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The problem of Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective is that its current showing, at the Jewish Museum in New York, is its only stop in the United States. Originating in France as part of the Angoulême International Comics Festival, Co-Mix traveled to Paris (the Centre Pompidou), Cologne, Germany (the Ludwig Museum), and Vancouver (the Vancouver Art Gallery) before arriving in New York. After it closes at the Jewish Museum, on March 23, the show will be over. If you’re an American who doesn’t live in, or hasn’t recently visited, New York, well, too bad.
There is a fantastic catalogue you can buy, published by Drawn & Quarterly, containing a dizzying number of reproductions of Spiegelman’s comics as well as insightful essays by critic J. Hoberman and curator Robert Storr (the latter’s essay first published on the occasion of his showing of some of Spiegelman’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1991). The catalogue is, in many ways, a faithful approximation of the show — some people may even like it better, since there’s an intimacy wrought by holding and turning its pages that the exhibition doesn’t have. But if you have seen Co-Mix, then you know it’s singular: the gathering of so many of Spiegelman’s original drawings and layouts in one place, along with notes, sketches, and drafts, so close and accessible you can nearly feel their texture. What’s more, in the Jewish Museum version of the show, the entire manuscript of the second volume of his book Maus is on view, poignantly complemented by audio of the artist’s interviews with his Holocaust survivor father playing from a speaker in the ceiling.
The problem of the Art Spiegelman show, then, is the larger problem of comics (at least in the US): art museums still don’t want them. If anyone can be thought of as having settled the question of comics’ respectability once and for all, it is Art Spiegelman: he won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus in 1992, just two years after his unbeatable evisceration of the Museum of Modern Art for its mistreatment of comics and their creators in the exhibition High and Low. And yet here we are, in 2014, and only a single museum took Spiegelman in?
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The problem of Art Spiegelman, as Co-Mix makes abundantly clear, is the problem of Maus. The two-volume graphic memoir — Spiegelman himself might insist on using “comic book” — tells the story of his parents’ (Anja and Vladek) experiences in the Holocaust, both of them having miraculously survived Auschwitz. In just under 300 pages, Spiegelman interweaves his parents’ harrowing tales with his own ongoing discovery of them through conversations with Vladek, as well as the shadow of his mother’s suicide and the frustrations and guilt of his relationships with both of them. He does all of this in an enormously powerful visual style, drawing the Germans as cats, non-Jewish Poles as pigs, and Jews as mice, and mixing traditional paneled pages with larger and more detailed drawings; the latter are, I’d argue, among the most effective visual representations of the horrors of the Holocaust ever done.
Spiegelman published the first version of Maus in 1972 — a three-page strip in the underground comix magazine Funny Aminals, the original of which is on view at the Jewish Museum. In it you can see the beginnings of what the work would ultimately become, ideas and images taking shape, but with its highly anthropomorphized mice and over-the-top language (the use of “Mauschwitz” is somehow tackier than the simple “Maus”), it misses the mark. Its melodrama is of a piece with a strip that Spiegelman published the following year, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” which tells the story of his mother’s suicide in a claustrophobic, black-and-white, Expressionist style. (The original, highly texturized work on scratchboard can also be seen at the Jewish Museum.)
He returned to the subject of the Holocaust, and to the task of interviewing his father, five years later. He then began publishing a serialized version of the Maus we now know in 1980, in the avant-comics magazine RAW, which he edited with his wife, Francoise Mouly. In 1991, the work was finally completed … until 2011, that is, when Spiegelman published MetaMaus, a non-comics account of the making of his landmark book, complete with drawings, notes, historical documents, and audio. Spiegelman worked on the actual book of Maus for 13 years; his parents’ story and the art he made of it have been casting their shadow even longer.
At the Jewish Museum, Maus is the nucleus of the show: the point to which all of Spiegelman’s earlier efforts — experimental comics riffing on Cubism and playing with the potency of form, underground strips filled with heady crudeness — seem to lead, and the point from which his work afterwards seems to flow. And it is, quite literally, placed in the center of the exhibition, with a wall displaying a grid of reproductions of Maus I positioned across from the fully displayed manuscript of Maus II, from which notes and sketches branch off as in a crossword puzzle. The work takes up so much literal and figurative space at the Jewish Museum, you can practically feel Spiegelman suffocate. As he said at the press preview for Co-Mix, and has said many times before, “Holocaust trumps art every time.”
Often in discussions of Spiegelman’s work, writers will invoke the famous Theodor Adorno dictum that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” As the question goes: how do you make art after the Holocaust? But for Spiegelman, the question is: how do you make art after Maus?
He’s answered it in a variety of ways — with comics essays on influential figures like Harvey Kurtzman (founder of Mad magazine) and Maurice Sendak, with cover illustrations for The New Yorker, with broadsheet comics about the American aftermath of 9/11, with illustrations for a long-lost Jazz Age poem. The results, while always visually engaging, are nonetheless mixed, and for me, the densely packed and wordy comics win out over pure illustration every time. The problem with Art Spiegelman is that he thinks of himself as a formalist, when he is, at his strongest, a storyteller.
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The problem with me writing about Art Spiegelman is that anything approach objectivity, perhaps even level-headedness, is laughable. Maus changed my perception of the world in a way that no work of art has since. I’m the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors — a certain strain of madness runs in my family that can only be traced back to the Nazis. Maus elucidated this thread for me; it changed my understanding of who I was. My parents encouraged me to read it, and I remember seeing it on the bookshelf in our dining room, pulling it out occasionally to peer at its strange title and swastika-laden cover. But for a long time I didn’t look inside, presuming that if my parents wanted me to read it, it probably wasn’t something I’d actually like. In that sense, I suppose Maus was also a revelation that parents know what they’re talking about sometimes.
At the press preview for Co-Mix, I was schmearing my bagel with cream cheese when I glanced sideways and noticed Spiegelman standing near me. He was holding a cup of coffee and chatting with someone. “Everyone’s going to want me to sign their copy of Maus or talk to me about their grandparents’ experience of the war, and I just want to enjoy my opening!” he joked. Heat rose to my face as I fled the buffet table. I had, indeed, brought along my copy of Maus, but I knew now that I couldn’t retrieve it. I kept it tucked away in my bag.
Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective continues at the Jewish Museum (1009 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 23.