A woman had a question at the opening of ‘The Further Chronicles of Now,’ my show of cartoons at New York’s Anderson Contemporary gallery last week. Was there a difference between Brit and American humor?
Well, is there?
Charles Addams was the first American cartoonist I met. It was in London years ago at a Punch lunch. A once formidable humor weekly, Punch become waiting-room fodder, but their lunch was a hot ticket and Addams was a catch, being something of a star, for his New Yorker work and also for The Addams Family, the TV series about his gruesomely comic characters—which is now a musical.
As we spilled into the street together after lunch, he asked if I could tell him how to get to the Tower of London, which was where two Royal princes had been famously murdered in the 15th century and it had been the venue of beheadings so it was such a pitch-perfect Addams question that I was sorry to have to tell him that I had no idea.
I grew up connecting with cartoon, caricature and illustration, as the young do, long before I developed an eye for fine art. The stuff I fed on included such 19th century greats as Edward Lear, Honoré Daumier and Heinrich Hoffmann, who both wrote and illustrated Struwwelpeter, which was a comic book pre-comic books and which delivered a near-sadistic frisson like much great cartoonery.
I also enjoyed fin de siècle whizzes like Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm and from there it was a short haul to vintage cartoonists including four born in the 1880s, the Brit, H.M. Bateman and the Americans Rube Goldberg of the proto-Dada machines, Winsor McCay of Little Nemo and, at the tippy top, George Herriman of Krazy Kat.
Herriman was much admired by such avant-gardists of his period as T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings, who both wrote warmly about Krazy Kat. It’s also worth noting that Lyonel Feininger, who was born in New York in the 1870s, had been a working cartoonist with two strips in the Chicago Tribune before he emigrated to Berlin and became a leading Expressionist painter.
I was a reporter, a writer and a sporadic cartoonist. I had cartoons in a magazine at Cambridge University before anything I wrote had been in print and at the time of the Punch lunch a weekly cartoon ran with the column I worked on at the Sunday Telegraph.
This incidentally led to me being buttonholed by Jack, the union head at the paper, who noted that they had a problem with individuals who both wrote and drew for the same publication--the perp was keeping either a writer or a drawer out of a job--but he was low-key and that was the last I heard of that.
These were years of upheaval in the world of cartoonery and comicbooks. In the UK the energetically tasteless pen of Willie Rushton was turning Private Eye into an anti-Punch and the era of Satire--it was usually capitalized--was upon us.
This was a practice that ping-ponged to and fro across the Atlantic, as Punk would later do, and Peter Cook who had been in Beyond the Fringe which brought Brit Satire to New York, started The Establishment, a club to see performers in Soho, London.
I did the drawing for the invite and most remember Lenny Bruce’s appearances, which were at once compulsive and barely watchable because he would either be wasted on smack or deliver his material in the headlong New York manner, not waiting for the laugh as Brits tended to do.
So, yes, there was an Anglo-American difference right there. But that was performance. Ralph Steadman, a Brit, would shortly be along, catching Hunter S. Thompson with hallucinatory exactitude in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And he never even went to Vegas.
There were further upheavals in the comic landscape. On a trip to New York I interviewed Stan Lee, the progenitor of the newly mighty Marvel empire for a Brit magazine.
The pictorial language of superhero comics would not so long after vie with Disney. Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix, ruled in San Francisco, where I stayed for a while with Wilfried Sätty, a hospitable fellow, and probably the most occult member of the San Francisco poster movement.
In the mid 70s I moved to New York and a desk at New York magazine, mostly to write, but persevered with the drawing, doing a weekly cartoon in the magazine for a while, a hi-lo moment being when Glenn Bernbaum, creator of the then piping hot eatery, Mortimer’s, offered a free meal to anybody who could explain one of them.
I had shows at art-friendly clubs like Kamikaze and Palladium, a store and a couple of small galleries.
So things were going great? Not so. Indeed one of the mercies of making work in the pre-digital epoch was that so much of it is lost, and barely recoverably so, because I don’t much care for that early work, and was always driven to keep moving along, and enjoying others’ work.
Ad Reinhardt, that austerest of Abstractionists, best-known for his all-black canvases, was also an astute and incisive cartoonist. Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art, who curated a Reinhardt show at the David Zwirner gallery in 2013 included a room of cartoonery.
There are ironies here. Françoise Mouly, the art editor of The New Yorker who reviewed the show for the magazine, made sure that the on-line version of her piece included a slide show of cartoonists referencing the Reinhardt black-on-black canvases to mock the supposed humbuggery of contemporary art--as indeed cartoonists have been having fun with lumps of sculpture with holes in them and women with two eyes on the same side of their nose since Modernism was a toddler.
Well, there are two sections of artworld-related cartoonery in my show at 180 Maiden Lane, which was curated by Ronni Anderson and by Susan Nelly of The Villa America Fine Art.
Oh, yes, and on June 8, there are to be performances, a fashion show and some fresh cartoonery. But the Artist’s Statement has never appealed to me as a form, so I’ll leave the commentary to you.
Anthony Haden-Guest’s The Further Chronicles of Now is at Anderson Contemporary, 180 Maiden Lane, NYC, until June 9.