Art Spiegelman’s comics totally transcend all stereotypes. Working in a strange liminal space he’s carved out somewhere between the conventional art world and the gritty underground comics scene, the American artist’s work is completely unique. The AGO’s exhibition Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective covers the entirety of Spiegelman’s career all the way from his first underground comix to his most recent work, offering a window into Spiegelman’s creative process and personal life.
Following a chronological order, CO-MIX includes a wide range of Spiegelman’s work, but the focus definitely rests firmly on Maus, his critically-acclaimed novel. Using anthropomorphic characters to depict the experiences of Spiegelman’s Polish father in Auschwitz, Maus was the first graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. A huge chunk of the AGO exhibition is made up of early proofs of the book, which was originally serialised in Raw, a magazine edited by Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly. Early images of Spiegelman’s Maus brainstorming give us an interesting glimpse into the artist’s writing and drawing process.
The retrospective increases in emotional intensity as it moves along: from Spiegelman’s silly childhood comix, inspired by MAD Magazine, we move on to Garbage Pail Kids, then Raw magazine… and then Maus and all its iterations seems to take over Spiegelman’s professional life for some time, given how much space it takes up in the gallery. In a way, this is a logical choice. After all, Spiegelman did work on the book for over a decade. And maybe the feeling we get here, of Maus looming like a dark cloud over Spiegelman’s career, is an accurate emotion—in interviews, the artist has described the work as casting a shadow over his life. The AGO’s retrospective does make an effort to balance out the intensity of Maus by following it with a nice range of selections from Spiegelman’s later work, including his often acerbically funny New Yorker covers.
For someone with little knowledge of Spiegelman’s comics, CO-MIX offers a good introduction to his work. But the fact remains that, despite Spiegelman’s talent and the originality of his comic work, exhibiting art meant for the printed page in a gallery is a difficult task. The level of small detail in the work is better suited to a book, which can be read and re-read close range, rather than a gallery wall. Besides, the urge to carefully read every panel presented can become a bit stressful given the large amount of art on display. The question arises: how are you supposed to look at Maus, in this exhibition? Are you viewing unconventional artwork, or simply trying to read the pages of a book mounted on a wall? Or is it a historical artifact, yet another personal record of the Holocaust?
The AGO retrospective presents Maus as a massive scroll extending horizontally through a giant display case, calling to mind a conversation Spiegelman had with a reporter for Tablet magazine in the interview linked above. Discussing an exhibition of Spiegelman’s work at the Jewish Museum, the reporter describes how he imagines Maus being “preserved for posterity like the Dead Sea Scrolls,” so that people can come look at it and remember the Holocaust. The AGO’s presentation of Maus certainly feels like this; it does makes the book feel like a historical artifact. Slightly depressed by this notion, Spiegelman notes that “the Holocaust trumps art every time.”
It’s when you get closer to Spiegelman’s work that it emerges as art in its own right and not only Holocaust memorial. This kind of closeness might be better and more easily achieved alone, with a book, rather than trying to make out the writing on a tiny comic panel in a huge gallery. Nevertheless, CO-MIX is important not only because it highlights the significance of Spiegelman’s Maus as art and as Holocaust documentation. The retrospective also convincingly demonstrates the importance of Spiegelman as an artist who transcends the boundaries of genre both to entertain and to tell important stories that, without him, would never have been told.
Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A Retrospective is on at the AGO until March 15, 2015. Find more information about the exhibition here.