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08.06.09

Mad Magazine's Mad Genius

A new retrospective celebrates the Michelangelo of Mad magazine, Basil Wolverton, who influenced a generation of illustrators, including R. Crumb. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

One of the most influential cartoonists and illustrators of the 20th century, Basil Wolverton, is being celebrated in an exhibition at New York’s prestigious Gladstone Gallery. The exhibition, which was curated by artist Cameron Jamie from collector Glenn Bray’s archive of Wolverton works, features some 150 caricatures, comic strips, and illustrations from the 1930s to the early-‘70s. Wacky figures, such as Buster Clusterduster, Lina Lumps, Morgan Organ, Fangs Finkelstein, and Linus Sinus, have absurdly conquered the hallowed walls of Gladstone’s main Chelsea space, where they remain on view through August 14.

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Wolverton was born in Central Point, Oregon, in 1909 and lived in worked in the Pacific Northwest until his death in 1978. His first cartoon was published in 1925, when he was just 16, and he continued to work until 1974, when he had a stroke. He was most active from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, when he worked for the Portland News, Target Comics, Marvel Comics, Life magazine, Mad magazine, Plain Truth, and Topps Chewing Gum.

Best known for his “spaghetti and meatballs” style of illustration, in which he freely shuffled parts of the head (eyes, ears, nose, and mouth) to make humorous, distorted configurations, Wolverton mined what Surrealist guru Andre Breton labeled “convulsive beauty.” Jules Feiffer called Wolverton’s work “ugly,” but artists, such as Peter Saul, Mike Kelley, and Jim Shaw, as well as cartoonists R. Crumb, Robert Williams, and Drew Friedman, have embraced it and been inspired by it.

In his statement for the show, Jamie insightfully wrote, “Eyeballs pulled and ripped out of their sockets, rotten zigzagged buck teeth pointed in every crooked direction, wild scraggly yarn hair, faces and bodies pulled inside and out, twisted into abstract knots distorted beyond recognition: Basil Wolverton is my Picasso.” He further stated that he was motivated to organize the Gladstone exhibition because of the shocking omission of Wolverton’s work in the 2005 traveling exhibition Masters of American Comics.

Highlights of the show include sci-fi comic strips and illustrations from the ‘30s; crazy caricatures, Powerhouse Pepper and Bedtime Banter strips, and religious illustrations from the ‘50s; roughs for Topps gum-card series from the ‘60s; and funny drawings from the ‘70s of offbeat characters with equally kooky captions, such as Joel Holehead: Only man who has lived AFTER having his head pierced by a falling brick. "Nobody can claim I don't have any brains," says Joel, "but there's no way of knowing how long I'll have them."

Taken together, the works reflect the popular interests of generations of Americans and offer the inventiveness and wit of a self-taught artist with a knack for entertaining the common man.

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Paul Laster is the editor of Artkrush.com, a contributing editor at Flavorpill.com and Art Asia Pacific, and a contributing writer at Time Out New York and Art in America.