The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
November 8 - March 23
That just one artist produced the five decades’ worth of graphic art that constitutes Art Spiegelman’s first retrospective is baffling. Beginning with depictions of geeky guys and pinup babes that he created as a preteen and concluding with Open Me . . . I Am a Dog, 1997, a book he created for his children about a book that believes it is a puppy, his oeuvre can seem ideologically irreconcilable. Formally, too: The spiky geometric lines in his early comix are at odds with the soft curvy characters that pervade his later work. Greater gulfs loom between the smorgasbord of boogers and barf in the cult-childhood “Garbage Pail Kids,” a series of collectable cards the artist began in 1985, and the harrow of Maus 19811990. The affect of this masterpiece memoir is only fortified by Spiegelman’s puckish and socially critical satire. See his collection of New Yorker covers, which mainly share the theme of intergenerational failure; an especially great cover from 1966 shows a family portrait of an elderly beatnik couple with their graying hippie kids along with a punk progeny, and, finally, an infant awaiting a counterculture vocabulary.
While Spiegelman might mock the hubris of youthful rebellion, his work is driven by a coherent set of tensions, which might be best understood through questions: Is he an ideologist or a nihilist? Does he embrace hedonism in its most classic sense—sex, drugs, and misanthropy—or are these motifs a guise for a fight for a gentler and fairer society? These unresolved contradictions are at the fulcrum of his practice and act as its unifying force. This expansive retrospective does everything to confirm Spiegelman as one the most significant commentators on the history-shaping events of the twentieth century. Ultimately, however, it is an intimate portrait of a man who has spent a life grappling with the cosmic by creating a visual record that is as torturous as it is humorous and is, above all, human.