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PRINT May 2018

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DEATH BECOMES HIM

Edward Gorey’s drawing for a page of The Lavender Leotard: or, Going a Lot to the New York City Ballet, 1973, pen and ink on paper mounted on board, 4 1/2 × 6".

WHEN THE AMERICAN ARTIST, illustrator, and author Edward Gorey died out on Cape Cod in 2000 at age seventy-five, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford was notified—I imagine via ominous phone call and completely without warning—that they were to receive a bequest of Mr. Gorey’s creepy and mysterious fine-art collection. Included in the gift, as the museum would soon learn, were a total of seventy-three works: etchings by Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet, and Charles Meryon; a lithograph by Edvard Munch and another by Odilon Redon; a Félix Vallotton woodcut; ten exquisite Eugène Atget photographs; and drawings or sketches by Balthus, Glen Baxter, Pierre Bonnard, George Booth, Charles Burchfield, Edward Lear, James Thurber, Bill Traylor, and Édouard Vuillard. In addition to these, there were drawings by anonymous commercial or self-trained artists of various eras and styles. The museum also got a sweet Albert York oil-on-panel, Dandelions in a Blue Tin, 1982, as part of the package. (A major York devotee, Gorey is purported to have owned eight of his works.) While it is sad that Gorey had to die, being the prolific genius that he was, and is missed, I’m sure, by all who loved and adored him, the provision caused by his death could be described as “not bad,” if you happen to be the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. It really makes you think.

Now, some eighteen years later, the museum has mounted the exhibition “Gorey’s Worlds” to show off the collection, an event long awaited by Gorey enthusiasts. Curated by Erin Monroe, the presentation also includes a gorgeous panoply of Gorey appurtenances and paraphernalia, including original drawings, sketches, handwritten manuscript drafts, book-jacket and magazine-cover designs, bric-a-brac, items of jewelry, and two fur coats worn by the artist, as well as several photographs of him at work in his studio or hanging out with his cats. These are on loan from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and friends of the artist. It’s a fun show.

It’s fun because Gorey’s work is possessed by a sick, sophisticated sense of humor unmistakably tied to his famously gothic sensibilities, and there’s tons of it to look at. Over the course of his career, which began while he was studying French literature at Harvard in the late 1940s, Gorey published more than one hundred books of drawings and verse, and provided illustrations or book-jacket designs for countless literary works by many prominent authors.

The show provides opportunities to ponder the ghastly aesthete’s morbid proclivities as a collector in relation to his own creative output.

Among the loaned items here, a highlight is a group of original drawings from a set, first published in celebration of the New York City Ballet’s fiftieth season, that eventually became The Lavender Leotard: or, Going a Lot to the New York City Ballet (1973). (Gorey loved the NYCB, and deeply admired its cofounder George Balanchine. At the height of his obsession, he attended more than 160 performances in a single year.) The twenty-nine illustrations, conceived in collaboration with dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, portray wan, world-weary brats visiting or discussing the ballet in vague terms delivered in deadpan, precocious sotto voce. The curators placed the selection of originals in a glass vitrine, where viewers can pore over Gorey’s impeccably fine draftsmanship, characterized by a signature delicacy of line, at once lyrical and brittle, drawn and crosshatched at intimate scale, the better to be cherished in booklet form. One drawing depicts an impertinent little boy and girl, tiny urban denizens with smart clothes and skinny folded arms, gazing crossly at their parents. The caption, written in a hand-drawn serif font, reads: “Other companies merely put on ballets; we dance.” The mother is quite clearly taken aback. The father, less so.

The job of art criticism is not to explain how jokes work, so I’ll stop there. Thankfully, the show doesn’t try to explain Gorey’s humor either. What it does is provide opportunities to ponder the ghastly aesthete’s morbid proclivities as a collector in relation to his own creative output. A case in point: Gorey’s affection for animals is evident across substantial portions of the collection, as well as in much of his art. The Munch lithograph, for example, depicts a nude woman in coital embrace with an ursine beast twice her size. It’s weird but cool and not unsexy. Take a few steps, and you can consider the Munch as it may or may not relate to Gorey’s illustration of a dumbfounded family of four being attacked by two ferocious black bears, a page from his disgusting little picture book The Evil Garden (1966). Thoughtful moments of curatorial comparison such as this pop up again and again, throughout.

Sam McKinniss is an artist based in New York.