NEW YORK - Discussing the Jewish-American cartoonist, writer and editor Art Spiegelman without using the word "Maus" more than once is quite a challenge, but it seems to be a challenge worth taking. As the 65-year-old Spiegelman himself often notes, his career has been overshadowed by the remarkable success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, which told of his father, Vladek Spiegelman, who was deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis but eventually survived the Holocaust and immigrated to America.
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Thirteen years in the making, the complete work – originally serialized in RAW magazine between 1980-1991 - was finally published as a book in 1991. The publication not only made Spiegelman one of the best-known graphic artists in the world, it was also one of the first works to elevate comics to the level of high art. Spiegelman's magnum opus expanded the borders of literature by juxtaposing words with images and creating a story-within-a-story that ultimately dealt with complex philosophical concepts such as the "unrepresentable," the interrelation between history and the life of the individual, and the way in which traumas shape our identity and change us forever.
Bearing all this in mind, one might expect that the new retrospective dedicated to Spiegelman – which opened at The Jewish Museum in New York last Friday - will offer a bleak, serious and Holocaust-themed experience. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While the exhibition's centerpiece is a first-time presentation of the original 156-page manuscript of "Maus II," its real strength is the way in which the numerous items, sketches, portraits, photos and texts reveal a unique trajectory of creativity, originality and artistic vision, by a storyteller who has always believed "it is important to poke at stuff and see what was underneath it."
Reflecting this urge, the retrospective opens with Spiegelman's early works for underground satire fanzines and adult magazines such as Playboy, as well as selected excerpts from RAW, an influential graphic magazine Spiegelman established and coedited with his wife, Francoise Mouly (a Paris-born artist who has been art director of The New Yorker since 1993). Organized in chronological order, the very first comic strips offer hilarious and provocative short stories, from an unlikely sexual encounter between a young woman and her pet dog (in the 1979 Playboy piece "Shaggy Dog Story…"), to the surreal comic "Real Dream: A Hand Job," which includes, among other things, a huge Kosher hotdog and a Polish woman who constantly vomits.
"I studied MAD [Magazine] like other kids studied the Talmud," Spiegelman smilingly admitted in a conversation with journalists last Monday. "MAD changed my life. I think of it as an acronym of 'Mom And Dad.' It was my entry portal to America. My parents came from other cultures, and here I was able to find the operating manual. I learned the parody version of America before I was ever exposed to the original."
MAD's influence can be detected in many of the works presented in the exhibition, from an entire wall decorated with Garbage Pail Kids trading cards designed by Spiegelman for the Topps Company in the early 1980s, to his recent children books like "Jack and the Box" (2008). The earliest work on display is a one-page comic sketch titled "The Loonies," drawn by Spiegelman at the nascent age of 12. In "Grain of Sand," from 1969, a man falls through a toilet bowl strangely located in the middle of a wood, only to find himself in an alternative universe populated by a huge naked princess who carries a vicious-looking pig inside her crown. Amazingly, from this point onward it only gets weirder.
As the years went by, Spiegelman became an avid comics advocate and a central participant in the underground "comix" scene – a title that combines the word "comics" with the term "x-rated." Spiegelman and other comix artists enthusiastically produced "obscene material" that dealt with topics the commercial comics industry never dared touch: sex, politics, violence and social criticism.
"When I was 14 years old I worked for an anti-Castro magazine, only because one of the key artists from MAD worked there," Spiegelman recalled, when asked why he has always attacked the American culture of PC. "During the Vietnam War it was a no-brainer. There was a thing called the Alternative Media Conference in Vermont in 1970, and it was invaded by feminists. At that time, I wasn't aware of feminism. It wasn't on my radar. In another conference held the same year, hippies were having sex in the middle of the conference room. I was existing somewhere between these two zones, and I was moving in the direction of doing stuff against the grain. At one point, that consisted of publishing works in magazines like Sleazy Scandals of the Silver Screen and something called C*nt."
Spiegelman's sense of humor, as well as his lifelong commitment to social and political critique, found a perfect match in The New Yorker. In one of his first covers for the prestigious publication, in 1993, Spiegelman decided to mark Valentine's Day by drawing an ultra-Orthodox man passionately kissing an African-American woman. Other provocative covers displayed in the exhibition include the memorable drawing in which a herd of journalists is pointing microphones to Bill Clinton's groin (published in February 1998), as well as Spiegelman's touching Ground Zero cover made shortly after 9/11, which features the shadows of the Twin Towers on a black background.
"It was very important to Art to show his entire career, and not just to focus on his most famous graphic novel," says Emily Casden, a curatorial assistant who worked on the retrospective (originally organized by Rina Zavagli-Mattotti for the 2012 Festival International de la Bande Dessinee in France). "It was important for us that people will understand the trajectory of his career, and will see how he made his way from the 1960s through the '70s and '80s and came to the project of 'Maus.' I think you understand the book better when you see where he comes from, and how he matured as an artist."
Asked whether she had to ask permission before showcasing provocative materials in The Jewish Museum, Casden replied that it was never an issue: "I think that if anyone is coming to this exhibition, they're probably going to expect some explicit material - whether it is the concentration-camps material, which is very challenging, or the sexual content from his early underground days. Some people are big fans of his early works, and they would expect to see it here. We felt we would be remiss to censor the work at all. If we were to pull anything because of explicit content, that would not be an accurate reflection of Art's career."
By offering us a chronological narrative that spans several decades, "Art Spiegelman's Co-Mix: A Retrospective" moves beyond the shadows of his best-known work. At the same time, it exposes the myriad influences that shaped Spiegelman's ever-changing drawing and writing style - from Cubism and Dadaism to Kafka, "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz and the French author Boris Vian.
In his brilliant 1990 comic strip "High Art Lowdown" (a fierce attack on the MoMA's "High & Low" exhibition), Spiegelman writes that "'High' and 'Low' is a question of class/economics – not aesthetics." In this sense, the fact that his glass-framed piece is now hanging from a wall while sharing a space with Marc Chagall's paintings is further proof that the distinction between "high" and "low" is long dead. Seen in this light, his retrospective not only explores the survival tale of Spiegelman's father. It also documents the survival of an artistic craft that originated in the 19th century, a craft that can be used to illustrate stories, fantasies, traumas, experiences and philosophical reflections. Or, in short, everything that is human.
"Art Spiegelman's Co-Mix: A Retrospective" runs at The Jewish Museum, New York, until March 23, 2014.