Critics’ Picks

Tomi Ungerer, Untitled (drawing for The Three Robbers), 1961, colored pencil, gouache, watercolor on paper, 11 7/8 x 8 5/8".

Tomi Ungerer, Untitled (drawing for The Three Robbers), 1961, colored pencil, gouache, watercolor on paper, 11 7/8 x 8 5/8".

New York

Tomi Ungerer

The Drawing Center
35 Wooster Street
January 15–March 22, 2015

“If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have any children, and without children you would be out of work,” remarked Tomi Ungerer, creator of the charming and lucrative Mellops family series of children’s books, to a crowd at an American Library Association conference in 1969, when the artist was angrily questioned about the dirty pictures he was unashamedly making and publishing in addition to such innocent fare. That event marked the end of Ungerer’s visibility, at least in the United States, for nearly thirty years.

But it didn’t dampen his success overseas: He was named the Goodwill Ambassador for Childhood and Education of the Council of Europe in 2003, and in 2007 the Tomi Ungerer Museum - International Center for Illustration in Strasbourg, France opened to glorious acclaim. “Tomi Ungerer: All in One,” a retrospective that covers over seventy years of this master illustrator’s output, beautifully organized by the Drawing Center’s Claire Gilman, is as dark, funny, and complex as the phases and facets of childhood and beyond that the artist has brilliantly obsessed over for generations of fans.

A dead chicken obligingly seasons itself with canned peas in an ad for Bonduelle vegetables; a black cat gets masturbated by an electropneumatic sex machine/scratching post; a Third Reich–looking Minnie Mouse pulverizes a little boy’s ass with a nightstick near a sign that reads WE WANT MOTHERS. Ungerer’s knack for pulling humor out of hopelessness and horror places him among a certain kind of satirical elite (think Al Jaffee's wonderfully perverse Fold-Ins for Mad Magazine, or Jay Lynch for Topps’ Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids) who’ve utilized advertising and other kinds of pop and juvenile formats towards smarter, more subversive ends. But there’s another range, too, tender, lonely, and rich with melancholy—one feels it in the sumptuous gray vistas of Fog Island, 2013, and the war-torn teddy bear of Otto, 1999—drawings from two books that seem to emphasize how childhood is rarely ever for children.