24 questions for Art Spiegelman

Jan 21, 2014, 3:25 AM EST
Detail of Art Spiegelman's "Lead Pipe Sunday no. 2" (1997)
(© 1997 by Art Spiegelman. Used by permission of the artist and The Wylie Agency LLC. Courtesy Drawn + Quarterly. )

Name: Art Spiegelman

Age: 65 (“I’m still 65 and it’s a dangerous time to have a retrospective. It all comes with so many weights since 65 is this magic number when I should learn how to play golf and like white shoes.”)

Occupation:Comics Artist

City/Neighborhood: SoHo (“As I’ve done since 1976.”)

Your current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix,” is your first U.S. retrospective. How does it feel for your career to be celebrated in such a huge show?

On the one hand, it’s kind of amazing because it looks so good. I was going to say it’s well hung, but that brings up horses or something. It’s beautifully installed. On the other hand, the whole notion of a retrospective is a kind of shaky experience. I have no idea what happens on the other side of a retrospective. De Kooning said it should never be done while you’re alive, but the research reveals that he had at least two. So what are you gonna do?

The U.S. premiere of your performance piece “Wordless!” will take place at BAM on January 18. What brought you to performance? How did your process change when creating in a new medium?

The last few years what I’ve been doing is commixing my discipline with other media: with a dance company, with glass fabrication, a book called “MetaMaus” where an exhausted interview got distilled into a 300-page book I designed, and ultimately collaborating on this exhibition itself with Rina Zavagli-Mattotti, who is the curator I trust enough to let this happen against my better judgment. And now “Wordless!”, which is a way of finally seeing to fruition a project that didn’t quite come together, which was a music theater piece called “Drawn to Death” about the rise and fall of the American comic book we were trying to get made with [composer] Phillip Johnston. When it failed I just wanted to hang with him some more and tried to find an excuse. Ultimately that excuse was afforded to us by the Sydney Opera House. It is a hybrid of something between a slide-talk with a slight veering toward stand-up comedy, interspersed with still images, but also with QuickTime movie adaptations of the wordless woodcut novels of the ’20s and ’30s. They are mostly now relatively unknown, but were a very important moment in helping what’s now called the graphic novel and had been a really large influence on me when I first discovered them in the mid ’60s. An influence renewed when I was asked to work on the Library of Americas collected works of Lynd Ward, the most important American exponent of the woodcut novel. And I tried to figure out why these things were taken so seriously, although they deserve it, and were reviewed with great respect in the same newspapers that would have no use for their own comics in the back of the paper. So that was something I was trying to pry apart, seeing that now these are referred to as among the first graphic novels. It’s because they had gravitas, a seriousness of purpose that’s not usually attributed to something once it’s also funny. It offered me a way of finding a visual voice to approach serious subject matter in my own work. Some of the pieces in “Maus,” like the suicide of my mother sequence, are clearly inspired by some of Lynd Ward’s work. I loved these works and could never talk about them when I was lecturing on comics. Here, it got to be a whole event because Phillip Johnston now lives in Sydney and it was a chance for us to work together. Phillip is especially gifted at silent movie scores. The goal had been to not make these things look like animatics, like badly schematic animated cartoons, but to respect what they were as books while acknowledging and taking advantage of the fact that they were inspired by silent movies of their time. So this required a lot more precision than either of us expected. We moved forward and tried to find music to allow one to have an enhanced first reading of works that presumably the audience wouldn’t be familiar with and let it enter in between rounds of rapid-fire patter so when your left-brain gets exhausted by my yacking, you are then given respite by being able to look at these beautiful images and music in different styles. They careen between two sides of your head until a revelation happens, if we’re lucky.  

What project are you working on now?

Damned if I know. Working on a sketchbook to find out how to reinvent myself on the other side of a retrospective.

What’s the last show that you saw?

The very last show was the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, their permanent collection. Before that was the Ad Reinhardt at the Zwirner Gallery.

What did you think?

Blew me away. It was amazing. For one thing it validated my notion that all of us artists, or probably all of us people, are at least schizophrenic, probably multi-phrenic. Seeing how agile Reinhardt was as a cartoonist and how very specifically engaged with the craft of making a cartoon and inventing a new kind of comics page, a kind of comics essay using the very surrealism that he put down as low art while working at his craft as a cartoonist, was mind blowing. It was one of the highest quality shows I’ve seen in a long time. What’s interesting to me is that all of a sudden comics now have cache as opposed to being the absolute gutter medium that I grew up thinking I was working in. You didn’t get no respect being a cartoonist. If I wanted to pick you up at a bar in 1973, I would not tell you what I did for a living. Now that’s all different. Here’s Ad Reinhardt being revealed as a high practitioner of comics art.

What’s the last show that surprised you? Why?

Balthus at the Met. The work he did when he was 11 is pretty damn great and ties directly in with the “Wordless!” project. I’ve been considering using “Mitsou” as one of the pieces we would show.

Describe a typical day in your life as an artist.

Oh Jesus. I can’t remember. A typical day in my recent past has been get up and retrospect, look back at the work you used to do when you were a famous artist. A typical day will start with me showing up at my studio to either meet somebody if meetings are required or dealing with mountains of emails until about noon, because I need some lag time between dreaming and dreaming on paper. And then getting started around 1 or 1:30 and working till 9. That work consists of making marks on paper, ripping them up, making other marks, salvaging the ones I could salvage, and starting again as I tried to find something new. And once something new has been found, working for months and months on refining the idea.

Do you make a living off your art?

Yeah, always have. I have the good fortune of not being in the art racket, in that it’s not my job to curry favor with a bunch of cake eaters who have the money to buy my work and hide it forever or keep it as a trophy until it appreciates in value and peddle it elsewhere. It’s a much more democratic thing to work for reproduction and have people vote with their wallets by saying, “I’ll pay $20 for that book.” I’m fortunate in that “Maus” continues to function as if it was a brand new bestselling book every year. So it takes the heat off, it becomes an ongoing grant to allow me to pursue whatever goes through my head.

What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?

In order to avoid being banal I should just say it’s my coffee pot, but it really is, sad to confess, my computer.

Where are you finding ideas for your work these days?

In the black inky pit of anxiety that I live in. It ranges from looking at other art to reading to taking notes on things I see around me.

Do you collect anything?

I accumulate a lot of stuff. I have an enormous library of comics-related art, Picasso and Beckmann books as well.

What is your karaoke song?

I’ve never karaoked. Maybe the “Sheik of Arabi” would work, some other 1920s ditty.

What’s the last artwork you purchased?

A lot of stuff I get in trade. I think it’s one of two pieces. A painting by Lorenzo Mattotti graces a small pied-à-terre we have in Paris. He is a great comics artist, but also a really luscious painter and we have a large black and white picture of an intertwined couple that is a pleasure to look at. Before that I bought something in 2005 that was painted directly onto our sheetrock by Gary Panter. Prior to that, the bed had these bookshelves straddling across and one night in the middle of the night the lintel cracked and the books fell on our heads while we slept. I realized I didn’t ever want to sleep looking at the underside of a shelf again. We came up with the great notion of getting Gary to paint something on the wall, which is like Popeye descending a staircase.

What’s the first artwork you ever sold?

It’s always artwork for reproduction; I barely ever sell my originals. The first thing I did was for a local weekly bad newspaper called the Long Island Post in Queens where I grew up. When I was 13 I went there with a portfolio because it seemed important to me as a cartoonist to get published. Instead they did something incredibly humiliating — they wrote an article about me: “Budding Artist Wants Attention.” And then published one of my drawings at the top of the article. It was a watercolor picture of Frankenstein’s head. Anyway, two years later I went back there and got a gig and started doing some illustrations for them on a weekly basis. Around the same time, an aspiring cartoonist pal of mine, Jay Lynch, living in Miami, discovered there was a weekly anti-Castro magazine coming out that had anti-Castro cartoons mostly on the cover by [Antonio] Prohias, the cartoonist that drew “Spy vs. Spy” for MAD. So not having any politics whatsoever at age 13, I figured I could come up with an anti-Castro gag and I did and they bought it. My politics then changed so I was really embarrassed by my mercenary, ambitious, youthful self who just wanted to get into print.

What’s your art-world pet peeve?

The art world.

What’s your favorite post-gallery watering hole or restaurant?

I don’t gallery hop. On rare occasions there’s a show that starts screaming that I’ve go to go see it. And then museums, which makes whatever deli is near the museum my favorite watering hole before or after. Because of New York’s anti-smoking laws my favorite watering hole is over at my place afterwards with friends who tolerate my addiction.

What is your favorite deli?

Well, it’s like a deli. Right near my place there’s a coffee shop right below Green Street when it crosses Canal. There’s a small Dominican restaurant with very good Dominican food and really great coffee. It’s finally something that doesn’t belong in Manhattan and has hung on for decades.

What’s the last great book you read?

That one is an easy one. Two weeks ago I read Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Talented writer.

What work of art do you wish you owned?

Lots. Usually the way I go to museums is very capitalist. I think of it as a shopping trip and I’m allowed to own one in my fantasy life. I go out with a picture every time I go, so it’s a large imaginary collection. There’s one that I use as my screensaver on my iPhone, which is one of my favorite pictures. A Philip Guston Klansman in pinks and reds and he’s painting another Klansman while smoking.

What would you do to get it?

Have an interview with ARTINFO and hope that somebody bequeaths it to me.

What international art destination do you most want to visit?

I’ve made a number of trips to see the Prado and never gotten there. It seems by far the place I must go see. The first time I tried to go we went via Barcelona and we liked Barcelona too much and never got to Madrid. Finally I proposed to my wife [Françoise Mouly] and we got remarried. We had first gotten married in 1976, a shotgun marriage with immigration authorities holding the shotgun and then decided to do it up better. So I was all set to go to the Prado for our honeymoon and found out that French people think of Venice as the equivalent of Niagara Falls, so I was stuck in Venice where it was mostly renaissance art, dammit. So I’m still looking forward to Velazquez and Goya eventually.

What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?

Kim Deitch, whose show I want to see at Scott Eder Gallery. I love his work. I think he’s underappreciated even in the universe of comics that he functions in. And Mark Beyer who does, I guess what would be called, outsider paintings.

Who’s your favorite living artist?

Probably Chris Ware. But Maybe Kim Deitch or Gary Panter or Charles Burns or Lynda Barry. It’s in the world of people who make comics.

What are your hobbies?

I don’t know what they are. The same way I don’t karaoke, I don’t hobby. I like to look at stuff and make stuff but I don’t know how to add something else in.


-- Ashton Cooper