Art Spiegelman's Maus, a two-volume Pulitzer-Prize-winning narrative of the Holocaust in comic-book form, defies easy classification. Though based on the taped recollections of Spiegelman's father, Vladek, it is not a conventional oral history. Nor, despite the artistic liberties taken with both text and illustrations--most notably the portrayal of Jews as mice and German Nazis as cats--is the book in any sense a fictionalized account. Spiegelman's many ardent champions have readily granted Maus legitimacy as a document of the Holocaust and a work of literature (Umberto Eco called the author "the greatest American writer"), but few critics have the formal vocabulary necessary to confront it properly as a work of art. The present exhibition is thus the first in-depth examination of the process behind Maus. Included are specific preliminary studies, several examples of contemporaneous work (which served as a necessary diversion from the rigors and repressions of Maus) and a survey of the artist's groundbreaking prior comic strips.
"Everyone," Spiegelman once observed, "asks the same two questions: Why a comic and why mice?" The first of these is the easier to answer, for the artist has devoted most of his forty-four years to the creative "co-mix" of words and pictures. Attracted to the medium with a passion far exceeding that of the average child, he sold his first drawings to the Long Island Post at the age of fourteen. Throughout high school, he haunted the offices of Mad Magazine, and in 1963 began a long-term consultancy with the Topps Chewing Gum Company. (He was, among other things, the creative force behind such popular bubble-gum card series as the "Garbage Pail Kids" and "Wacky Packages.") However, the 1960s eventually short-circuited Spiegelman's nascent career as a commercial artist; he turned down an offer from United Features Syndicate and retreated into the world of underground comics.
Spiegelman is a connoisseur of the visual language of such classic comic strips as Krazy Kat and Dick Tracy, but he credits the underground comics scene with opening up the genre by introducing confessional elements and adult subject matter. In 1972, while freelancing for a variety of counterculture comics journals, the artist penned two seminal autobiographical strips, Maus and Prisoner on the Hell Planet. They dealt, respectively, with Spiegelman's childhood as the son of Holocaust survivors, and with his mother Anja's suicide in 1968. The former introduced the animal metaphor central to its book-length successor (though the words "Jew" and "Nazi" never appear), while the second (which would be reprinted as a subunit of Maus, Volume I) reverts to human characters.
The first Maus and Hell Planet each relied on a readily intelligible story line, but much of Spiegelman's work at this time was considerably more abstruse. He was becoming increasingly concerned with deconstructing the basic narrative and visual elements of the comic strip: How does one panel on a page relate to the others? How do a strip's artificial cropping and use of pictorial illusion manipulate reality? How much can be elided from a story if it is to retain any coherence? How do words and pictures combine in the human brain? Many of his strips from this period were published in the 1977 anthology Breakdowns (a reference not only to emotional collapse, but to the process of breaking down a comic-book page into its component panels and to the artist's idiosyncratic exercises in deconstruction).
The publication of Breakdowns marked a turning point for Spiegelman. Approaching his 30th birthday, he began to fear that his "co-mix" work was becoming too arcane, and he longed to reassemble the parts he had spent so many years dismantling; to fashion a sustained and accessible narrative. At the same time, the underground comics movement was running out of steam, and in 1978 he and Françoise Mouly established their own imprint, Raw Books and Graphics. This publishing venture--and its logical offshoot, Raw Magazine--was devoted to showcasing the best comics art being produced in Europe and the United States. The art critic Adam Gopnik would later characterize Raw as "a kind of prêt-à-porter catalogue of avant-garde form" and compare its influence in the 1980s to that of the Parisian journal Minotaure in the 1930s. Raw Magazine also provided Spiegelman with the forum and structure necessary for him to create his sustained narrative: the first chapters of the book-length Maus appeared in its pages in 1980.
Vladek and Anja Spiegelman's experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland had always been both formative and inherently incomprehensible to their son, and the desire to make sense of the story by fitting it into neat little comic-strip boxes was a natural outgrowth of the artist's prior proclivities. The mouse metaphor had a lengthy pedigree in racist propaganda (not only did Hitler compare Jews to vermin, but there are notable parallels between American caricatures of Negroes and early mouse animations) and also a more benign history as a cartoon and comic-strip staple. The very inadequacies of the animal symbolism had a certain appeal, and Spiegelman throughout his narrative intentionally undermined the metaphor in order to explode the fallacies of racial stereotyping. Human figures, he believed, would have demanded an untenable degree of accuracy; the artist feared getting bogged down in extraneous detail.
Just as he sensed that excessive realism would diminish the impact of the story, Spiegelman did not want his Maus drawings to call too much attention to themselves. Most comics are drawn at twice their published size and then reduced photomechanically, but the artist’s decision to use a one-to-one ratio forced him to pare his imagery to its essentials. Inspired by Little Orphan Annie’s blank eyes, he created a cast of highly stylized, almost abstract characters that fostered personal identification on the part of the reader. Early on, Spiegelman rejected the use of elaborate rendering or even shading. He wanted, as much as possible, to make the drawings disappear: to merge with the text as an integral and intimate narrative unit. The strength of comics, he explains, lies in their synthetic ability to approximate a "mental language" that is closer to actual human thought than either words or pictures alone.
The simplicity of the book's style belies the intensely complex process that went into the creation of each page of Maus. The transcripts of Spiegelman's interviews with his father reveal that relatively few sentences were actually incorporated verbatim. The artist had to break down Vladek's stories (often recounted piecemeal) into comprehensible dramatic incidents. His copious preliminary sketches indicate that he worked simultaneously in visual and literary terms: formulating sequences of salient images while honing the dialogue to fit, telegraphically, into the limited space of cartoon balloons. Vladek’s broken syntax, much like the jarring mouse iconography, served to distance the familiar Holocaust story and encouraged the reader to experience it anew.
After mapping out a general strategy in thumbnail layouts, Spiegelman created a rough draft of the full page. Sometimes these early drafts approximated fairly closely the published version, but often drastic changes were made in the placement and content of the component images and text. When he was satisfied with the general layout of a page, the artist began to focus on the individual panels, occasionally creating over a dozen studies for each. To find the perfect distillation of line, gesture and composition, he worked in felt-tip pen on vellum, proceeding from light colors (usually yellow or orange) to dark. Each image had to appear effortless, while at the same time functioning with the iconic exactitude of a typographical design or logo. Once he had reached his goal, Spiegelman immediately traced the result in black ink. These individual drawings were then assembled on the final page.
The focal point of the present exhibition is the second chapter of Maus, Volume II, which recounts Vladek's and Anja's experiences in Auschwitz. This chapter was the most difficult for Spiegelman to create, for whereas earlier incidents in the book retained a recognizable domestic setting (however warped by the vicissitudes of Nazi persecution), life in a death camp was almost impossible to imagine. Acutely aware that he was attempting to tell the untellable, the artist considered employing a distinctive sketchier style for this chapter. Ironically--in part because of the depth of necessary research--the final Auschwitz drawings are actually among the most detailed in Maus. Spiegelman compiled a file of photographs--some historical and some taken himself on a trip to the former concentration camp--but his most important sources were drawings by actual inmates. Since few photos were made of the camps in operation, and written accounts often lack for physical description, the inmates’ drawings retain a legitimacy and primacy of purpose that art in the twentieth-century has otherwise lost to photography. Maus is a synthesis of the surviving pictorial record and the artist's attempts to visualize the verbal information bequeathed him by his father and other survivors. Simultaneously, the book is about the processes and prejudices inherent in its own creation and by extension, about the impossibility of ever arriving at absolute truth. Like the prisoners' drawings, the images of Maus serve a unique function that guarantees them a place in both history and art.