Critics’ Picks

Basil Wolverton, Dreamer, c. 1950, ink on paper, 11 1/2 x 7 1/4".

Basil Wolverton, Dreamer, c. 1950, ink on paper, 11 1/2 x 7 1/4".

New York

Basil Wolverton

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St
530 West 21st Street
June 20–August 14, 2009

What do Miss Bedney Flunt, Miss Fludney Bent, Miss Flentney Bunt, and Miss Blentney Funt have in common? Unreasonably odd proboscises and the hilarious misfortune of being drawn by Basil Wolverton. An artist and writer of sci-fi and humor comics from the 1930s through the ’70s and an alum of Mad magazine in subsequent decades, Wolverton showed a consistent partiality for screwball portraiture, and the nearly 150 works in this exhibition constitute “a ghastly gang of goops” (to borrow a phrase from the artist himself). His mid-’60s sketches of illogically deformed heads for Topps chewing-gum cards (one could plan a show simply around the who’s who of cartoonists—including Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Drew Freidman, and Bill Griffith—who have created art for Topps) rank among the show’s most outlandishly gruesome pieces. In fact, Wolverton’s intricate, often dense hatch work and nutty caricatures anticipate much of the cracked subversion of ’60s underground comix, Crumb’s textured satires in particular.

A thin line exists between Wolverton’s jokey grotesqueries and the horrors of disfigurement and mutilation that appear in his postwar illustrations of the Book of Revelations (recently published in The Wolverton Bible). The carbuncle-covered figures in Plague of Darkness with Boils, ca. 1950, for instance, bear resemblance to a host of heinously rendered Mad readers drawn four years later. Wolverton’s unsparing depictions of nightmarish prophecies are relentlessly grim but absorbingly so. There are hints of Goya’s crazed, melancholic Saturn and predictions of Charles Burns’s brooding mutant teens. In most of the biblical drawings on view, men and women are, if not the immediate focal point, very much the purpose. Such humanity is everywhere in Wolverton’s art—as much in the laughably goony portraits as in the fire-and-brimstone ferocity.