New York

Chris Ware

Adam Baumgold Gallery

“Ruin Your Life. Draw Cartoons! And Doom Yourself To Decades of Grinding Isolation, Solipsism, and Utter Social Disregard.” This uninviting come-on heads a recent issue of Chris Ware’s comic book series “The Acme Novelty Library,” 1993–. Such self-deprecation is a mainstay of Ware’s oeuvre, and reminds us that cartoonists have until recently occupied a position previously associated with avant-garde artists of other genres: He (the cartoonist is, like painters in the age of Picasso and Matisse, rarely a “she”) has traditionally been a marginalized, misunderstood provocateur.

But while it’s true that cartoonists—or the artist-authors of graphic novels—still occupy an odd terrain somewhere between art, literature, and the mass media, they are obviously no longer dismissed. Ware enjoyed wide attention following the publication of his book Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth in 2000 and his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial Exhibition in 2002, while the current serialization of his “Building Stories” strip in the New York Times Magazine and his appearance in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the UCLA Hammer Museum’s “Masters of American Comics” have further enhanced his reputation.

This show of drawings from Acme Novelty Library No. 16, 2005—plus one for a New Yorker cover—offered a chance to examine Ware’s work in a nearly finished state: book proofs prior to prepublication computer coloration. Under the firm black outlines lurk drafts, drawn in light blue pencil, which include marginalia that reveal the artist’s process. Drawings like Rusty Brown: Cast of Characters, 2005, and Rusty Brown: Command Center, 2002, include both the completed composition and what might, for an artist this fastidiously precise, be classified as doodles.

The story itself revolves around an anxious schoolboy named Rusty Brown who plays with a Supergirl doll, convinces himself that he’s acquired supernatural hearing, is set upon by school bullies, and suffers humiliation at the hands of his teacher. Other characters include his distant father (given a ridiculous orange clown hairdo), a duo whose story runs parallel to Rusty’s in panels at the bottom of the page, and even Ware himself, in the guise of a pompous art teacher who recommends that our hero’s father read Arnold Martin and compares his own artwork favorably with Roy Lichtenstein’s.

Ware’s work hews to the demands of the narrative comic strip—things happen, albeit at a glacial pace (full segments are devoted to someone rolling over in bed)—but what sets it apart from much of the genre is its similarity to the comic-inspired art of Raymond Pettibon, Jim Shaw, and Zak Smith. Ware, like R. Crumb, has an obsessive interest in American angst and ennui. The subject is addressed directly in his alter ego’s teachers’ lounge speech, in which he explains to Rusty’s depressed father that Martin’s “new book deals with just the ‘ennui’ you’re describing . . . what Germans call ‘schadenfreude’ . . . he attributes this modern feeling of ‘weary dislocation’ to the Western predilection for a protagonist . . . a ‘main character’ . . . I mean, how can anything go ‘wrong’ when you’re the star, right?”

The comic format’s populist-outsider tradition is the perfect springboard for this line of inquiry—as is Ware’s formal approach. Instead of the baroque fluidity of Jack Kirby (“The Fantastic Four”) or the gesturalism found in Pettibon, Ware draws with a stiff geometric precision that recalls the likes of Hergé’s “Tintin” or Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy.” But where the concerns of previous generations of comic artists and their gallery-exhibiting contemporaries diverged sharply—Ad Reinhardt, who worked in both modes, treated them as entirely separate from one another—they now seem bound for an opportune convergence.

Martha Schwendener