Comic Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art
The good news is that a big name, first tier, grown-up institution, the Museum of Modern Art, is doing a show on comic art.
The bad news is that we’re still being nibbled to death by ducks; the show is a rather narrow view of the medium, a look at how 13 artists are using the visual conventions associated with comic art. Sometimes it’s one convention to a practitioner; sometimes they can handle as many as a half a dozen.
The Modern (www.moma.org) is spiffy enough to have an online exhibition, which can at least let you in on the main ideas. I don’t have to tell you the value of staring at a wall-sized painting vis a vis a reproduction on a screen, but in this case especially you can understand the ideas at work here. If you don’t buy the idea, then you can probably skip a trip to the show. It fits in one of their smaller temporary exhibition spaces, fewer than two-dozen pieces altogether in about four rooms, artfully arranged, like spaces in the primate habitat at the zoo to seem like a few more.
It took me a half hour to look at it closely, most people were in and out in less time than that.
The Museum feels the need to expand their scope to “slapstick, comic strips and films, caricature, cartoons, and animation.” This says, to me, that, they still need to add things to comic art to make a show. It also says they are still bedeviled by the use of “comic” to refer to both the medium and a point of view. They are in sight of the transcendent critical vision here: that comic art is a medium, not a genre.
But that’s their contribution to critical literature; the show makes a lot more sense looking at it than reading about it.
As usual, the artists are ahead of the museums. They know the comic artists have great powers, most of them have been reading comics all their lives, just like the rest of us, at least in the Sunday paper. They know a speedline from a thought balloon, clean line from brushwork. They have such respect for comic art technique that most of them don’t go near it, as such, exploring instead the equally wide seas of painting.
Also to the good here is MoMA’s tacit admission that comics are here to stay. They adopt the strategy of chipping away at the topic, pursuing the insights of which they are certain. They still delay, at least for now, filing for formal adoption of our orphaned medium.
This time we are offered shelter by the photography department. The show is in the special exhibition galleries that are normally used for photography department shows. The curator of the photography department organized the show and signed the two blown-up paragraphs we can read as we enter the show.
Yet there is not a photograph in the show. These are paintings (17 or so, depending how you count what), installation (2), Video (1). Somewhere a photography show is waiting, patiently, for this gallery while this show works it’s way through the python.
Just like comic books are neither books nor magazines when the awards are handed out, these are changeling works claimed as children only on a whim and discarded as soon as the affection fades.
The visual idea of the show is this: the visual conventions of comic art represent a unique vocabulary with its own internal logic and generally accepted lexicon and syntax.
When you say comics and modern art we all think Liechtenstein and his obsession with the mechanical conventions of comic art of his youth: the limited palette, the halftone dots made so large.
This is a generational shift in emphasis. While Liechtenstein painted comics with an emphasis on the industrial process, this generation is fluent in comics’ graphical language. They can use this language to speak the messages in the world they speak to, as particular and exclusive in its way as comics.
Just as a verbal language can be rendered in a style so different as to be revolutionary by say Shakespeare or hip-hop, so do these artists, not making sequential art in any way, use the language of the comic strip, the comic book and the animated cartoon, as delineated and defined within those forms. The alterations they make are especially illuminating to those who have a familiarity with these conventions.
You can look at each of these works and see that the artist has absorbed one or perhaps two of the deep truths that have underwritten the comic style for more than a century. The blunt, quick narrative suggestions of comic conventions are modern and respectful of the audience’s time and intelligence, like a Hitchcock picture or news radio.
Shows like this are an effort to patch together a periodic table from the wild experimentations of comics’s alchemists. The practitioners burn the midnight oil, combining something old, something new, something stolen and something that will get it all done by the deadline. The artists can deal with the ideas behind these elements, considering them as their platonic forms without the cruel exigencies of narrative, doomed, for example, to sound stupid unless you’ve got your generation’s Shakespeare doing the dialog, hardly ever the case.
One wonderful installation, Waiting for Jerry, by Juan Muñoz, is a darkened room entered through a house-sized door, which is too narrow for comfort in a museum gallery. You get inside and you are surprised not to see of video or film presentation that usually inhabits a darkened room in a modern art museum, and indeed what is suggested by the cartoon-ish music audible from outside. Once inside, you aren’t even a museumgoer anymore. No, here you are transported into the mind of a cartoon cat.
There is nothing inside the room but a “mousehole” carved into one baseboard. It is the proportions and shape of a mousehole that exists in cartoons, a beautifully proportioned, smoothly finished, Romanesque archway. Anyone who’s had the pleasure of hosting actual mice know that they don’t need much of a hole, hardly a baseboard’s worth, and they hardly ever bother much with symmetry. But we’ve all seen many hundreds of times more mouseholes in cartoons than in real life. The cartoon soundtracks now audible loud and clear complete the cartoon cat transformation. There’s nothing to do in here but look at the mousehole and be slowly driven mad by overheated snippets of an orchestra that has gotten involved in a violent chase and a hairbreadth escape, the worst kinds, the ones that exist only in the abstract, only in your imagination. You do this until you’re bored. Then you leave. Again, just like a cat.
Another affecting piece for me is a wall sized painting made of images culled from a coloring book supporting the Disney version of Snow White. The bits of dwarves and décor and vegetation don’t seem to make an impression on some citizens, but if you know this “material” there’s a lot to look at here. For example, I can tell that the forest animals quoted here happen to be in mourning.
Comic Abstraction: Image Breaking; Image Making
March 4 to June 11
Museum of Modern Art
11 W. 53 Street
New York, NY
10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Open Friday till 8 p.m.
Admission $20, Students $12
Free Fridays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.