Sense of Humor at the National Gallery: An Interview with Judith Brodie

Cover by Gilbert Shelton for Zap #6, 1968

A show of works on paper, Sense of Humor, is currently on view at the National Gallery, and runs until January 6th. It's an exhibition anyone interested in cartooning should make note of. Work by George Herriman, Winsor McCay, Saul Steinberg, and others are on view, as are prints by Francisco de Goya, Leonardo da Vinci, and William Hogarth. Comic art is rarely on view in major institution. This exhibit becomes, in this way, an important opportunity to view works by the masters of the form in person, alongside major figures in caricature like Hogarth. Herriman on display with Hogarth provides a moment to confront the first gestations of cartooning alongside the mediums rich fulfillment.

I spoke with the shows curator, Judith Brodie, about all this and more. All images used in this article are part of the Sense of Humor catalog.

Francisco de Goya, Ya van desplumados (There They Go Plucked), 1797/1798

The Comics Journal: You mention that much of this work is on view for the first time. After going through the process of making this show into a reality, do you have any insight into why museums and institutions so rarely show comic art on their walls, but have made space for film and architecture? Are there specific challenges the work poses? 

Judith Brodie: Much of the work is being shown for the first time not because it has been hidden away but because it is new to the National Gallery’s collection, acquired within the last decade or so. The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Gallery’s collection.

As to why comic art is less visible on the walls of museums, are you referring to art that is humorous or specifically the art of cartoonists? If the former, I would say that it is simply less abundant, especially in terms of painting and sculpture. If you mean work by cartoonists, art museums have long kept cartoonists at arm’s length. Nevertheless, attitudes evolve, as evidenced by the National Gallery exhibition.

I meant more what are some of the unique qualities of the work that presented challenges that, say, painting or sculpture might not?

Definitely the lack of such work in permanent collections is a factor. Institutions such as the National Gallery never collected this sort of art. In truth, it wasn’t even considered art. I could be wrong in assuming this, but historically were cartoonists even aiming to be in art museum collections? It strikes me that their aim was to get their work published and most paid little regard for the original drawings. I have heard purists say that the work that we should be exhibited is the published cartoon and that curators such as myself are fetishizing the original, unique work. Also bear in mind that probably more than 90 percent of the works in the National Gallery’s collection came as donations. Our holdings reflect what our donors were collecting. This is the case at almost all art museums.

Daniel Hopfer, Bolikana and Markolfus, 16th Century

Comics and caricature deal with information through drawing. Rather than writing ‘she sat in a chair,’ the action and chair are drawn. In curating this show, which artists do you feel conveyed information through drawing particularly well?

If you’re talking about representation and quality of draftsmanship, my list is long and includes Daniel Hopfer, Pier Francesco Mola, Jusepe de Ribera, Jacques Callot, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Francesco de Goya, James Gillray, George Cruickshank, Louis-Léopold Boilly, Honoré Daumier, Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Alexander Calder, and Saul Steinberg. I could go on. Suffice it to say there are many outstanding draftsman represented in the exhibition.

Rupert Garcia, No More O' This Shit, 1969

I don’t so much mean draftsmanship, but the ability to convey information visually, to convey an idea or narrative through pictures. Yes, draftsmanship can aid in this, but it can also be an impediment (for instance, maybe Norman Rockwell is, in his way, a better draftsman than Edward Hopper, but Hopper's ideas are more clear and evocative, to me at least). Maybe there is an example in the show of an idea or joke conveyed through less than perfect draftsmanship that might be of note due to the artists command of the language of caricature or comics?

Rupert García’s No More O’ This Shit relies on a photographic image and text to effectively drive home an idea. It couldn’t be more simple but it does the job brilliantly. Same with Andy Warhol’s Vote McGovern. Ditto Roger Brown’s The Jim and Tammy Show. None of these artists relied on draftsmanship and none really used caricature. They represented the figures pretty much straight on. Yes, Warhol doused Nixon in sickly looking colors but even if he had represented him without the addition of color, the punch line ("Vote McGovern") would have worked nevertheless.

Saul Steinberg, Parade 2, 1950-1951

The theme of the show is humor and social critique. If Steinberg is making a criticism, what exactly is his critique? 

The theme of the exhibition is humor, which, as it happens, often takes the form of social critique. I would say that the drawing by Steinberg is not an example of social critique but of humor that appeals to a sense of the ludicrous. It also reflects a cleverness that is Steinbergian to the core. The drawing features determined-looking figures in procession. At upper right, two of them carry an elaborately penned signature. Most carry rubber-stamped words—ones such as “fragile” and “rushed” and “important.” The figure at lower left holds an actual fingerprint—the most fundamental sort of signature and the quintessential rubber stamp. I suppose the seriousness with which the figures go about their task is also comical.

George Herriman, Ah-h, She Sails Like an Angel, 1921

This shows range is exciting to see. It is important that artists like Herriman, who are so rarely on view in museums, are on display. However, I must ask if there might be a way to show Herriman without the idea of labeling him as a humorist. Herriman’s biography is so compelling and speaks to identity issues of today. He is also acknowledged, among many of his peers, as the medium's greatest cartoonist. I don’t know how much humor figures into a current view of Herriman. How do you see his placement in this show, and might there be a day where Herriman can be shown as a great American artist rather than a humorist?

There are certainly other contexts for Herriman, but the Herriman came into the collection two years ago. This was the first time we had a chance to display it. The drawing is not among the funniest works in the last gallery, but it does represent a type of slapstick humor. When it comes to 20th-century art, the comic strip is hugely influential. I think we do show Herriman as a great American artist when we represent him in an exhibition with the likes of Rembrandt and Goya. The National Gallery is very interested in aesthetic quality. The work by Herriman is displayed alongside one by George Bellows. My intention is to convey the message (without hitting our visitors over the head, like Ignatz throwing bricks at Krazy) that the Herriman and the Bellows are on a level playing field.

Ray Johnson, Cervix Dollar Bill, 1970

An artist like Ray Johnson used text and imagery in almost all his work, but is more often viewed as a fine artist than a printmaker or cartoonist. I find his placement in this show refreshing. How might audiences, or Johnson’s legacy itself, benefit from understanding his work as being closer to cartooning or caricature or as a humorist?

I am less concerned about categories than you might imagine. So, for example, I do not relegate printmakers or cartoonists to an inferior rank. I do see a distinction between artists in the mainstream and those operating on the fringe. But I also see that distinction as becoming less viable as more “fringe dwellers” (in the words of my colleague, Lynne Cooke) make their way into the mainstream.

In regards to Johnson, I didn’t so much mean categories, but rather that maybe if we read his work as visual information or cartooning, there might be more to glean from it than as a static painterly image. The show, of course, shows these artists on a level playing field, but I also wonder if there is a desire to let us see aspects of them (Goya included) that are otherwise obscured. Maybe more succinctly, does the show open up a writerly aspect to these visual artists?

Maybe in the last gallery, where there is an abundance of text. But that is also reflective of a trend in modern art in general—think Ed Ruscha or John Baldessari. Text is simply more prevalent in visual art of the twentieth century. Also, I have a strong predilection for text, and I acquired many of the works in that last room. So you are also seeing a curatorial bias, as it were.

William Hogarth, Simon Lord Lovat, 1746

The origins of cartooning are in caricature. With this show, where they are shown together, what are some of the immediate or more subtle contrasts you see between the two linked mediums? What disadvantages or advantages do you see each having after focusing on the two? Which feels like a more successful template for humor?

I’d say it’s less a case of which is the better template for humor and more a case of who is the better artist. A talented artist with a good sense of humor can make something of either template. Also, I do not relegate printmakers or cartoonists to an inferior rank. I do recognize a distinction between artists in the mainstream and those operating on the fringe. But I also see that distinction as becoming less and less viable as more “fringe dwellers” (in the words of my colleague Lynne Cooke) make their way into the mainstream.

I apologize for my poor wording. I’m, again, not looking for a higher value to be placed on one or the other, but instead curious as to your feelings or observations on how they operate differently..

I honestly have not formed an opinion. As to how they contrast, what I am more struck by is how they very often overlap.

Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections on The Scream, 1990

Artists like Lichtenstein, who is included, appropriated comics so as to bring popular culture into the rarefied world of painting. The Zap artists used the form itself to comment on life as it was in the '60s. How do you think this work, from the same time period, communicates with these issues in mind? Especially relating to humor, the Zap artists embraced the history of funny animal comics while critiquing American life with transgressive themes in a seamless synthesis. Lichtenstein's appropriation of comics seems to ignore this. 

I think Lichtenstein commented on a whole array of things—humor, art, society, and more. Zap artists did it one way and Lichtenstein did it another.

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland: Climbing the Great North Pole, 1907

Are there a couple of pieces in the show that are of particular importance to you, or ones that you personally enjoy and want to point visitors to the National Gallery to?

Addressing only the works in the last gallery (the only gallery I was responsible for), I have a special fondness for the drawing by Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland. McCay’s drawings strike me as original, not only absorbing for their content but also striking for their dynamic use of negative and positive space. From a distance, they almost read like abstract compositions. Up close, they reward for their exquisite detail. And on top of all that, McCay’s stories are outlandish, magical, humorous, and tinged with anxiety.

Finally, can you talk a little bit about going through the archive to find these pieces? Is there an electronic database you browse, or is there actual looking through flat files to discover long hidden pieces? Where there any pieces that you wanted to include but had to let go of for any reason?

Our storeroom is adjacent to our office spaces, and we are in and out of that storeroom constantly. There are about 50,000 prints and drawings in our immediate vicinity.  Yes, we rely on an electronic database but we also know the collection surprisingly well.  We never discover a long hidden work because is nothing really hidden.  It sounds impressive but any curator worth her or his salt has to know their collection.  It’s essential.