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Drawn to Text: Comix Artists as Book Illustrators

November 15, 1994 to January 07, 1995

It is well known that modernist aestheticians, abetted by photography's stranglehold on realistic representation, disdained the narrative content that had previously dominated the fine arts. This prejudice, as well as an association with lower-class commercial print media, long prevented the great comix creators from being taken seriously as artists. As modernism wanes, however, not only are classic comix artists such as George Herriman and Windsor McKay coming in for reappraisal, but their contemporary counterparts have attracted heretofore unseen attention from the academic and museum communities.

Comics, as Lorenzo Mattotti puts it, are an impure artform, a hybrid. Comix artists must be as adept at expressing themselves in words as in pictures. Given the space constraints of the comix panel, a writer must practice a concision comparable to that found in Haiku poetry. To visualize the flow of the story across the page, an artist requires the skills of a master cinematographer. The special affinity which comix artists have for narrative content is a defining influence on their book illustrations, which are markedly different from comparable work done by conventional illustrators or fine artists.

Co-Curated by Art Spiegelman, the present exhibition brings together a body of work by five artists who collectively embody a twenty-five year history of comix in America and Europe. The selection begins with the work of Robert Crumb, who together with Spiegelman and others removed comix from the realm of the funny pages and infused the genre with a more sophisticated asethetic and more serious subject matter. These late '60s innovations reached Europe about ten years later, where they were picked up by French artists such as Jacques Tardi, the Spaniard Javier Mariscal, and the Italian Lorenzo Mattotti. Matters came full circle when, in the 1980s, the work of the Europeans was introduced to the United States by Spiegelman's Raw Magazine.

R. Crumb is widely recognized as the father of the underground comix revolution. The implicit subversiveness of comix had, as far back as the 1950s, subjected the industry to a round of censorious Congressional hearings, and by the 1960s was flowering luxuriantly in Mad Magazine. Wed to the counter-culture's espousal of free love and drug over bourgois morality, this inconoclastic sensibility found its ideal outlet in such Crumb heroes as Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat.