Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > News Stories and Obituaries

Art Spiegelman On His Decision To Withdraw Work From The Masters Exhibit On Its NY/NJ Stop
posted September 18, 2006

Dear journalist:

A letter I sent to the Hammer and MOCA last January may answer some of your questions about my involvement and disengagement from the Masters of American Comics Show. If you want to print the lumpy and verbose prose in its entirety (including this disclaimer) it must be the slowest news day in several hundred years, but you have my permission. If you wish to excerpt or quote bits of it, please clear them with me. I've been circumspect about discussing all this because I deeply love the art in these exhibits, want it seen and understood, and find the current circumstances make that understanding less likely. I don't think my reasons are reducible to a sound bite and want to avoid hurting any of the Institutions involved or myself by being quoted out of context.




About ten years ago I set up a slide lecture in my studio for twenty or so curators from the Whitney, the Met, the Library of Congress, the Brooklyn Museum and others including the Museum of Modern Art (which had mounted a show of my work in 1992) to make a pitch for an exhibition that would welcome Comics, the twisted hunchbacked dwarf of the arts, into the Hall of the Muses. I addressed the history and aesthetics of comics, showing the work of twenty or more significant artists to make my case for a medium worthy of more than sociological or "camp" interest -- a "Low-Low" show to look at comics on its own terms, to redress the condescension of 1990's "High-Low" show. A year or two after that meeting, in 1998, I got a call from one of the curators, Ann Philbin, newly hired as the director of the Hammer, who enthusiastically announced: "Art, we're finally going to do your show!" I was delighted, though I fled from the responsibility of curating the project, not wanting ultimate authority over which cartoonists should be "anointed" by being included. Ann found John Carlin for that thankless task (someone I've known since 1983, when -- while still a grad student -- he curated an astoundingly intelligent show of Comics and its relationship to painting at the Downtown Whitney). I agreed to be a senior consultant to the process and Brian Walker was then brought in as a co-curator to help realize the exhibit.

While I didn't agree with all the curatorial decisions, I was very involved in the process throughout, and was proud to be part of the impressive show that opened at the Hammer and MOCA in November, 2005. Yet I was blind-sided to discover, only by reading an ad in the NY Times, that the show was scheduled to travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum, followed by the Newark Museum and Jewish Museum here.

My concerns about the venues were expressed in the following letter to Ann Philbin and to Michael Darling of MOCA on January 26, 2006. John Carlin and I met with them five days later, but were unable to resolve the issues we raised, which led me to eventually withdraw my work from the exhibit's final stop.


Dear Annie and Michael,

I'm sorry I haven't answered the ongoing queries about loaning my work out for the touring version of the Masters Show sooner.... but every time I try to focus on it I get lost in a turbulent sea of conflicting needs.

I'm awed and deeply gratified by what the HAMMER and MOCA have accomplished with the Masters shows in LA, and would like to find some way to accommodate your plans to travel my work, but remain troubled by the implications of what was only presented to me in the Fall as a fait accompli.

Please bear with me as I sort out the issues:

My originals, like many works in this show, are fragile. The extended exposure is punishing for paper objects never intended for display and most of mine were done with anti-archival materials that are decomposing literally before one's eyes. (This is obviously the case with the small Maus pages but is also true of quite a few of the other pieces I'm very proud to have had on view, like "Ace Hole" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." ) Retiring or, in some instances, substituting works to give a representative sense of what my areas of concern have been as a cartoonist is difficult considering how unprolific I am... and further complicated by the fact that the projects I'm currently working on are retrospective in nature and will require access to the original art. (My first book, BREAKDOWNS, is to be republished by Pantheon and I will have to send out the pieces related to that book for scanning before your tour is complete. Pantheon will also be publishing META-MAUS, a book of sketches, drawings, interviews and notes from MAUS that will require similar access to my MAUS originals.)

About the venues: In the Milwaukee Museum the show's fifteen artists will at least and at last be under one roof -- a desirable presentation that reinforces the interconnectedness of the work as presented in the catalogue. Splitting the work between two major institutions in Los Angeles made an impressive statement about the momentousness of the occasion and, indeed, the collaboration was rightly seen as a tribute to the scope of the whole project. But in New York City, Art Capitol and birthplace of American comics, the carefully constructed arguments of the exhibit devolve into a woeful heap of unintended consequences.

I know that the two East Coast destinations, hardly as prestigious as the MOCA and Hammer, were no one's first choices, but getting New Yorkers to cross the Hudson to New Jersey is far more difficult than inducing Angelinos to brave a freeway. We living artists selected for the Masters show are all in vital, ongoing dialogue with the earlier artists and most New Yorkers will not experience that dimension of the work from the current plans. While swell for New Jersey residents, placing the first half of the 20th century's comic strip artists into the Newark Museum is, from the perspective of this provincial New Yorker, the equivalent of hiding them in a Federal Witness Protection program.

The fact that the Jewish Museum will be the site within the NYC limits for the seven comic book artists to be exhibited there brings another issue to the fore, making central a subtext that was invisible at MOCA: the early comic book (unlike its more upscale cousin, the comic strip) was a largely Jewish creation. Recently, as comics become more widely embraced in the higher precincts of American culture, these Jewish roots have occasioned several celebrations (most notably Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Kavalier and Clay and Gerald Jones' recent Men of Tomorrow and even comic art exhibits, like the one shown last year at the Breman Museum of the Jewish Heritage in Atlanta.) [note: this 2005 show curated by Jerry Robinson, "ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950," now appears, in abbreviated form, as "Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics" added by the Jewish Museum at the last minute to their half of the Masters show.] I understand that only four of the seven artists in the Jewish Museum's portion of the show are card-carrying Jews... and that I'm the only one still living who carries that card. But since MAUS looms so large in the public's perception of the comic book's recent apotheosis, the subject of the Holocaust can trump considerations of form in this museum's context. The statement intended by the Masters show, an exhibit formed to postulate that comics can actually be some sort of... Art, would be undermined by presenting the medium as some sort of "ethnic" phenomenon.

I'm sorry that this letter has been reaching novel-length, but I have been leading up to something, and I'm thankful if you've borne with me thus far.

I have an idea, one that sidesteps most of the pitfalls I've just outlined, one that makes the East Coast shows conform to the project's original intent, and actually makes The Newark and Jewish Museum shows both more satisfying. It requires some curatorial rethinking, as does any transplanting of an exhibition, but I propose that EACH of these two venues present works by all fifteen artists. The hundreds of objects that have been gathered in LA are more than sufficient to allow two complete overviews in which works are allowed to reflect on and "talk" to each other, keeping the historical armature somewhat in place but emphasizing the cross-fertilization's between artists. (I'd love to see some McCays and Herrimans near my No Towers pages, some Gasoline Alleys and Peanuts near Chris Wares...) Visitors to each city's museum could get an intimation of the medium's sweep and -- safety in numbers -- the Jewish artists, while present in NYC, no longer determine an overarching discourse.

John Carlin and I have started talking about this and he is jazzed. We'd both be game to put in the extra labor to protect and expand the consequence of all that has been done til now and we'd like to explore it with you folks when we're in LA next week. I have yet to figure out what to do about the problems I outlined at the top of my letter, but this at least makes finding a solution worth all the effort. I hope it strikes you that way as well.

warm wishes/seeya soon.