Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009

writer, researcher, art historian, curator
Mar. 2, 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009
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Comics, Fine Art and Museums 2009

Editor's Notes

  1. Today I’m talking about comic art and museums. While cartoons and films based on comics characters have obliviously gained lots of public support at the box office, recognition of the creators of these works from the art world elite took a lot of time and hard work. I’m going to talk about 3 exhibitions that formed a cultural trend that helped bring comic art in from the outside, and some of the problems encountered by these exhibitions. The relationship between comic artists, fine artists & museums has historically been emotional and fraught with misunderstandings.
  2. Before I dive into these shows, I need to give you a little background on what was happening in the US art world at the time: The Modernists. This group had a firm grip on the professional & academic classes of the art world from the 1950’s through much of the rest of the 20 th Century. Their champions were the New York Abstract Expressionists, exemplified by artists like Jackson Pollock. They believed in abstraction and the power of the subconscious mind. They saw themselves as heroes and rebels. They believed that everything you needed to know about a work of art should be seen on the surface of the canvas, and that the artist’s biography and motives were irrelevant. They strongly encouraged the move toward minimalism. The museum and gallery format we know now, the large white cube with high ceilings, was originally conceived of with this sort of art work in mind. The Pop Artists. The Pop Artists wanted to breathe life back into painting by rebelling against the strict dogma of the Modernists. From Marcel Duchamp, a French conceptual artist that entered a urinal as art in a Society of Independent Artists show in 1917, they borrowed the idea that the artist wasn’t god and anything could be art, if there was a concept behind it. In the 1960’s American pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstien started to parody art and culture by appropriating imagery from advertising, consumer goods, television, cartoons and comics. The Modernist establishment hated this work. They wrote scathing article about “kitsch,” and positioned themselves as “purists” and above this sort of thing, but the museum going public was overjoyed because this was work they could finally relate to. Comic artists. In this period we are still specifically talking about classic comic strips, comic books and cartoons by Warner Brothers, Disney, the Fleischer Brothers and others. Comic artists were in a weird limbo, because they suddenly saw paintings of the characters they created getting public acclaim and selling for thousands of dollars, yet the art it was based on was by considered “low” art trash and not worthy of public recognition according to the art world elite of the time. The lack of respect and imagination in museum displays did not help this problem, comic art was considered “source material,” and often uncredited.
  3. By 1983, when the Comic Art Show opened at the Whitney’s downtown gallery, tensions between these three factions were high. Judging from the catalog and other comments, the works in the show were split between a historical survey of classic comics, featuring 29 artists ranging from Richard Outcault’s Y ellow Kid (1896) to contemporary work like Art Spiegelman’s Two Fisted Painters (1980) , and 28 contemporary artists inspired by comics and cartoons, such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Stuart Davis, Peter Saul, etc… The show catalog and reviews do not mention how the work was displayed. The show also included special exhibits of artist’s books and subway cars painted with cartoons and graffiti. Carlin deals with the issue of appropriation head on, saying: In addition to documenting this trend, one must ask why this type of imagery is suitable to painting and why it is quoted with such frequency. Each artist uses the comics in his own fashion, ranging from purely formal appreciation to a nostalgic nod to a favorite cartoon character. The aesthetic quality of the comics makes their quotation a type of art about art rather than simply cultural appropriation. To Carlin, this “art about art,” is equivalent to Rembrandt borrowing from da Vinci, the typical artist behavior of one artist borrowing from another for their own reasons, which often have nothing do with all the high/low categorizations imposed by the art world’s critics and scholars. After all the controversy and lawsuits, it seems that Carlin, with this exhibition and detailed catalog, was offering an olive branch to the New York arts community.
  4. High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1990, continuing with sold out tours to Chicago and Los Angeles. The show was curated by Adam Gopnik, the arts critic for the New Yorker , and Kirk Varnedoe, the newly installed director of MoMA. In this show, Varnedoe and Gopnik tried to show the influences of pop culture on famous modern artists in a very literal way, identifying the exact source material the artists used and then displaying it side by side with the resultant artwork. The source material included such categories as words/literature, graffiti, caricature, comics and advertising. With this show, Varnedoe promised “an entirely new vision of Modern Art’s origins,” based more on the artist’s biography and cultural influences than on the modernist lineage and emphasis on connoisseurship established by the former director of MoMA, Alfred Barr. This may seem to us now like a totally logical way of looking at it, but it was a real shock at the time. Controversy raged. The formal Modernists, lead by Hilton Cramer, howled that Varnedoe was desecrating the temple of Modernism and destroying “real” art. Other critics, including Arthur Danto, felt that the exhibition was disjointed and stifled by the limitations imposed to rein in a mammoth topic. Where they wondered was television, cinema and other modern media. They felt High & Low didn’t go far enough.
  5. The changing of the guard became really obvious when you contrasted High & Low with the show it followed, the last one programmed by the old staff. It was curated by the minimalist artist Ellsworth Kelly, entitled Fragmentation and the Single Form . There was a long gallery which was hung on both sides with works by the masters of Modernism – Arp, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Lèger, etc, leading at the end to large black minimulist canvas by Kelly. Art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto wrote about his impression of Kelly’s work, contrasting it with the High & Low show to come: “ It (Kelley’s painting) could be read as the end of history, and then either a culmination or a gesture of mourning. Everything inessential had been leached away, leaving only the essence of art behind. It was in a sense a dead end… it closed on September 15, 1990… About three weeks later the High & Low show opened to critical outrage. As a gesture by the new director of MoMA, it challenged the premises of Modernism and in view of the critics, the aesthetic foundations of MoMA.”
  6. Here’s a sample, comparison from the show. Remember these images, we’ll see them again soon. Comic art was vitally important to this show, yet belittled by the display, a contrast that did not go unnoticed. In his review of the show, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times comments: There is, in fact, something almost schizophrenic about the discrepancy between book and exhibition…The point is that the catalogue stakes out positions that the display undercuts. Comics and the artists who produced them are treated with a kind of reverence by Mr. Gopnik in the book. In the show, they seem hardly more than captions below the paintings and sculptures they purportedly influenced, as if the curators wanted at all costs to avoid the impression of equating high and low. Gopnick respect after New Yorker. It’s too bad this respect obviously didn’t transfer over to the exhibition itself.
  7. Before we move on, I will briefly explain some of the specific problems comic artists and their supporters were responding to: Brian Walker about Guston/Crumb to LA Times: They had his big paintings on the wall, and then here’s this little case with a couple of Crumb comic books in them. ‘This is where he found the stuff that he turned into modern art.’ It basically denigrated comics. Jarring contrast. Guston’s works were monumental in scale, the High & Low catalog lists 5 pieces between 69” and 115” wide, comic books tiny. Guston himself had great respect for Crumb, museum display unfortunate. John Carlin puts this into a business context: To maintain the value of a work of art – which is essentially what the gallery system does – you have to create these boundaries of value and then reinforce them… There’s also the problem of scale. The gallery system we now see evolved in the ‘40s and ‘50s to manage large-scale heroic works of art, rather than intimate narrative work. Some things look better at museums and galleries, and they tend to sell at higher prices, which reinforces the system. Next time you are in one of the contemporary art galleries in a big museum, take a look at how high and wide the walls are.
  8. Aside from display problems and the attitude of the critics, there was also a problem finding the type of in depth scholarship about comic art that would help institutions like MoMA figure out how to deal with it in a meaningful way. Art Historian David Carrier says: One of the reasons that comics are difficult to analyze is that the working tools of art historians are designed to deal with historical development. Perhaps comics are thought marginal because in art we expect progress. Think how much attention we give to radical innovators and what qualified praise it is to say of someone that she or he only works skillfully in a traditional way. But the most famous comics illustrators were boldly original not in terms of their formal innovations but because they found new subjects and original kinds of characters. In this way, these creators of comics seem more like novelists than visual artists. Much of the study of art history involves the recovery of long forgotten myths, social customs and technical limitations, a recovery often assisted by the narrative and symbolic clues depicted in the works themselves. We think about it in the context of the artist’s biography and an understanding of the artist’s cultural world view gleaned from research about the tools, economics, politics and beliefs of the period. There is also the concept of historical development; that “important” artists are constantly pushing the envelope, building new works based on the innovations of their predecessors. Concepts and mediums used in gallery art have changed radically over time, and this metamorphosis, like most things influenced by communication and technology, has accelerated greatly over the last fifty years. The theory behind Modernism and the post modern response, can lead to works like Rauschenberg’s white painting , which references John Cage’s performance piece 4’33”. It may be an important work in the Western canon, but it’s one that makes little sense to a viewer with no knowledge of the painting’s inspiration. A majority of museum visitors, however interested in art they may be, are often dependent on (and greatly influenced by) the informational framework provided by expert guides (docent, wall label, audio tour, art history/art appreciation classes, catalog, etc.) to assist them in understanding the creative and intellectual intentions of the work on display. Comics, on the other hand, as a medium created for the purpose of storytelling as entertainment and social commentary for a mass audience, are evaluated by different standards. Comics were, and still are, a key selling tool for most newspapers, deemed most successful when reaching out to the widest audience of readers, and comic book characters have taken on iconic dimensions. The essential techniques needed to do the work; inking, sequential images and speech balloons were more or less established a century ago. This led to a method of analysis of comic art that focused not so much on technical innovation and “movements” and more on how the stories and characters created by the artist reflected social history. The importance of the narrative function cannot be overstated. Unlike most fine art of the Modern/Post-Modern period, comics pages are generally meant to advance a narrative. Just sticking a page on the wall with no context robs the viewer of an understanding of the storyline and the artist’s intention. I’ll come back to this in a few minutes.
  9. In light of these problems, comic artists and their supporters started thinking of ways to address these issues. Art Spiegelman, a prominent comic artist fed up by the High & Low show, decided to take an activist role. He began by creating a cartoon review called High Art Lowdown (this review of the MoMA’s High & Low show is not sponsored by AT&T) , which was published in Artforum in 1990, lampooning what he saw as the stuffy, commercial, elitist choices made by the show’s curators and suggesting artists that were missing (Art Spiegelman, all his friends, The WPA, all of Cinema…etc). Did you notice Krazy Kat and Miro referenced in this graphic? “Even we are reduced to mere footnotes in the heroic history of painting – High & Low is a question of class and economics, not aesthics.” Next, Spiegelman continued his crusade to gain artistic recognition for comics by inviting curators to his New York studio for a talk he called Comics 101, in which he educated them about comics as a legitimate art form. He was instrumental in bringing about changes in the way museums looked at comics, and planted the seeds for future shows. Before we move on, I will briefly explain some of the specific problems people were responding to.
  10. Masters of American Comics opened in Los Angeles, then toured to Wisconsin and New York. This exhibition of 15 American comic artists was John Carlin’s attempt to define a “canon.” This is the same John Carlin who had broken the ice with the Comic Art Show at the Whitney in 1983. He has said in interviews that Masters was a direct rebuttal to MoMA’s 1990 High & Low show, burying the idea of comic art as “low” art for good. Unlike the other two previous shows we have looked at, here (finally) we have an exhibition of groundbreaking comic art without the inclusion of Pop Art or any of the other “masters” of modern art. The curators succeeded in their goal of stirring up serious dialog about comics in art publications, as many articles followed the show and it kicked off a new acceptance for serious scholarship and research about comics and comic art. Even though everyone’s intentions were good in the Masters show, there were still many challenges to actually mounting a large scale show using comics material. As I mentioned earlier, most comics are designed to be read as books, sequentially, page by page, so hanging individual panels alone on a gallery wall is not really the optimal way to see this type of work. The work on display was a combination of black and white pen and ink drawings, rough sketches, and mass produced images from books, magazines and newspapers. Carlin had great difficulty convincing a major museum to mount such a show. It’s ironic to note that in the end, Spiegelman’s work wasn’t shown in his beloved New York City. The Masters show, which was intended as a rebuttal to MoMA’s High & Low , wasn’t able to find a suitable home in the city, and it ended up being split between the Jewish Museum in Manhattan and The Newark Museum in New Jersey, a major trip for many New Yorkers. As Spiegelman wrote to the show’s producers: “While swell for New Jersey residents, placing the first half of the 20 th century’s comic strip artists into the Newark Museum is, from the perspective of this provincial New Yorker, the equivalent of hiding them in the witness protection program.” The Jewish Museum also censored some of R. Crumb’s more risqué drawings, provoking Spiegelman to withdraw his art from the show he had helped inspire. I later heard from one of the curators at the Jewish Museum that they panicked and filled in with a collection of super hero pages.
  11. After talking about all these shows and their problems, I’d like to mention a show that did work, and how they solved some of the problems we’ve been talking about. First, all artists in the show are worthy of equal treatment in terms of biographies, didactics, artist listings and other published information. This seems like an obvious point, but it often didn’t happen in the past. One should look for ways to help the viewer understand the work in its intended literary context. The Tezuka, Marvel of Manga show that was at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum in 2006 was addressed some of these problems by using blow-ups, reproductions and projections. allowed the curators creatively show panels in sequence, to emphasize important details and story points, and to help negate the issues of scale that are often a problem in shows like this: green background = four consecutive pages framed together as they were published, follow a chain of events and appreciate Tezuka’s method of storytelling. blue background = enlarged reproductions of two pages, elaborate detail and sense of movement. The display included a large projection on one wall showing clips from the animations and production drawings. This both added life to gallery and allowed the viewer to see finished work. They added walls in contrasting colors and used lighting to help to make gallery appear more intimate. They added ledges and tables for display of published work to be read They Showed both the black and white and the finished color versions, which was informative for the viewer, as the mass distributed, published edition is actually the ultimate goal the comic artit was working toward. 3 framed covers in the center = Tezuka’s famous character Astro Boy, finished product, final published version consumers would encounter in everyday life. In the case of a show combining comic art and gallery art, this finished printed version is also the one the gallery artist would have seen and based their work on. It’s been a long road, but comics are getting more respect on all fronts. I hope by bringing all these ideas together, I’ve given you some food for thought next time you go to the museum.