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Still Krazy After All These Years

Of all classic comic strips, George Her­riman’s Krazy Kat was the most bril­liantly formulaic. For over 30 years, the daily installment climaxed more often than not wi1h the strip’s eponymous star taking a well aimed brick on the head. You might call it a “riff” if you were inclined to be musical.

Krazy Kat — which ended as a strip during World War II and has now been anthologized for the first time in decades by the team of Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell, and Georgia Riley de Have­non — is based on an eternal triangle, a setup that confounds conventional animal (if not necessarily human) behavior. Kat loves mouse and is, in turn, adored by dog — thus establishing an equilibrium based on longstanding obsession and mu­tual misunderstanding.

The strip is a rondo of unrequited love. Ignatz, a spindly splenetic mouse, despises Krazy; his greatest pleasure is beaning the hapless Kat with a brick. For Krazy, however, the brick is proof that Ignatz cares: “L’il ainjil, he has rewarded my watchful waiting,” Krazy beams after being conked. The doggedly faithful Of­fissa Pupp, hopelessly in love with the oblivious Kat, jails Ignatz after each assault. Thus, in a sense, every cliché comes true and all the characters get what they want. Krazy Kat, many commentators feel obliged to observe (as they don’t, for example, of War and Peace), is a fantasy.

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No less than Charlie Chaplin, its only pop rival for the affection of Jazz Age aesthetes, Krazy Kat synthesized a particular mixture of sweetness and slapstick, playful fantasy and emotional brutality. The strip acknowledges life’s school of hard knocks and then negates it. Herriman’s quintessential image is Ignatz crowning Krazy with a brick — the trajectory marked “zip,” then “pow” (or sometimes “bop”) as the missile bounces upwards off the back of Krazy’s head. The image is as visceral as a drawing can get — the monomaniacal mouse is into his Walter Johnson-like follow-through, while Krazy is knocked forward at a 45-degree angle by the force of the blow. A bump is never raised, yet as Krazy pitch­es stiffly toward the earth, a dotted line culminating in a little heart issues from the Kat’s forehead. Usually, the fantastic vista of Coconino County, Herriman’s version of Monument Valley, can be glimpsed in the background.

If Krazy Kat was one strip that never ducked the violence inherent in the term “punch line,” it owed considerable charm to its subject’s personality — the Kat’s ro­mantic optimism, philosophical ram­blings, amiable propensity for ukulele-­accompanied song (“There is a heppy lend, fur, fur a-wa-a-ay”). The strip has no mystery greater than that of Krazy’s sex. Most observers assume it is female. In one 1920 Sunday page, the Kat even carries a banner for women’s suffrage (Ig­natz is thinking he’ll support the movement until he discovers who holds the placard aloft: “I’m for no ‘party’ that has that ‘Krazy Kat’ in it”).

Unlike Krazy, Herriman refused to commit himself. “I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl — even drew up some strips with her being pregnant,” he wrote. “It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much con­cerned with her own problems — like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit — a pixie — free to butt into anything. Don’t you think so?” His certainty is less than overwhelming.

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Herriman’s mystical sense of his cre­ation is epitomized by a 1917 Sunday page in which the Kat asks a Ouija board who his enemy is, receives the answer I-G-N-A-T-Z, and refuses to believe it, stomping the Ouija board (which, of course, turns out to belong to Ignatz) into a crumpled accordion. In an often reprinted box at the bottom of the page, Herriman apologizes to the spirits on Krazy’s behalf: “You have written truth, you friends of the shadows. Yet, be not harsh with Krazy. He [sic] is but a shad­ow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him ‘cat,’ we call him ‘crazy’ yet he is neither.” Herriman goes on to conclude that even after Krazy passes into the shadows, “you will under­stand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.” Is Krazy then a sphinx without a secret?

This spirit of Krazy-ness governs every aspect of Coconino County. In marked counterpoint to the strip’s rigorous for­mula is its delirious, insistent flux. Herri­man’s attitude toward his graphic details was one of jazzy insouciance. Not only was the Krazy Kat logo a mutable, unsta­ble design but, in blatant contradiction of the continuous action, panels typically alternate between day and night (the lat­ter often signified by a crescent moon resembling a decrepit mobile fashioned from a warped Frisbee).

Albeit taken literally from Monument Valley (where Herriman spent much time after the mid-’20s), the landscape of Co­conino County was wildly fluid, shimmer­ing more drastically than the most extravagant mirage: One typical strip opens with Krazy and Ignatz talking on a hill­side, the second panel places them in a suburban yard, the third further up the hill, the fourth on a drawing tacked to a wall, and the fifth against some nonde­script horizon. The sixth and final panel finds the pair back in the yard, standing by a wall from which Ignatz meaningfully extracts a brick.

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At once crude and delicate, Herriman’s line seems almost free-associational in its spontaneity. Actually, his drawings are masterpieces of dramatic economy, achieving miracles of individuation and expression through body language and suggestive absences. Less is usually more: Because Ignatz has no mouth, for exam­ple, his eyes become beacons of preter­natural alertness on an otherwise blank face. Like Paul Klee’s, this work often looks like inspired doodling, but don’t be fooled; as much as it celebrates Herri­man’s quasi-automatic drawing, the Abrams anthology emphasizes his canny vulgar modernism. From the late ’30s on, the dailies are full of referential gags — ­characters address their creator, make their own drawings, or use erasers to alter reality. In one 1940 strip, Krazy heaves a brick against the side of the frame — it ricochets like a banked billiard ball up and off the top of the frame to slam her on the head. In another, Ignatz makes strategic use of a black brick, having suc­cessfully predicted the placement of the strip’s all black frame.

In the mid-’20s, Herriman’s fanciful Sunday layouts were standardized to give newspapers greater flexibility in running them. As Herriman chafed under this new formal, the authority figure of Of­fissa Pupp came to the fore; even so, the layouts of the late Sunday pages have the sort of impacted, tightly integrated cur­vaciousness — not to mention burnt, sandy colors — of classic SoCal bunga­lows. Although some of the more extrava­gant Sunday pages are wordless (one 1918 example is an extended, chilling riff on trench warfare), Krazy Kat is as dis­tinctive for its use of language as it is for its other particulars. Krazy speaks with a kind of stage Yiddish accent, tempered with miscellaneous Sam Wellerisms: ‘”Oh what a unheppy ket I am these brickliss days-oy-yoi-yoi!” Offissa Pupp special­izeh in ineptly highfalutin (often self-­pitying) speeches: “Krazy burns a late candle tonight — I trust it attracts neither moth nor mouse.” Only Ignatz, as the reality principle (he’s also a householder with a large family), speaks relatively plain English.

Krazy Kat counted Willem DeKoon­ing and Jack Kerouac among its fans; the strip was always a cult writ large. When Herriman died in 1944, it was only being syndicated in 35 newspapers, as com­pared to the more than 1000 that carried Blondie. Indeed, William Randolph Hearst was Herriman’s incongruous patron; he liked the strip and he kept it going. (According to McDonnell, O’Con­nell, and De Havenon, he even forced Herriman, humble to a fault, to accept a raise.)

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As Herriman ‘s creation is widely held to have been the greatest of comic strips, theories of Krazy Kat abound. Gilbert Seldes’s pioneering 1922 appreciation (reprinted in the Abrams book, it first appeared in Vanity Fair) compared Her­riman to the Douanier Rousseau. For Seldes, Krazy was a combination of Don Quixote and Parsifal (with Ignatz his ma­lign Sancho Panza, if not Kundry). Twenty-four years later, when the strip was posthumously anthologized, e.e. cummings furnished a suitably high-­toned introduction. In his view, the “humbly poetic, gently clown-like, su­premely innocent, illimitably affection­ate” Krazy was nothing less than the spirit of democracy itself struggling against the excesses of individualism (Ig­natz) and the stupidity of society (Offisa Pupp).

More recently, Arthur Asa Berger has seen the strip as an existential parable; by Franklin Rosemont’s anarcho-surreal­ist lights, Krazy Kat is “utopian in the best sense, signifying the imaginative cri­tique of existing values and institutions, and the presentation of imaginary alter­native societies.” There is also a belliger­ent view that Krazy Kat has no meaning. In reviewing the 1946 anthology for Partisan Review, Robert Warshaw saw the strip as inspired nonsense, comparable to Lewis Carroll: “We do best to leave Krazy Kat alone. Good fantasy never has an easy and explicit relation to the real world.” (Although Warshaw admired the strip’s “fresh quality of pure play,” he expressed a decidedly Partisan anxiety over its “complete disregard of the stan­dards of respectable art.”)

The Abrams book provides material for some new theories. Herriman was a notoriously private person and particu­larly vague about his background. (On his death certificate, his daughter main­tained that his parents had been born in France; colleagues used to refer to him as “the Greek.”) With some difficulty, McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon have researched Herriman’s background and confirmed the long-standing rumor that he was of African descent: Born in New Orleans in 1880, Herriman was clas­sified as “colored” on his birth certifi­cate, and his parents were listed as mu­lattos in that year’s census.

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Catholic and French-speaking, the so-called “colored Creoles” of New Orleans were a tight-knit, sophisticated elite, de­scended from “free persons of color” who emigrated from the West Indies. Al­though the 10,000 or so who lived in New Orleans in the late 19th century were mainly professionals and shopkeepers, their position rapidly eroded with the in­stitutionalized segregation that followed the end of Reconstruction. Indeed, it was just at this time — around 1886 — that Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles, where his father found work as a barber and a baker. In 1900, George rode the rails to New York City. By 1903, he was on staff at the New York World.

McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Have­non suggest Krazy Kat’s distinctive patois might be a memory from the Creole quarter of New Orleans. That’s scarcely the only aspect of Coconino County the revelation of Herriman’s background throws into new light. One wonders about the folk stories Herriman might have heard as a child, and Krazy’s vaunted Egyptian heritage now seems like some­thing more than a casual conceit. “Re­member Krazy, my child, you are a Kat — a Kat of Egypt,” she’s told by Kleopatra Kat in one 1919 Sunday page, which also gives the origin of the mouse’s custom “to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiment.”

In view of Herriman’s origins, the per­sistent comparison of Krazy Kat to the rhythm and spontaneity of jazz takes on an added resonance. The comics and jazz appeared on the American scene at roughly the same time. But how many comics shared Krazy’s distinctive formal mixture of sweetness and rough-and­-tumble, consistency and improvisation. Jazz, as Franklin Rosemont points out, was full of “crazy cats.” Jelly Roll Morton, another Creole given to fantasy and hyperbole, was only five years younger than Herriman. It was he who saw the riff as both jazz’s background and foundation.

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“Krazy Kat was not conceived, not born, it jes’ grew,” Herriman is quoted as saying. His admission is startling both for its equation of Krazy with Harri­et Beecher Stowe’s Topsy and for its echo of James Weldon Johnson’s state­ment about the ori­gin of “the earliest ragtime songs.” Johnson, another Herriman contem­porary, published his novel The Auto­biography of an Ex­-Colored Man two years after Krazy’s spontaneous debut. In fact, Krazy Kat did jes’ grow out of the cracks of anoth­er Herriman strip, The Dingbat Family (a/k/a The Family Upstairs, for the Dingbats’ unseen nemesis). The strip published on July 26, 1910, contains an incidental gag: the Dingbats’ cat had his bean honked by a brick-wielding mouse. Eureka!

The relationship between this cat and that mouse soon became a sort of sub­strip beneath the main action; in late 1913, they were spun off into a comic strip of their own. Thus, the Kat was an eruption from below — not just from the underworld of The Dingbat Family and the lower depths of American popular culture but also from Herriman’s uncon­scious. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo — ­which is dedicated to, among others, “George Herriman, Afro-American” — ­uses that concept of Jes Grew as a meta­phor for jazz (and popular culture in general).

From the first, Herriman’s comic strips revolved around compulsive eccentrics — ­one wonders if he wasn’t the most com­plex of them all. His love for Monument Valley, his identification with indigenous Indian culture, his fondness for western Stetsons — not to mention Krazy’s sexual ambiguity and unrequited passion — take on a certain poignancy in view of what must have been an ontological insecurity regarding his own identity. Herriman’s most African feature was evidentally his tightly curled hair — it’s striking that, in virtually every photograph, he’s wearing a hat.

Does Krazy Kat then exorcise the sort of gut-twisting anxiety and guilt engen­dered by passing for white in a segregat­ed culture? Are these brickbats signs of love? Is Coconino County an American utopia? Denial, raised to the sublime, is what Krazy Kat is all about.❖

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

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The Spirit Strikes Back

The Spirit Strikes Back

There was only one great comic book in the ’40s and ’50s, the days when comic books were in their first muscular prime. It was set in a place called Central City, which was obviously New York, and it was filled with darkness. Great dark Gregg Toland shadows, men standing in Fritz Lang pools of light, women with dark hair and inviting bodies. “My name is P’gell,” she said, staring with brutal directness from the splash panel, “and this is not a story for little boys…” The comic book was called The Spirit, and in the last year, as always, The Spirit has risen from the grave.

The old Will Eisner classic is back in a series of handsome buck-a-copy reprints published by Warren Publishing Co. The covers are new, beautifully drawn and colored, and, thankfully, the stories are old. The hard coloring of the ’40s comic supplements and comic books has given way to handsome gray Bendays, which emphasize the lush blacks of the drawings and give the stories a feeling of some old Warner Brothers film, caught forever in the ambiguous light of late afternoon. The stories are brilliant — Jules Feiffer was one of Eisner’s writers — and the artwork is the most expressive ever practiced in comic books — among Eisner’s assistants were Wally Wood, who found his own style in the early Mad, and Alex Kotsky, who now draws the newspaper strip, Apartment 3-G. But more than anything else, The Spirit contained great characters, starting with the lead character himself.

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In the first episode of The Spirit, published as a newspaper supplement on June 2, 1940, a young private detective named Denny Colt challenges the police commissioner, a knuckle-faced character named Dolan to find one of those arch-fiends of the day, a mad scientist named Dr. Cobra (the comics, even before the atom bomb, napalm, herbicides, and the founding of the military-industrial complex saw that warped science might be our greatest danger). Pursuing the mad doctor, Colt gets in a fight, has a vat of chemicals spilled on him, and seems to die of heart failure. Dr. Cobra gets away, and Colt is buried in Wildwood Cemetery. But Colt is not dead. He rises from the grave, visits Dolan, announces that he will stay legally dead because “there are criminals and crimes beyond the reach of the police, but The Spirit can reach them!”

It was a hoary beginning — even down to the stiff, crude artwork — for something that would later become a glory of the cultural backwater known as comics. Now, 23 years after the last Spirit comic, the masked man is back.

I went to see Eisner recently and talked to him about the comeback.

“I kept hammering him back into the box,” said Eisner, a neat 58-year-old New Yorker with precise features, a trim mustache, and a businessman’s style. “He kept coming out. I was the head of a firm that marketed educational materials, social studies enrichment material, and I was heavily involved in that until suddenly… well, not so suddenly, something started to happen. Over the years, there had been European reprints of The Spirit, and gradually I began to get a lot of mail. Guys wrote in asking for originals, which I never sent, and then they asked for old proofs, and then there were requests for interviews. Suddenly I became aware that there must be something going on out there. Then, two, three years ago, somebody out of a clear blue sky asked me to attend a comics convention, to give me an award. Hell, even from the plumber’s convention an award is good.”

Eisner laughed, doodled with a pencil.

“So I went down there. Burne Hogarth (the best artist Tarzan ever had) was down there and I gave a talk, and I suddenly became aware of the enormous underground market. You must understand that the underground concept is very close to me. I started as an underground sort of artist, although it wasn’t called underground in those days. My whole origin came from breaking into established markets from the outside. Original comic books were practically non-existent when I started. It’s hard to claim that you’re the first of anything, because you never know what the guy across the street is doing, but certainly I was among the first guys to make original comic books, with original art, rather than reprints of newspaper stuff.

“It was, let’s see, ’37. 1937. My first work was sold to something called Wow Magazine, which was an attempt at a broad juvenile magazine, and it very promptly went broke… But it made me aware that there was a potential there. So I formed a partnership with a fellow named Jerry Iger. I was like 19 years old, but very entrepreneurial.

“At the time, something else was happening: the pulp publishers were going broke. Popular Publications, Street & Smith, Muncie were all dying. They started looking for new things to publish and some of them were even putting comic strips inside the pulps. So we hit on a publisher and convinced him that he ought to publish comics. He said yes, but that he had no way to get comics. At that time, the comic books — like Famous Funnies — were just daily strips pasted into a sequence. So I said, ‘We’ll do original work.’ He said okay, but he would only pay the rate he would pay for proofs from newspaper syndicates, $5 a page. So we told him we had five artists as Eisner and Iger, which wasn’t true. And I turned out five different scripts in five different styles.” Eisner laughed: “There’s a lot of stuff around with names like Willis Rensie, which is my name spelled backwards, and Spencer Steel. Spencer Steel: I always like to be called Spencer Steel. Especially where I come from. It had a nice Anglo-Saxon ring to it.” (He came from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.)

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“I soon had a staff of 15 guys working an operation that looked like a galley ship. I sat in the center and along the oars were the pencilers and paste-up people and inkers and so forth. I was writing the stories, and passing them down, and drawing the heads or something. At $5 a page, we made about a buck and a half net profit, which added up, strangely enough. Later on, as the publishers got smarter, they insisted on owning the properties, so that features we owned, like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, ended up with a separate life.”

By late 1939, after Superman and Batman had taken off, some newspapers started inquiring about having ready-made comic books of their own. Eisner teamed up with a man named “Busy” Arnold, a former newspaper press salesman, and Henry Martin of the Register and Tribune Syndicate.

“You know, we were just emerging form the depression,” Eisner recalled, “and there were a lot of new ideas generating, and newspapers were beginning to smell death at the time. Technology was improving, offset was coming in, and all of these things were having an impact on the publishing industry. Anyway, after some discussion, we formed a partnership. Newspaper delivery systems, as you know, are very inflexible, with six-weeks lead time, and you need someone producing the material who is dependable. I had that reputation. We had a big package deal, that included Police Comics and Uncle Sam comics, and Busy Arnold and I became partners. His real name was actually Everett, and I don’t know why he was called ‘Busy,’ because he wasn’t always that busy. Anyway, the whole thing was pretty much in my hands, including the editorial judgement, which was a tremendous break, especially when you’re 21 years old and full of beans. I had no idea what I’d do, except that you always have something on the back burner that you want to do if you’re let loose. For me, that was The Spirit.”

Eisner knew from the beginning that the key to its success would be its stories. Most comics at the time were simple-minded versions of movie serials. Eisner’s work had to be self-contained, and so he focused on the short story as his model.

“I was an avid short story fan, but more importantly, I suppose, I was a frustrated serious painter and a frustrated serious writer. I could do both reasonably well, but not well enough to make a name for myself in either media by itself. But with the euphoria you bring to something when you know it’s the big time, I attacked it as if I were a young Dostoevski. I also equated myself with Ben Hecht and some of the pulp writers, who were my heroes at the time. Short stories are sort of dead now, but they were very big in the ’30s.

“The title — The Spirit — was the result of about 15 names I’d listed, and I really had no intention of making him a ghost. I didn’t want him to be a super-hero, because I had been grinding out super-heroes, and knew what super-heroes were all about. But at the same time, I knew that I had to have an identification; there were certain perimeters you stayed within, or accepted formulas that would augur success. The syndicate sales­men were selling a product, and they wanted it to look like a product they could sell. I promised them a detective. That was fine: a detective could sell. And I promised them a complete story every week, and that was novel, because most people had to wait six weeks to finish a story in a newspaper strip. So we tried to get as much plot into a single episode as the dailies got in six or eight weeks.”

The first 16-page weekly comic book featured The Spirit and two other features. Eisner decided that the load was too much and sold his interest in Eisner and Iger (which was still free-lancing comic art to other publications) so he could concentrate solely on The Spirit.

“When I think back about it now, it was an enormous decision,” Eisner said. “But when you’re that young, you know, you feel impervious. It’s like young pilots in Vietnam, saying: ‘What do you mean I’m going to get killed? No one can kill me: I’m 21 years old.’ I remember Iger trying to dissuade me, saying that The Spirit might not sell in the newspaper business, it could be dead in a year. I said, “I’m immortal. I’m Superman. I’m going to do it.’ ”

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The high quality of The Spirit was probably traceable to the oddity of its being a newspaper supplement, rather than a newsstand comic book. Eisner said that in those days the average comic book was written for an eight- or 10-year-old mind.

“But I had a totally different audience. When you’re writing, you’re writing for someone: you, or a little old lady in Brooklyn, or whomever. I was writing to adults. I was writing to college students. I was writing to kids. We started with three papers and grew to 19 or 20, and I also knew that I had a Bible Belt out there to worry about. If you spent a dime on Superman it was because you wanted Superman. But here was a comic that came into the house on Sunday because Pop went out and bought it for the news.

Eisner quickly discovered an enormous freedom and range in possible stories.

“I could pull out the stocking and I could make mistakes,” he said. “If I did a lousy story this week, it was only that week, and I could do a good story next week. And I did have ups and downs, because there are weeks when you go dry. In the beginning I had more good ideas than I could produce, but as time went on, of course, I used them up. Then I started generating new stories out of the newspapers themselves. That went on for a year and a half, and in 1942, I was invited to join the armed forces.”

In the army Eisner was an aide on the staff of the Chief of Ordnance, and later started doing cartoon instruction strips for a magazine called Army Motors; he still maintains an interest in the use of comics as an instructional device. The Spirit continued, with Lou Fine drawing it for a while, along with the great Jack Cole (famous in his own right as the artist of Plastic Man and then as a Playboy cartoonist in the magazine’s early days).

In early 1946, Eisner came back to New York and The Spirit and, from 1946 to 1950, had what he calls “four glorious golden years.” It was at this time that Jules Feiffer went to work for Eisner. “We’ve had a remarkably good relationship over the years,” Eisner said of Feiffer. “There’s a tremendous empathy between us. Psycholo­gically we’re very much alike, philosophically we’re much alike… Those were the vintage years for me… A lot of collectors are into the early, pre-war Spirit, but as I look back now the drawing is very, very crude. I think what attracts the collectors or so-called historians is the obvious fact that I was experimenting so vividly, so aggres­sively. There just was nothing like The Spirit in existence. King Features came out with an imitation called ‘Red Barry’ or something, but it died in a couple of months. It just didn’t haveI guess the word is elan.”

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The post-war Spirit was the world of lush blacks, unusual angles, great humor, all of which had been present in a cruder form in the earlier version. The difference, Eisner said, was that the war had matured him — ­and his work: “The early Spirits were done by a young kid barely out of high school, who lived a very cloistered life, when you con­sider that most cartoonists live a cloistered life. I mean, 90 per cent of a cartoonist’s time is spent at a drawing board in a fantasy world. Occasionally you get up and tell the plumber, ‘Yeah, the pipe is over there,’ or whatever it is, and you do go out and buy lunch. But one of the great occupational hazards of this life is that an artist spends an enormous amount of his life in the nice soft womb of a studio. Now with the rates higher, it might be possible to spend six months on one book, as if you were writing a novel. In those days, I was functioning the way, say, a TV series writer works, and you don’t expect great masterworks under the circumstances. Of course, I was functioning as the writer and the director. I teach at the School of Visual Arts, and I keep telling the students that you’re the actor, you’re the author, you’re the screenwriter, you’re the cameraman, you’re the director, and you’re the cutting editor. I hold to the idea that the comic strip author should be writer and artist.

I asked Eisner how much he had been influenced by movies.

“My early life was spent in the Brooklyn movie houses, those marvelous temples of fantasy. That’s where my life experience came from, by and large, with the exception of a couple of street fights. As a kid, I used to go and look at Man Ray movies, all the experimental films that the New School used to run in the ’30s, and in high school I very seriously considered going into theatrical design. I was very theatre oriented. The answer is yes: I was always motion picture oriented. I thought of a comic strip as a movie on paper. Or put another way, movies are comic strips made to move.”

Eisner loved Fritz Lang’s movies: his cartoonist heroes were Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Popeye’s E.C. Segar, and George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat pages ended up in museums. But he said he didn’t con­sciously steal from anyone.

“There’s no such thing as stealing, really. There’s a difference between stealing and imitation or slavish emulation. If you’re emulating a guy, and you’ve got a strong personality of your own, you’ll always devel­op your own style anyway. Some artists serve as jumpoff points for other artists. For example, George Herriman showed me that you could develop odd and abstract back­grounds without any realistic relation to what was going on. It isn’t much of a jump to say, ‘Ah yes, he showed me the way and now I’m going to improve on the idea.’ Writers showed me. Conan Doyle, for example, helped me tremendously in writing balloons. Balloons are like writing telegrams. You’re constricted in space, you have to make every word count. You learn there’s a dynamics of words, that words have visual impact. The word ‘shit’ on paper doesn’t look as horrible as it sounds, so you have to find another word to make it sound as horrible. ‘Glak!’ sounds like a man choking or dying when you write in on a page, but it doesn’t sound the same when you say it. Conan Doyle’s style was largely dialogue, three or four pages of crisp back-and-forth dialogue where the reader knows exactly what is going on, and even knows how the man feels. So I learned from that. And combined with pictures, it becomes an art form in itself.”

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The Spirit revival started when Eisner granted a man named Dennis Kitchen the right to reprint some old Spirits in an underground comic, for which Eisner drew a new cover. It sold out. They did a second and that too sold out. Meanwhile, a magazine called Tin Tin in France was also publishing the old Spirit stories, with Eisner’s permission, and “soon I was back in the Spirit business.” Then several New York comic publishers offered to revive the strip. But Eisner started talking to Jim Warren, who wanted initially to do a Spirit poster, then to scatter Spirit stories through existing publications, and finally agreed to a full-scale revival in a magazine entirely devoted to The Spirit. “I know Warren,” Eisner explains, “and we have a philosophical compatibility. But if someone asked me why I gave it to Warren, I’d say, because he cares.”

Eisner had saved all the original artwork, which was in good shape “except for a coffee cup stain here or there.” Warren hired a fine underground artist named Rich Corben to color the first two issues: Eisner and an assistant did the coloring in the six that have followed, and he has also directed the appli­cation of the gray Bendays that have given the strips such a handsome texture. There are 240 old stories, and they will start to run out in 1976. So Eisner is preparing to write new ones. Where will the new material come from?

“The newspapers,” he said. “I did that from the beginning. I remember, back in 1941, they were building the Lincoln Tunnel and there were a lot of stories about sand­hogs dying and so forth, so I used that and built a story around it.” I mentioned a fine Spirit story of 1947, based on the great blizzard that year, in which The Spirit is trapped in a sewer because he can’t raise the snow-covered manhole covers. All of the stories seemed to draw on the life of cities.

“That’s what I mean,” he said. “Only a city dweller can be aware of the real signifi­cance of a snowstorm. A snowstorm in the country is really something to ride over, you know. It’s part of the landscape, no different than the rocks and the mud. But a snowstorm in the city is the equivalent of dropping the atom bomb. Think about it for a minute. If you and I were mad scientists here, and we were going to tie up the city of New York… Let’s say it’s a military exercise, so that the people of the city of New York couldn’t get out of the city of New York. You wanted to capture New Jersey, but you wanted the people of New York to be immobilized for 48 hours or more. Well, you could bomb all the bridges at the same time, but they would still get across the river. But settle 14 to 20 inches of snow on the city! It does things like immobilize manhole covers, it immobilizes traffic, it’s a real thing! Only a city kid, only a person who’s lived in the city and learned how to survive in the city and regards the city as his jungle, so to speak, can be aware of how enormous that would be.”

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Eisner’s work at its best contained a kind of urban poetry, and I asked him if the lyric strain had come from the same things that had produced similar qualities in such di­verse Brooklynites as Irwin Shaw, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer.

“We were doing different things, but sure! What we were doing, all of us, was weeping inside the ghetto walls. ‘Outside the ghetto walls was another world,’ we were told. But I mean ghetto, inside the walls of the city, a kind of medieval city in which you’ve grown up. Your plan is really to climb one of those walls. Some guys do it by marrying a nice blonde Gentile girl and living up in Westchester with her family. Some guys do it by becoming a basketball player, or a boxer: in those days everybody was going to be a boxer. Or the other guys say the hell with it, I’m going to join the mob and I’m going to make it. I wanted to be a comic strip artist. From the time I was eight years old! So guys go to movies, read books, they know there’s another world out there, and how things could be. You learned from everything. You lived in the tenements and looked at Mr. and Mrs. Cohen living to­gether. As a kid I could watch him banging her, or him beating the shit out of her. Now, television does that. It’s like a window into somebody else’s house, from which you glean what life is about. Even television. It shows you a world that doesn’t have a sense of realism, but from which you draw some of your life experience.”

Eisner is clearly enjoying the increasing interest in The Spirit and the realization that some of the strips approached art.

“Sure, most of it was crap,” he said. “But when I grew up, along with my peers — the Jack Kirbys, the Jack Coles, the Siegel and Shusters — we were learning the merchan­dise. We were cobblers, not shoe designers. When I was at the Art Students League, I was taught that art was synonymous with one or two mediums. An oil painting is art. An etching is art. A mural is art. But a comic strip is not art, or was not art. This seemed always to me a great injustice. But we were making art. I prefer to call it sequential art. Daumier, Goya, the people who made 13th-­century broadsheets: they were making se­quential art. I think we’re poised now to treat other kinds of subjects. More sophisticated subjects. Comics have dealt with only one theme for the last 30 years and that was Crime Does Not Pay. Yes, there were Jiggs and Maggie subjects, or A Monster Is Going to Take Over the Earth. But it’s still ‘crime does not pay.’ My one condescension to the medium — the way I had to pay my dues­ — was to make The Spirit a crime fighter. Your new people will be touching on subjects that are more sensitive, if not more serious. Me: I’d like to do a novel in this medium. I’m at a stage of affluence where I can afford to do it without worrying whether it will sell or not. The trouble is that it’s a two-year project, because the fastest anybody can move is about a page a day. At least that’s as fast as I could go. But even then it’s not so much the length and the physical limitation, it’s the story, the plot. It would have to be serious stuff. What I’m talking about is that instead of doing ‘Crime and Punishment,’ by a fellow named Dostoevski, I would have a story by Will Eisner.”

Eisner smiled, and doodled.

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ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives show-old-images

Beautiful Art in an Ugly Year

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.”

Trashman hustling across the pages of “Subvert Comics” #1, 1970

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.

Trashman goes after the Man; “Subvert Comics” #2, 1972

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.)

Hayes’ “Death Mask Sitting with Cigar,” 2016

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.

Hayes’ “Hair Brush,” 2016

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.

Drexler’s “Priapus Accepts,” 1963

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 study for “How Long Have You Had These Fantasies,” 1988

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.

Left: Self-aware Krazy, 1941; right: Ignatz in his glory, 1934

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.

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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.

An American visionary’s self-portrait with friends.

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.

Krazy has an existential moment, 1933

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.)

Meta in a hurry: Ignatz with a painting of himself in jail, 1927

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.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives show-old-images

Sturtevant’s Imitation Game

Art about “Art” too often exudes the dogma of religion. Whether one worships the crucifix or the canvas, salvation — or the hammer price at Sotheby’s — depends solely on faith and desire. Where there is no intrinsic value there is only judgment, which (at least on this mortal plane) is never final. But just how many angels can dance on the tip of a stretcher key?

Thus, Sturtevant.

Born Elaine Frances Horan, in Ohio, in 1924, the artist went professionally by the last name from her marriage to a Madison Avenue advertising executive, which produced two children and ended in divorce. She died in 2014. Sturtevant made a splash in the mid-1960s by replicating the works of already well-known contemporaries — Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, among others. (Most copyists, whether students sketching the Old Masters in museums or forgers cranking out fake Mona Lisas, have the veil of time to separate their facsimiles from the real McCoys.) In 1965 New York Times critic John Canaday, in reviewing Sturtevant’s first show of copies, mentioned “a Jim Dine necktie,” a “fine little Jasper Johns flag,” and some “good Lichtensteins,” noting that Sturtevant “must be the first artist in history to have held a one-man show that included everybody but herself.” He then asked, “Does Miss Sturtevant make the ultimate confession that art today is so superficial…that it is only a series of copyrighted gags?” and summed up with another question: “What about those fancy prices for big names, if a little name can give you the same thing just as good?” A current survey of Sturtevant’s work at Gavin Brown offers some answers.

Back in 1965, both artist and critic were indulging in a facile reading of the art of their moment, assuming contemporary art is easily replicated. No one would question that forging a Renaissance masterpiece requires serious technical skill and deft draftsmanship. Sturtevant, though, always said she was seeking something other than exact copies, telling an interviewer in 2007 that, as in her 1965 debut, she was generally after a “total structure…a way of trying to trigger thinking. So you’re not seen as that specific, but you’re seen as a total structure.” By imitating the works of others she sought to create an installation critiquing the matrix of galleries and museums that anointed one artist and not another. Later in the interview she recounted a disagreement she’d had during a lecture in Berlin, when an audience member told her he thought she was a conceptual artist. Despite her desire to “trigger thinking,” she replied, “I have nothing to do with conceptual artists. Their emphasis on language is totally different, where they want to go is different. They never wanted to make objects. I mean, the premise was not to make objects, even though they made objects. So basically I said to this guy, I make tons and tons and tons of objects.”

2017 Village Voice article on Sturtevant by R.C. Baker

But her objects, as she herself pointed out, need the conceptual echo chamber of being surrounded by themselves: “[I’m] practically never, ever, in group shows because it’s just a piece hanging out.” This quarantine tactic faltered during her 2014 MoMA retrospective, when it was simply a matter of going from one floor to another to compare one of Stella’s lustrous Black Paintings to Sturtevant’s flat variant. The proximity exposed her knockoffs of artists from Beuys to Rosenquist as visually inert, with little of the dynamic presence of the originals. This aspect comes across clearly in her unfortunate decision, in 1991, to copy Jasper Johns’s White Flag (1955). Radiant as an atomic burst, White Flag defined the Cold War anxiety of the buttoned-down Eisenhower era through denatured color, even as the sumptuous surface captured the roiling undercurrents of a nascent counterculture that would explode in the next decade. Although partially created with encaustic, an ancient, wax-based medium, Johns’s monochrome twist on one of the most powerful (literally and metaphorically) graphic designs in the world was a shocking cultural breakthrough, subsuming the passions of Abstract Expressionism into a loam that would help engender the dynamism of Pop, the ascetic purity of Minimalism, and the intellectual gyrations of Conceptualism. Yet for all that formal freight, what puts Johns’s revolutionary painting over the aesthetic top is his preternatural touch with materials, his pungent blends of encaustic blobs with slashes of oil paint, a quiet riot of resplendent texture. In Sturtevant’s version in the current show, such startling grace is absent, the pale strokes one-note and rushed across the newspaper ground.

“White Flag” (1955) by Jasper Johns
Can you tell the difference? “Johns White Flag” by Sturtevant, from 1991

So dead-on imitation (a grueling exercise in any event) was never Sturtevant’s intention. She was questioning why one image has more cultural prestige (and dollar value) than a similar version. The immediate answer would be that there is value in all the pick-and-shovel work of origination. Yet there is no gainsaying that in the 1960s, and right up to our current moment, questions of remuneration in relation to the gender or race of the creator resonate forcefully. (In this realm, at least, Sturtevant has slightly evened the score, with some of her works selling for seven figures at auction; at times, her “Lichtensteins” have kept pace with — and in one notable case, well surpassed — what the originals were gaveled down for. Lichtenstein’s compositions were invariably more rote than the comic-book illustrations he swiped from, and such simplicity was made to order for Sturtevant’s strategies.)

Her faux Warhol diptych in the current show — a portrait of Marilyn Monroe on one small round canvas next to a blank companion, both with gold grounds — only confirms that conjuring the aura of exalted tragedy the Pope of Pop achieved in his best work requires more than one of his castoff silk screens. Warhol understood that popular culture gained visual impact precisely from the limitations its creators were forced to work under; hence his insight that clogged printing screens, poor color registration, and other defects of mechanical reproduction stripped away the perfection celebrities strive to project and revealed the flawed humanity underneath. Sturtevant’s bland simulacrum feels wanly precious, an emotion that Warhol, with his iron gaze, never indulged in his paintings.

Sturtevant’s “Warhol Flowers” (1990)

Such criticism begs the question of whether, confronted with a few unidentified Sturtevants salted into a room of real Johns and Warhol canvases, this critic could pick out the ringers. Maybe, maybe not. I’d certainly, though, chalk them up as poor examples from the maestros. After changing the face of painting in the 1950s and early ’60s, Johns has been churning out elegant clones for half a century, to diminishing aesthetic, if not financial, returns. And Warhol’s minions manufactured acres of schlock celebrity portraits over the years; Sturtevant didn’t corner the market on subpar canvases.

She did, however, question the supremacy of imagery that was already becoming iconic — a “Warhol” here, a “Lichtenstein” there — at a moment in history when techniques of mechanical reproduction were gaining ever more verisimilitude; this undoubtedly allowed for cocktail chatter about the artist who was copying copyists. But any sense of shock in the face of such tactics can only exist within the fussy confines of the art world, which sometimes has a tendency to champion minor insights as major transgressions. Sturtevant came to prominence at a time when gallerist Ivan Karp, on viewing Lichtenstein’s blown-up comic panels, declaimed, “It was just too shocking for words that somebody should celebrate the cartoon and the commercial image like that.” Well, anyone who had read Gilbert Seldes’s The Seven Lively Arts anytime over the prior four decades might have felt that, actually, Ivan just needed to get out of the house more. Writing the same year Sturtevant was born, 1924, Seldes zeroed in on the surrealistic pathos of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip, crowning it “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today. With those who hold that a comic strip cannot be a work of art I shall not traffic….For ten years, daily and frequently on Sunday, Krazy Kat has appeared in America; in that time we have accepted and praised a hundred fakes from Europe and Asia — silly and trashy plays, bad painting, woeful operas, iniquitous religions, everything paste and brummagem, has had its vogue with us.” Plus ça change…

Reducing “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America” to “paste and brummagem”: Sturtevant’s Krazy Kat

As it happens, Sturtevant tried her hand at Krazy Kat, portraying the bewitching hero/ine and his/her longed-for beau, Ignatz Mouse, with a wavering, weightless line that Herriman, as incisive an inker as ever wielded a pen, would never have countenanced. Herriman convincingly conveyed head-clonking bricks as expressions of love in its myriad glories — unrequited, passionate, chaste, triangular — but Sturtevant delivers only dithering slapstick.

Tricky business, this cribbing of other people’s work. Consider Han van Meegeren, who had a lucrative cottage industry cranking out fake Vermeers and selling them to high-ranking Nazis during World War II. Accused at war’s end as a collaborator who sold Dutch treasures to the enemy, the alcoholic painter avoided the hangman’s noose by copping to his forgeries, painting a fresh “Vermeer” in the courtroom to convince skeptics. Van Meegeren’s Vermeers are serviceable at best, devoid of the beguiling atmosphere of the originals, but as there were only thirty-some paintings attributed to the Dutch master, van Meegeren found anxious buyers amid the nouveau riche plunderers of the Third Reich, all of whom craved the favor of Hitler, who admired only paintings with a realistic bent.

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Van Meegeren had cleverly decided not to mimic the domestic interior scenes Vermeer was famous for, but to fabricate an earlier body of work supposedly influenced by the painter’s youthful travels in Italy. He then produced a number of “Vermeers” with classic religious themes, such as The Supper at Emmaus. That canvas was eventually acquired by Hermann Göring, who had missed out on a genuine Vermeer that had been confiscated from the Rothschild family for the Führer’s collection. During his trial, van Meegeren pointed at Emmaus, which was now acknowledged by the court as one of his forgeries, and proclaimed, “Yesterday, this painting was worth millions of guilders and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?”

Indeed. When Göring, on trial for crimes against humanity, was informed that his beloved Vermeer was a fake, he looked, according to one observer, “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.” Had the Nazis triumphed, Göring’s cack-handed Vermeer would be enshrined in the canon and Picasso’s Guernica (postcards of which the Spaniard handed out to German soldiers who visited his studio in Paris during the Occupation) would have been tossed onto the ash heap of “Degenerate Art.” Unlike van Meegeren, Sturtevant was not trying to fool anyone, but their conceptual gambits landed in similar realms when the Dutchman stood in the courtroom and declared himself the proud creator of fakes.

The notion of a “creator” riles culture no less than religion. Take the sad tale of Ruth Kligman’s “Pollock” painting. Dubbed “Death Car Girl” by poet Frank O’Hara, Kligman was Pollock’s lover when he smashed his convertible into a tree, killing himself and a friend of Kligman’s, who herself was thrown clear. Kligman (a Liz Taylor–ish beauty who died at age eighty, in 2010) claimed that during her affair with Pollock — which enraged his wife, Lee Krasner — the brooding Abstract Expressionist gave her the painting as a token of his love. Despite forensic analysis that lends credence to Kligman’s claim, the painting was never authenticated by the Pollock estate, which was staffed with friends of his widow. All the principals are now dead, and, at roughly two-foot-square and as red as a bleeding heart, the painting is undoubtedly striking. But whether it is a genuine Pollock resides in the mind’s eye of the beholder.

Sturtevant’s work treads this heady space between perception and the physical object, between brain and fingertips. Marcel Duchamp, a precursor to Sturtevant’s thought-bubble art, literally dispensed with even the most banal of physical touches when, in 1915, he purchased a snow shovel in a hardware store, hung it from his studio ceiling, and titled it In Advance of the Broken Arm (though he would’ve been more statistically accurate to call it Prior to the Strained Back; alternatively, he might have amped up the drama with Herald of the Heart Attack). Dispatches from the driest reaches of the aesthetic desert that Duchamp created when he declared war on what he disparaged as “retinal art,” such works are unconcerned with any of the corporeal pleasures arising from the form, texture, color, illusion, and other physical properties one communes with in the presence of great visual art.

Some of Sturtevant’s videos, projected by rotating lenses, do deliver a frisson in the gallery space (one section of which — all paint-scabbed brick and raw girders — could be the setting for an Anselm Kiefer painting). Images of a striding figure — Sturtevant imitating one of Beuys’s performances — flare and stab across walls, doors, fire extinguishers, windows, and columns like shards of light from a king-hell disco ball. A heavy, monotonous beat drones as the luminous rectangles stretch and rack like taffy across the ersatz canon of Warhols and Johnses on the walls.

If you’ve made it this far in this article, you have some idea of the effect of a Sturtevant show. Interesting to think about, not so much to look at. Or, viewed more generously, Sturtevant can be seen as a precursor to our present moment, when any image can be Photoshopped, and valuing the original seems an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays, paintings — objects pretty much defined by tactile subtleties — are routinely viewed (and sold) on iPhones. Like Sturtevant’s bland copies, a screenshot supplies plenty of data while truncating beauty.

Sturtevant
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
439 West 127th Street, 212-627-5258
gavinbrown.biz
Through September 9

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An Element of Chance: A Celebration of John Perreault

Village Voice art critic R.C. Baker recently spoke at the opening of a survey exhibition of the work of John Perreault (1937–2015), “It’s Only Art,” on view at Marquee Projects. Perreault was an artist, critic, poet, and teacher, as well as the chief art critic at the Voice from 1966 to 1974.

On John Perreault, at the exhibition “It’s Only Art,” Marquee Projects, June 23, 2017:

I’m going to keep this short and hopefully on point, because that’s how John wrote some of his greatest reviews. Let me give you an example of what I mean when I say that: In 1970, Philip Guston exhibited his magisterial cartoon figures for the first time, paintings influenced by Renaissance masters from 500 years earlier. Within a decade it would become apparent that Guston’s own masterpieces would join that pantheon and similarly influence serious painters for all time. Back in 1970, though, most critics — and too many artists — gave Guston terrible reviews. These first cartoon paintings were almost universally reviled. But one critic, writing in the Village Voice, saw something that almost no one else appreciated in those works. I’ll quote a few excerpts from John Perreault’s two-paragraph review:

“Guston’s new paintings are cartoony, looney, moving….It’s as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart….It’s all in the service of a tragicomedy of errors or terrors. It really took guts to make this shift this late in the game, because a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. Not me.”

If that is all I said about John tonight — that in those brief sentences he got right what almost no one else did, except Willem de Kooning; John and de Kooning got it right — if that was all I said, it would cement John’s legacy as an extraordinarily insightful critic. But how could John have had such insight when nearly everyone else missed the beginnings of one the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century?

One clue might come from the great underground filmmaker Jack Smith, who wrote in a groundbreaking essay in the late 1960s, “In [America] the blind go to the movies.” What he was charging was that film critics didn’t understand the medium because “film critics are writers and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.”

The gallery at Marquee Projects

And so, as we look around these galleries, we begin to understand why John Perreault got Guston right, or why he saw in a young student named Ana Mendieta such astounding promise — we see why right here on these walls and on these floors. Because John was not uneasy with visual phenomenon. In fact, he reveled in it. Because John created his own visual phenomena — he was an artist.

For instance, what do we see in the painting Don’t? At first glance, those two elongated red globules might be twins, and yet it quickly becomes apparent that they are doing very different things. One stretches exactly from the top to the bottom of the canvas; the other comes up a bit short. This is visual poetry. This is the full stop of a period on one side, the pause of a comma — or perhaps the clean break of an em-dash — on the other. This is the rhythm of stanzas, the charming echo of assonance.

Perreault’s “Don’t” (2014)

And then we have those two red wheelbarrows. I’m not sure the children should be allowed to see them in their rough embrace. These are found volumes — we know that wheelbarrows are designed to trundle around heaps of dirt or compost or what have you. John has destroyed this utility while creating a comical narrative that in its brawniness — to my eye, at least — brings the sheer physicality of an ancient Greek statue of two wrestlers into a garden on the South Shore of Long Island.

Or how about those yellow, right-angle drips in the painting around the corner there, which is called Three. This might be a modern dance, the troupe moving first in one direction, then all pivoting gracefully to another. Abstract, yes, but also a physical record of force and weight and velocity. And how much would John appreciate the way in which this painting is displayed in this gallery at this moment? How serendipitous is it that in a painting that is all about right angles and gravity, that in this charming — but old — building, it was necessary to put a small wedge under one corner to keep this piece level, something absolutely crucial to its concept.

But as John often said, “It’s only art.”

That statement is a wonderful, worldly wise view of this thing called art, one that John shared with Gulley Jimson, the main character in Joyce Cary’s great 1941 novel, The Horse’s Mouth, and perhaps fiction’s greatest evocation of the earthy, humorous, and at times fatalistic view of life I believe all truly great artists possess. I think John and Gulley Jimson would have shared a laugh at the way one of Gulley’s cardinal rules has been broken here: In the novel, Gulley says, “When I had my canvas up, it was two foot off the floor, which just suited me. I like to keep my pictures above dog level.”

“Three” (2013)

Which brings me to what John once wrote of Andy Warhol’s — well, let’s use the polite name, Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings.” John said, “Shower queens will rejoice and others will be simultaneously attracted and repulsed. What could be better?”

And so, with this inherently human contradiction, we arrive at a discussion of alternative mediums. I mean, are you kidding me — toothpaste? Oil-soaked beach sand? Coffee?

When I first saw John’s coffee drawings I thought of an amazing show at the Drawing Center in the late 1990s, by another writer who was also an artist — Victor Hugo.

Hugo’s drawings, like his novels, are Romantic, gothic, overblown, and thrilling — castles in mist, a murder of crows surrounding a hanged man, a menacing octopus, and ultimately completely abstract vistas. One of Hugo’s friends said of his methods: “Any means would do for him — the dregs of a cup of coffee tossed on old laid paper. The dregs of an inkwell tossed on notepaper, spread with his fingers, sponged up, dried, then taken up with a thick brush or a fine one.” There is a wonderful sense of play implied in this mucking about in the dregs of the world.

And that is what you feel here, in John’s work—the world. Not just the art world, but this vast combination of things, of ideas, of culture past and present — of coffee grounds and toothpaste and polluted sand — everything was grist for John’s work. Or, as Hugo once said, “Great artists have an element of chance in their talent, and there is also talent in their chance.”

In a painting such as City, we are startled by the way chance and insightful skill and decision-making combine into a powerful, glowing composition. This is drips as architecture, a matrix of light and dark, civilization as abstraction. And to me, it is so beautiful how John, having made a life and a career for himself in the labyrinth of New York City — something that is not easy to do, as so many of us here tonight understand — John (along with his husband Jeff Weinstein, of course) then made a home out here on Long Island. And I think these two worlds are combined in this painting, both literally — grids blotted and ground down by sand — and also formally, in a way that borders on the spiritual. Because, as much as we are all denizens of civilization — of this vast network that makes art and culture possible — we are, before that, children of the edge, of that place where land and sea meet. This painting captures something so very much larger than what it represents.

So, ultimately, this is serious business, this thing called art and culture. But it means nothing if we cannot enjoy it, and John, through his writing, his poetry, and, yes, look all around here, through his art, through all the stuff that made up this singular, wonderfully expansive life, John left the world — and I’m not talking about the art world, understand, but the real world — John left it better than he found it.

 

“It’s Only Art”
Marquee Projects
14 Bellport Lane
Bellport, New York
631-803-2511
marqueeprojects.org
Through July 16

 

 

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Existential Jazz

Hopper has filled his 1930 masterpiece Early Sunday Morning, a horizontal painting of squat apartments and storefronts, with jazzy visual rhythms—the steady indentations of dark gray cornices move like a smooth bassline, yellow squares of drawn window shades shift high and low like chords, darkened doorways are syncopated drumbeats, with an off-kilter red, white, and blue barber pole and stumpy fire plug providing sharp rim shots. Squint slightly and the red bricks, yellow geometries, and dark rectangles have the “boogie woogie” vibe of Mondrian’s pure abstractions, while a mysterious shadow running the length of the sidewalk might be cribbed from de Chirico: Something wicked (or at least surrealist) this way comes. Hopper captured the weirdness lurking behind America’s businesslike facade through complex, hard-won compositions. Another gem, New York Movie (1939), is accompanied by over 50 preparatory sketches—everything from the flashlight clutched in the bored usherette’s hand to the repeated curves of chair backs and light fixtures. The painting is a chutes ‘n’ ladders maze of space—subdued orange lights plunge toward the screen, which displays silvery blue undulations. An entwining kiss? A cowboy’s horse? Only the elderly couple, sunk deep in their padded seats, will ever know.

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through December 3

CAPSULES:

‘Krazy & Ignatz 1937–38’

Strange bedfellows joined by love

Hemingway. Disney. Picasso. Gertrude Stein. Charlie Chaplin. R. Crumb. Calvin Coolidge. Strange bedfellows joined by love of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Notorious press baron William Randolph Hearst insisted the strip run in his papers, despite many an editor scratching his head over its enigmatic triangle of cat loves mouse, dog loves cat, and mouse disdains everyone. Fantagraphics’ latest collection of exactingly reproduced color Sunday pages reveals anew a virtuoso draftsman who could shift backgrounds and day-for-night from panel to panel, his beautiful crosshatching and sharp black accents conveying theatrical space and wry emotion in a single penstroke. Red pulsing hearts and green-cheese-wedge moons float above while volcanos hurl bricks at the Kat; those old-world surrealists got nothing on our homegrown master, dah-links. fantagraphics.com


‘Daughters of Dada’
The visual hubbub of salon-style hanging is appropriate for this show of six independent women, all born in the late 19th century. A high-stepping stick figure thumbing his nose at the world is no surprise coming from the brush of Beatrice Wood. Marcel Duchamp, her mentor, is often given the credit for Wood’s famous observation that “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” Florine Stettheimer is represented by a trio of hand-painted china plates, two featuring a pale, blonde coquette with a partially obscured, swarthy companion. For sheer weirdness, few works can top Mina Loy’s 1955 Christ on a Clothesline: Hanging amid tenements, with a bird’s nest in place of the crown of thorns, his grim face drooping between clothespinned shoulders, the son of God has never looked humbler. Francis M. Nauman, 22 E 80th, 212-472-6800. Through July 28.


‘A Brighter Day’
Roxy Paine’s polymer tower of lifelike fungus and mushrooms, stacked like a troll’s high-rise, is the perfect foil to Pierpaolo Campanini’s canvas of a floating arm ending in a wire-frame hand. In the middle of the gallery, David Altmejd’s sculpture of a hairy beast riven with mirror shards and fluorescent tubes feels like a werewolf caught in a disco disaster. Erick Swenson’s resin animal skull, with swatches of peeling skin and antlers like dry branches, is a startling imitation of death; its title, Ne Plus Ultra, implies that there is nothing beyond the dessicated flesh. With daydreams like this, who needs nightmares? James Cohan, 533 W 26th, 212-714-9500. Through July 14.


Goldiechiari
To enter the gallery space, the viewer must squeeze past a roughly plastered, angled wall, which in turn leads to more planes and curves. A couple of feet over head-high, these dry, gray surfaces look like a poor man’s Serra; still, the suspicion that there is more going on than abstract exploration is confirmed when one climbs a temporary steel staircase that looks out over the sculpture. Suffice to say (without spoiling the punchline), the artists Sara Goldschmied and Elonora Chiari offer a greeting to those intrepid enough to scale the heights. Spencer Brownstone, 39 Wooster, 212-334-3455. Through July 15.


R. Luke DuBois
Need a refresher course on Oscar’s Best Pictures? DuBois’s 76-minute DVD Academy (2006) provides the ticket—every winner from Wings to Chicago is here, compressed to one minute each. The early years are a silky, silvery blur, with famous faces momentarily resolving during long bits of dialogue—Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel is followed shortly by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Then a blast of Technicolor—Rhett and Scarlett going at it hammer and tongs. More black-and-white years hurtle past, the soundtracks speeding like tractor-trailer rigs or whispering as if a ghostly chorus. By the time American Beauty‘s red carpet of roses flashes by you’ll be as exhausted as a guest stumbling out of one of the late “Swifty” Lazar’s legendary Oscar bashes. Bitforms, 529 W 20th, 212-366-6939. Through July 15.