Unreal Nature

November 2, 2015

Into the Vernacular

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… the very highest and very lowest visual elements in the culture — Mondrian and a crossword, a Newman zip and comic-book panels — had already a punning similarity.

Continuing through High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… The comic strips had been the court jesters in the empires of Hearst and Pulitzer; the comic book was the pornography of the prepubescent. The comic book was typically put out by a marginal publisher, and never entirely escaped a depressing air of the illicit, of the life lived at the baseboards of culture.

… The comic strip artists on the whole had contempt for the comic-book artists, and the comic-book artists themselves wished they were doing something else.

… The comic book evolved a narrowly stereotyped vocabulary to represent heightened states of heroism and romantic ardor, and at the same time it began to take up taboo areas of lurid horror and crude humor. Both these models — popular drama stylized to an almost Kabuki-like extreme on the one hand, and cartoon style turning in on itself in an extreme of mordant, self-annihilating grotesquerie on the other — would have profound effects on what happened in modern painting.

… Comic-book imagery was valuable to art now not as a passport into another world but as a lingua franca of clichés, one-dimensional types: the Superhero, the Lovelorn Girl, the Teenager. The comics became to postwar imagery what the headline had been to Cubist collage — a neutral, found, public code that could be kidnapped and “turned.”

[ … ]

Steinberg_ComicStrip02
Saul Steinberg, Comic Strip, [partial] 1958

… His [Saul Steinberg’s] favorite device was the balloon, especially the thought balloon. The simple oval outline was transformed into a variety of shapes and substances that surveyed the décor of modern art: out of the mouths of ephemeral persons came complex art-deco façades, while society matrons dreamed in Bauhaus design; freehand cubes imagined life as geometric cubes, while geometric cubes imagined being free; dogs barked in art brut, and cats dreamed in Cubism.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Steinberg saw that modern style was increasingly becoming, especially in New York, a folk style, a common inheritance, and he expressed this realization through the seamless fusion of the machinery of the comics and the machinery of the museum. In Comic Strip — a drawing that resembles an eighteenth-century Egyptian Revivalist’s rapt copy of a wall of undeciphered hieroglyphs — Steinberg presents a tender abstract encyclopedia of comic-strip clichés, robbed of any symbolic or narrative urgency.

[line break added] In a way that was prescient of much Pop art, Steinberg sensed that the props and symbols that indicated energy in the comics — the lines of force, the star-burst explosion, the puff of smoke as a character races away — had become as standardized and formal as the cryptic images on the back of the dollar bill. If the comics could supply social adhesion, it was not through the invention of kitsch heroes and villains, a manufactured mythology, but through the solemn, shared heraldry of their secondary signs.

Steinberg is usually seen as an “outsider,” yet his sense that the comics were intrinsically strange, that their elaborate conventions and properties, far from offering a “natural” or “folk” order, in fact turned on a sinister secret code of bizarre hieroglyphs, was an intuition that helped shape a moment in art, as the comics retreated from the center ring of the circus of popular culture, a buried and censored strangeness began to emerge from their forms.

… For Johns and Rauschenberg, the inclusion of comic-book imagery in the midst of a painterly rhetoric borrowed with genuine reverence from de Kooning and Pollock still had about it an air of muted protest and debunking. They share a sense, as strong as Schwitters’s, of the world breaking in on the studio, insistently and surely, and share also an infinite hesitation to choose only one or the other.

[line break added] It was Warhol’s wicked and demoralizing intuition to see that the choice was in any case unnecessary, that the very highest and very lowest visual elements in the culture — Mondrian and a crossword, a Newman zip and comic-book panels — had already a punning similarity. Part of the joke in Warhol’s Dick Tracy lies in its deflation of the old, transcendent pretensions of American abstraction, but part of the joke also lies in its transition of pictorial absolutism into the vernacular.

Warhol_DickTracy
Andy Warhol, Dick Tracy, 1960

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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