Being a bit of a social cripple, and a social cripple on a tight budget, I spent most of MOCCA Festival ’09 down in a bunker watching the panels. This year the comic con has switched from the barrow-like Puck Building to the more spacious Lexington Ave. armory. The panel room was decorated with a splendid mural showing the 69th regiment in action. It’s very strange to be listening to Paul Karasik talk about Fletcher Hanks while over his head men are dying at the battle of Fredricksburg.
The panels ranged from sluggish to sweet, but when the legendary Gary Panter took the stage with Frank Santoro (Cold Heat) on Sunday to talk about painters, it felt right to get out the notebook and start keeping score. What follows is a brief summary of his high art hit parade. Of course, it follows after the jump.
Romare Bearden (1911 – 1988) had quite a career, studying with George Grosz and playing in the Negro Leagues. By the 1960s, producing collages that reflected his engagement with the civil rights struggle.
Willem de Kooning
Panter approved of de Kooning (1904 – 1997) primarily for his grotesque portraits of women, rather than his later Alzheimers phase.
Panter preferred the later work of French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), which he described as “madman … insane art.” A former vinter, Dubuffet called his combination of primitive iconography and heavy impasto—often using sand and gravel mixed with the oil—as “art brut.” “You can’t compete with nature, children, or crazy people,” Panter said.
Onetime cartoonist Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968) could be said to have pissed a lot of people off with his 1917 readymade Fountain. Showing a slide of Duchamp’s urinal, Panter pretended to be an irate museumgoer. “This is not art! Duchamp, he’s fucking with us!” Santoro approved of Duchamp putting the idea before the execution. Panter added that he established “whatever the artist says is art is art.”
Öjvind Fahlström (1928 – 1976) was a Swedish artist, poet, playwright and filmmaker. One of Panter’s interests is pop art from further afield than New York. He was approving of Fahlström’s appropriation of Krazy Kat, but failed to mention Fahlström once embarked on a play which combined episodes from Wilhelm Reich’s life with the TV version of Blondie.
Panter admired how Guston (1913 – 1980) went from producing work for the WPA during the Depression to working in abstract expressionism, then returning to his figurative roots after an exposure to Zap Comics. Poor reviews sent him into self-imposed exile in upstate New York. Santoro and Panter both applauded his sense of color.
Influenced in part by Saul Steinberg, the work of Lindner (1901 – 1978) had a heavy psychosexual component, usually using the tropes of American advertising. Panter noted he was “still dead.”
“Not to be confused with Matisse,” said Panter of the Chilean painter (1911 – 2002), who was booted out of the Surrealist movement and whose murals attracted the ire of General Pinochet. For some reason, Santoro then re-told an anecdote about the young Panter watching Alexander Calder paint a six-legged horse and wondering if the artist had lost it in his old age.
Showing the work of the Chicago artist (b. 1938), associated with the Hairy Who group, Panter enthused about the late 1960s and waiting to see what the Beatles, Zappa or Captain Beefheart would do next. “I’m still waiting for the Hairy Who takeover,” he said.
Panter has frequently mentioned how the Scottish artist (1924 – 2005) inspired him. He approved of Paolozzi’s role as a teacher, his influence on pop art, and his friendship with J.G. Ballard. Santoro marveled that Panter knows as much about 20th century work as he does about Ditko and Kirby. “Rip off one artist and you’ll be found out,” said Panter, “Rip off 100 people, no one’s going to know.”
Both Panter and Santoro were intrigued by Picasso’s later career, although the slide was of 1907’s still shocking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Like de Kooning, Picasso enjoyed bringing out the grotesque side of women. Santoro explained how Cubism was basically a simplification of Renaissance theories of perspective, but I didn’t really understand that part.
A frequent theme during the discussion was the difference between what is art and what is something that looks more like a dorm closet. The key factor is the idea put into it. Remarking that he shared a Church of Christ background with the pop guru (1925 – 2008), Panter savored the color of Rauschenberg combine displayed. He preferred working in black and white: “You only need two good colors.”
Jacques de la Villeglé
Showing a sample of the French affichiste’s work, Panter wondered why we all didn’t go home, tear up our comic books and make artwork like this. De la Villeglé was born in 1926.
“The luckiest maniac in the world,” was how Panter described the Bushwick-based artist (b. 1934), who was also associated with the Hairy Who. He claimed that Saul was the recipient of a grant/award from France which allows him to focus completely on art. “Making art and selling art are two different things,” Panter said, another key theme of the MoCCA panels.
Sharp (b. 1942) was not only a psychedelic poster pioneer. He also wrote Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and, according to Panter, built an amusement park in Australia inspired by Tiny Tim. The truth is probably a little more prosaic, so let’s leave it there.
During World War II, the young Japanese artist-to-be (b. 1936) used to stare up from his bomb shelter at a tank of koi fish illuminated by American bombs. Tanaami later killed his grandfather’s koi but squeezing them to death. His work frequently uses a Koi motif. Largely unknown, he helped out at Andy Warhol’s factory and teaches at Kyoto University.
H. C. Westermann
Panter told the story of how Westermann (1922 – 1981) labored on building a studio by hand, then died before he could use it. His work had a strong anti-war streak which stemmed from Westermann’s time in the Marine Corps., during which he observed drowning sailors eaten by sharks. The image reappears often in his prints. He’s one of the group that appears on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album.
Like Nutt and Westermann, Wirsum (b. 1939) was a member of the Chicago Imagists who later became known at the Hairy Who. Panter shared that Wirsum works on kneepads to paint his canvases on the floor.
After a consideration of a Japanese artist whose name I did not take down—there seemed to be some discussion about this artist’s belief in alien life, but it was hard to tell if Panter and Santoro were joking or not—the cover of Zap Comix No. 3 rounded out the discussion. Panter emphasized how the artist had to redraw the color separations. He emphasized the importance of medium: “With a ballpoint pen, your thought is four miles long. With a dip pen, your thought is three inches long.” Update:The cover is by Rick Griffin. Thanks to Karen for the tip!
The presentation emerged from bull sessions Panter and Santoro would have while working on a mural in Virginia. Panter is an engaging speaker, kind of like an artistic Kramer. Aside from his pithy aphorisms, he tries to jolt the audience with shouting and enjoys taking on characters. It was a good enough performance to keep the normally ebullient Santoro—comics’ answer to Jesse Ventura–subdued.
In the subsequent question and answer session, Panter and Santoro kept returning to similar themes. Panter wanted to emphasize the importance of cartoonists having art history to draw on for inspiration. Calling yourself a “cartoonist” limits people’s perception of you. Instead, call yourself an “artist” and start educating yourself in the give and take of the gallery scene. It’s the only way you’re going to make money. He explained a bit about his current practice, where he tries to marry the styles of David Hockney (“totally gay”) with Jack Kirby (“totally butch”) and see what happens next.
Santoro’s current bugbear was what he called the “pudding school” of cartooning. Cartoonists were producing individual panels of merit, but not considering how one panel related to the next. The pudding artist’s panels spill all over the page without much direction, leaving the reader to wonder where they’re meant to look next. While Santoro praised Panter’s intuitive approach and his use of “white noise” in works like Jimbo in Purgatory, he advocated a return back to basic visual storytelling principles.
Both noted that it’s a time in comics when walls are tumbling down. Love or loathe the term graphic novel, the barriers between novels and comics are tumbling—particularly with the involvement of literary figures—as are the barriers between music and comics. In a kinetic display, Panter presented the audience with a gallery of past heroes to look towards in the future.
Tags: art, Öjvind Fahlström, comics, Edward Paolozzi, Frank Santoro, Gary Panter, H.C. Westermann, Jacques de la Villeglé, Jean Dubuffet, Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum, Keiichi Tanaami, Marcel Duchamp, Martin Sharp, MoCCA 2009, Pablo Picasso, Peter Saul, Philip Guston, Richard Lindner, robert rauschenberg, Roberto Matta, Romare Bearden, Willem de Kooning, Zap Comix