Graphic Novel pioneer Art Spiegelman gets a career-spanning show at the Jewish Museum.
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Art Spiegelman says he’s done retrospecting. In fact, he never intended to get started. Yet, up now at the Jewish Museum in New York, through March 23, is Spiegelman’s career-surveying exhibition “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective” which has traveled through Paris, Cologne and Vancouver after starting in Angoulême, France, in 2012. The artist received a call from the International Comic Book Festival in Angoulême informing him that he had been chosen as the 2012 president of the festival (which included the Grand Prix for lifetime achievement in illustration), an honor the organization swore it would not bestow on another American comics artist after the tumult of Robert Crumb’s presidency in 1999. But knowing that the award came with the responsibility of compiling and curating his own retrospective was almost a deal-breaker for the artist until his friend, Rina Zavagli-Mattotti (wife of cartoonist Lorenzo Mattotti) agreed to organize the show.
The result recaps Spiegelman’s five-decade-long career, from his days at the High School of Art and Design in New York (where cartooning was a major), to his underground comix of the ’60s and ’70s (which culminated in Raw magazine, which he co-founded with his wife, Françoise Mouly) and on to the work that propelled him and comics into the mainstream and beyond. In a way, Spiegelman’s most famous achievement, the two-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, is itself a work of retrospection, a retelling of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust and after, and an excavation of the artist’s own past, particularly his relationship with his father.
What makes Maus enduringly important and worthy of being an anchor of this show is the way it took the language and technique of comics and used it to tell a story that was anything but comical—although it speaks the language of the “Funny Animals” tradition, with the Jews as mice and the Nazis cats. Its look is influenced by German Expressionism, and while it’s historically accurate, it’s certainly not literal. “Maus was born not out of a desire to recreate the death camps but out of a more formal intention,” says Spiegelman, “and I wanted to make a comic you could read with a bookmark.”
Seen as an innovation in storytelling, Maus was the work to which the term “graphic novel” was first applied, and its success led to an acceptance of comics in the broader world of literature and art. The exhibition features original sketches and drawings for Maus, illuminating each stage of Spiegelman’s painstaking work process, as in one sequence that reveals how he was able to make the negative space behind the figure of a concentration camp inmate look like a swastika. Process is particularly important to Spiegelman, who insists that he’s a bad draftsman and has always emphasized graphic communication over virtuosic finish. “In the time that other artists can draw forty pages, I can draw one page forty times,” he has said. But self-deprecation aside, in everything he draws he’s acutely conscious of the nature of the comic-strip format. “A lot of my work is ultimately about my medium,” he says, “including Maus. In another life, I would have been a noted historian and aesthetician of comics—then I wouldn’t have a 500-pound mouse chasing me.”
Humor pervades Spiegelman’s work, sometimes more transparently than others. In his earlier days, he was more explicitly about the joke, as in Short Order Comix No. 1 (1973) in which a stereotypical diner waitress trades barbs with a crustacean in a business suit. Aficionados of Maus or In the Shadow of No Towers, his meditative graphic novel about September 11, may not be aware that the artist was the creative juice behind the advertisement-spoofing sticker series Wacky Packages and the infamous Garbage Pail Kids. Examples of the two radically successful childhood franchises used to be found primarily in a troublemaker’s backpack, but now find their place in the Jewish Museum’s installation. Spiegelman’s sense of humor, not unlike the clever, absurd tone of the golden years of Mad Magazine, which he loved as a kid, comes through not only in these projects, but also in his covers for The New Yorker. Original paintings and process drawings for many of these are on view in the show, including Valentine’s Day (1993), in which a Hasidic Jew famously smooches an African-American woman in pointed reference to the Crown Heights race riots of a year earlier, and The Plastic Arts (1999), in which the comic-book superhero Plastic Man gawks at two grotesque Picasso portraits in a museum, his goggled eyes popping out and his neck distended like a peckish giraffe’s.
The Plastic Arts and another New Yorker cover, Dick Tilley (1997)—in which Dick Tracy is graphically conflated with the magazine’s beloved, top-hatted mascot “Eustace Tilley”—showcase two of Spiegelman’s preoccupations—the history of comics and the history of fine art, which he connects by pointing out that “modernism was invented by cartoonists.” Spiegelman insists that a group of artists in Montmartre in the 1880s anticipated Dada and Surrealism with black-on-black paintings, typographical experiments and a picture of the Mona Lisa smoking a hashish pipe. “They did this when Duchamp was still in short pants,” he says, “and then they were made to sit in the back of the bus, like the black people who invented pop music. When other artists learned to do it, and did it with a straight face, they took it to the cash-and-carry counter.”
For Spiegelman, a sometime critic of museums—including MoMA, famously in his 1990 comic-format review High Art Lowdown, and the Jewish Museum itself for a previous exhibition—there’s a certain incongruity in the fact that his art hangs on the walls of a mainstream museum. “I was suspicious of anything that smelled of art when I was growing up,” he says. “It took me a long time to look at Picasso paintings. The divide between high and low seems to have crumbled in my lifetime.”
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