New York

Tomi Ungerer, Fear of Feelings, 1982, ink and colored pencil on tracing paper, 10 × 8".

Tomi Ungerer, Fear of Feelings, 1982, ink and colored pencil on tracing paper, 10 × 8".

Tomi Ungerer

Drawing Center

Tomi Ungerer, Fear of Feelings, 1982, ink and colored pencil on tracing paper, 10 × 8".

Anyone who’s ever had occasion to care for kids knows that there are certain books you read with them that are just as much for you as they are for them, perhaps even more so. In our house, we turned to the authors of these books—Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm; Seuss, Dahl, Sendak, Gorey—not just because they were more fun to read than the usual children’s fare, but also, I suppose, with the idea that our children would detect in their work, however informally, traces of complexity and nuance, of genuine artistry. Among the volumes by these familiar figures we also had a few books by Tomi Ungerer, an artist I knew little about prior to the stirring, if occasionally frustrating, recent exhibition of his work organized by Claire Gilman for the Drawing Center. Our favorite was Allumette (1974), an odd and beautiful reimagining of Andersen’s “Little Match Girl,” in which the protagonist, a homeless orphan, doesn’t perish but instead finds her every wish fulfilled by a mysterious celestial cornucopia.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Allumette is that the post-miracle world the heroine inherits is by no means an uncomplicatedly sunny one; “famine, fire, flood, war” continue to rage despite her courage and optimism. In this respect, the book turns out to be entirely of a piece with the eighty-three-year-old French artist’s expansive oeuvre, which encompasses more than six decades of varied and idiosyncratic imagemaking, ranging from sophisticated kids’ fare to advertisements to elaborate sadomasochistic drawings. (The fact that Ungerer remains lesser known than some of his contemporaries here in the US is in no small part due to his association with this erotica, the controversy over which led him to flee his adopted country and caused his books to be systematically banned from American libraries.)

Ungerer was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1931, and the earliest works that were on view were made during the Nazi occupation of the Alsatian capital: a small 1940 drawing of “a Jew,” apparently produced for a school assignment, as well as a picture of Hitler. Other aspects of this juvenilia suggest an adolescent already seeing the world as brimming with absurdities and terrors. These soon give way to drawings for the children’s books with which Ungerer made his name after his arrival in New York City in 1956. The lighthearted images of a pig family from his Mellops series look like what they are—a first attempt by the artist to satisfy the American children’s-book market—but within a few years he was working in a mature style. In his drawings for The Three Robbers (1961), for example, sinister caped figures skulk in lavender gloom, while in Moon Man (1966), the gleaming white protagonist leaves his lunar seat to sample the psychedelically hued pleasures and pains of terrestrial life. These works are classic Ungerer: rarely light and easy, the bits of beauty they contain always shadowed by compositional, and emotional, darkness.

The show included at least a few examples of each of Ungerer’s stylistic and formal modes: a suite of war posters from 1967 (including the scabrous Eat, in which a hand shoves the Statue of Liberty down the throat of an emaciated Southeast Asian figure); drawings from the previous year’s The Party, with its acid depictions of Manhattan society types; advertisements done for clients in America (the New York Times, the Village Voice) and later in Europe (in a characteristically mordant one, for a French company, a roasted turkey dumps a can of peas on itself). And yet the exhibition finally felt oddly spare and partial: It was hard not to pine for the material that presumably could have been included were it not for the extensive real estate given over to Ungerer’s often less distinguished erotica. Still, it’s a credit to the show that it whetted the viewer’s appetite for more of Ungerer at his best, as in the selected images from Babylon, Symptomatics, and Rigor Mortis, a trio of books he published in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Flavored in turns by corrosive George Grosz–like sketchiness and disarmingly gentle forms that enact psychologically complex scenarios—such as the man cowering at the sight of a tiny flower in Fear of Feelings, a drawing for 1982’s Symptomatics—their mood of profound existential ambivalence was perhaps best exemplified by another drawing for that book, which was also made into a small stick-on tattoo handed out at the Drawing Center’s front desk. It depicts a kind of fuel gauge, two-thirds of which is black and one-third of which is filled with a rainbow. Which direction its needle is heading is anyone’s guess.

Jeffrey Kastner