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Spiegelman splits from comics show

The artist pulls out of the `Masters' exhibition that originated in L.A., disappointed by venues.

September 19, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

One of the largest museum exhibitions on comic art ever mounted has arrived in New York, but the man behind "Maus" is not in the house.

Comic artist Art Spiegelman, whose works were a big part of the show in venues elsewhere, pulled out of "Masters of American Comics" -- which opened Friday -- complaining that it has been undermined by the way curators have split its pieces between the Jewish Museum in Manhattan and the Newark Museum in New Jersey.

He made the move "more in sorrow than in anger," Spiegelman said by phone Monday. But he didn't pull punches about his reasons, and his words had museum officials rushing to compose diplomatic responses.

Putting works from the first half of the 20th century in the Newark Museum, he wrote in a letter of protest, "is, from the perspective of this provincial New Yorker, the equivalent of hiding them in a Federal Witness Protection Program."

Moreover, Spiegelman argued, putting the work of seven later comic artists in the Jewish Museum could distort the aim of the show "by presenting the medium as some sort of 'ethnic' phenomenon."

Jewish Museum spokeswoman Anne Scher said: "We've supported his work and been interested in and admiring of it for a long time. It would have been the Jewish Museum's preference to have Art Spiegelman's work in this exhibition in New York City."

As it stands, Scher said, "we have 14 fabulous artists and nearly 600 works for people to see in the two museums." Spiegelman's absence, she said, is "our one regret."

A spokesman at the Newark Museum responded that "we're well known among museum-goers throughout the metropolitan area and the region, and in fact the cultural corridor of the Northeast."

The comics show was proposed a decade ago by Spiegelman, who first published "Maus" in serial form in the 1980s and won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. The exhibition, which originated last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, featured about 1,000 works ranging from the mainstream musings of Charles Schulz to the underground imagery of R. Crumb. It traveled next, with Spiegelman on board, to Milwaukee.

But as plans for the East Coast presentation came together, Spiegelman said Monday, he didn't like what he saw. He registered his complaints in a letter to organizers in January, withdrew soon after that, then released that letter and made further remarks on Monday.

One of his fears, Spiegelman said Monday, stemmed from the Jewish Museum's plans to present seven comic artists from the late 20th century, including himself. Four of those artists are or were Jewish, Spiegelman said, and his Holocaust-based work "Maus" has always had a high profile because of its potent subject matter. Those factors, together with the venue, he said, could result in "presenting the medium as some sort of 'ethnic phenomenon' instead of more broadly celebrating the aesthetic possibilities of the comic form.

"I've been in the Jewish Museum proudly before, and I may be again," he added, "if they'll ever speak to me again."

The response from the museum's Scher: "If there is an appropriate opportunity, we will certainly consider exhibiting Art Spiegelman's work at the Jewish Museum in the future."

As for Newark, said Spiegelman, a longtime Manhattanite, the problem is strictly geography. "I did go out there and found the museum very impressive," he said, "but hard to get to."

Meanwhile, "all I can say is that we're really sorry he's not in the exhibition and we really wanted him to be. We thought about all the possible options," said Cynthia Burlingham, deputy director of collections at the Hammer Museum and a coordinating curator of the show in Los Angeles with MOCA's Michael Darling.

Spiegelman, she said, has been "working for many years to get the work of these artists out there."

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