Carnegie International

Some Thoughts on Entry #3

#3: R. Crumb

The inclusion of R. Crumb in the 2004-5 Carnegie International is both exhilarating and frustrating. Though Crumb's status as a fine artist is no longer a matter of debate, I have no doubt that his inclusion has less to do with his artistic merits more to do with the commercial success of his placemat drawings. That's not a knock against Crumb; most of the artists in the International have apparently been chosen by financial rather than aesthetic criteria.1

The Crumb display is small, but its breadth is astounding. Every decade of Crumb's career is represented — whole stories are displayed on the original art boards, alongside sketchbooks from the same period. The selection of stories is scattershot — "Meatball," the "Frosty the Snowman" strips from Arcade, an entire Fritz the Cat story in sketchbook form, "Whiteman vs. Bigfoot," some strips from American Splendor and a few Village Voice strips featuring Mr. Natural and Schuman the Human2 — but despite the seeming randomness of the selections, they are in fact extremely well-chosen and provide a good overview of Crumb's wide range and subject matter. Alas, the presentation is another matter. The art boards are sealed in glass cases, which makes them hard to read. The physical distance also creates a clinical detachment that makes it hard to appreciate the stories on an earthier, immediate level. It would have been nice to have a small reading area where people could flip through some actual comics. Light up a few doobs and hang up some black light posters and heck, it'd be like Haight-Ashbury all over again.

Unfortunately, the museum setting also diminishes Crumb. It's strange to read "Whiteman Meets Bigfoot" when you know that there's a Monet hanging a few galleries away next to a whole room filled with Dürers. Even the most dedicated members of the graphic literative is forced to confront the fact that Crumb is a giant in the comics world and a footnote in the art world.

Conclusions

Overall, the latest International has to be viewed as disappointing. It's hard to connect with most of the work in the exhbition on any level. There are a few bright spots that are definitely worth seeing. So go, and enjoy, but don't expect to be bowled over.

Additional Notes

#32: Maurizio Cattelan's "Now" has been removed from the exhibition by the request of the artist. Since I can't recall having seen it exhibited in the first place, it's probably a safe bet to assume that it never made it to the Carnegie at all.

  1. This isn't unique to the current International — the last two Internationals also featured work chosen primarily on the basis of its commercial success. Unfortunately, public tastes and commercial inspiration rarely walk hand-in-hand, meaning that most of the artists featured in any given International are popular but past their creative peak. By happy coincidence, the 1999-2000 International featured artists who were both popular and young, and as a result was a lot more interesting.
  2. The featured stories are surprisingly clean and largely free of Crumb's trademark perversion. And yet the curators have included the original art for Crumb's 1970 letter to feminists, which ends with a resounding "fuck you" to those who decry his work as misogynistic. Since the work in question isn't on display, those being exposed to Crumb's work for the first time are likely to be confused by his vitriol.
  3. This isn't so much a footnote as a parenthetical aside. I've heard a lot of people commenting that there wasn't any "Keep on Truckin'" imagery in the International. I can understand leaving it out — it's one of Crumb's most vapid works, and he may still be angry about the acrimonious court case that stripped him of his copyrights. On the other hand, it's the only one of Crumb's works that's widely known by the general public, which makes its omission puzzling.

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