"Masters of American Comics": UCLA Hammer Museum Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

By Boxer, Sarah | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

"Masters of American Comics": UCLA Hammer Museum Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles


Boxer, Sarah, Artforum International


FIFTEEN YEARS is a long time to prepare a retort. "Masters of American Comics," an exhibition certifying the genius of fifteen male comics artists, eleven of them dead, seems to be a detailed answer to the Museum of Modern Art's infamous 1990-91 show "High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture."

At the time of "High & Low," reviewers accused the curators of patronizing and sanitizing popular culture, shunning anything dark, gay, erotic, or feminist. Among the critics lamenting the show's superficial treatment of comics was Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus (Pantheon Books, 1991), who published a cartoon critique of "High & Low" titled "High Art Lowdown" (included in this show) in the December 1990 issue of Artforum. He ticked off a list of artists missing from MOMA's exhibition, derided its safe embrace of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, and took a jab at the curators' decision to include Andy Warhol's Dick Tracy, 1960, but not Chester Gould's original. ("Warhol was here," Spiegelman wrote, "Gould wasn't.")

At last, things have been put right, sort of. Initially proposed by Spiegelman himself and assembled by John Carlin, an independent curator, and Brian Walker, a member of the team that produces the strips Hi and Lois and Beetle Bailey (created by his father, Mort Walker), "Masters of American Comics" unabashedly sets up a "canon" of comics artists. Each cartoonist gets a career-spanning mini-exhibition of his own--vitrines and walls full of printed pages and original drawings marked up with white correction fluid, scratch-outs, patches, and sky blue nonrepro pencil.

Thus have the lowly been raised up. Indeed, this exhibition--jointly held at the UCLA Hammer Museum (which covers comics from the first half of the twentieth century) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (which covers the second half)--really could have been called "Now the Low Are High Too."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Several of the comics that appeared in "High & Low," such as Herriman's Krazy Kat, Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, and R. Crumb's Mr. Natural, are back. But here they are joined by Gould's Dick Tracy, E. C. Segar's Popeye, Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts, Will Eisner's Spirit, and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, and Captain America. There is more sex and violence than in MOMA's display of comics, thanks in part to Gary Panter's Jimbo, and various productions by Crumb. There's also more canniness about modern art, and not just in Herriman and Lyonel Feininger, where you'd expect it. In one of Frank King's Gasoline Alley pages, the main characters, Walt and Skeezix, stroll through a landscape of modernist paintings until a half-monkey, half-demoiselle creature tells them there is no way out.

The most important difference between "Masters" and "High & Low" is that here the comics aren't presented as primitive source material for "high" art. They stand on their own. A new master class has arrived and that, of course, implies new rejects. Boom! You geniuses stay up in the pantheon and don't look down. Bam! The rest of you: Out! Out! Out!

It is a good group, including some amazing draftsmen, some fabulous graphic artists, and some cartoonists who altered comics forever (McCay, Herriman, Schulz, Kurtzman, Eisner, Crumb, Spiegelman, and Chris Ware). Some have an inimitable way with black ink. (The open, wailing mouths of Charlie Brown's losing baseball team are variegated, mesmerizing black pools.) Others are masters of the scratch-out: Who knew that Herriman's whooshes of wind and rain were violent gouges on his drawing board?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The nearly nine hundred works look good in a museum. Those wild patterns in McCay's Little Nemo and Panter's Jimbo seem even wilder on the walls than in your hands, and Ware's obsession with gadgets and novelties appears tailor-made for an exhibition. (The show includes his wooden Acme book dispenser, which swallows house keys as tokens. …

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