Monday, June 23, 2008

Orozco to Dartmouth: Kilroy Was Here!

I wrote this several days ago, while traveling. With the opportunity to scare up some images, I'm getting to the task of putting it up. I will admit straightaway that I don't know a great deal about the Dartmouth murals, beyond what I was able to read in the materials provided. So what follows is a riff, an associative essaylet.

I am sitting in the reserve corridor at Baker Library at Dartmouth College, listening to a woman lecture in Spanish to a group of guffawing onlookers. They are engaged, as I am, in the activity of drinking in the color and the hortatory narrative of Jose Clemente Orozco's Epic of American Civilization, a fresco cycle improbably executed in New Hampshire by a firebreathing Mexican muralist from 1932 to 1934.

I have been thinking and writing in recent days about graffiti and ancient scatalogical bathroom drawings as the progenitors of modern cartooning. An ethic of smartassery informs the tradition, as does an insistence on the creator's point of view, often anonymous--as in the latrine--and the mocking defiance of the tag.

Orozco's project, which spans an enormous space and consists of twenty-something panels, was designed as a parallelism of (mostly) Mesoamerican civilization before and after the Spanish conquests. A heroic achievement by any standard.

Orozco's argument predominates, which I'll get to in a minute. But I'm struck by several things on a purely visual level. One, when the narrative takes a backseat to setting, the form-making and color/value manipulation are especially impressive, as in a description of machinery arrayed like a combination of armor and architecture, and a view of a construction site. Wow!

Two, when it's time to narrate, Orozco uses a figurative language that flattens into caricature, even as he models very well and thus suggests a sort of monumental, operatic puppet show. This combination of caricature with volumetric handling is cousin to Norman Rockwell's invisible caricature, but more overt and not funny. Imagine Orozco having to suffer a comparison to Uncle Norman!

By the way, I meant to note this in a post a while ago, but never got back to it, so I'll return to it here: Norman Rockwell's civil rights work, and especially the Look piece "Murder in Mississippi" [discussed here] ultimately fails because, as my colleague Jeff Pike observed, Rockwell's multi-step and time-consuming process squeezed all the urgency out of his finished works. Pike is right, of course.

But here's the thing: comedy is always more technical than tragedy. Comedy requires meticulous preparation which must remain invisible in order for the joke to work. Think of those Buster Keaton stunts, or Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First" routine. Rockwell's work is constructed with the same precision. He's a comedian in the most basic sense.

Possibly the Norman Rockwell Museum is in the wrong mountain range--instead of the Berkshires, maybe it ought to be in the Catskills.

But back to Orozco. In addition to the very simplified language of certain figures [most notably the cartoonish unknown soldier in "Modern Human Sacrifice," which actually is sort of funny in a bleak way] the muralist's message--quite didactic despite intimations of ambiguity here and there--strikes me as a sort of defiant tagging, and feels quite a bit like an editorial cartoon painted on wet plaster, or high cultural graffiti.

The Anglo-Americans are mindless robots, Depression-era Stepford people playacting at communal exchange. The revolutionary Zapatitesque figure is flanked but not deterred by (literally) money-sucking capitalists and bloodthirsty generals. And best of all, a panel of ghoulish professors in academic regalia--quite reminiscent of those bug-skulled noseless quasi-Asian merchant guys in the execrable Star Wars prequels--preside over an apparent abortion of a skeletal fetus from an equally dead parent. Kind of like Pirates of the Caribbean Go to College!

Etcetera, etcetera.

The catalogue available onsite (free of charge, published 2007, a very nice publication) includes an essay by Mary Coffey, an assistant professor of Art History at Dartmouth who writes,
In the 1930s,Orozco's continental perspective countered the parochialism of Protestant New England...and gives voice to everything that depression-era colonial revivalists, regionalists, and antimodernists sought to repress about modern America.
Ah the modernist insurgent myth, according to which the truth-telling avante-gardist brings unwelcome news to the cretinous regionalists. I confess I have tired of these accounts, typically because they're self-congratulatory and, more significantly, they tend not to engage the cultural position of "the opposition." That is, the production and reception of a public work of art is a very complicated thing. Let us stipulate that people can behave like perfect asses in the face of really rather modest paintings or sculptures even while countenancing far more ghastly cultural excesses implicit in (say) a popular advertising campaign. But surely by now we ought to recognize that multiple perspectives are in play in a case like this one. There are more than two characters: the bringer of light and the troglodytic "antimodernist." Yes, yes, the Scopes trial continues even today, and God knows that we do not know God if we accept such divine scrutability as that fantasized by the fundamentalists. But does a simple flinch in the presence of a beautiful but stentorian voice like Orozco's really open a trap door?

For whatever it's worth, this viewer admires the painting as well as the crazy grandiosity of this Epic. But surely it must be observed that Orozco's programme suggests a Mexican parochialism not so different from the implied (Robert) Frosty version assigned to New England, only more florid. And more simplified.

Most remarkably, Orozco pulled the project off. Unlike his rival Diego Rivera, whose contemptuous insertion of Lenin in the Rockefeller Center murals crossed the line and scotched the deal, Orozco operated well enough inside the editorial safe zone to complete and be paid for a fresco cycle that mocked its patron in several respects. Hats off. JCO stuck it to the Man.

Finally, the cartoon history offered by Orozco delivers a striking message, not about historiography but of reverse-imperial attitude: Kilroy was here.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Calling Tom Terrific

I hereby appeal to the knowledge, savvy and taste of Graphic Tales readers to assist me in my efforts to locate any and all materials related to the Captain Kangaroo featurette, Tom Terrific (and his dog, Mighty Manfred). This animated feature was led by Gene Dietch and produced by UPA in the late 1950s.

I am working on a book chapter concerning (among other things) the instrumentality of drawing as a human act. The above-mentioned Tom and Manfred pursued a series of adventures which landed them in hot water, and from which they desired to escape. If you wrote in to Captain Kangaroo, they'd send you a plastic covering to place on your television set, the purpose of which was to provide a ground upon which to draw. At the command of the narrator, when our heroes had reached a point of inescapable peril, you drew (say) the boat required to get them out of trouble. A perfect image, sez I.

I am looking for film, images, scripts, whatnot.

The image at the top of the post is from a short-lived Gene Dietch comic strip, Terrible Thompson, which immediately preceded Tom Terrific. The villain, Mean Morgan, pursued TT across time amid historicist adventures. The modernist cartoon style and the relentless alliteration make a statement, do they not?

These images are reproduced from Dan Nadel's terrific book, Art Out of Time, available here at PictureBox. Dan's work as a researcher and critic serves us graphophiles well. The new PictureBox retail outlet has recently opened in Brooklyn--go by if you're in the neighborhood.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

More on Lichtenstein and Sources

UPDATE: new link posted below to David Barsalou's Lichtenstein source panel site.

Today I had ten minutes to kill in a bookstore, and on the heels of the other day's post (immediately below this one) about Roberta Smith's breathless (and somewhat thoughtless) response to a Roy Lichtenstein show at Gagosian, I came across a Taschen book on Lichtenstein. I picked it up to review the treatment of sources.

Amid the prose and reproductions, I found one small thumbnail (in black and white, of course, despite the color reproductions throughout) of a source panel for Takka Takka, a painting from 1962. The comic source is substantially the same, with certain simplifications and adjustment of the text panel.

There is reference to the source panel in the essay, but there is no effort invested whatsoever in identifying where it appeared, who would have published it, or who the cartoonist was who produced it in the first place. It was as if the image had been dug up like a hunk of coal--a natural occurrence, not a cultural one. It was identified as a "comic."

Last year, I collaborated on an exhibition on the illustrator Al Parker which appeared at the Norman Rockwell Museum and also at the Kemper Museum on the campus of Washington University, where I teach. In the latter venue, the Parker show was up at the same time as a show titled Beauty and the Blonde, which aspired to deconstruct the image of the blonde in American culture. It was curated by Catharina Manchanda, and provided the expected cheeky "critiques" courtesy of Mel Ramos, Tom Wesselman, Warhol, and more meaningfully gendered work by Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, and others. Of course Roy made an appearance, with Crying Girl, from 1963. All in all, it was satisfying show, if somewhat predictable.

The point of the anecdote is this: in the front room of the Blonde show, across from a copiously documented exhibition of midcentury women's magazine work, appeared a group of works from "popular culture," which in this usage seems akin to the above-mentioned coal vein in the Taschen book. Movie posters, calendar pin ups and other illustrated materials were used to set up and play off other works in the first room, particularly a Mel Ramos. Ramos and the artists were credited. But the pin up illustrators, poster designers, illustrators and cartoonists who generated the abundance of material in the room were not. It almost certainly never occurred to anybody to look them up, because ideologically speaking they don't exist as cultural producers. They merely represent the convergence of mass forces on our hero of sensation, l'artiste. For all the progressive noises made by high cultural actors of all sorts, it truly amazes me how dismissive the enterprise can be. We're all for "breaking down boundaries," between, you know, sculpture and painting.

As a critic and producer, some time ago I consciously chose to reposition myself in the realm of visual culture defined broadly, and sidestep the simultaneously elaborate and narrow problems of art. I'm happy to deal in artifacts and aesthetic attributes, as opposed to aesthetic objects and significantly more segregated cultural precincts.

After I got back from the bookstore, I rooted around some online and discovered, to my deep astonishment, that an art historian named David Barsalou has tracked down more than 140 original comic panels that Lichtenstein copied with slight modifications.

Barsalou's flickr page shows the originals with a small copy of Lichtenstein's image inset. For example, we learn that the famed BLAM is a copy of a Russell Heath comic panel from DC Comics All-American Men of War #89, published in February of 1962. The painting was produced in the same year.

Bravo to Barsalou for pursuing this material. A proper accounting of cultural practice would engage Heath and the original comic in a discussion of sorts with Lichtenstein and the painting. The anonymity of the source in art historical contexts should no longer be countenanced; subsequent editions of American Art surveys which feature Lichtenstein's work should also include documentation of the source work when it is known.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Painted Ink, Printed Balloons

Last week, the Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote a review of a show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York featuring portraits of women by Roy Lichtenstein. The paintings are from the early sixties. A slide show with excerpts from the review is available here. The article ("The Painter Who Adored Women") makes clear that Smith loved the show.

There are of course many artists who have drawn on the graphic vocabularies of commercial modernity. Without dipping into the ranks of illustrators and graphic designers, a short list of painters might include Leger, Murphy, Davis; Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Warhol, Wesselman; late Guston (sui generis); Haring, Scharf, Salle, Pittman, etc. etc. Of the group, I personally get more from Davis and Guston than anybody else.

The relationship between comics, contemporary cartoon-oriented popular art (e.g., Tim Biskup), and the philosophically- or theoretically-oriented fine art of the late modern and post modern periods is a complex one. But there can be little doubt that much writing on the subject by the art press betrays a lack of knowledge and seriousness about the sources that inform painters like Lichtenstein.

Ms. Smith addresses the catalogue, and mentions a component of the promotional material that suggests a lack of understanding of sources:
Richard Prince...contributes a small inserted brochure. It juxtaposes each of 22 steamy pulp-fiction covers of books (all titled with female first names) with a Lichtenstein woman painting. The illustrations of scantily clad, curvaceous femme fatales would seem to be the last thing Lichtenstein had in mind.
Richard Prince has proven himself to be magnificently indifferent to sources in the past. But this suggests plain old wrongheadedness. If you want to ask questions of Lichtenstein's work as against the visual culture that provided its impetus, look at Steve Canyon or the romance comics that emerged in the aftermath of the Comics Code in the mid-1950s. These sources, with wildly varying levels of integrity, both visual and narrative, are built with the abstract language of calligraphic key drawings and industrial coloration through the optical mixture of several inks. Put Lichtenstein up against Milt Caniff, not for competitive purposes, but reflective ones. It's not a bad idea, really. What would the comparison reveal?

What about the textual origins of Lichtenstein's dialogue in romance comics?

But the comparison of Lichtenstein paintings with pulp covers? The latter are fundamentally engaged in the problems of modeling in paint, quasi-illusionistic spaces, and full-figure illustration. The visual issues are not related at all, and the cultural ones aren't much more so. Disappointed lovers and femme fatales are quite different figures.

Romance magazine covers bear on Lichtenstein's work less directly, but significantly.

Smith continues:
What he had in mind was form, a transformation of the terms of real and fake that...was beyond either, a thing in itself. This show makes especially clear how Lichtenstein’s work functions as a kind of primer in looking at and understanding the grand fiction of painting: the thought it requires, its mechanics, its final simplicity and strangeness. These great paintings convey all this in a flash of pleasure, compounded by the thrill of understanding.
That's pretty darn purple for plainly derivative paintings that simulate blown-up comics. For my money, Roy's best works were his archly savage spoofs of abstract expressionism and the cult of authenticity at its core. But the bigger question--the challenge to be addressed--is a high cultural casualness about and indifference to sources.

For the thousandth time, I am reminded that we lack a comprehensive history of images and visual forms: we must build a parallel art history, a blend of cultural anthropology, the history of technology, and modernist aesthetics.

I will return to Davis, Guston, and Lichtenstein presently.

: Roy Lichtenstein, Forget it! Forget Me!, 1962; Stuart Davis, Colonial Cubism, 1956; Lichtenstein, Happy Tears, 1964; Milt Caniff, Terry and the Pirates Sunday strip, single panel, 1944; Caniff, Terry, daily strip panel, 1937;Illustrator unknown, cover, Exotic Romances, No. 28, circa 1955; Illustrator unknown, cover, Range Romances, February 1951; cover, Life Romances, circa 1950; Philip Guston, The Street, 1977[?].

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Advance Monster Action

I've gotten my hands on an advance copy of Geoff Grogan's new oversize collage comic, Look Out! Monsters, due in stores in September. The narrative is launched by a bracketing historicist device--a trait in common with Grogan's Nice Work--a bomb dropped by a World War One biplane that gives birth to Frankenstein. That's not a Frankenstein, as in a metaphorical monster, but rather Boris Karloff in full makeup, who goes on to terrorize the trenches and commune with a gargoyle downspout.

The collages are built on top of New York Daily News tabloid pages, with selective bits of text left to peek out. Things progress from the first World War to what some have (unpersuasively) called the third, the inciting action of which involves two other airplanes. Shards of the Twin Towers are interspersed with some adventures with postmodern benday dots and found comic text.

The references are all accessible and clear. At once goofy and potent. The grayscale inkwashes of the Frankenstein sections are the strongest, for my money. The later sections are intriguing, but not as well resolved.

Monsters has been supported with a Xeric grant.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

On Speed Racer

The other day I saw Speed Racer with my sons, brother and nephew.

I have been a steadfast and vocal opponent (ask my friends) of the conversion of good to to somewhat lame 1960s and 70s television shows into feature films. Television shows do not transfer to screen well, in large part because good television characters have fixed attributes, while movie characters are often required to learn and change over the course of several hours. Otherwise, why watch them? The ongoing evisceration of the new Sex and the City film is a demonstration of these dangers and the resulting critical bonfire. To mix a metaphor. (Clean the carcass before you burn it?) Of course viewers often disregard critical response and go to see bad movies anyway.

I guess I did not really focus on the fact that a Speed Racer movie was in the works until I saw the trailer. Like many people, I thought that the Wachowski Brothers' Matrix films were increasingly indulgent and gradually unwatchable, though the germ of the idea and the visual realization of it in No. 1 were appealing, if the religious imagery combined with fetished violence annoyed--the Christ with an Uzi bit.

Anyway, the Speed Racer trailer promised a spectacle with an agenda of sorts. I went with extremely low expectations, appropriately. I watched the show as a kid, almost daily. I could never figure out why their mouths worked so badly, but I liked the cars and the song.

Surprisingly, I loved the movie. I am still trying to understand why I loved it, and I expect to return to pay more attention to details, but for starters, the film addresses and heightens the emotional vacuity that I associate with anime: the characters have a weird sort of kabuki attitude about everything. There is a moment when Speed and Trixie (Christina Ricci--holy moly--is anime made flesh) are sitting in the car at "inspiration point," the local park-and-make-out spot, and Trixie is tempting Speed with her babe powers. Speed responds almost rhetorically, sans animal drive, yet we are supposed to acknowledge her beauty, his dashing presence, and their common attraction. Rock and Doris, sort of, but that's not really it. A plinking arrangement of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" is playing under the scene, and an array of pink roses and cherry blossoms forms a background behind them. What a crazy thing--a gorgeous spectacle, references to Japanese art both modern and premodern, and a bizarre Brechtian distance built in. It's both campy and aesthetically rigorous. Also very self-aware and sexually displaced. It is, in other words, an art experience of a sort, insofar as it addresses exactly the sort of thing that inspires many column inches in the realm of contemporary art criticism. Pretty self-reflexive stuff.

There are other intriguing moments and quotations throughout the film. Some of them concern race and contemporary global culture, others engage more narrow visual and photographic language issues. The placement of black characters in major cultural roles in prior periods--in this case, a champion grand-prix driver in 1943--is frankly historicist. A theme park mentality brought to cultural history. More to reflect on there. (There are plenty of other examples of this--Morgan Freeman's role in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven makes no sense whatsoever. He would never have survived the first half hour of the film.)

I am curious to hear from others on this front. I will understand if others find it nauseating, but I'd like to know. All of us loved it, and we came to the experience with wildly different frames of reference. I am especially curious to hear female perspectives on the film. I'm going to try to get my wife to go, to get her take.