Artblog Celebrating 20 Years!   Support Us Today!

Comics love, split by the Hudson River

Masters of American Comics
The Milwaukee Art Museum’s installation of Masters of American Comics was in the Santiago Calatrava addition to the building.

When I visited Milwaukee last July I was fortunate enough to see the show Masters of American Comics at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The massive historical overview with more than 900 objects on display was organized jointly by the Hammer Museum and LA MoCA. The show was split between the two venues, the historical works in Hammer and the contemporary ones in MoCA. Independent scholar John Carlin and Brian Walker put the show together and then set up the show to travel to Milwaukee and to the East Coast. In Milwaukee the exhibit was coordinated by curator Margaret Andera. I can’t find information on how many objects traveled to Milwaukee but the massive show could have been the entire 900 books and drawings. It was huge and it was great.

Here are the 15 artists represented in the show, just fyi:
Winsor McCay, Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, and Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware.

Will Eisner
Will Eisner, 1947

To see the original drawings by Winsor McCay, George Herriman and Art Spiegelman and others was an inspiration. These artists made few missteps in their planning and execution. And even though they are working with severe restrictions of boxes and rectangular pages their decisions about space, design and content are in many cases artier and more successful than those made in “high” art genres.

I am a comics lover and my only question is why was the fabulous Walt Kelly’s fabulous Pogo left out? “We have met the enemy and he is us” is just one of Kelley’s great homespun political maxims and his daily strip during the 1970s Nixon years was must reading. Peanuts made the cut…but not Pogo?

The Milwaukee Art Museum has the best online representation of the show–from high res posters you can download to video clips with the curator explaining some of the history. And this really tickled me, there’s a colorful video montage on the website that the museum ran on the the Jumbotron at Miller Ball Park (home of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team). See the clip here. Would the PMA advertise at the ballpark here? Would MoMA advertise at a Mets game? I ask you.

Masters of the American Comics
Screen grab of the MAM Jumbotron montage that ran at the ballpark.

I heard Art Spiegelman talk at Penn in 2005 and he’s a terrific speaker. Here’s my post on Spiegelman’s Humanities’ Council talk at Penn. The talk, titled Comics 101 was an historical overview, like this show, from the roots of the genre to Chris Ware and Charles Burns. And in fact the artist has been pitching a museum show about comics for several years and was in talks with the curators of this show early on.

The show’s East Coast run has been sundered into two parts. The historical works (from Winsor McCay at the turn of the century to Charles Schulz in 1960)is at the Newark Museum in Newark, NJ.
And the turn of the century to present works are at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan.

R. Crumb
R. Crumb, 1970

In fact the two-state, two-city split is a problem for a show that is supposedly about the historical continuity of the genre from the start to its current practice. This is such an insurmountable problem (will New Yorkers cross the river to see the Newark show? will New Jerseyites cross the river to see the Manhattan show?) that Spiegelman, one of the lynchpins of the show pulled his work from the exhibit. Here’s Spiegelman’s argument, intact, on the Comics Reporter. To comply with his wishes, I’m not going to quote him out of context but only say that his wish was that the 15-artist show be a 15-artist show in each venue.

I bought the hard-bound catalog for the show and will report on that in another post–I’ll scan some images too so you can see how great the work is. And while I hate to say it but maybe the best way to “see” the exhibit, certainly the way it was intended to be seen as a broad overview of a continuous practice, is to get hold of the catalog and read and enjoy it that way.

Masters of American Comics, at the Jewish Museum, NY, and the Newark Museum, Newark, NJ, til Jan. 28, 2007