Ellen Harvey’s Global Beautification Project

A few weeks back, I walked across West 22nd Street after visiting Gary Hume’s show, “Mum” at Matthew Marks, lost in the whirlwind of emotions, past and present, it elicited, barely cognizant of the traffic, weather, or time. Luckily, Thanksgiving week in NYC tends to be on the quiet side. As I crossed the street, bright lights, like those seen in a carnival, beckoned from inside the front window of Danese/Corey Gallery. Reaching the sidewalk, I could see the lights made a sign that was attached to the frame of a wooden shack. They read “ARCADIA.”

The view from the sidewalk outside Danese/Corey. Click any Photo for full size.

Hmmm…”Arcadia.” A word that evokes simple pleasures. In need of some cheer, I stepped inside. While I can’t say I found “cheer,” I found Art.

Installation view from inside the “shack.” An extraordinarily imaginative vision, stunningly well realized.

The show was “Ellen Harvey: Nostalgia.” Inside the wooden framed shack, the carnival-like atmosphere of the sign outside quickly faded into darkness, pierced with lines of white light. Looking closer, the lines turned out to be etched on mirrors lit from the back. The light they emitted was reflected back by more back lit mirrors on the opposite side of the shack, as was the viewer, which made the design they held frustratingly hard to see. It was like “seeing” through a haze, a bit like walking around Times Square (I hear). Taken by the beauty I knew was there, I wandered around the space, enthralled and puzzled. Scenes of buildings, waves, and sky lined both sides culminating in a large panel showing the moon over the sea. Making my way to the gallery’s desk, I found that the work, titled “Arcade/Arcadia,” 2011, contains 34 hand engraved mirrors mounted on light boxes to form a 360 degree panorama of the town of Margate, England as seen from the beach. Hmmm…

Intentionally hard to see the amazing engraving on the mirrors.

Then same mirror, without anything in front of it. From the show’s catalog.

Unable to get the work out of my mind while I was looking at other shows, I went back to Danese/Corey later and bought the monograph, “ Ellen Harvey: The Museum of Failure1,” which has the backstory and images of the mirrors without reflections, (which, while defeating the point of the installation, allows appreciation of her amazing technique). I learned that the project was commissioned by the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, England for it’s opening in 2011. The shed is a remimagining of JMW Turner’s London gallery (in 3/4 size) and the mirrors are arranged in the way Turner displayed his work- “salon” style, as seen in George Jones  “Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his Works,” 1852. Along with another Painting George Jones did of it after Turner died, they are the only records we have of what JMW Turner’s gallery looked like.

George Jones “Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his Works,” 1952, Oil on canvas, Ashmolean Museum. Hmmm…George Jones believed in capitalizing “Artist,” like I do.

Turner loved Margate and lauded it’s natural beauty. So inspired, he is believed to have created around 100 Paintings of it, possibly including this one, given that he began using Margate as a second home around 1830.

JMW Turner, “Margate(?), Seen From the Sea,” c.1835-40, on loan from the National Gallery, London and seen in The Met Breuer’s “Unfinished” show in 2016, which I wrote about, here. Possibly one, of hundreds, of works he did depicting Margate.

In addition to finding inspiration, he, infamously, “shacked up” with his landlady there. The town eventually became a tourist mecca which led to it’s (over?) commercialization. When it fell on hard times, the amusement park, called “Dreamland,” (who’s sign Ms. Harvey pays homage to in her “Arcadia” sign, using the same font), closed and became a blight on the natural beauty which led so many to want to come there in the first place. In the piece, Ellen Harvey depicts a more recent view of Margate as seen from the beach, in apparent complete desolation.

The work is like an onion in it’s many layers. There’s the Turner layer, the Margate/nature layer, the Dreamland/commercialization layer, the mirror layer (with it’s funhouse effect, seen earlier), and the layer of light being distorted, which could be a reference to the light that Turner loved, and what’s become of it, with the addition of so many electric lights and buildings blocking sunlight. There’s, also, the layer of the styles of the two Artists, Ellen Harvey and JMW Turner, in dialogue. With the large shadow of no less than Turner looming, this is, certainly, a daring undertaking. Ms. Harvey’s mirrors contain many passages of sky and sea, crescendoing in the large center rear panel, that can’t help but remind today’s viewer of the English Master, though in decidedly her own style. Though “Dreamland” has recently reopened, the metaphor, and the warning, in the work is powerful, and both specific and universal. Experiencing it was a highlight among all the Art I’ve seen in 2017.

The rest of the show impressed me just as much. Adjacent to “Arcade/Arcadia,” was a Painting that depicted what looked to be a rough surface that seemed like it should be in relief, but was, in fact, flat. Hmmm…Is this the same Artist who just gave us all those meticulously engraved lines on those 34 mirrors2? It was closer in style to the Photographs of Aaron Siskind than the style I’d just seen. When I saw the title, I got it. “Crack/Craquelure.” Craquelure is a term referring to the cracking patterns seen in many old Paintings. “Nostalgia,” in another sense.

‘Crack/Craquelure,” 2017, Oil on wood panel.

There are other instances of “nostalgia” for the craft of Art in the show, like “Picture(esque),” 2017, Antique “Claude Glass,” float glass mirror, hook and plywood. A “Claude Glass,” (or “Black Mirror”) is an 18th & 19th century device, which Ms. Harvey is fond of.

“Picture(sque),” 2017. The “Black Mirror” was, also used for magic, particularly for seeing the future. Ellen Harvey’s work often contains images of ruins & destruction…images of a dark future.

They have been used by landscape Artists aiming for that special quality achieved by the great landscape Painter, Claude Lorrain (c.1604-1682), who it’s named after.

Claude Lorrain, “Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna,” 1639, seen at The Met. A classic example of the much admired, and copied, “dark” landscape, which inspired the “Claude Glass.”

Beyond the other themes present in this diverse show, there is the theme of mirrors. Since Robert Rauschenberg, I can’t think of another Artist who uses mirrors as frequently to such wonderful effect. Hand-engraved, without engraving, or with “Black Glass,” above. I asked the Artist about her use of mirrors, and specifically when it started. She replied, “I’ve always loved mirrors — but the first mirror piece I really made was in 2005 for the Pennsylvania Academy — aptly titled “Mirror” because I wanted to show the space and comment on their collection of paintings…and then I got hooked. Before that, I was all about Polaroids.” She’s referring to her monumental installation where she reinvisioned the entrance hall of the landmarked Furness and Hewitt Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art Building, Philadelphia, as a ruin, using video and four 9 by 12 foot hand-engraved mirrors. Ruins are part of the “dark future” Ellen Harvey believes we are destined for. Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Last Judgement” was the first painting she fell in love with. “That red-hot sword is coming for us all,” she said3, referring to what looms above Christ’s left hand. If it’s coming, I hope it gets here before I have to file my “new” taxes.

Further on, “Nostalgia” takes on more of a traditional meaning in “Ghost of Penn Station,” 2017, Oil on wood panel, where we see the tragically lost Architectural masterpiece, rendered in oil, as if seen through a haze or in a dream. Whereas Ms. Harvey has created a number of works showing existing buildings (even creating an “Alien’s Guide to the (future) Ruins of Washington DC“) in ruins, this is a rare case where a building that was ruined is shown before, in all it’s glory. In the rear gallery, “New Forest (The I.R.S. Office Reforested),” 2013, Gesso, oil, acrylic, and varnish on wood,  about 13 1/2 feet long, shows a part of the I.R.S. offices (speaking of taxes) in a deserted state with the area in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Interestingly, the I.R.S. bought a sister work on the same subject, titled “Reforestation,” that, also, depicts their new offices in ruins, being reclaimed by nature, rendered in mirrors which, now installed, reflect those very offices! Fact is stranger than Art. When I asked Ms. Harvey about this, she replied to the effect that they have a, surprisingly, good sense of humor.

“New Forest (The I.R.S. Office Reforested),” 2013, Black gesso, oil, acrylic, varnish on 20 wooden panels. Overall- 13 1/3 feet long by 7 3/4 feet high. There is a social/political/economic conscience, or awareness that runs through Ellen Harvey’s work that I find most tastefully handled.

Finally, there is another, spectacular, engraved mirror work, the fascinating “On the Impossibility of Capturing a Sunset,” 2017, 16 Hand-engraved plexiglass mirrors, 16 Lumisheets, plywood. Ms. Harvey lets the wires for the light boxes dangle down in front…Yes. In front of the work,  another way of adding an obstacle to the “pure” appreciation of her image. They fall to a jumble of power strips on the floor, where they look as intricate as the engraving above them. Perhaps they’re a metaphor for the huge effort it took to get this close to the “impossible” task she refers to. (In earlier engraved mirror works (like “Destroyed Landscape (Cloudy Moon),” 2012, she scratched over the finished engraving, graffiti-like, making it almost impossible to see the underlying composition.)

“On the Impossibility of Capturing a Sunset,” 2017, 16 Hand-engraved plexiglass mirrors, 16 Lumisheets, plywood.

Close-up.

As I considered “Nostalgia,” over multiple visits, this work became something of a touchstone for me as I learned (and still learn) about her work. In it, her gorgeous technical achievement becomes subservient (in a way) to her “larger point.” Across her career, it seems to me that that “larger point” is her vision. About this, she said-

“What is it that all these viewers might want in this situation? That’s really where all of this work comes from. It comes from my desire to take particular situations, either physical or social, and say, ‘What is it that people want from Art in this situation?  What can Art do here?’ And of course the answers are often completely ridiculous. When you think about it what people dream of, it’s like falling in love with someone, it’s all projection. It’s a sort of mad fantasy that’s very hard to understand.” 4

“495 West 37th Street at Ninth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, From The New York Beautification Project,” February, 2001, Oil on Wood(?) Wall. Close-up, right. Photos from ellenharvey.info, which has it’s backstory.

This “What can Art do here?” approach can be seen all the way back in 1999, in her remarkable “New York Beautification Project.” In it, the Artist hand painted 40 five by seven inch oval oil paintings on top of existing graffiti, over the course of 2 years! During the project, she was mugged once, and had encounters with the NYPD. While her remarkable Paintings were influenced by classic (and classical) landscape Paintings (WHAT could be MORE out of place in the world of NYC graffiti?), what floors me is the map of the locations she created them.

Map of locations of the Paintings in Ellen Harvey’s “New York Beautificalion Project,” 1999-2001. From ellenharvey.info

She almost circled the entire City! Ok, she did this without permission, or renumeration, as the works were affixed to non-movable locations, to the displeasure of gallerists, which might make you wonder…”WHY???” I chalk it up as an early sign of the scale of, the dedication to, and persistence of her vision. It was a taste of things to come.

Her “What is it that people want from Art in this situation?” reached, perhaps, it’s ultimate expression when only a short time later she got a chance to do public art “for real.” Actually? Two chances. The NYC MTA commissioned her to create the Art for TWO NYC Subway stations. She is one of the very few (perhaps, the only one?) to have been commissioned to do more than one. In 2005, she created “Look Up, Not Down,” in 2,000 square feet of the Queens Plaza Subway Station. This MTA video provides a look at it, and the backstory, and also includes rare glimpses of the NY Beautification Project’s Paintings, which are now long lost.

Then, in 2009, she was commissioned to do the Art for the (new) Yankee Stadium Metro North Station. Typically, she took a Yankees ad logo, “The Home of the Stars,” and flipped it in a way everyone could relate to- Yankee fan, or not.

Someone once said that mosaics are the most durable medium. There are gorgeous examples in The Met from 200 AD. So, it seems fairly likely that her work in the subway (at least) will last for at least the next 100, if not 1,000 years. I’ve lauded the MTA on their choices of Artists to create Art for the Subway before. Here is another case where I think they made an excellent choice. Both of these works are related to the sky and stars theme that continues in “Nostalgia.” Well? I’m not sure even Ellen Harvey is going to find a bigger stage than the stars.

Regarding her statement about giving the viewers what they want, I remain to be convinced that many, if anyone else, sees the world as Ellen Harvey does. It seems to me that she takes spaces (or materials) and reimagines them in ways visitors might enjoy, but, perhaps, don’t quite expect, and I doubt anticipated. Her work seems to cut across and through periods, schools, styles- abstract or realistic, to speak to people, and so, it “gives the people what they want.” That’s a pretty rare gift. Christo & Jeanne Claude come to mind as Artists who are/were capable of similar things. Her projects often require her to bring an extremely wide range of talents to bear, in an equally wide range of mediums and scale, to create her visions, though like Rauschenberg, she has said she considers herself a Painter. A Painter, who loves Painting dearly, though she has real doubts about it’s ongoing relevance given many of it’s original functions having been replaced by other mediums. For my part, it seems Painting was in trouble in the 90’s, but I’ve seen any number of very good (and relevant) Painting shows recently, especially this past year. Since Painting is, still, my favorite medium, I remain hopeful.

Looking through the 300 plus pages of “Museum of Failure” it’s very hard not to be amazed at the daring of her work, it’s diversity, as well as the consistent quality of it. In two instances she has taken on Painting reproductions of the bulk of the collections of two museums(!)- the Whitney and the nudes in the Bass Museum, Miami, and rendered them exceedingly well- regardless of the style or period. Yet Painting is just one of the many mediums she works, and excels, in.

With “Nostalgia,” one of the best shows of the fall season, you might think that Ellen Harvey would be satisfied. But, no. On December 13, ANOTHER show, including new work, “Ellen Harvey: Ornaments and Other Refrigerator Magnets,” opened at the Children’s Museum of Art downtown.

The CMA show continues her exploration of ornamentation (a subject near and dear to my heart), which, gets it’s own section on her website, showing work going back to at least 2002. It’s a show that, hopefully, will inspire and instill a love of ornament in a young audience that will grow up to bring it back to a world that sorely needs it. In it, another of her themes, seen in her 2014 installation, “The Unloved,” at the Groeninge Museum, Bruges, Belgium, comes to the fore- the forgotten/overlooked/yes, unloved, in Art. These days? Not much is more unloved than ornamentation in Architecture.

“Those days are recalled on the gallery wall
And she’s waiting for passion or humour to strike

[Chorus]
What shall we do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?
All this useless beauty”*

Appropriately, and prominently, placed around the show were various editions of Austrian Architect Adolf Loos’ essay collection, “Ornament & Crime,” as if saying “Ornament is NOT a crime!”

Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime,”a collection of essays, including the title piece, a lecture given in 1908, appropriately displayed on a lovely, ornate pedestal.

Featured is her 2015 “Metal Paintings for Dr. Barnes,” in which she painted every piece of metal work installed at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, on 826 wood panels with magnets inset then mounted on steel panels so they could be endlessly rearranged, unlike those in the Barnes.

“Metal Paintings for Dr. Barnes,” 2005, Oil on 826 wood panels with inset magnets, steel panels, overall, 25 by 15 feet, left, and “Mass Produced,” 2017, Metal hardware, screws, plywood, and plastic frame.

More recently, much of her work with ornaments has been inspired by her visits to the  American Wood Column Company, in Brooklyn, founded in 1916, and their collection of over 6,000 antique molds. On view was a 48 part visual catalog of samples of their work, which Ms. Harvey had photographed by accomplished Photographer Etienne Frossard, who has been working with her since 2012, in a new work titled “Mr. Lupo’s Collection,” in honor (in a sense) of this man and his company’s devotion to currently unloved work that may be on the verge of being lost.

“Mr. Lupo’s Collection,” 2017, 48 Framed Photographs, individually photographed by Etienne Frossard. (Apologies for the glare in my photo of them.)

Ornaments made by American Wood Column Company were featured in a large, new work that brings them right into the 21st Century. Not being satisfied with creating Art in two Subway stations, here, “Ornaments for the Subway,” 2017, goes further. It attempts to beautify that universal blight of all Subway stations- the ads. The card says, “It used to be that public spaces were covered with architectural ornaments rather than advertising….Here the Artist imagines taking back the public space from which they have been removed.” Bravo.

“Ornaments for the Subway,” 2017, Pressed glue ornaments made by the American Wood Column Co., plywood panels with inset magnets, subway posters and 20 steel panels.

Detail.

I spoke with Ellen Harvey at the opening, and she turned out to be exceedingly gracious, generously walking this complete stranger around her new show, pointing out all kinds of subtle detail that would take me many visits to discover. Here again, some of the themes I’ve seen in her other works are on display- a critique of Art, museums, and the rich, her passion for giving the viewers what they want, more use of mirrors (as mirrors this time!) and yes, “nostalgia,” is a theme, here, too. This work with mirrors includes people I know I’ve seen somewhere before.

“All That Glitters,” 2017. Card and detail below.

Detail of the lower right corner of the right side shows Mr. Putin, right, and Mr. Trump, above to the left of center, who’s wife appears elsewhere.

I titled this piece “Ellen Harvey’s Global Beautification Project,” because looking through her projects to date, they’ve taken place around the world, from California, to Miami to Philadelphia to Ghent, Bruges, Margate, Vienna, Warsaw, and of course, NYC, including the 2008 Whitney Biennial and the two Subway Stations. Together, they make part of a map of the world that will soon start to look like a global version of the map of her New York Beautification Project.

Before I left CMA, I came across “Walk In,” 2005, Oil on plywood and gilded frame, a booth to allow visitors to pose in glamorous surroundings, as if walking into a painting.

“Walk In,” 2005, 005, a work designed to be a background and frame in one for a do it yourself portrait.

Inspired by her work, and her approach, it was at that point that I decided to be a visionary, myself. “Hmmm….What does this picture need? What would the people like to see here?,” I asked myself.

The very gracious Artist graciously poses for yours truly in her “Walk In,” 2005.

And so, “My Portrait of Ellen Harvey” ends…with one.

“Ellen Harvey: Nostalgia” is my NoteWorthy show for November. 

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “All This Useless Beauty,” by Elvis Costello from the 1996 album of the same title, publisher not known to me. It’s rendered here.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. A new edition, which features “Arcade/Arcadia” on it’s cover, is the most complete book on her work and is recommended. Ellen Harvey’s website, ellenharvey.info is, also, a goto resource.
  2. The first question I asked Ellen Harvey was about engraving those mirrors- “What happens when you make a mistake?” “It happens often. I press on,” she said!
  3. “Ellen Harvey: Museum of Failure,” P. 299.
  4.  https://youtu.be/juIqarKNAGY

Chris Ware-“The World’s Smartest Cartoonist”

Chris Ware stands in front of the original Art for the covers of his new book, “Monograph,” at the opening for the show of the same title at Adam Baumgold Gallery on November 10, 2017. Click any Photo for full size.

Chris Ware has been universally respected among his fellow Cartoonists & Graphic Novelists for quite some time. At this point, it’s becoming relevant to consider his place among ALL his peers, including the all-time legends. Now, he has made that a much easier thing to assess with the release of his new book, “Monograph,” a gorgeous, and, (typically) meticulously well-done, Rizzoli mid-career autobiography and retrospective in one. But before anyone else can begin to assess his accomplishment through it, no less than Art Speigelman, one of those enduring masters of Cartons & Graphic Novels in that pantheon of legends, calls him “the World’s Smartest Cartoonist,” in his Introduction to it. After he, his wife, Francoise Mouly, the Art Editor of the New Yorker & an Independent Publisher, and Ira Glass have their say up top, the rest of it is so well done, I don’t think there’s a better case to be made for his accomplishment. Take that, future biographers/monographers! For the rest of us, no matter how closely you’ve followed Chris Ware, you’ll find known favorites alongside much that is previously unknown, including a surprising amount of detail about Mr. Ware’s life along the way.

“Good cartoon drawing is good design.” Charles M. Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” in 1997. The published covers from the Drawings, above, for  “Monograph,” 2017. Front cover, right side, and back cover, left. Their “meaning?” Perhaps, that there’s a lot going on in that head…Inside (between the covers).

Speaking of what might be going on in that head, along the way, “Monograph’s” 280 pages also provides the best evidence that Chris Ware is a bit of a throw-back in his tastes in Art, Cartooning, Music & Architecture, a side that co-exists with, and informs, the visionary that is given to flights of fantasy, usually involving the past or the future, often without notice. They all coalesce in Art that, at times, could be mistaken at a distance for an Architect’s plans, as seen above.

An echo? Speaking of Architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, “Madison Civic Center (Monona Terrace)” Night View, 1955, Ink on paper presentation drawing. When I first saw “Monograph,” this drawing by Wright, recently on view at MoMA, came to mind. Chris Ware lives near the early Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the Chicago suburbs.

By now, none of this is news to anyone who has seen his work over what is already 30…Can it be? Yes, it is…30 years! What’s lesser known is that, personally, he’s also an enigma. I’m only 15 years in myself, yet, what I still have trouble getting used to is that along with all the things Chris Ware is, he is, on top of it all, endlessly self-effacing.

I don’t think it’s an act.

Take a look at his expressions and body language during his first national television appearance, November 13th, on one of the last episodes of Charlie Rose, which is, also, a good introduction to him. Note the 5:07 mark, for instance-

For the past 15 years he’s been telling me off and on that his original Art, which now sells for upwards of many thousands of dollars per in galleries, “is easily disposable.” First, he said it in 2002, after “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” came out. Just this past week, he said it again. Standing in the middle of the opening of his newest show at Adam Baumgold’s East 66th Street gallery. I had commented on the fact that he is his best and most astute collector, and asked if he was planning to open a museum. He replied by talking about disposing of it.

From left to right- Art for “Hold Still,” an iconic 2005 New Yorker cover, Art for the Acme Novelty Lunchbox, a page of Rusty Brown, subject of his next book, a very early “Jimmy Corrigan” page from Acme #1, two Self-Portraits, and a page that appeared in the New York Times Book Review in October, 2015, far right. Mr. Ware’s Original is titled “Why I O Comics.” I heard he wasn’t pleased that the Times published this with the heading “Why I Love Comics.” All of this Art is, or was, part of the collection of Chris Ware.

All I could do was shake my head and nervously smile when he said it, again, because he can’t be serious. CAN HE? Taking no chances, I did the only responsible thing I could. I told him to call me first. Then, I looked for “answers” in the show, and in “Monograph,” itself.

The museums will, also, come calling one of these days. I have no doubt of that. In my opinion, they should have, already. I’m referring to his work being in the permanent collection of MoMA, The Met and The Whitney, and the other big museums around the world. To be fair, the Whitney Museum did include Chris Ware in their 2002 Biennial, when he was the first cartoonist ever invited, and was given an entire gallery where about 48 works, by my count, were on view. They even commissioned him to create the poster for the show. He has, also, been included in important shows at other museums, at NYC’s Jewish Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, both in 2006, and elsewhere.

During this latest encounter, we stood in the midst of the opening for his newest show with Mr. Baumgold, for “Monograph.” The rooms were filled with original Drawings by Mr. Ware going back to the late 1980’s, when he was 20 or 21 years old, works that even his most avid readers have not seen, or probably even knew about.

“The Sunville Daily,” 1987, Ink and red pencil on paper. By Chris Ware at about age 20. Looking very closely, you’ll find elements of his later work, but, overall, this is shockingly different from everything that came after.

The fact that he’s kept a good number of his earliest work that those long time readers have never seen, proves that he attaches at least some value to them, himself, and I have a hard time believing it’s only sentimental. Chris Ware has a professor’s level knowledge of the history of cartooning (as seen here), as well as an acute awareness of it’s current state, witness the expert (yes, expert) contributions he’s made to books on George Herriman and Daniel Clowes, as well as the astute quotes bearing his name that appear on many new and notable graphic novels, including being front and center on the front cover of, perhaps, the most auspicious debut of 2017, Emil Ferris’ “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters,” which I wrote about here. Of course that eye is applied first, foremost, and probably, most critically, to his own work.

Athletically challenged. “Gym Class,” 1987, Ink and red pencil on paper, depicts some of the dread, and possibly, the bullying, he dealt with in school. One of the earliest works in “Monograph,” elements of his now “classic” graphic style appear, and are already confidently rendered. A key point in Chris Ware finding his direction. (That’s a reflection from across the gallery above the center character’s head. Sorry.)

Mr. Ware came to fame with the release of his first full length book, the graphic novel, “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid Alive,” in 2000. It won the Guardian First Book Award in 2001, an award that considers not only graphic novels, but ALL books released during the year. The glowing reviews served to highlight the fact that there had, literally, been nothing like it to that point. The graphic novel had seen it’s first big breakthrough in underground and non-superhero comics, perhaps, since Art Spiegleman’s “Maus,” the Pulizer Prize winner in 1992. Seven years in the making, it’s possible to watch his style solidify over it’s 380 unnumbered pages. Almost as soon as it was released, Chris Ware’s name had been made. When I first saw it, I knew from the one of a kind dust jacket that opened out into an amazingly intricate double sided poster that here was a truly unique book. 16 years later? A well worn copy is still near to hand. It’s a book that doesn’t reveal all it’s secrets in one reading. Every time I pick it up I still find new things, new threads, I’d previously missed. I’m not alone. “Jimmy Corrigan” has given rise to a continuing stream of critical examination, theorizing, analysis and speculation.

The original cover Drawing for the front of the remarkable folded book jacket/double sided poster for “Jimmy Corrigan” as seen in “Monograph.”

“Reading him, I always have the feeling that the pages aren’t big enough for everything he’s trying to squeeze into those orderly rectangular panels.” Ira Glass, “Monograph” Preface.

A flat of the whole, double sided cover, in color. The Drawing reproduced above is the left half of this image. Little discussed (perhaps because it’s the back of the cover/poster), the right half contains the story of Jimmy’s ancestors, including his African-American ancestors (one seen being sold as a slave), which were unknown to him. Some see commentary on the “imperialistic” nature of American colonization and the idealism of the “American dream” in the story of Jimmy’s ancestors as well.

“Jimmy Corrigan” turned out to be semi-autobiographical. In it, Jimmy gets a letter and phone call out of the blue from the father he’s never met suggesting they meet over Thanksgiving. Before going, he tries to imagine him and what impact knowing him would have on his life. When he finally meets him, he discovers he’s nothing like he imagined him to be. He also meets his dad’s adopted African-American daugther, Amy, who Jimmy had no knowledge of.

Some time after it was published we learned that Chris Ware, himself, never knew his father growing up, until finally meeting him, once, mid-way through writing “Jimmy Corrigan.” Sadly, the elder Mr. Ware passed away shortly before the book was finished, without ever having seen his son’s close-to- home masterpiece. Later, Chris Ware said that “I didn’t spend that much time with him. I added it all up once…I knew my father for just about five hours1.” That’s about as long as it takes to read it, something that is on my mind when I re-read it now, which I prefer to do in a single sitting to really feel that length of time pass. Through the mastery of his creativity, and the unique ways the characters are depicted, the work becomes more than a story, “more,” even, than Art. It’s also a record of the moment to moment thoughts, hopes and dreams of 4 generations of the Corrigans, and their reactions to events as their lives unfold before our eyes, across time. Reactions that most often include little, even no, inter-action. Almost every character in it is, mostly, cut off from every one else. In that sense, it’s also a classic of isolation, a meditation on it’s eternal nature (across generations)- Every character in Jimmy Corrigan suffers from extreme isolation and loneliness. Unlike the hard-core lonely, who have given up on the human race, every character longs for it to end. At least in Chris Ware’s work, life always happens in spectacular rendering, in color that speaks it’s own language, and with gorgeous, ever-surprising design.

Back at the show, increasingly sought after, only one “Jimmy Corrigan” original page, (from the Acme Novelty Library #1, which predates the book), was on display, but it was a good one, that succinctly sums up what I said about the book, itself.

“Jimmy Corrigan, Calling Mom,” Acme #1, 1993, Ink and blue pencil on paper. This page, from the first year he drew Jimmy  didn’t make it into the final “Jimmy Corrigan” book, though it captures much of the poignancy of it.

While Chris Ware is well-known as an admirer of the great George Herriman and his “Krazy Kat” strip, having done the cover art for the 13 volume reissue of what many, including he, consider the greatest comic strip of all time, his influence lives on in Mr. Ware’s own ground-breaking graphic design, which builds on “Krazy Kat’s” Sunday full pages, that Mr. Herriman treated freely, like a blank canvas, when it came to laying out his stories. Over the past 30 years, it’s been taken to the point that it has become one of his trademarks. Along with George Herriman, Charles Schulz and his “Peanuts” cartoon strip that ran for 50 years are another major influence on Chris Ware. “Charles Schulz is the only writer I’ve continually read through childhood and into college2.” Charlie Brown, who Mr. Ware calls “the first sympathetic cartoon character3,” is the predecessor of Jimmy Corrigan. Interestingly, the final Peanuts strip ran on February 13, 2000. After serializing the story in the early 1990’s, the first edition of the completed and collected “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” was published on September 12, 2000.

Learning at the elbow of the master. Chris Ware included this self-portrait in his “Tribute” to Peanuts after their final strip in 2000,  ending by paraphrasing Mr. Schulz final panel- “How could I ever forget them?” The complete strip is reproduced in “Monograph.”

In the years before and after Jimmy Corrigan, Mr. Ware developed a whole slew of characters, that appear sporadically, only some of them “human.” They range from “Quimby the Mouse,” and “Branford the Bee” to “Rusty Brown,” and “Rocket Sam.” But, in the end? It seems to me whatever lifeforms they are doesn’t matter a bit. It only serves to make them seem “uncannily human” to the reader.

“Quimbies the Mouse,” 1990, Ink and red pencil on paper. Later, he would lose the “siamese” aspect and it would just be “Quimby the Mouse.”

These appeared in the (shorter) installments of the “Acme Novelty Library,” released sporadically over the years. Mr. Ware’s full length books take him so long to create we’re lucky to get one per decade. There must be something in the water in the Chicago burbs because “Monograph” is second for this decade. And? At the show, he was speaking about ANOTHER book, to be released in 2018, “Rusty Brown, Part 1.” And though Zadie Smith commented “There’s no writer alive I love more than Chris. Ware. The only problem is it takes him ten years to draw these things and then I read them in a day and have to wait another ten years for the next one4.” it may take even Mr. Ware’s most devoted reader more than a day to work their way through “Monograph’s” 280 pages that are jam-packed with almost as many details as this image of the Milky Way.

“Monograph’s” surprises include this six page story including the red pencil underdrawing on paper he was using at the time. “I Guess, (from RAW Volume 2, No. 3, 1991),” 1990, Ink on mylar, red pencil on paper.

Over the years, Mr Ware has created books that range in size from miniatures to the gigantic, even one with a multitude of sizes (14) in one (the award winning “Building Stories,” 2012). Now? He has outdone himself. Weighing in at over 9 pounds and measuring 18 by 13 inches, it’s fitting that this mid-career Autobiographical Retrospective is large enough to mirror his achievement. In this case, “Monograph” needs to be this big. Trying to read the detail in something like the folded book jacket for “Jimmy Corrigan,” above, would be neigh impossible in a smaller size.

Speaking of gigantic. “Sparky’s Sparky Is Best Comics and Stories (I Am a Sickness That Infects my Friends.),” 1991, Ink, red pencil on paper, 50 inches tall(!) by 30 wide.

As for what else “Monograph” contains, Mr. Ware’s work has appeared on 23 New Yorker Magazine covers, almost every one of which eschews his “intricate” graphic design (the most recent one, in September, 2017, I wrote about, here), while also holding the distinction of being the very first “cartoonist” to have his work serialized in the New York Times.

The devil is in the details. Chris Ware is, also, endlessly fascinated with stand alone characters, especially hand-made mechanical examples. “Quimby the Mouse,” was incarnated as a wooden toy a while back. Unfortunately, the manufacturer painted every one of his eyes wrong. So? Mr. Ware grabbed the 14 of them in the vitrine and correctly hand painted each eye. Shown with the original Art for their box cover.

After “Jimmy” he continued to release regular installments of his “Acme Novelty Library,” along with smaller books, including “Lint,” two volumes of excerpts from his sketchbooks, a “Quimby the Mouse” collection, forays into mechanical figures, products and toys, book covers for others and the “Ragtime Ephemeralist,” an “infrequently appearing” volume devoted to you guessed it- ephemera, and scholarly articles, related to Ragtime, edited, designed and published by Chris Ware. The latest issue, from 1995, totals 256 pages! In 2011, he even broke out of the medium of print, for the first time, digitally publishing “Touch Sensitive” an interactive story from “Building Stories” that is still available for free download on iOS, here. In 2015, he debuted an actual internet-only work, serializing “The Last Saturday” online, here, on The Guardian’s website. Though he wasn’t a fan of technology early on, as the digital forays “Touch Sensitive” and  “The Last Saturday” show, Chris Ware is a man with one foot in the past who is, surprisingly, open to selectively dipping a toe in the future, though he is an avowed lover of the print medium.

3 Views of a Secret. A rare Chris Ware Painting, bottom, the Drawing for it’s appearance on an Acme cover, and a version of the same piece, as a New Yorker cover mock up, all featuring Jimmy Corrigan- with, and without, Super-man.

The next milestone was “Building Stories,” which had been partially serialized in the New York Times, released in 2012 in a large box containing 14 publications of varying size and bindings. The order which the reader read it was up to them, thereby creating countless ways it’s tales could be told. Five years later, almost to the month, now comes “Monograph.” It’s huge size is, no doubt, daunting to many. After seeing his original Art, I realized that “Monograph” mirrors the size of the illustration board Mr. Ware favors to draw his Art on. So, the book will provide an experience as close as is possible to seeing the actual original Art in person. As the ultimate Chris Ware (Auto)biography, it’s chocked full of historical Photos of Mr. Ware, his family, friends and associates, while it’s running commentary sheds new light on the path he and his Art has taken, an invaluable resource to those studying his Artistic development.

As we chatted this time, he drew two small self portraits in my copies of the Acme Novelty Datebook (his Sketchbooks), Vol 1 & 2. He seemed pleased to see them when I produced them for his signature, sketchbooks being near and dear to my heart (I made my own for many years). He mentioned that there would be a Volume 3! Later, I looked at the Drawings he did. Wow.

Sketch by Chris Ware in my copy of the Acme Novelty Date Book, Volume 1.

A bit reminiscent of this, which was on view in a corner across the room- “Acme #4 (Sparky’s Best Comics and Stories)” Cover, 1994, Ink and blue pencil on paper. What was I saying about all his characters acting “human?”

“The accolades he got he felt weren’t his, for some reason. He didn’t feel they were…deserved. And I think he didn’t feel particularly connected to the world.
He was appreciative and very, very loving about all of the good things that came his way but I think he was always mildly surprised.” Whoopi Goldberg on Charles Schulz 5

As with Charles Schulz, the creator of the most famous comic strip in history, I don’t know what lies at the heart of Mr. Ware’s self-effacement, but  I hope it won’t take another 30 years for him to accept the compliments his work receives. If he continues producing the kind of work he has over the past 30 years, then, he might not have any choice but to get used to people saying nice things about his work.

Back from the show, with this question on my mind, I began to re-read Jimmy Corrigan for the umpteenth time, this time in it’s paperback incarnation (which has a few significant differences from the hardcover), I happened upon this beauty on the lower right back cover.

A-ha! Chris Ware dumpster diving to SAVE copies of his work that have been discarded! “Jimmy Corrigan,” Paperback edition, back cover detail.

I get it! I FINALLY found the answer to his self-affacement. He WANTS me to throw out his work so he can save it and re-sell it!

They’re right. He IS smart! ; )

**********************************************************************
Collector’s Note- This is something I’ve yet to see anyone point out. While I suspect that many/most of Chris Ware’s fans already have “Monograph,” for those that don’t, I’ve discovered something that you might want to keep in mind.

There are TWO editions of “Monograph.”

When I discovered it, I called the publisher, Rizzoli, and even they didn’t know what the differences were! So, I took it on myself to find out. The “regular edition,” ISBN 978-0847860883, is the one most commonly available. However, there’s also the “Bookplate Edition,” ISBN 978-0847858125, which I’ve almost always seen selling for the same list price ($60.00) as the “regular” edition. However, it contains 2 major differences. First, it comes with a small double-sided “errata” sheet that is SIGNED by Chris Ware. Second, the “errata” sheet comes tucked inside of a folded reproduction of the original Drawing for his quite rare 2002 Whitney Biennial Poster, “The Whitney Prevaricator.”

Top of the inside of the inserted Reproduction of the Drawing for the Whitney Biennial Poster. If you collect Chris Ware, I recommend you get the “Bookplate Edition,” which is signed TWICE by Mr. Ware, and includes this.

On the top of the verso of this sheet is text noting that this is the “Fine Art Edition,(referred to as the “Bookplate Edition” in the trade) of “Monograph,” which Chris Ware has ALSO signed, and numbered out of an edition of 550. Buyer? Be Ware. (Sorry.)

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “In The Future When All’s Well,” by Morrissey from “Ringleaders of the Tormentors.” Another Artist who’s work is deemed “depressing” by some.

On the Fence, #16, The Smartest Birdies…on this Fence…on April 1st…at 3pm” Edition.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. http://edition.cnn.com/2000/books/news/10/03/chris.ware.qanda/index.html
  2. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6329/chris-ware-the-art-of-comics-no-2-chris-ware
  3. http://classic.tcj.com/alternative/interview-with-chris-ware-part-1-of-2/
  4. Quoted on a sticker on the shrink-wrap for “Monograph.”
  5. in “The Complete Peanuts, Volume 5 1959-1960, p.xi.

Now Is A Good Time To Join The Met- UPDATED 1/4/18

This is an update to my recent Post “Now Is A Good Time To Join The Met,” published on December 10, 2017.

Incomparable. That’s one way to describe Michelangelo. The buzz for “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer ” is that it’s “once in a life-time.” I’ve been anticipating it all year. With 133 of his Drawings(!). 3 Sculptures(!). His earliest Painting (The Met’s experts say it’s his. I’ve saw it in 2009 and it’s hard to argue with them)…That sounds about right. Here’s the sign at the entrance, fronting part of the scaffolding TM built to mimic Michelangelo’s own for the section on the Sistine Chapel. Click any Photo for full size.

Well? Anytime is a good time to join the country’s greatest Art museum. They can use the support. I’ve been a member of The Met since 2002, during which time I’ve gone over 1,400 times. It still truly feels like Home to me. Today, I renewed and a perusal of the shows up right now made me feel that it may be the most amazing lineup I can recall at one time.

Here’s what’s there right now

The Met’s Current Exhibition page on December 8, 2017.

“He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice…*”

Let’s see…

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer 

-the David Hockney Retrospective

Rodin At The Met

World War I and the Visual Arts

Leonardo to Matisse: Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection

EACH one is a big show at 1000 Fifth Avenue. Depending on your stamina, seeing all of any one of those would make for a good visit to The Museum in itself. And? These smaller shows are also there-

Frederick Remington at The Met

Talking Pictures: Camera-Phone Conversations Between Artists

Cosmic Buddhas in the Himalayas

Company School Painting in India (ca. 1770-1850)

Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection

And? Since too much is never enough in NYC-

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed

Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs

Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950-1980

Are up at The Met Breuer.

Yes. Santa came early for NYC Art lovers. Suffice it to say that I, also, bought a new pair of shoes cause I expect to be wearing my current pair out soon.

And then there was this…

All I wanted for Christmas. My name up in lights on a wall in The Met! Actually, before I feel special, they do this for all new and renewing members. Pay attention. Your “immortality” lasts for 3 seconds.

Ahhhh…It’s good to be Home for the Holidays…

UPDATE– January 4, 2018. The world’s greatest Museum announced an “updated” admissions plan this morning. The gist of it is-

  • The “pay as you wish” policy will continue for all New York State residents.
  • This will be expanded to cover students from New Jersey & Connecticut.
  • Mandatory $25.(general)/$17. (seniors)/$12 (students) admission fee will be required henceforth for all of those from elsewhere/non-students from NJ & Ct.
  • All full-priced tickets will be honored for three consecutive days.
  • The “updated” policy will be implemented on March 1, 2018

This morning, Daniel Weiss, President of The Met, said-

“…The Met is a profoundly different place from that envisioned by its founders. Decades ago The Met made a decision to expand its operations and outreach and to become the Museum that we know today: a cherished institution that is both the top tourist destination in New York City and a world-renowned center of scholarship and learning.

Maintaining this level of excellence, and continuing to serve the New York region at the same high level, requires that The Met take stock and decide, once again, what kind of Museum we want to be for future generations. The world has changed dramatically in the almost 50 years since our admissions policy was last reviewed, and the way we budget and plan for the future needs to change as well.

What is clear is that our current pay-as-you-wish policy is no longer sufficient to meet the Museum’s daily operational demands. Paid admissions represent only 14 percent of our overall revenue, one of the lowest percentages among our New York City peers. Moreover, in the past 13 years the number of visitors who pay the full suggested admission has declined by 73 percent. We are now the only major museum in the world that relies exclusively on a pure pay-as-you-wish system or that does not receive the majority of its funding from the government.”

His full statement on the matter is here.

Personally? I’m for this. TM has an estimated 10 million dollar deficit. It’s the fifth consecutive year they’ve been in the red, with an 8.2 million shortfall in 2015-16. This at a time where they are the #1 most attended Art museum in the world.

The Met’s Grand Hall, December 28th. I can’t recall ever seeing TM as crowded as it was this weekend. There were waiting lines to see Michelangelo & David Hockney.

What happens when the Art boom fades, or slows? Yes, it’s easy for me to say I support this since I could get in paying what I wish. I could have for the past few years. I’ve been a Met Member since 2002, and I will continue to be a member. Why? I believe, for any number of reasons I’ve outlined on NighthawkNYC over the past two years, like here, they are the best Museum in the world. And? They need my support. And your’s, too. Remember that if you are one of those effected by the new policy.

Or? You could just join. As I said, this is as good a moment as any.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” writer & publisher unknown to me. Ok. I’ve been naughty. Coal for me. I’m used to it…

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
Click the white box on the upper right for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.