenty of absurd images, and garishness abounds. The presentation, freed from the need to sell Frank’s music, has matured. Cal’s clever use of illustrations transposed over color fields might evoke nostalgia in those familiar with his earlier work. But his focus on singular ideas rather than hodge-podges of concepts imbues the new stuff with a dynamic transcending Rock Art.

Cal continues to whip it out; meanwhile, various legal issues unfold. “As for the Zappa artwork, the Zappa Family Trust claims copyright on it, but my lawyer disagrees. That’s a big issue that’s never been resolved. I see no advantage to a lawsuit. I’m not after all the money I can get. If we can work an arrangement where I can get something out of my use of the artwork — which I’ve discussed with Gail — then I’ll be happy. I still have the original art for Ruben And The Jets. The illustration from Chunga’s Revenge disappeared long ago; I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on ebay one day. I happened to see the cover of The Fugs’ album I did for sale on there, and a friend of mine bought it. I think it went for four or five hundred bucks.

“When people call to see if I have any of the old stuff for sale I tell them, ‘No, and it’d be way too expensive if I did. If you have that kind of money, buy something else.’ I also paint reproductions of the covers — maybe ten or twenty over the years. A full-scale, album-cover-size, very-finely painted piece. Some look better than the originals. They look great. I get about three thousand for a reproduction. That’s a side thing.”

Many cool graphic artists cranked out memorable work for Frank. But during those all-important formative years Schenkel did most of the covers. The combination of the two minds scarred the graphic landscape forever. In Michael Gray’s 1985 book Mother! Is The Story Of Frank Zappa, Zappa states: “That’s why my album covers were so good … not because I did them — Cal Schenkel has always done them.” This phenomenonal pairing can never happen again.

Check out Cal Schenkel at: www.ralf.com