Thursday, April 26, 2012

My introduction to "Party Crashers" exhibition, Arlington Arts Center, Nov. 2010-Jan. 2011

This is my introduction to the catalogue for Party Crashers: Comic Book Culture Invades the Art World, an exhibition at the Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, VA, in November 2010-January 2011, curated by Jeffry Cudlin. If you know my earlier writings you may find it a tad repetitive (I'm making some points that I've made, for example, in my article on original art for IJOCA and in some posts on this very blog), but I tried here to give a synthetic view, aimed at a wider public, of the situation of art comics at the time (and still now, I think). I'm posting it here because I just saw the announcement for yet another show on "real art" influenced by comics, which largely repeats the rhetoric of the High and Low and Comic Abstraction shows I mention in my first paragraph. I thought we were beyond that point, by now...

I should add that Party Crashers included a section specifically labeled "Abstract Comics," featuring my work and that of Warren Craghead, Rosaire Appel, Blaise Larmée and Derik Badman.
PARTY CRASHERS: Introduction

While the display of comics, either in printed form or in their prior incarnation as original art, on gallery walls is not a recent development (the earliest show I know of is Bande Desssinée et Figuration Narrative at the Louvre, in 1967), the last half decade or so has seen a definite rise in the acceptance of the comics medium in the institutions of the art world. Exhibitions such as Masters of American Comics (2005-2006), Out of Sequence: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics (2008-2009), or the tireless activity of the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art in New York have highlighted comics as a visual medium in its own right, worthy of the kind of close attention usually devoted to painting or sculpture. The situation, in North America at least, is very different from what it was as recently as two decades ago at the time of the Museum of Modern Art’s High and Low exhibition of 1990. That show included comic books and strips primarily based on their value as inspiration to artists more acceptable to the fine arts establishment such as Joan Miró or Roy Lichtenstein. (This gesture, strangely, was reprised in the same museum’s Comic Abstraction show of 2007, which felt very retardataire as a result.) Despite some lingering resistance, comics and paintings now can stand side by side as equally worthy varieties of visual art, without the kind of hierarchization that had long cast the sequential medium to the bottom of the pile (and whose reverberation can still be felt, for example, in the meager to non-existent holdings of comic art in most major museum collections).

This situation is the result of a number of evolutions, a number of stories. One of these stories has been the rise of curators conversant in detail with the history of the art form, and who have believed in it strongly enough to overcome institutional prejudices and inertia. However, resistance was sometimes also felt on the part of comic artists and cartoonists themselves, reluctant to throw in their lot with a world whose perceived elitism was often seen as inimical to the populism of the comics medium. Such resistance was largely overcome through generational transformation. While the first wave of comic-book artists (not to mention the several generations of comic-strip creators that preceded them) were largely self-taught, by the 1950s many of the artists associated with EC comics, for example, were graduates of college-level illustration programs; however, those programs still provided primarily vocational training that in its insistence on craft distinguished itself from the more theoretically-involved education in “purer” programs such as painting and sculpture. An important breakthrough was the rise of artists coming from art-school fine-art programs, artists trained in the complexities of recent critical theories and unafraid to combine the medium of comics with the sensibility of contemporary art. Most important in this respect has been the work of Gary Panter, perhaps the single most significant figure in bridging the comics/gallery-world gap. While Panter was working in both worlds as early as the 1970s, his influence was felt primarily through the followers he belatedly acquired in the late 1990s and 2000s, from the Fort Thunder and Paper Rad groups to artists such as John Hankiewicz, Kevin Huizenga and a number of abstract-comics creators, all of whom helped found and develop the art-comics movement.

Art comics—comics with the sensibility of, or with full awareness of contemporary developments in, the art world—arose in part as a response to an earlier attempt at the legitimization of the medium of comics, an attempt that involved the critical over-exacerbation of the textual and consequently a certain repression of the visual. I am referring, of course, to the tendency to value comics as literature, tendency which had its greatest success in the creation of the graphic novel format and its acceptance in bookstores as well as in the weekly book-review sections of major newspapers. This development is still very much with us, as evidenced, for example, by back cover blurbs for many alternative comics that often seem to know no higher praise than “literary”. The tendency has been particularly marked as comics have gained acceptance as objects of academic analysis, and especially as such analysis has been carried out mostly in English, literature, and cultural studies departments. The beginnings of academic acceptance coincided with the moment of fame of star writers, such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, whose work lent itself ideally to complex literary or symbolic analysis. Alan Moore’s scripts especially are legendary, demanding a greater wealth of detail than any poor illustrator could ever render; the art’s role in such instances—one can think for example of Watchmen—was to obediently depict the writer’s creations, then get out of the way. Clearness was the most important value; verbal—or illustrative—meaning was all, and the image was barely sufficient before such a wealth of meaning, its quality as graphic inscription actively denied.

A similar situation developed at the same time—the 1980s and ‘90s—in the context of the alternative comics community’s attempts at mainstream acceptance: As graphic novels were promoted as valid alternatives to traditional literature, “good storytelling” was seen as the primary goal of sequential art, and the quality of the art was judged almost exclusively on the way it reflects or enhances the narrative. This ideology had strong effects upon the autobiographical cartoonists of the period. To give you just two examples: Joe Matt, in a panel from a 1989 strip in which he showed himself tortured over his drawing style, repeated the mantra: “But I’ve got to draw minimally to serve the storytelling! The writing always comes before the art!” In Lowlife #1, from 1991, Ed Brubaker showed that he had internalized this new orthodoxy: “I’ve always felt that the writing was far more important than the artwork…As long as the art supports the story…”

It was against such a repression of the visual by the verbal, against the reduction of comic art to purely subservient illustration, that Gary Panter and his art comics followers reacted. The graphic trace was liberated from a requirement for timid, unobtrusive representationality; narrative sequentiality resulted no longer primarily from just the script, but as much from the formal enchainment of the panels; and story arose as much from the act of drawing as the other way around. In the process, the aesthetic qualities foregrounded by the new movement were revealed (as often happens with experimental developments in any art) to have already been present in earlier pieces: Jack Kirby’s superheroes or George Herriman’s Kat and Mouse could be seen to be as much embodied out of brushstrokes, and to inhabit as rigorously modernist a space, as any figure by Picasso or de Kooning.

If not noticeable before (though, for many of us, it was), this recasting of comic art as visually potent above and beyond its illustrative powers was made clear in shows such as Masters of American Comics. As any visitor to the exhibition could feel, the simple experience of having to confront a comic—and especially a piece of original art—on a museum wall completely changed the paradigm for how one approaches a comic strip or comic book, how one pays attention to it, and what kind of aesthetic satisfaction one gets out of it. When hung on a wall, a comic page’s very temporality changes: it lasts before one’s eyes; it cannot be flipped to go on with the story or to move on to the next gag. It therefore transforms the viewer’s attention from one that scans the art for easily digestible, sequenced nuggets of narrative information to the presence of the ink marks, the inescapable quality of the page as object, the materiality of what might have previously been taken as a simply disembodied visual-verbal text. In the act of confronting the unmoving work in a gallery space, our approach to the comic’s sequentiality is also transformed. Rather than following it from top right to bottom left in the prescribed direction of reading, we tend to approach it more with the perpendicular gaze of a viewer looking at a painting, focusing on the center panel first perhaps, but in any case taking in at a glance the page’s layout prior to scanning it for the storyline, and considering it as a unified but complex composition, one that subsumes the diagonal directionality of reading but is not limited to it.

In its very title, Party Crashers: Comic Culture Invades the Art World is a witness to these transformations, as well as an active participant in them. In her or his own way, each of the artists included in these two sister exhibitions has responded to the developments I have mentioned, and to the two movements of legitimation of comics—first as literature, then as art. Together, they offer a panorama of the possibilities available—to sequential art, but also to the art world in general—after the advent of art comics, after the legitimation of the comics medium as visual art. Despite all the powerful work on exhibit, this is only a beginning, and a very recent one at that. What next? Now that comic culture has invaded the art world, how will each of them be transformed? Stay tuned.
Additionally, when I first wrote the text, I added a few paragraphs on individual artists (including some members of this blog), paragraphs which had to be excised for reasons of space. Here they are seeing the light of print for the very first time:
... each of the artists included have responded to the developments I have mentioned, and to the two movements of legitimation of comics—first as literature, then as art. Discussing every single one of them here would be tedious, but I would like to address at least those with whose work I’m best acquainted, so as to suggest the wide variety of approaches on view.

Warren Craghead has forged in his comics an innovative mixture of drawing and poetry, filtered through the sensibilities of installation and conceptual art. His books Jefferson Forest and Thickets form a a pointilistic vocabulary in which drawn objects—a window, a door, a garden hose—are rendered equivalent to the written words that inhabit the space of the same page; words and images come together to form one of the most moving, and dare I say optimistic, renderings of American suburbia as pastoral dream. Craghead used much of the same technique, in this case recast into the space of analytic Cubism, to re-tell the life of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire in How to Be Everywhere, which must be considered one of the masterpieces of the graphic novel form of the last decade.

Rosaire Appel comes more from the world of visual poetry and experimental writing than that of comics, yet has fashioned an almost purely visual approach to sequential art. In her abstract comics, digitally transformed shapes enact obscure dramas that are just below the threshold of representation, leading the viewer through the piece not based on a pre-existing narrative, but on the strength of their mystery.

Joshua Cotter has created both more traditional, narrative pieces—such as his series Skyscrapers of the Midwest, which acknowledged comics conventions through its anthropomorphic protagonists—and experimental work, particularly his graphic novel (if that is still the right word), Driven by Lemons. In that extraordinary comic, the art fluctuates continuously between cartoony representation and pure abstraction to create a picture of mental torment and disequilibrium—as experienced by Cotter’s bunny-shaped protagonist—worthy of a Bergman movie, if only Bergman had dabbled in funny-animal art.

Blaise Larmée brings an awareness fully informed by the current discourse of the art world (as can also be seen in the deadpan commentaries he posts on his blog, Co-Mix) to the depiction of belated teenage and early-twenties angst; if Marcel Duchamp had drawn emo comics, this may very well be what they would have looked like.


  1. Dear Andrei, your work is interesting and deep, as usual. One minor detail: the first display of comics was in Sao Paulo, june 18th 1951. It´s hardly remembered because the french have a tendency to overlook things that might challenge their europeistic cultural perspective.But there you have it.

  2. Thanks, Blopa. That's why I wrote "the earliest show I know of," I was sure there must have been others before that. Do you have any more information about it?

  3. I had the pleasure to learn from it first-hand, from Álvaro de Moya in the 2011 Comics Conference at the Sao Paulo University. The 1951 exposition was called Primeira Exposição Internacional de Histórias em Quadrinhos (First International Exhibition of Comics), at the Centre Cultura e Progresso (Culture and Progress). The organizers were the already mentioned de Moya, Jayme Cortez Martins, Miguel Penteado, Reinaldo de Oliveira and Syllas Roberg. It featured comics pages from many of the King Features Syndicate´s artists - such as Raymond, Capp, Foster, etc -. Some of the copies had been sent by the artists themselves.You can look for it in de Moya´s book Shazam!, published by Editora Perspectiva (only avaible in portuguese, I`m afraid).

  4. And here´s a little souvenir:

  5. Andrei, ne peut-on pas considérer Feininger, formé aux beaux-arts en Allemagne et membre des principaux courants et mouvements de l'art moderne du début du XXème siècle, comme l'un des premiers artistes à avoir jeté un pont entre la bande-dessinée et l'art moderne : ses strips kin-der-kids sont clairement inspirés par le courant Jungendstil ; voire proto-cubistes par endroits !…

    De plus, certaines bandes-dessinées publiées dans des journaux allemands autour de 1900 relèvent, peuvent être considérer, tant par la forme que par le fond, comme des œuvres symbolistes et/ ou jugendstil à part entière ; surtout qu'elles sont, du moins pour la plupart, le fruit de peintres associés à ces deux derniers courants… (désolé, les reproductions de strips ont disparu du site…).

  6. Thank you for all the additional information, Blopa! That program/announcement is fascinating, though it's interesting to see it does not list any of the artists by name. I'd love to see that "Pagina Comica" documentary--I wonder if it still exists somewhere, and whether it was an original Brazilian production.

    Mattias--if I may answer in English, so that everyone can understand--yes, I absolutely agree about Feininger, etc. I was just discussing the current situation in the U.S., primarily--that is, art comics as a specific movement, not as a general notion. But I'm preparing a course for a year from now--Spring semester 2013--that is about the more general notion, actually, of the interaction of comics and the fine art. It will go all the way back to the late nineteenth century, and also discuss McCay and Art Deco, Steig, Steinberg and the influence of Picasso and Klee... of course Feininger, and Pierre Alechinsky, and of course Pop Art, and and and and...


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