Art in the 'Toon Age

Click image to enlarge

Three-dimensional color lithograph, 22/50 edition, 19 15/16 x
26 11/16 x 10 7/16 inches
MSU purchase, funded by the Friends of Kresge Art Museum
Endowment for Acquisitions and Conser vation, 2003.3

Click image to enlarge

Gary, Popstar, 1998-99
Screenprint, 24 x 21 inches
MSU purchase, funded by the Kathleen D. and Milton E. Muelder
Endowment, 2002.10.2

Click image to enlarge

American Noir (from the portfolio, 10: Artist
as Catalyst), 1992
Screenprint, 17 x 18 7/16 inches
MSU purchase, funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research
and Graduate Studies, 92.39.6

A springing, resilient line, bright, flat colors, the use of
shorthand communication devices, and a generally upbeat
mood are often clues that cartoons, comics, animation or
popular illustration have influenced an artist. This is true
for the 32 contemporary artists included in the exhibition
Art In The ‘Toon Age, drawn from the Kresge Art Museum’s
collection. Some of these artists are well known while
others are just beginning to gain recognition.

For more than four decades ‘toons and ads have
inspired three distinct generations of artists, whose birth
dates range from 1928 to 1975. Largely unaware of others
working along similar lines, these artists have been popping
up in England and France, Italy and Japan, Austria and America.
The first generation of these artists emerged during the 1960s, influenced by commercial illustration and animation from the 1940s and ’50s. Though parallel in time with Pop art, they did not share Pop’s interest in the content of these sources, nor in appropriating the imagery. The ironies of Pop art are lacking in
this work, as is Pop’s dearth of emotionalism. This “senior” generation developed their styles in the 1960s and ‘70s and includes Valerio Adami, Ida Applebroog, Patrick Caulfield, John Clem Clarke, Roy De Forest, Red Grooms, Michael Craig-Martin, Elizabeth Murray, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, Roger Shimomura, John Wesley, and Karl Wirsum. They were encouraged by the uses Pop art made of their beloved sources, but disinterested in the Pop idea of lifting cartoons or ads into their paintings untransformed. What interested them was the beauty of the drawing in 1940s and 1950s animation and commercial art, its seeming effortlessness, and the distillation process itself. Members of Chicago’s Hairy Who (Nilsson, Nutt, and Wirsum, here) created cartoon catalogues for their shows
and painted comic narratives as art, but most of the other
‘ Toon artists liked to imply stories, leaving them to the viewer to write.

The 1980s “junior” generation includes Luis Cruz
Azaceta, Roger Brown, Enrique Chagoya, Carroll
Dunham, Floc’h, Jerry Kearns, Jeff Koons, Takashi
Murakami, Julian Opie, Yoshitomo Nara, and Sue
Williams, who tend to create a more complex, multi-layered
esthetic, but in a ‘toon or anime style and spirit. Sometimes
they deal with personal, political, or social issues, with gender
and sexuality, death, violence, or war. Their narratives are
never simple despite appearances and frequently quite
elaborate. Their drawing debt to the commercial graphic
artist remains as great as that of the earlier generation.

The “freshman” generation of the 1990s includes
Laylah Ali, Steve De Frank, Marcel Dzama, Inka
Essenhigh, Arturo Herrera, Monique Prieto, and Paul
Henry Ramirez. Some of these artists explore the esthetic
pleasures of painting without stressing comprehensible
narratives. Ali, though, has a political agenda acted out by
her cartoonishly-styled protagonists, Greenheads and Blueheads, in deeply disturbing playlets on the vicissitudes of African American life. Steve De Frank has an agenda as well, but it concerns gay issues.

The art in Art in the ‘Toon Age ranges from satire and send up to the sublime. Though it may look beguilingly innocent, much of the work is formally and psychologically loaded, both with compositional conceits and fictive possibilities. Visual cliches are dignified through authoritative handling, and the familiar is elevated by being treated as abstracted compositional elements. These artists practice an informed conservatism chosen with full knowledge of the alternatives. They embrace radical new computer age processes and innovations while working within what appears to be a traditional idiom. What they have done is to transform commercial art into the finest of fine art. An adjunct exhibition, The Story of ‘Toons, is a selection of historically relevant actual comic strips, original drawings for them, reprints, books of Manga, and g raphic novels. Story of ‘Toons provides an historical overview of comic and cartoon culture from Krazy Kat to Chris Ware; it is drawn from Michigan State University Libraries renowned Russel B. Nye Popular Culture Collection. Many of these comics are the sources of inspiration for the artists featured in Art In The ‘Toon

April Kingsley, Curator