LAST year, one of Canada's most prestigious museums approached the cartoonist Seth, whose work combines realistic, character-based storytelling with a muted, nostalgic visual style reminiscent of Edward Hopper, about a show of contemporary artists who use pop imagery. Seth's comics would be included as part of the "pop" category -- an example of the kind of ore a fine artist could crush into diamonds.
A big break for the cartoonist?
"I pretty much immediately told him I didn't think this was a good idea," Seth recalls of his talk with the curator. "A lot of cartoonists, myself included, are pretty negative about that kind of art, work that treats comics as some kind of pop culture junk. I've always kind of hated that -- using comics the same way you'd use soup can labels."
The art world, since World War I, has invited all kinds of objects and imagery into gallery and museum spaces, from Marcel Duchamp's urinal to Andy Warhol's soup cans and Brillo boxes to Mike Kelley's stuffed animals. Over the last few years, comics have been among them, often transformed by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein or Philip Guston or ironically "appropriated" alongside advertising or handbills.
A big, joint exhibition that arrives next month at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer Museum, "Masters of American Comics" is a step beyond the earlier shows that saw comics as a kind of raw material still awaiting transformation. It's hardly comics' maiden voyage into the art world, but it's the first major museum show to trace the history of the medium as an art form in itself.
As such, it serves as a window onto the awkward -- at times loving, at times strained, at times merely opportunistic -- relationship between these two worlds.
"I think it's been happening in fits and starts over the last 20 years or so," Scott McCloud, the author of the seminal "Understanding Comics," says of the growing connections between comics and the art world. What's new is the attitude toward comics: Until recently treated like cultural artifacts, they're increasingly regarded as the output of capital-A artists with worldviews, life stories, individual styles and a host of idiosyncrasies.
"For years, if comics received recognition from cultural institutions or the academy, it was as an anonymous cultural phenomenon," McCloud says. "Authorless and raw, like an Alan Lomax field recording. The literary world would look at the Archie comics of the '50s as an indicator of the culture that gave birth to them, but you wouldn't pay attention to the person who wrote or drew it."
The "Masters" show takes a different point of view. John Carlin, one of the exhibition's curators, says it's part of "Americans coming to grips with their own culture. American classical music is jazz, so why wouldn't American classical visual expression be comics? And if you're serious about that, then you'd have to establish a canon. Who are the masters?"
Many cartoonists, and comics fans, feel pride for the recognition. Others are conflicted. Carlin spoke with cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer Prize for "Maus" in 1992 helped earn the form mainstream respect and who helped inspire the show. "He said being in a museum," Carlin reports, "was like having a notary seal put on the pact he made with the devil."
Growing among grown-ups
BOOK reviews offer respectful coverage of new graphic novels; publishers sell hundreds of thousands of copies; awards committees consider them alongside Philip Roth. Filmmakers, in recent years, have tackled not only superhero comics but more realistic graphic novels, with David Cronenberg's grim "A History of Violence" being only the latest example.
Between Michael Chabon's novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (itself a Pulitzer winner), the film for Daniel Clowes' alienated "Ghost World," and Marjane Satrapi's Iranian-set "Persepolis" books, it's hard to imagine a culturally attuned American who's unaware of comics' growing adult audience.
"The reason the mainstream culture hasn't resisted is that comics fans spend money," says Fred Van Lente, a curator and board member at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York's SoHo. "We've gone from growing up hiding comics when we were 16 or 17 so the other kids wouldn't find out, to seeing 'Spider-Man' and 'Spider-Man 2' explode at the box office."
Add the fact that people who grew up viewing comics as a serious, collectible medium are moving into jobs with publishers, universities and museums. It seems inevitable, then, that even a slow-moving beast like the art world would take notice.
Others point to the generation of Robert Crumb, who came of age in the '60s. "Those were the first cartoonists to see themselves consciously as artists, doing purely personal work, not making concessions to mainstream conventions," says Ivan Brunetti, a cartoonist who curated "The Cartoonist's Eye," a well-received recent group show at Columbia College Chicago's A+D Gallery. The shift from craftsman to artist among Crumb's generation, and those who emulated him, has made a rendezvous with fine arts a natural.
At the same time, says curator Carlin, comics enthusiasts have rethought their history. "It's like the late '50s, when the French critics started to look at popular Hollywood filmmakers and saw authorship. So Hitchcock and John Ford, and others who were making entertainment and weren't art-film people, got this kind of glow. That's what happened to the George Herrimans and Chester Goulds of the world," he says, naming the creators of Krazy Kat and Dick Tracy.
To others, the explanation is more straightforward. "Why are galleries and museums starting to notice comics?" asks McCloud. "I think, simply, the work's better. The best of them today are just better than the best in the '80s. Chris Ware," McCloud says, naming the author of the intricate "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth." "There's your answer: He just took comics to a different level."
A 'lower-class' genre
THOSE who think comics have been a rich and complex art form since Winsor McCay, whose "Little Nemo" drawings from a century ago bridged Art Nouveau and Surrealism, wonder why a show like "Masters" has taken so long to appear.
Some answer that snobbery -- class-based and otherwise -- is to blame. "It was a lower-class art form," says Rod Gilchrist, director of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, who points out that comics were typically published in workingmen's newspapers. "The language was the language of the Irish immigrant, the German immigrant. And the stories were the concerns of everyday people," he says. Civic and religious groups talked papers into canceling strips, considered threats to young people.
These days, he says, as comics have become what he calls "the soup du jour of academia," that kind of opposition seems anachronistic. "Once Warhol exhibited the Brillo boxes, the distinction between high and low was broken forever," Gilchrist says, adding that many people in contemporary art now have a working knowledge of comics.
Still, he says, "When I took my job here in 1998, a lot of my art world friends said, 'What are you doing?' And my New York friends said, 'This will be the end of your career.' "
Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer, admits that museums have been slow to acknowledge comic art. "Artists themselves have been much more open about recognizing it than institutions, perhaps because they have nothing to lose and can see the work for what it is."
Some of the problems with a museum show have more to do with the material itself. Comics drawings are not created with a gallery space in mind: Even the curators of "Masters" concede that newspaper pages don't look quite at home on museum walls, in part because comics are a narrative as much as a visual medium. The show combines original drawings, most of them pen and ink, with mass-produced images from books and periodicals.
"Early on, the museums had a lot of trouble with this exhibition," says Carlin, "because the majority of it is essentially worthless printed pages of newspaper."
Carlin originally approached the Whitney Museum of American Art (where Chris Ware was later included in the Whitney Biennial) as a home for the show. "They said, 'We think this is interesting -- we know there's something going on in this area -- but we just don't think it would make a good exhibition. Prove to us that this will work on the walls of a museum.' And I think to some degree they were right, and to some degree they were wrong."
Museums have a built-in institutional drag in addressing new pop phenomena, says Tyler Stallings, chief curator at the Laguna Art Museum and a veteran of shows on surf culture and skateboard imagery.
"For collecting institutions," he says, "your changing exhibitions usually complement your mission. Most likely you wouldn't have anything in your permanent collection that has much to do with comics." Nor would your donors or the board of directors, who sometimes drive museum exhibitions, typically have personal comics collections.
Carlin thinks the delay has largely been economic. "To maintain the value of a work of art -- which is essentially what the gallery system does -- you have to create these boundaries of value and then reinforce them." Galleries have assigned value to paintings, sculptures and installations, but because newspaper pages are mass-produced they don't accrue value as easily as an original work.
There's also the issue of scale, says Carlin. "The gallery system we now see evolved in the '40s and '50s to manage large-scale heroic works of art, rather than intimate narrative work. Some things look better at museums and galleries, and they tend to sell at higher prices, which reinforces the system. While an artist who has an ironic relationship to pop culture, like Warhol or Jeff Koons, is still producing objects that fuel the system. Whereas comics are scraps."
Each generation of cartoonists seems to have its own reason for being uncomfortable with a gallery setting, though some have done quite well financially from the arrangement.
Charles M. Schulz, who was from the generation of craftsmen and entertainers, used to say that hanging cartoons in a museum was pretentious.
"As an art form comics do not need museum validation," punk-inspired comics artist Raymond Pettibon writes in an essay in the "Masters of American Comics" catalog. "Comics are a book medium.... They aren't hung right unless they are framed by thumbs on either side." For artists who came out of the counterculture, entering the museum can be akin to selling out.
Talk to a true believer -- a comics scholar, a serious fan, a comics artist -- and you'll probably end up discussing "High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture," a 1990 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that looked at comics, as well as advertising and graffiti, alongside work by Picasso, Lichtenstein and others. (MoMA, which has offered animation shows since the 1930s, will open "Pixar: 20 Years of Animation" on Dec. 14; fall 2006 will see "Comic Abstraction," a show about the influence of comics on contemporary artists.)
Brian Walker, a curator of the "Masters" show, the son of cartoonist Mort Walker and part of the team that now produces "Hi and Lois" and "Beetle Bailey," still recalls visiting "High & Low" and seeing a comics-inspired piece by Guston. "They had his big paintings on the wall, and then here's this little case with a couple of Crumb comic books in them. 'This is where he found the stuff that he turned into modern art.' It basically denigrated comics."
Walker, who in 1974 cofounded the Museum of Cartoon Art in Connecticut (which has since closed but may open in the Empire State Building next year), says he's gotten familiar with the idea that comics aren't really art. "I ran into that so many times -- I'm basically numb to it at this point."
The antagonism, though, has come as often from the other direction: Many cartoonists have an early, formative experience with the art world that leads to a lifetime of disdain.
Often the tension starts in a college art class or at art school. Clowes, for instance, earned a BFA from the Pratt Institute in New York and turned the experience into a four-page strip called "Art School Confidential." The comic, being expanded into a Terry Zwigoff film for release next year, shows art education as dominated by pretentious trust-fund kids, nonsense-spouting professors and "self-obsessed neurotic art-girls who make their own clothes."
And this pathetic bunch considers cartooning, Clowes writes, "mindless and contemptible." His experience is not unique: Ware dropped out of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Adrian Tomine ("Optic Nerve") still tells scorching stories about the UC Berkeley art class that drove him to study literature instead.
"I find a great deal of contemporary art is disingenuous," says Seth, another art school dropout. "It's like academia: a small world where everyone is performing for each other, and where there are certain rules you have to follow. It seems kind of lazy to me."
This disenchantment with contemporary art is not limited to cartoonists. Carlin, tellingly, rethought some of his assumptions about art while a curator in New York's East Village in the early '80s. "I felt that there was something missing from my generation of artists -- a respect for craft, and a work ethic," he says. "I started to get a real respect for the craft of drawing, even though it wasn't really something that the art world valued in the late 20th century.
"And then I started to hang out with cartoonists, and I realized that most of them had been precocious -- but they had also worked harder at it than anybody I knew. They would really draw for six hours a day, every day of their lives. There's really no replacement for that. I grew up in this very conceptual art world where it was all about 'strategies.' "
Says Seth: "Weirdly, I think that's one of the things that's kept comics from being taken seriously since the '60s -- that it's too concerned with conventional drawing and telling a story, two things the fine-arts world sort of looks down on. Getting into the depths of characterization is too earnest; it makes you suspect."
He speculates that the recent interest in comics from the fine-arts world may have to do with the resurgent value of beauty and draftsmanship. "I've found a lot of young artists are interested in drawing again."
Reaching toward the highbrow
THESE days, despite the sniping and condescension, cartoonists and contemporary artists are closer together than they've ever been. Comics have largely ceased to be actual popular culture -- despite growing acclaim, comic books sell a fraction of what they did in the '40s and '50s -- which may be why they seem more at home as the object of contemplation, scholarship and highbrow "influence."
All kinds of contemporary artists, from Americans of the "lowbrow" movement to Japanese Superflat artists such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, are drawing from comics.
"It's funny -- when I do studio visits I'm finding a real interest on the part of artists," says MOCA curator Michael Darling. "I'm finding Krazy Kat catalogs on their shelves, or the influence of Winsor McCay on their work."
So far, most of the controversy over the "Masters" exhibition has not been dismay that a museum is displaying cartoons but the choice of who's included and who's not. In a time when motorcycles, Armani fashion designs and dead sharks are inside museum walls, comics almost seem traditional, quaint.
"This is by no means radical territory," says David Moos, contemporary curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Canadian museum that just closed a solo show of Seth's drawings and sculpture. Moos looks at the cartoonist's works in a context of Canadian landscape painters and for its ability to solve formal problems. "Why wouldn't you expect a museum to be engaged with this material?"
The future of comics in the museum may have to do with something the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art has become familiar with: quarrels over the proportion of superhero cartoons and independent comics, of one era over another.
"We get more internal fighting," says curator Van Lente, "than resistance from the outside."
Just like -- after all -- a regular museum.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times