Kurt Vonnegut, "Self-portrait" (February 19, 1985)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Self-portrait” (February 19, 1985) (all images courtesy the Monacelli Press)

Drawings by Kurt Vonnegut long kept in storage are getting the monograph treatment with a new publication of his playful, line-driven art. Kurt Vonnegut Drawings, coming next month from the Monacelli Press, features 145 selections of his work.

The author shipped the drawings to his daughter Nanette Vonnegut in the mid-1990s. Unsure what to do with them, she kept the art in her studio’s flat files (she is herself a visual artist) until recently. According to the Monacelli Press, a touring exhibition is planned in addition to the book.

Nanette writes of her father in her introduction to the book: “Whether it was music, literature, theater, or the visual arts, he believed practicing the arts saved lives.” Fans of Vonnegut may already know his drawings that punctuate 1973’s Breakfast of Champions, which concludes with a signature by the author in the form of a self-portrait; the cover that he drew for A Man Without a Country, the final book he published in his lifetime; or even his writings on art, like his 1983 Esquire article on Jackson Pollock called “Jack the Dripper.” Yet the amount of art he made, and the serious appreciation he had for visual creation, have long been an unseen undercurrent to his literary achievements. As scholar and Vonnegut friend Peter Reed writes in his essay, the “great value of this collection is that Vonnegut’s artwork gives us another perspective on his restless imagination and his creative genius. … There are constraints in writing that even the iconoclastic Vonnegut felt, but in his art he seems wholly uninhibited.”

The drawings in the book, created with pens and markers, include whimsical portraits and abstract experiments that look a bit like Joan Miró tributes. Most center around the 1980s, and writing in them is scarce, although it does sometimes come in pensive fragments such as, “There is a ceiling on human thoughts.” Vonnegut wrote that he considered the canvas a “Ouija board” where, with each movement of the artist, “the canvas ponders this addition and comes up with further recommendations.”

And it is those drawings that feel like they contain some sort of chain of movement that are the most interesting. Nanette writes of her favorite — a “self-portrait created by one, continuous fat, squiggly line”:

I see hints of blueprints, tile work, leaded glass window, William Blake, Paul Klee, Saul Steinberg, Al Hirschfield, Edward Gorey, my mother’s wasp waist, cats and dogs. I see my father at age four, forty, and eighty-four, doodling his heart out.

Kurt Vonnegut, “Untitled” (nd)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Untitled” (May 5, 1985)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Untitled” (nd)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Untitled” (April 1, 1987)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Untitled” (nd)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Untitled” (September 8, 1987)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Untitled” (nd)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Untitled” (nd)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Untitled” (June 8, 1980)

Kurt Vonnegut Drawings is available May 13 from the Monacelli Press

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...