Beautiful Art in an Ugly Year

“I saw him beat my brother Simon up once or twice. He had it coming."


The vibe throughout 2017 — white supremacists are “fine” people, the top 5 percent need tax cuts financed by the bottom 95 percent, Vladimir Putin is a great guy — has been pretty ugly.

Pretty. Ugly. Those last two words sum up my personal highlight list for a brash and belligerent year. Let’s start with Fantagraphics’ collection of the “Trashman” strips and other graphic provocations by the underground-comics pioneer Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez. Spain (1940–2012) was an art school dropout, a member of the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club, and a factory worker in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. His job as a janitor (one who read the Trotskyite newspaper The Militant) imbued Rodriguez with a strong class consciousness that found its way into the “Trashman” comics he began drawing for the East Village Other counterculture paper in 1968. Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 ($29.99) recounts how Spain and fellow cartoonist Kim Deitch lived in an Avenue C tenement where muggers roamed the hallways and “glue heads” clawed their way through the walls to rob tenants. But Spain, having brought his biker mores with him from upstate, was no easy mark. “I saw him beat my brother Simon up once or twice,” Deitch relates in the book. “He had it coming. Spain has sort of like short jabs. He didn’t do it sadistically. If he thought you were out of line, you could get beaten up by Spain but he didn’t lovingly linger over it.”

In the late 1960s, Spain was making the princely sum of $40 a week to draw comics, and the exhilarations of his hardscrabble lifestyle can be seen in the abilities of Trashman — a/k/a Agent of the Sixth International — to best the lackeys serving nefarious capitalists with his fists, boots, and small arms. A sort of proletarian James Bond, Trashman “received messages from cracks in the sidewalk and could transform into a copy of last week’s East Village Other when he was in a tight spot, and blow unseen down the street to escape,” as the book’s author, Patrick Rosenkranz, puts it. Spain’s socialist leanings perhaps explain why his female characters were as adept as men at urban combat, and why the women expected as many orgasms as the macho bikers they hooked up with in numerous X-rated scenes.

Coming of age in the 1950s, Spain read the popular EC family of comic books, which included such titles as Tales from the Crypt and Two-Fisted Tales, taking in the voluptuous line-work of a master like Wally Wood and the athletic body language conveyed by the brilliant illustrator Jack Davis. Expanding on these youthful inspirations, Spain developed a signature blend of heavy black contours, drastic perspective, abstract expressionist ink splatters, and helter-skelter panel layouts to propel his breakneck tales of class war and free love.

While not as graphically outré as underground comics, Kirk Hayes’s paintings deliver high-octane aesthetics and unexpected formal jolts. On wandering into his show at Horton Gallery earlier this year, I was struck by the florid characters and disembodied limbs galumphing through existentially bleak landscapes. Arms rise out of ash pits in scorched earth, in one case flashing a middle finger, in another groping for perhaps the last flower left after some garden-variety apocalypse. Hayes’s figures at first look to be constructed from scraps of painted card stock or particleboard, crisscrossed with masking tape, everything glued to wood-panel grounds. But close study of the black shoe with rough-cut edges in Old Artist Pissing at the Moon (2016) reveals that the images are not collages but instead trompe l’oeil painting. What look like snippets of yellow yarn poking through the board above the cartoon artist’s foot are in fact dollops of oil paint. (Hayes, it should be noted, isn’t that old for a painter — he was born in 1958, in Fort Worth, Texas, where he still lives and works.)

In 1929, René Magritte titled his famous painting of a pipe The Treachery of Images. Accompanied by a caption in French spelling out “This is not a pipe,” the Belgian surrealist emphasized the point (among others) that an image is emphatically not the object it represents. But where Magritte gave us an illustration, Hayes deceives the eye by employing painstaking illusion. He first constructs a bumptious collage of homely materials on a wood panel and casts a strong light across the surface. Then, on a new wood panel of the same size, he exactingly copies in oil paint every rough edge, soft shadow, scraped surface, overlapped tape layer, burn mark, pencil scrawl, and wood-grain pattern of the 3-D construction. When his trompe l’oeil doppelganger is finished, he destroys the original.

Collage is a tricky business, in which existing forms are melded into new entities, as when Picasso combined handlebars and a bicycle seat to create a bull’s head. Hayes ups the conceptual ante by employing wire to signal “arm hair” or “brush bristles” and then painting dead-on portraits of such ridiculous assemblages. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Hayes’s abject figures are cobbled together from disparate parts that take on an uncanny life of their own.

Another painter with a bent for oddball characters, Rosalyn Drexler populates her canvases with dapper gangsters, tragic celebs, troubled lovers, and other tabloid denizens. Born in the Bronx in 1926, Drexler received little recognition for her prescient pop paintings, done in the early 1960s, and filled the gaps between exhibitions by writing award-winning plays, television scripts, newspaper articles, and numerous novels. In 2016, a retrospective of her artwork toured the country, but the closest her visions of mob hits, prize fights, cinematic lovemaking, and other larger-than-life happenings came to Gotham was Buffalo’s Albright Knox Art Gallery, which made it all the more pleasurable to see a survey of Drexler’s work at Garth Greenan Gallery this past September.

In a career spanning the American Century, Drexler has used enlargements of newspaper and magazine photos as templates for her audacious compositions, whether Chubby Checker doing the Twist in 1964, a dual portrait of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1988, or — still the indelible image of America in the new millennium — a ghostly, arms-spread figure with flapping suit coat in 2012’s Man Falling.

Drexler’s sparkling blend of absurdity and pathos has not waned over the decades. In 1966’s It Isn’t Me, we see a woman depicted on a flat red background (Drexler’s settings are invariably stark and boldly colored, isolating her figures) holding up her hand to hide her face, a stylish black handbag complementing her white dress. Is she fending off a jilted lover, the law, or paparazzi? Fast-forward to 2012’s Nobody’s Fault, in which a man in a sleeveless T-shirt hunches forward — whether he’s crying or suffering a hacking cough is unclear. The wavy black and ocher background may be a distant mountain range, or perhaps a lover’s contours seen in the figure’s imagination. Created almost half a century apart, these two images encapsulate Drexler’s enduring magic. We may not completely fathom her narratives, but her vivid shapes, wholehearted colors, and always-evocative titles convince us we’ve experienced them.

Some of the earliest glimmers of American pop culture arose from the late-19th-century newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In 1896, looking to boost circulation by cajoling readers away from his rival’s publications, Hearst ran a promotional ad in his New York Journal trumpeting a new, full-color comics section: “Eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe. That’s the sort of a Colored Comic Weekly people want — and — THEY SHALL HAVE IT!” In George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (HarperCollins, $35.00 hardcover, $4.99 e-book), which won the 2017 Eisner Award for best comics-related book, author Michael Tisserand recounts how, fully three decades after the Civil War ended, “colored” comics were a plus for a newspaper, but “colored” skin was still a negative for U.S. citizens.

Although his birth certificate listed him as “Colored,” George Herriman (1880–1944) passed as white, and was known as “the Greek” among his colleagues at the turn of the 20th century. In those days, cartoonists were a big circulation draw. Pulitzer’s New York World featured Richard F. Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” comic strip, which followed the rough ’n’ tumble adventures throughout the city’s tenement slums of a jug-eared, bald-headed tyke in a yellow smock. The series became immensely popular, so Hearst hired Outcault away from Pulitzer to start a new strip that would still feature the “Yellow Kid,” as the character had become known. But Pulitzer owned the rights to the original urchin in Hogan’s Alley, and kept the strip running with a different artist.

The competing kids in their yellow attire, both prominently featured in papers known for sensational headlines and stories that ebulliently skirted the truth, gave rise to the term “yellow journalism.” This was the atmosphere in which Herriman came of age, and as a journeyman cartoonist he did his share of propagandistic political cartoons, hoping to win a permanent staff job at a Hearst newspaper, since the boss had a reputation as a huge comics fan. No one can know, however, how Herriman contended in his heart with such headlines in Hearst papers as “Talented Co-Ed in Chicago Proves to Be Negress,” for an article about a popular student who briefly passed as white in a failed quest to join an exclusive sorority. “We all liked her very much until we found out the facts,” one of the white students who blackballed her said.

After many short-lived strips, Herriman launched Krazy Kat, in 1913, and the art form has never been the same. In a phantasmagorical version of Arizona’s Coconino County — a polychromatic desert where night and day might switch from one panel to the next — the indeterminately gendered Krazy pines after Ignatz Mouse (who returns the Kat’s affections by hurling bricks at his/her head), while “Offissa Pupp,” a dog in love with the cat, in turn hounds the mouse. After a fashion, it all made sense: If a black visionary could pass as a white cartoonist in America, why couldn’t his characters live in a world of fluid genders and backdrops—and even long for species miscegenation?

Krazy Kat was meta in a hurry—in a 1926 episode, Krazy questions the very existence of all the inhabitants of the strip, asking in the third panel, “Why, where was we before we came into that first picture up there?” This conundrum of fictional beings wrestling with their place in the universe and the nature of their “creator” will resonate with anyone who has laughed and winced at the travails of a pair of Shakespeare’s minor characters elevated to the confused leads in Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Tisserand’s painstakingly researched biography reveals how Herriman deflected the racial animus that constantly surrounded him (and which was barely held at bay by his light skin and the hat he always wore to cover what his colleagues termed “George the Greek’s kinky locks”) into fodder for his funhouse-mirror vision of America. In 1961, James Baldwin wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Tisserand gives us some idea of how, decades earlier, Herriman, rather than go mad, went surreal, creating a community in ink where creatures of every stripe went along to get along. Even if they might at times antagonize one another, they would never stoop to hate—in Herriman-land, throwing a brick was an unintended expression of love.

Few artists can predict if they are going to be immortal, but Herriman must have had a glimpse that the sui generis beauty of his graphically dynamic layouts, endearing characters, and pungent patois would live into the ages. (The strip ran until Herriman’s death.) Although Krazy Kat was never wildly popular, its fans, including Hearst himself, were intensely loyal, and successful cartoonists as varied as Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Will Eisner (The Spirit), and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) cite it as a major influence. (As did the painter Philip Guston, and singer Michael Stipe of R.E.M. has Krazy and Ignatz tattoos.)

Ultimately, Herriman was keenly aware that he lived in the penumbra of white America’s shadow, a realm that could always grow suddenly much darker. Tisserand quotes a famous passage that is often shorn of context—in a 1917 strip Krazy finds a Ouija board and asks the spirits who her enemies are. When the planchette spells out “I-G-N-A-T-Z,” Krazy stomps the board while exclaiming “T’aint so!! T’aint so!! Ignatz is my friend.” In the following panels Ignatz finds his ruined Ouija board and vengefully pastes Krazy with a brick, thereby convincing the Kat that the mouse does, in fact, love her.

Such feints and misunderstandings were mainstays of the strip, and might, in retrospect, shed light on Herriman’s negotiations between prejudice and the pursuit of happiness in these United States, which lends the oft-quoted lines in the last panel of that Sunday’s strip an even deeper poignance:

You have written truth, you friends
of the “shadows,” yet be not
harsh with “Krazy”
He is but a shadow himself,
caught in the web of
this mortal skein.
We call him “Cat,”
We call him “Crazy”
Yet is he neither.
At some time will he ride away
to you, People of the Twilight.
His password will be the echoes of
a vesper bell, his coach, a
zephyr from the West
Forgive him, for you will
understand him no better than we
who linger on this side of
the pale.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 15, 2017