December 16, 2013.
As I have noted in previous blogs, I consider the Jewish Museum to be one of the best
curated museums I have ever visited. Their exhibition of the work of Art Spiegelman
is, perhaps, not their best work due to the nature of his graphic art. It was difficult to
stand and read the graphic panels displayed on the wall. It could be I need new glasses
but others seemed to have the same opinion. Nevertheless, this exhibition revealed
the variety of work of an artist whose seminal work Maus is only a small portion of his
Spiegelman is best known for Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986), which he described as “a
very long comic book that needed a bookmark and would be worth rereading.” Based
on his parents’ experiences in Auschwitz, the Jews became mice and the Nazis became
cats. Those of us who have watched our fuzzy companions “play” or catch a mouse
can well understand the analogy. Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and is considered
a classic of graphic narrative. The exhibition contains studies for Maus including the
stuffed mouse that Spiegelman used as a model. Particularly interesting are notes for
the Auschwitz chapter with facts and narrative points prioritized by color. Spiegelman
wrote a sequel to Maus entitled Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale and Here My Troubles
Began. The entire manuscript of Maus II is displayed in a long sequence with drafts and
studies. This display is based on a 1991 installation at MOMA by Robert Storr.
I didn’t look at the exhibit in strict chronological order. So you can imagine my surprise
to discover that Spiegelman spent many years, starting in 1966, doing freelance work
for Topps Chewing Gum. He created concepts for bubblegum and trading cards which
are displayed as a kind of patchwork quilt. I found this display quite charming and a
relief from his grim future work. Does anyone remember Wacky Packages and the
Garbage Pail Kids? These were big hits at the time.
Spiegelman works in a variety of media. Zip a Tunes and Moire Maladies (Short Order
Comix #1 (1973) is done in zipatones. This is a transparent, patterned peel and stick
film used to simulate half tone grays. Spiegelman used this technique to screentone dot
patterns into his narrative. An interesting use of various media: ink, collage, screentone
and correction fluid appears in Ace Hole: Midget Detective where a different tool was
used for each character.
In 1990, Spiegelman began to experiment with stone lithography, the process used in
early comics. An example of this technique is entitled Lead Pipe Sunday, a two sided
lithograph about the birth of the Sunday funnies (Tandem [sic] Press, 1997—couldn’t
read my notes) later work was done in color. Abstract Thought Is a Warm Puppy (New
Yorker February 14, 2000) was done in ink, gouache and collage. If the title did not
immediately give the subject away, it was an homage to Charles Schultz (Happiness is
a Warm Puppy).
Spiegelman was so emotionally drained by the writing of Maus that he gave up the
long form narratives in favor of short comics as journalism. He wrote comics essays
concerning personal reflections, interviews, reviews and the history of comics. One
example is High Art Lowdown (Artforum, December 1990). This was review of the High/
Low exhibit at MOMA done in watercolor, ink, gouache and collage.
In 1992, Tina Brown hired Spiegelman as a staff artist for the New Yorker. Among the
displays of his cover art are two iconic covers. As a reaction to violent racial unrest in
Brooklyn in 1993, he drew an infamous cover of a Hasidic man and an African American
woman kissing (February 15, 1993). This cover started a tradition of cover commentary
on topical and sensational issues.
Living downtown, Spiegelman was a first hand witness to the fall of the Twin Towers
on 9/11. He memorialized the event with a black on black cover drawing of the towers
for the September 24, 2001 cover of the New Yorker. Deeply affected by the events
of 9/11, Spiegelman created a series of broadsheets, mostly published in Europe,
collected as In the Shadow of No Towers (2004). These drawings contain metaphorical
references to classic comics’ characters and silhouettes of the falling victims. Most
American newspapers and magazines refused to publish this work because of
Spiegelman’s critical voice and overt politics. The exception was the Jewish Daily
I have described what I found to be the highlights of the exhibit. One more display,
of particular interest to the NY Librarians MeetUp was a series of two strips entitled
Words Worth a Thousand about the image collection and a discussion of the difficulty
of indexing the collection by the senior librarian. If you want to learn more about the
exhibit you can look at the curator’s write-up at http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/
exhibitions/art-spiegelman. Or you can go see the exhibit for yourself which will be on
display until March 23, 2014. The Jewish Museum is free on Saturdays.