Art Spiegelman, whose parents survived Auschwitz, but whose mother later committed suicide, grew up in Queens, New York. As a young boy he fell in love with the satirical MAD Magazine. “It changed my life,” he said, in conversation with Ruth Beesch, Deputy Director, Program Administration, at the Jewish Museum. “I studied MAD the way others studied the Talmud.”
Spiegelman set about imitating his idol by creating, in high school, a comic strip, Blazé. It is on view in this beautifully designed and rewarding retrospective of his work that reflects the distinct phases and arc of his long career.
As a title, Blazé betrays Spiegelman’s ironic temperament and satiric turn of mind, one well suited to his chosen profession as an anti-establishment political cartoonist. But it would take a while before he understood that underground comics could also become a place for serious self-expression. Inspired by Harvey Kurtzman and Paul Krassner, among others, leaders in the anti-Vietnam-war counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Spiegelman’s talent as a visual and narrative artist, began to be unleashed.
Drawing on his own experiences, dreams, neuroses and frustrations, Spiegelman began to explore a wide range of personal and political themes.
In 1980, he and his wife, Francoise Mouly, began to publish RAW, an inspired and influential graphics magazine that became a showcase for underground comic innovators of every stripe.
Spiegelman’s most famous work, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, published in 1986, followed by Maus II, in 1991, retold the harrowing wartime experiences of his parents, Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, with Jews drawn as mice, his ironic – and touching — response to the Nazi condemnation of Jews as “the vermin of mankind.” The first volume, a unique and self-reflective narrative, took Spiegelman 13 years to create. In 1992, Maus won the Pulitzer Prize and is now considered a modern classic.
Emotionally drained by the experience of producing Maus, Spiegelman reinvented himself by turning away from personal narrative and producing comic essays for magazines and newspapers. A decade later, in 1992, Tina Brown had the inspired idea of bringing Spiegelman to The New Yorker, where so many of his covers became instant classics.
On September 11, 2001, as a resident of downtown New York, Spiegelman and his wife witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center while rescuing their daughter from a high school in its shadow. The experience so haunted him that he returned to more personal work, and produced a series of broadsheets, anthologized in 2004 as, In The Shadow of No Towers.
Spiegelman is both pleased and distressed by this “retrospective,” organized in France by Rina Zavagli-Mattotti, because any retrospective suggests that an artist’s career is over or his best work behind him. So he is particularly pleased by the very last room of this exhibition, coordinated and organized in New York by Curatorial Assistant, Emily Casden. Still Moving illuminates Spiegelman’s last three major projects: a collaboration with the dance company Pilobolus; a painted glass mural for his alma mater, New York’s High School of Design and Art; and Wordless, a lecture on novels-in-pictures which will soon be performed in New York, at BAM in Brooklyn.
Spiegelman elevated and transformed the craft he entered as a young man. Today, the term “graphic artist” is casually bandied about. But until recently, it did not exist. Anyone who visits this exhibition – and I urge everyone to do so – will understand the unique role played by this brilliant cartoonist, writer, editor and, yes, graphic artist, in the creation of a new and immensely powerful art form, one that in his hands has risen to unprecedented heights.
Photographs by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective
The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue
November 8 – March 23, 2014