The Independent. London, January 10 or 11, 1991.
In the byways of literature and art Norman Rubington was a seminal figure. He went to Paris in the early 1950s to paint and became involved with the group of expatriate American (and a few British) figures that included Christopher Logue, Dan Jones, Alexander Trocchi, William Burroughs, Iris Owens, Richard Seaver, who edited the Paris Review, Merlin and other periodicals - and subliminally Samuel Beckett, whose work some of them espoused. This group was eventually gathered up by Maurice Girodias to advise, edit and write for his Olympic Press that published both erotica and literature, and where possible a combination of the two, in the puritanical days before the Obscene Publication Act 1959 in the UK made literary merit a sufficient counter-balance to allow publication of sexually explicit material.
A painter of considerable prestige and some commercial success, Rubington was commissioned by Girodias to write pornographic novels for him, which he did under the penname of Akbar del Piombo. These were enormously successful with GIs visiting Paris and English readers seeking titillation. He also wrote erotic verse under the same name and illustrated many of these books. Often using scenes in Arab harems and exaggerated, often extremely funny, orgy scenes, his work was characterised by much tongue-in-cheek humour and definite literary quality far beyond the demands of the publisher. There was also a strong streak of social and political satire in his work. Subjects he used included the drug scene, war, the art world and society generally.
Rubington studied art at Yale before the war and in Paris after it. In the army during the war he worked in military intelligence as mapmaker and interpreter of aerial photographs. He was also a war artist.
Rubington won the prestigious Prix de Rome as a painter and subsequently spent three years in that city. Other prizes and fellowships followed, including the Guggenheim and Tiffany Awards and the Religous Arts Award, the latter because of the religous painting he did for churches, including a crucifixion for the Grace Cathedral of San Francisco.
He was about to be honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters when he died. His work, close to Surrealism and mostly representational, is associated with American Expressionism of which he was an early exponent. It is usually infused with humor and an eye for the erotic, often including portraits of personalities such as Orson Wells or others he wished to characture. His work hangs in major American museums' collections.
His novels, mostly published in the Fifties and the early Sixties, included Who Pushed Paula?, Cosimo's Wife, Skirts, The Traveller's Companion, and The Fetish Crowd, all written as Akbar del Piombo. Under his own name he published, also with Olympia Press, the satirical collage novels Fuzz Against Junk and The Hero Maker using the same collage technique as Max Ernst in Une semaine de bonte. He was associated with various groups of painters in both France and the U.S. and took part in many group shows. His own one-man exhibitions were principally in Paris, Boston and San Fransisco. In addition he illustrated many books and experimental films, some of them leading to the work of Monty Python, whose work is similar. His book Twelve Painters, Twelve Poetswas asuccessful attempt to bring the arts together.
In the Fifties he became a habitue of Paris' best bookshops for literary English Books, Gaite Froge's English Bookshop on the Rue de Seine,, which had a gallery in the basement, often featuring Rubington's paintings. When Rubington finally decided to return to America in the early 1970s, Gaite Froge sold her bookshop to follow him, later tried to recover it, failed and eventually became a freelance editor in New York, where she died three years ago. As her bookshop was the logical successor to Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Co, there are various projects to produce as book about this central venue of this Anglo-American centre for the avante-garde of the late Fifties and Sixties.
Rubington was one of the founders of the Olympia list and remained a loyal friend to Girodias until he died last summer. I last saw him at a memorial dinner for Girodias in New York shortly after. A gentle, kind man. he was certainly one of the characters who held the expatriate group together during the period which we think of as the heyday of existentialist Paris. He died shortly after midnight on New Year's Eve from a heart attact when calling on Girodias's widow with a bottle of rum to help her cold.
Norman Rubington, artist and writer, born New Haven (sic) Connecticut 20 June 1921, died New York 1 January 1991.