Dennis Ryan has just the thing for delegates to next month's Democratic National Convention who arrive in Los Angeles with a sense of humor: an exhibition from his vast collection of political cartoons. Those who venture into the Gallery at 777--a sleek show space off the lobby of a downtown office building on Figueroa Street--can track the party's history from the 1880s to the present in images of Democratic presidents, candidates and wannabes, with all their warts and pretensions.
Arrogance personified, candidate Gen. Winfield Hancock has his chest puffed out and his chin in the air in an 1880 drawing by Thomas Nast. An unsavory batch of Democratic contenders hangs out at a backwoods "presidential swimming hole" in a 1912 work by C.K. Berryman. Already appearing defeated, Jimmy Carter makes a futile effort to erase inflation with a giant pencil during his 1980 reelection campaign in a cartoon by Dick Wright.
The selection of original drawings by 52 artists isn't meant to embarrass anyone, said Ryan, a PaineWebber financial advisor who has amassed 2,000 cartoons during 20 years of collecting. Some of his favorite artists "go for the jugular," as he readily admits, but Ryan is mainly interested in sharing his passion for an art form that gets little respect.
"This is an art, although it's at the lowest rung of the ladder," he said in an interview at his office, on an upper floor of the building that houses the gallery. Skillfully drawn, graphically cogent and sharply opinionated, the best political cartoons also document history in the heat of the moment, he said. And a quick survey of the show, which will open Thursday, reveals that America's most powerful and colorful characters have provided artists with plenty of inspiration.
Take Lyndon B. Johnson. "Come now, let us reason together" reads the benign caption on a 1965 cartoon by Edmund Valtman. But he has drawn LBJ as a pirate captain who brandishes a whip while handcuffed congressmen row the ship of state. In a 1968 cartoon by Paul Szep, Johnson's Pinocchio-like nose grows longer and longer as he proclaims that American boys will not be sent to fight a war in Asia.
Other works in the show are poignant tributes to courage. Tom Little marked the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt by drawing him as "the captain with the mighty heart," at the helm of a ship in stormy seas. Clifford "Baldy" Baldowski mourned John. F. Kennedy's assassination with a silhouette of the president's widow and two small children staring into the sunset.
Ryan purchased his first cartoon in 1981, when he became intrigued with Bill Schorr's reaction to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, published in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Ryan called Schorr, who sold him the original drawing for $100. Before long, Ryan found that he had stumbled into affordable collecting territory and discovered a fascinating way to pursue his interest in American history.
"I feel like a tracker of lost persons," he said, recounting attempts to locate the heirs of deceased cartoonists, to see if they had works to sell. There isn't much of a market for original editorial cartoons, he said, and few art or book dealers stock them, so he has done a lot of sleuthing to build his extraordinary collection.
At this point, it's difficult to find early works, Ryan said, and he has no interest in contemporary artists who "go for the quick and easy laugh" instead of addressing serious issues. But he already has such a large holding of cartoons about people and events in U.S. history that it can be sliced many different ways for exhibitions.
The current show was selected with Democratic conventioneers in mind, but it offers a few Republican zingers as well. "Goldwaterloo," a 1964 drawing by Baldowski, depicts Barry Goldwater as a defeated Napoleon, slumped on the back of a plodding elephant.
* "History of the Democratic Party as Portrayed by Editorial Cartoonists From the Collection of Dennis Ryan," Gallery at 777, 777 S. Figueroa St., (213) 236-3923. Free. Thursday-Oct. 26. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.