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Masters of American Comics
November 20, 2005 - March 12, 2006
The Hammer Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) present the landmark exhibition Masters of American Comics simultaneously at both museums from November 20, 2005 through March 12, 2006. Co-organized by the Hammer Museum and MOCA in a major institutional collaboration, this large-scale exhibition features in-depth presentations of work by 15 influential artists who shaped the development of the American comic strip and comic book as an art form during the past century. This is the first major art museum exhibition to examine comic strips and books on this scale, with over 900 sketches, drawings, proofs, newspaper Sunday pages, and comic books by Winsor McCay, Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and Chris Ware. (left: Milton Caniff, Steve Canyon, detail, January 26, 1947, newspaper Sunday page. Reproduced with permission of the Milton Caniff Estate)
Following its Los Angeles debut, the exhibition travels to additional U.S. venues at the Milwaukee Art Museum from April 27 to August 13, 2006 and to The Jewish Museum, New York and the Newark Museum, New Jersey from September 15, 2006 to January 28, 2007.
Unprecedented in its scope, the exhibition provides understanding and insight into the medium of comics as an art form. The work in Masters of American Comics will be organized chronologically to be on view simultaneously at both Los Angeles institutions. Special admission offers and shared membership benefits will be available during the run of the exhibition.
"Among the most innovative and influential art forms of the 20th century, comics have made a singular impact on visual culture that continues to this day," said MOCA Director Jeremy Strick. "This unprecedented museum partnership underscores the importance of the art form, and the extraordinary contributions of these 15 artists."
Comic strips and comic books were among the most popular and influential forms of mass media in the 20th century, and have been described as "one of America's few indigenous art forms" by Art Spiegelman. These 15 comic art masters defined an original form and raised it to the highest levels of artistic expression, reflecting on American culture with critical insight as well as popular appeal.
"Comic strips and comic books are quintessential components of American culture," said Hammer Director Ann Philbin. "We are very pleased to present an extensive exhibition that brings to light the work of these 15 cartoonists and establishes their roles as significant American artists with mesmerizing storytelling abilities, brilliant draftsmanship, and often biting social commentary." (right: Gary Panter, RAW No. 3, 1981, printed magazine cover. Collection of Art Spiegelman. Reproduced with the permission of the artist and Pantheon Publishers. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer)
Masters of American Comics is the first art museum exhibition to examine comic strips and books on this expansive scale, with over 900 objects on view at the two institutions. Each artist is represented by in-depth groupings presented as a series of individual retrospectives featuring a range of each artist's works from conceptual sketches and finished drawings to printer's proofs, tear sheets, printed newspapers, comics books, and graphic novels. The exhibition environment and display cases are specifically designed by Chu + Gooding Architects, unifying the presentations at both museums, and highlighting the unique contributions of these masters and the ways in which they reinvented the medium to significantly influence their peers and subsequent generations.
Comic strips from the first half of the 20th century will be shown at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, and comic books from the 1940s onward will be featured at MOCA in Downtown Los Angeles. At the Hammer, the exhibition traces the beginnings of American newspaper comic strips through the influential work of pioneering comic artists such as Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat), who set the stage by defining the formal attributes of the genre in the early 1900s. Focusing on the great achievements of this new art form through the century's first decades, the Hammer's presentation also includes the groundbreaking work of Lyonel Feininger (The Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie's World), E.C. Segar (Thimble Theatre), Frank King (Gasoline Alley), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), and Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts).
At MOCA, the second part of the exhibition will consider comic books from the early Golden Age to the rise of the independent comics movement. Comic books began as a form in which newspaper comics were reprinted and, with the rise of such series as Will Eisner's The Spirit and Jack Kirby's Captain America and Fantastic Four, became the dominant popular medium for narrative illustration. In addition to Kirby, particular attention is also paid to Harvey Kurtzman, whose MAD Magazine transformed the medium into one capable of great artistic expression and social commentary beginning in the early 1950s. By the mid-1960s, R. Crumb's work in Zap Comix added a new level of personal expression and extended the significant role of independent and underground comic books and graphic novels. This medium continues to be revolutionized today by the innovations of such major artists as Art Spiegelman (Maus, and In the Shadow of No Towers), Gary Panter (Jimbo), and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth).
Masters of American Comics is co-curated by independent scholars John Carlin and Brian Walker, and is coordinated by Hammer Museum Deputy Director of Collections and Director of the Grunwald Center Cynthia Burlingham and MOCA Assistant Curator Michael Darling. The exhibition is made possible, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts. 89.9 KCRW is the official radio sponsor for the exhibition. The exhibition design is by Chu + Gooding Architects of Los Angeles, who have been widely recognized for their design work, including the 2002 MOCA exhibition, The Architecture of R.M. Schindler.
Winsor McCay (c.1869-1934) is universally praised as the finest draftsman to have worked in the comics medium, and is recognized for raising a disposable popular medium to unexpected heights of artistic expression. He developed ways of composing the page in a way that has defined artistic comics ever since. His most important comic strips are Dream of the Rarebit Fiend  and Little Nemo in Slumberland . McCay was also a pioneer in the medium of film animation and produced 10 animated films between 1911 and 1921.
Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) brought sophisticated modernist currents of European art to the newspaper comic pages. A founding member of the Bauhaus, Feininger was a celebrated painter whose career as a comic artist lasted less than a year. Between 1906 and 1907, Feininger produced 51 pages of his features The Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie's World for the Chicago Tribune, which are exemplary for their combination of fine art and comic art.
George Herriman (1880-1944) developed a unique blend of language, design, ideas, and drawing, and can be credited for perfecting the style that has become the foundation of most subsequent comics-simple gestural lines that convey great emotion in whimsical characters. Much more than simple entertainment for children, his work had the weight of any American art being made at the time. He was the creator of the sophisticated and innovative Krazy Kat, which starred a cat and mouse that were first introduced in his comic strip The Dingbat Family in 1913. Herriman continued to produce Krazy Kat until his death in 1944.
E.C. Segar (1894-1938) had the ability to connect comic scenes into spellbinding narratives, telling complex stories through a cast of funny characters using everyday language. He began his career with the strip Charlie Chaplin's Comic Capers, and started his own feature Barry the Boob in 1917. Segar launched Thimble Theatre in 1919 with King Features, featuring a cast of performers who spoofed popular films and plays. On January 17, 1929, Popeye first appeared in Thimble Theatre and made Segar the most popular cartoonist of his day by attracting millions of readers.
Frank King (1883-1969) created the comic strip Gasoline Alley in 1918, establishing a family of characters that grew old in real time. The strip's colorful Sunday pages were filled with unexpected fantasy and visual inventiveness, and one of King's most original devices was to treat the entire page as a single scene that was still divided into the traditional panel structure. His other features included Bobby Make-Believ" and The Rectangle, a single-panel, black-and-white cartoon about life in Chicago.
Chester Gould (1900-1985) created a new comic genre with his famed detective strip, Dick Tracy. The strip debuted in 1931 and ran for 46 years, and was remarkable for Gould's exploitation of the properties of the printed page. His stark, black-and-white drawings emphasized contrast, surface patterns, and unexpected juxtapositions to create a powerful sense of atmosphere. Gould began his career as a cartoonist in 1917 when he won a contest sponsored by The American Boy. He published Fillum Fables (1924), Radio Cats (1924), and The Girl Friends (1931), but none caught on until he sent the Chicago Tribune a sample of Plainclothes Tracy, a strip about a modern day Sherlock Holmes which was renamed Dick Tracy.
Milton Caniff (1907-1988) created two masterpieces of graphic adventure, Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. His richly woven plots, memorable characters, dialogues, and exotic settings earned him the reputation as one of the greatest storytellers to work in the comic medium. Caniff's legacy was the development of a vocabulary of realistic suspense. Terry and the Pirates ran in the Chicago Tribune from 1934 through 1946. It was followed by Steve Canyon, which debuted in 1947 and ran until a few month after his death in 1988.
Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000) is the creator of Peanuts, one of America's most iconographic and long-lasting comic strips. The artist published his first drawing of his dog Spike-the inspiration for Snoopy-in the 1937 newspaper feature Believe it or Not! by Robert Ripley. In 1950, Schulz sold his strip Li'l Folks to United Feature Syndicate. Renamed Peanuts, it debuted in seven newspapers. In 1952, the first book collection and the first Peanuts Sunday pages were published in 40 national newspapers. Peanuts is still being distributed to over 2,000 international and national newspapers and boasts a daily readership of 90 million.
Will Eisner (1917-2005) created the series The Spirit, which debuted in 1940 and ended in 1952. An adult newspaper feature printed in comic book form and inserted into Sunday comic sections, it was the most important bridge between newspaper comics and comic books. Eisner was instrumental in developing the visual language of comic books in the way McCay earlier perfected the comic strip, using complicated panel layouts and visual cues to convey mood and content. His atmospheric rendering and dramatic scripting characterized The Spirit and two other series, Mr. Mystic and Lady Luck. In 1978, he published what is often credited as the first modern graphic novel, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories.
Jack Kirby (1917-1994) mastered an explosive, kinetic graphic style that gave the appearance of untold power and energy. With Joe Simon, Kirby created the patriotic story of super soldier Captain America in 1941 and pioneered the romance comic genre with Young Romance in 1947. With Stan Lee, Kirby created some of the best-known comic Marvel superheroes, including The Fantastic Four in 1961 and The Incredible Hulk in 1962. Kirby's innovative style allowed him to express violence and fantasy in comic books, and he was able to link individual panels into unified sequences reminiscent of movies. His many heroes were a cornerstone of American pop culture in the 1940s through the 1970s.
Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993) was a contributor and editor of the first 28 issues of MAD Magazine, which was initially published in 1952 and greatly influenced the underground comics movement. His work first appeared in 1939 in Tip Top Comics. In 1949, he began working for EC Comics editing Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, realistic portrayals of the Korean War that eschewed gung-ho glamor in favor of an emphasis on the war's horrors. His dark, fatalistic vision of men in combat was more in tune with late-twentieth-century American culture than the more jingoistic portrayals of earlier adventure comics. Kurtzman set the stage for irony and introspective satire in his work for MAD, which anticipated the social changes of the 1960s. His characters often took over the form and boundaries of the strip itself by breaking, twisting, and smashing panels to break onto the page of the book-or to fall off it.
R. Crumb (b.1943) is widely acknowledged as the father of underground comics. With a gift for drawing the world in a variety of styles ranging from old-fashioned funny animal comics to Old Master realism, Crumb adapted the raw self-expression of the Beat generation by dealing with sex, drugs, and neurotic self-expression. He was one of the first truly independent comic book artists by self-publishing his works, and is the creator of the cult icons Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, Angelfood McSpade, Flakey Foont, and Devil Girl. He became known for his early groundbreaking underground comic books Zap, and subsequently published the collection Head Comix, the graphic novel The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat, and many others.
Art Spiegelman (b.1948) won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his masterful Holocaust narrative Maus, which was followed by Maus II. Dense with narrative and graphic design, Spiegelman's work is characterized by elaborate layers of meaning that often investigate the medium itself. Complex and thick with visual references, his works demand to be read over and over. In 1980, Spiegelman founded RAW, the acclaimed avant-garde comics magazine, with his wife, Françoise Mouly. His work has since been published in many periodicals, including The New Yorker. His recent books include In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman's 2004 work about life in post-9/11 New York City. His comics and work as an editor have helped to establish a history of the medium and a sense of how to read comics in a serious way.
Gary Panter (b.1950) expanded the range of expression in comic books by creating influential new work that looked unlike anything that preceded him. Influenced by punk rock music, his scratchy line and seemingly dumb characters were a radical break from previous underground comics. Panter created Jimbo for Zongo comics about a post-nuclear cartoon character, and the web-based animated series The Pink Donkey and The Fly for Cartoon Network Online. His graphic novels include Invasion of the Elvis Zombies, Jimbo in Purgatory, Dal Toyko, and Cola Madnes. As head set designer for the 1980s television show Pee Wee's Playhouse, Panter garned a 1987 daytime Emmy for Art Direction/Set Decoration/Scenic Design.
Chris Ware (b.1967) is a self-taught cartoonist known for his talent at blending painting, typography, music, theater, architecture, and skilled graphic design into the comic medium. He has created an entirely new language of expression by combining different points of view that are unified in the overall design and publication of his work, expressing himself through the character of his line and the way in which his pictures form complex compositions on a page. Modeling much of his plot lines on his real life, Ware published Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth in 2000. His other works include The Acme Novelty Library, Building, Lonely Comics and Stories, Quimby the Mouse, the comic strip Rusty Brown, and the strip God.
NATIONAL EXHIBITION TOUR
The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive, fully-illustrated catalogue co-published by Yale University Press. It features an historical essay by John Carlin and contributions on the individual artists by a variety of novelists, historians, critics, and artists. Contributors are Tom DeHaven on Winsor McCay, Brian Walker on Lyonel Feininger, Stanley Crouch on George Herriman, Jules Feiffer on E.C. Segar, Karal Ann Marling on Frank King, Robert Storr on Chester Gould, Pete Hamill on Milton Caniff, Patrick McDonnell on Charles Schulz, Raymond Pettibon on Will Eisner, Glen David Gold on Jack Kirby, J. Hoberman on Harvey Kurtzman, Françoise Mouly on R. Crumb, Jonathan Safran Foer on Art Spiegelman, Matt Groening on Gary Panter, and Dave Eggers on Chris Ware.
Designed by award-winning graphic designer Lorraine Wild of Green Dragon Office in Los Angeles, the publication features over 300 color reproductions.
Masters of American Comics will be accompanied by a full schedule of public programs related to the exhibition. Hosted at both the Hammer Museum and MOCA, they include conversations, lectures, panel discussions, and film series. The programs aim to feature the living artists in the exhibition, explore the influences they felt from earlier generations, and provide contemporary context by featuring the artists and topics of the younger generation.
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