Taking a Bow in Absence
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An essay on the exhibition “CO-MIX: Art Spiegelman” at Museum Ludwig, until January 6, 2013. By Oliver Tepel
Do you recognize it? A black silhouette, like a comma rotated 90°, a concave ellipsis, three quarters finished, then with an opening forming a small semi-circle towards the top, where the shape closes in a horizontal straight line. It could be a stylized little hedgehog, and indeed, there are small, regular lines framing it like quills. Somewhere around the place where the straight line and arch meet, a little white ribbon is inserted into the black. Not a hedgehog? A hairdo? If it is, it is certainly not flattering.
In the view of many US Americans, this shape is nearly a trope. In “CO-MIX”, the Art Spiegelman retrospective at the Ludwig Museum, we also find this shape, quite isolated, in a large-format work: “The Lead Pipe Sunday – Volume 2” from 1997. It partly encircles the text frame, which is the only indication that the picture is a comic. If this shape is a trope, however, if US American visitors may be able to immediately decipher it, what does it refer to? – To Nancy. “Nancy” by Ernie Bushmiller. Isn’t that where the whole calamity started? Yes, what does Bushmiller tell us about the oppressive, surreal cacophony of Spiegelman’s “Lead Pipe”?
Do you know Ernie Bushmiller? – Like so many artists whose work appears on the relevant pages of daily newspapers, they achieve no fame in museums. We have a better grasp of the process of getting paintings on canvas into museums than of the works mass-distributed on newsprint paper. Yet they may have the very same source in the cave paintings of past cultures.
Ernie Bushmiller drew comics. He became a star in the field, and yet in the historicization he does not appear to have had as much of an impact as George Herriman or Winsor McCay, who was so devotedly exhibited in Troisdorf in January. As a child of the twentieth century, Bushmiller was too young for the first generations, the pioneers and major formalists, and yet he also appears as one of these strange characters, whose undogmatic paths and tremendous open-mindedness led them to comics. Bushmiller was barely twenty years old in 1925, when he took over Larry Whittington’s comic strip “Fritzi Ritz”, first as a ghostwriter, then officially. He was initially oriented to Whittington’s elegantly reductionist style, but increasingly began inserting his own distinctive style; new figures appeared in Bushmiller’s more drastic or at least more caricature-like lines. At the same time, the sexy flapper Fritzi Ritz, while still attractive, became a more reserved aunt in the background.
Following several failed attempts, in 1933 Bushmiller invented “Nancy”, Fritzi Ritz’s niece. The strange shape described in the beginning became the side view of her hair (from the front it looks more like an old telephone receiver with spikes). And even though he was a bit late, Bushmiller then succeeded in establishing his own iconography. As small, chubby figures, not as cute as the comics characters of later years, they tie into the graphicness of early comics characters with tremendously rationalized and simultaneously graphically reduced contours. Today clever essays describe how precisely Bushmiller arranged his almost abstract forms, how he created structures in the sense of a minimal narrative: the strip-gag. His strong point was not howlers, but rather enjoyable solutions to problems, word plays or shifts of reality. Like his drawing contemporaries, modern art occasionally made him grin, but his creative work was entwined in the same process: questions of form, reduction, abstraction, sometimes resolution – this was the impression his work made on younger people, those who would soon invent their version of comics art as young intellectuals.
Nancy has a partner, “Sluggo”. With him, Bushmiller spoofs a carefully observed cultural transformation. In one strip, for instance, Sluggo wants to become a beatnik, just because he is bored. In another single panel we see Sluggo with his arms comfortably folded behind his head. He seems to be lying down, but he floats smiling over the landscape. “No,” says the speech bubble. The comics artist Jim Woodring, only a little younger than Spiegelman, calls it the best Nancy strip of all times. It speaks for Bushmiller’s sense of precision and fields of tension, as do countless versions of Nancy as interpretations and allusions in the work of other artists. Art Spiegelman is a master of Bushmiller quotations, but that was already evident long before he placed Nancy’s hair on a text frame.
At the pinnacle of his success, Bushmiller stands in front of a dresser, on which Fritzi is sitting, Nancy and Sluggo standing, and they all smile at one another. “Well who has a gag for me today?” Bushmiller asks his figures. It is an affectionate perspective and a surprising one at the same time. Where today’s scholarship describes him as a precisely constructing reductionist, who always started with the last picture, as he said of himself, his relationship to his figures here appears to be of an entirely different nature. They are his friends, he lives with them and from them. The four are a team.
The same scene in 1974: Instead of an expectant Bushmiller, Art Spiegelman stands in front of the dresser, tired and unshaven. On the dresser: miniature detective Ace Hole, the figure he has been following, in the style of Picasso’s post-cubist portrait of Dora Maar, and Maus as concentration camp prisoner. Nancy is there too, smiling in the identical pose as with Bushmiller, in between Ace Hole and Maus. The five are not a team. Spiegelman looks distraught, no enjoyment in his expression. No matter which of the four tells him a story, their gag will not produce a smile. It seems as though Spiegelman is afraid of what his figures have to tell.
With his limited edition brochure “The Lead Pipe Sunday”, in 1989 Spiegelman recalled the major strips of daily papers. This was no amiable memory, no gentle gesture of nostalgia, but rather a challenge as praise of the anarchic elements of an unbridled and as yet uncertain art. The patron goddess Muse and an anthropomorphous money sack lie there, murdered, blood flowing out of their bodies. As they are surrounded by figures from the comic strips, it even seems as though the figures have emerged from the body of the muse. The text field comments: “The bastard offspring of art and commerce murder their parents and go off on a Sunday Outing”. The Yellow Kid, Krazy & Ignatz, Barney Google and many others are untouched by the horrible scene, simply entirely themselves. In fact, their creators probably were concerned with money, but not with greatness. They were paid employees and wage workers, who regarded themselves as craftsmen. Art? – Nonsense! Spiegelman and his generation profited from the adjustment of the terms. They were long since beyond innocence and contrasted the disordered energy of young comics with an increasingly more ordered high art, far from an interest in narrative. The common origin was long gone, this brief moment, in which the grotesque had come alive in the image language of James Ensor or Alfred Kubin, with Marcus Behmer and the artists of Simplicissimus, and in Lyonel Feininger’s comics. Now the comic strip figures that had long become legendary extended an invitation to a danse macabre, and even Nancy joined in, vertically shifted in the middle, the initiated effect of a lateral offset. It had to be Nancy for this trick. Sluggo is also present, turning his back to us.
In 1997 “The Lead Pipe Sunday” went into a second edition. Nancy’s hair above the text box – yes, that’s where we started. “Volume 2” enshrouds its scenario in a nocturnal gray-blue. The figures are there again, stylized into grotesque stone sculptures. Popeye’s face, Dick Tracy’s silhouette. On a skull that seems to be taken from the work of Philip Guston, the man who worked his way back out of abstraction into the figurative with techniques from comics, there is the Happy Hooligan, holding his head in his hands. In front of him there is an over-sized model of his own head, the mouth sewn shut, the eyes blind stones. When his creator Frederick Burr Opper went blind, the Happy Hooligan vanished from our world, but the text in the picture leaves it open as to whether this is the reason for all his despair. A large yellow flash of lighting is just about to strike him, after which we will see a dead landscape. “A crash! Is it the thunder? The economy? Motorized vehicles maybe?” asks Spiegelman. He had already drawn the answer long before, in 1974, with himself as Ernie Bushmiller. While life, with its technical achievements and ideologies, realized incomprehensible horror, the funny figures lost their ground. And wasn’t it then the clever ones and the knowing ones who used them in a seemingly subversive way, surrendering them to intellectual observation to erect strange monuments? Is that Ernie Bushmiller’s legacy? An abstract form? Who has a gag for me today? On the ground in front of the Unhappy Hooligan there is a red device with an antenna. What is it supposed to be good for, the new era…
Horror at the lost innocence of these little wild figures, that is Art Spiegelman’s art – a horror of culture and the beings that influence it – the presumptions of life.