At Columbia, Edward Gorey art, books and ephemera, collected by an admirer who was his friend until death

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Edward Gorey's works are on view at Columbia University (Lauren Kirchner)
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Andrew Alpern’s four-decade-long pursuit of writer and artist Edward Gorey's books and ephemera began during his frequent trips to the Gotham Book Mart across from his Midtown office, where he was working as an architect.

Near the sales counter, a stack of small, clearly self-printed books and drawings caught his eye.

“It was fascinating, it was exquisitely drawn, and it was a little weird!” Alpern remembered. New drawings kept coming in, and he kept buying them. Soon, the owner of the store introduced Alpern to the mystery artist, Edward Gorey, and they became friends, bonded by similar tastes in art and similar eccentricities. (That’s him, pictured below, standing next to a mannequin wearing one of Gorey’s coyote-pelt parkas.)

Alpern followed Gorey’s career from then on. Forty years later, and 12 years after Gorey’s death in 2000, Alpern’s collection has grown to over 700 items, which he donated to his alma mater Columbia University two years ago. About 500 of those are currently on display in the school’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in an exhibit that opened this week, Gorey Preserved: The Collection of Andrew Alpern.

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It’s quite a feast. Fans of Gorey’s intricate, startling, darkly hilarious illustrations will not be disappointed. His spindly, gloomy, hollow-eyed characters peer out from every corner of the room. The exhibit is mostly made up of Gorey’s weird and wonderful books, from favorites like The Gashlycrumb Tinies (“I is for Ida who drowned in a lake/ J is for James who took lye by mistake”) to perhaps more obscure titles, published under his anagrammatic pseudonyms like Raddory Gewe, Dogear Wryde, and Mrs. Regera Dowdy.

There are posters and T-shirts and playbills he designed for the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera on display, and magazine and newspaper clippings about Gorey from throughout the years. A highlight among the clippings is a Bill Cunningham feature from The New York Times in 1978, capturing Gorey in several of his favorite fur coats. The exhibit also includes etchings, limited-edition stuffed animals, and impossibly small miniature books measuring less than two inches square.

Text documenting the contents of the display cases is sparse, but informative and entertaining. From one we learn that Gorey once built an end-table out of an antique toilet bowl he found, because he thought it resembled an elephant, which was one of his favorite animals. From another we learn that, following his death, The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust was created, “which he stipulated in his will should benefit not only cats, dogs, whales, and birds, but also bats, insects, and invertebrates.”

Although Gorey’s art has been highly commercialized in recent years, appearing on everything from coffee mugs and neckties to potholders and wallpaper—all of which are represented here—the exhibit and its accompanying reception on Wednesday night were both very academic. A panel discussion featured Andreas Brown, owner of the Gotham Book Mart and Gorey’s first enthusiast, and Karen Wilkin, an art historian who has written and edited several Gorey monographs. Brown and Wilkin analyzed Gorey’s skill, putting him in context with his larger “artistic vocabulary,” which included the works of Franz Kafka, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Balthus, and silent film director Louis Feuillade, among many others.

A slideshow accompanied Wilkin’s talk, and audience members nodded along to her comments as she displayed a drawing from “The West Wing,” a wordless book. “You have haunting images, in which Gorey is completely exploiting his ability to unnerve us, to become mildly unsettling, with carpet patterns and stairs,” said Wilkin. “I mean, why should this be such a haunting image? It’s just a staircase….”

Wilkin spoke admiringly about the suspense Gorey created through his composition choices alone. Although his work often depicted violent acts, his drawings almost always showed either the moment before the action was about to occur, or else the action happened “off-stage,” as in a Greek tragedy. In this way, Gorey distanced the reader from anything graphic, while simultaneously heightening the tension. Gorey’s composition was as precisely controlled as his cross-hatch shading technique.

During the panel discussion, Alpern also contributed some of his memories to fill out Gorey’s personal side. He described Gorey’s effortless and encyclopedic knowledge of books and movies, his “low-key” charm, and his distinctive fashion (fur coat, scarf, big beard, high-top sneakers). He remembered a particular visit to Gorey’s home in Cape Cod when they drove around in Gorey’s yellow Volkswagen Beetle with the license plate that read OGDRED—from another pseudonym, Ogdred Weary.

Alpern took issue with several obituaries of that described Gorey as “macabre”; while some of Gorey’s art was dark, he said, the man was anything but. Alpern remembered him this way: “Friendly, outgoing, often outrageous, enthusiastic, with a voice that soared and swooped all over the octaves, and expressive hands and fingers that reinforced his words with elaborate gestures, and heavy, clanking rings. Edward was nothing if not instantly noticeable, with a distinctively odd appearance, and equally odd attitudes and ideas: perhaps the quintessential New Yorker in that regard.”

Several hours before what would turn out to be a very well-attended opening night reception, I found Alpern sitting in the room of the exhibit, surveying the collection with apparent satisfaction. I asked him how it had felt to watch Gorey gradually become such a phenomenon, when Alpern had had such a close relationship to his work for so long. I wondered if it was like the strange feeling of loss you can sometimes get when your favorite obscure band gets a big break and legions of new fans.

Alpern is a generous collector indeed. “I was delighted!” he said. “Other people were recognizing what I recognized a long time ago.”

'Gorey Preserved' is on view at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library through July 27, and open every Monday from 9 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. and every Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. (with shortened hours during the school’s spring break, March 12-16). Entry is free, but requires non-Columbia visitors to fill out a pass, which can be obtained with a photo ID and a tiny bit of hassle at the library’s front entrance.