Mary Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh; Andy Warhol, also born here, went to school here as well, as did Mel Bochner and Deborah Kass. And over the years a great many major artists have been shown in the Carnegie Museum, in the Internationals and also in other major shows. I know, for I live here, and so have regularly reviewed these exhibitions.
But by miles the most visible Pittsburgh artist is someone who, though his work has appeared for many years regularly in the main local newspaper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has never been shown in that museum. I confess, indeed, that though long ago he took one of my classes, I’ve never written about his work, though I see his art regularly in that paper. Indeed, only an accident of family life — my daughter Liz’s fascination with Tintin , the series of comics by the Belgian artist Hergé— got me to seriously thinking about comics art, and publishing a book about them. It’s all too easy to ignore what’s right at hand.
Recently for two days in a row this artist was featured in the New York Times. And so now, very belatedly, I realized that he deserves serious attention. I refer of course, to Rob Rogers, whose firing by The Post Gazette has been much discussed recently in the local, national and international press. For a long time, the contemporary art world has been much concerned with political art. In the 1980s, when I started writing criticism, many of the most influential critics argued that the best contemporary art critiqued our political institutions, including the commercial gallery system in which it was displayed. Of course, as we all know, almost all such visual art has only an oblique relationship to everyday political life. And, it’s fair to add, that while some gallery artists aspire to reach a larger public, no one from within the art world has an audience remotely as large as even modestly successful pop musicians or movie stars. What’s very challenging, then, about cartoons is that they are immediately political – and that they reach enormous audiences, including many people who don’t ever pay attention to the art world. Indeed, gifted visual artists attract censorship precisely because the polemical claims of their work are so obvious. A writer can hem-and-haw, but a good cartoonist cannot do nuance. After all, when someone lands a punch on an obnoxious drunk in a bar, he isn’t making a subtle comment.
The moral rights-and-wrongs of Rogers’s censorship, which seem relatively straightforward, have already been amply discussed. There was an air of obvious absurdity in complaining that the problem was that he was angry or obsessed with our president, as if that made him stand out – not so amongst my friends. What interests me, then, are the qualities of his cartoons as visual artworks. In a pair of recent books, Wild Art (2013) and Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained, which is forthcoming this year, Joachim Pissarro and I explore what we dub ‘wild art,’ art from outside of the gallery and museum world. Wild art stands to the art world art as wild animals to tame pets, or weeds to garden plants. We are interested in how such varieties of wild art as graffiti and tattoos, and, also, cartoons, are excluded from art world exhibition spaces and, also, mostly from academic writing about art. What, then, is at stake if we interpret Rogers’s wild art cartoons as if they were conventional subjects for art writing? Let’s see!
Like most cartoonists, Rogers loves klutzy figures – no one in his images is glamorous or handsome. And so, while caricaturing Obama was always a stretch for Rogers, who made him skinny and gave him big ears, Trump’s presidency is a gift because he comes, as it were, already klutzy-looking. Avoiding subtlety whenever possible, cartoons rely upon visual stereotypes; and because they have only limited room for texts, they need to condense the subject’s speaking habits. Here, too, alas!, Trump is a caricaturist’s dream. When 20 years ago I wrote my little book on comics, I was fascinated with the way that this art form synthesizes words and images, something normally forbidden in older European visual art. In the 1950s, this feature of comic books was judged, absurdly, to be morally reprehensible. Just as Rogers’s portly politicians are always depicted in his unmistakable style, so his texts, in happy harmony with his drawings, are lettered in the firm and lucid script of a properly taught, well behaved grammar school child. Which feels appropriate when he says nasty things.
Compared even with the most prolific gallery artists, successful cartoonists like Rogers produce an astonishing quantity of work – no working in series is allowed. It’s instructive to look through No Cartoon Left Behind!, the big 2009 book celebrating Rogers’s art. Already then for 25 years, he drew about 240 cartoons a year. Many of his images are about local concerns or political figures who now are half-forgotten. And, surely this is obvious, when an artist is so prolific, it’s inevitable that not all of his images work. I mean, Frank Stella doesn’t always succeed. Caricatured figures accompanied by text – these are the staples of comics. What, however, is rare, and marks true genius in a comics artist, is the discovery of distinctive visual devices to communicate meaning. Look, considering just recent examples (all accessible on line), as Rogers’s image for June 1, 2018, showing a fleeing child grabbed by Trump; his comic from February 27 of this year depicting the president of China as an artist drawing an absurdly idealized self-portrait; or “Rocket Man,” of March 29, 2018, depicting John Bolton. Or consider what I think is his real masterpiece, Rogers’s response to 9/11. In that singular drawing, he rose to the occasion and created a great image.