In¬† those heady days of the early aughts when I didn’t even have an inkling, let alone interest, of being in “the industry” I was content to admire from afar, Alvin’s efforts coincided well with my insatiable appetites. Not knowing better, I gladly subsisted on chicken-cutlet sandwiches for lunch and dinner every single day for a year so I could spend all my dough on the old and new culture which surrounded me. As my friend Warren Bernard would correct me, I had my priorities straight.
Ever since I got the news Friday afternoon I’ve been thinking about Alvin and those more-innocent days. I don’t know that I would have otherwise spent a fraction of the time I have trying to fully appreciate the, dare I say, impression that he left on me.
Back then you could snag a signed, letterpress print from the greatest cartoonists for something like $35. Alvin was releasing prints from many of the artists I admired in book form, as well as ones I wasn’t really familiar with. What were these beautiful objects he was creating with exotic names like “letterpress” or “silkscreen” on this gorgeous paper and these lush pools of inks? I knew nothing about any of it, and I still remember receiving Sammy Harkham’s print and being flabbergasted at the leather-like texture, the impressions on the paper. I even emailed Alvin asking him how he did it. But a good magician never reveals his secrets. Actually, he probably didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, and neither did I. I bought them because they were beautiful and, in my ignorance, magical… and they were created by a magician of sorts with an exotic name all his own… Alvin Buenaventura.
A decade or so later I found myself sitting across the table from Alvin at a Chinese restaurant in Washington D.C. after one of Warren Bernard’s drool-enducing Library of Congress tours. He was sitting next to Mark Newgarden and a few seats down were the Hernandez brothers. How the hell did I end up here? Much to my surprise Alvin actually knew who I was, and was aware of my own modest publishing efforts. He even remembered me as a customer: “Didn’t you buy, like, a lot of…” — “Yeah, almost all of them.”
At one of the panels at SPX that year I saw Alvin sitting in the back. I sat next to him and passed him a copy of a book I had just produced. He was wildly thankful and we talked a bit about it. I think I just wanted to impress him, and when he found out I printed and bound them, he acted the part. “I have to send this to Todd Hignite, he’s a huge Gluyas Williams fan.” He reached in his bag and gave me a copy of the new Charles Burns sketchbook he published. This exchange became a staple of our relationship over the years: I’d give him my newest book, hoping to impress him, and he’d give me his latest. A few years later, when he saw the Jonah Kinigstein book I did, “I have to show this to Dan, he’s going to love this.” I think that gets to the heart of who Alvin was. He loved sharing great art, whether it was passing things along to friends or through his publishing ventures. But the enterprise is one thing. He was, in a professional capacity, not so much a publisher as he was an artist who happened to publish things. Whether it was the prints or the books or the other creative doo-dads he produced over the years, there was a commitment to quality and creativity that was unparalleled. To appropriate Mr. Bernstein’s line from Citizen Kane
, well, anyone (with money) can be a publisher if all they want to do is be a publisher. But what was evident in the quality and the creativity of his output was that his commitments were more creative than commercial, which is, after all, the way things aught to be. And who knows, (and I now shudder to think), maybe he was working on magnum opus of his own.
Over the years I would see Alvin at conventions and he always greeted me with a warm hug and we’d talk about or current or upcoming projects. When Alvin would introduce me to someone he knew he’d always do it in the most undeservedly flattering terms which I’d be too embarrassed to even repeat now. He was always encouraging and helpful in anyway way he could be. A few months ago, I called him in something of a panic. I had ordered a couple thousand plastic record sleeves and they were too small for the package they were supposed to house. Alvin had used this kind of record sleeve for the Burns/Killoffer book he released, and before he told me where he got them from and the model number, he offered to send me all of the extras that he had. I told him I had been thinking about diving into letterpress printing, so we talked about that: he told me about his press and its virtues, and which other models are good and why. He was very encouraging and told me that he’d look at any press I’d find and let me know if he thought it was worth the asking price. I thanked him and told him I’d send him one of the promotional booklets I needed the record sleeves for. He shyly told me I didn’t have to, and I’d do better to send it to Charles Burns who would get a kick out it.
I saw Alvin at CAB a month or so later. The same warm hug; the same talks about upcoming projects. He showed me proofs (or maybe even originals) for the yet-to-be-released Sir Alfred No. 3 and talked to me about the various elements of the still-to-be-produced package. Alvin was always at least one step ahead and I only now realize just how inspirational he was to me in this way. I gave him a copy of the promotional booklet, complete with plastic record sleeve which fit like a glove. He gushed with thanks and surveyed his table to find something to give me, picking up the just-released Charles Burns’ booklet Incubation, forgetting that he had already given me a copy of it earlier that morning. “I didn’t charge you for it, did I?” he asked, embarrassed.
I’ve only come to realize in the past few days just how much what Alvin did became instinctive for me, etched into my way of thinking, maybe because his impact came at such a nascent and unconscious stage for me.
Whether it was the unique and creative formats or the different design elements, his work was always inspiring and pushed me to try to be as creative as he was. And I found myself even utilizing certain things he “taught” me, even as minor as pasting printing scraps onto a package.
There was so much more I had to learn from him, and so much more inspiration to glean. I would have more books to try to impress him with, and we had talked about working on something together in the future. Over the coming years, as I pass by my bookshelves and see his books, or his prints hanging on my wall, there will be a pang of sadness in my heart. The memories will fade, as will the sadness too, I suppose, and the impressions will become less defined. But I will remember what is, to me, the most important thing: that Alvin was a genuinely good, kind, and generous man, and he will be sorely missed.
- Jonathan Barli