Silent Pictures on Fifth Avenue

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday September 2, 2009

Wordless novels and abstract comics might strike you as a somewhat esoteric strain of visual art until you stop and think a bit. Consider the flipbooks assigned to just about every first year art school student. Or from the mainstream, Spy vs. Spy, a strip that has been published in MAD magazine since 1961 and is currently drawn by Peter Kuper.

For those who need a quick immersion in this fascinating genre, as I did, add Silent Pictures, an exhibition that opened today at City University of New York's James Gallery, to your to-do list for the long weekend ahead.


Installation views of Silent Pictures, envisioned by James Gallery Director/Curator Linda Norden and executed by Kyle Lanning-Smith and Josh Schwartz.

The show is introduced by every wordless novel from Art Spiegelman's personal library, which amounts to quite a few. In addition to rare editions displayed behind glass, there's a collection of duplicate volumes that can be thumbed through by visitors. They run the gamut from classics of the Great Depression by Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward to contemporary work by David N. Holzman, who until now has been largely unknown outside of his contributions to Zero Zero (Fantagraphics).

While the genre evolved from printmaking and small press editions with a political bent, today publishers such as Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics are regularly coming out with new titles. One of the ideas that can be gleaned from simply reading the covers on display is that the term "graphic novel" doesn't apply. First, it's a relatively new, and still contraoversial hanger; second, the titles of the wordless novels here characteristically include the phrase, "A Novel told in Woodcuts," or "A Novel in Pictures." The collector's personal taste is much in evidence in this selection of books that recall the graphic art of Rockwell Kent, who wrote introductions for more one of the volumes on display.

At the entrance to the gallery is a tiny theater (standing room only) where a carefully chosen series of animated films expands on a question Paul Klee once posed: "What becomes of a line that goes walking?" That idea is neatly illustrated by LMNO, a flipbook by Robert Breer, who recreated his 1978 one-off especially for the show. In it a line and various other marks mischievously fly across the pages as they dissolve into a question-mark-like abstraction at the end. Animated films by William Kentridge among others, demonstrate that highly expressive narrative art need not rely on speech.

Breer's tiny abstract flipbooks surreptitiously introduce the third - and largest - section of the show, comprised of abstract comics from the new book of the same title by Andrei Molotiu. Here, narrative art comes with most of the trappings of the comics, minus realistic imagery and, for the most part, a verbal stream. According to Molotiu, an artist and educator, the absence of a verbal story can create a feeling of sequential drive, rhythm, or the rise and fall of a story arc.

This idea characterizes much, but not all, of the art on display at the James. Collected through a worldwide open call, the work is done by artists who will be new for most visitors to the show. Among the standouts are
I am not married because I do not have a watch
, by Noah Bertansky, in which the narrative drive of the art carries haphazardly framed panels screechingly across their paper background. The message seems to be that the artist's life is a train wreck, due to his watch- and wife-lessness,

Jasnusz Jaworski takes the idea of abstract comics to the extreme by creating an abstract language for the speech bubbles that inhabit the frames in a style reminiscent of Japanese scroll painting and calligraphy. And an old-fashioned wire magazine stand hosts a collection of paintings by Mark Staff Brandl called A History of Composition in Abstract Comic Covers. Done in oil, acrylic and collage on masonite panels, the 30 pieces in this series have a wonderfully crude graphic style shared by realistic comics by R. Crumb and others of the East Village Eye era.

Once again, a single work in the show introduces yet another cool idea. Near Brandl's magazine rack is a bookstore in miniature. Among the titles available for sale are Abstract Comics by Andrei Molotiu (Fantagrapics), Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! by Art Spigelman (Pantheon) and Oaxaca Journal by Peter Kuper (PM Press), and a fully illustrated exhibition catalog that features informative essays including one by Bill Kartalopoulos, who recently reorganized Art Spiegelman's library.

In addition, Director and Curator Linda Norden commissioned a 12-by-12-foot wall drawing by Renee French called Straw Dog No. 44. Done in sections on square panels separated by 2-inch ribbons of black wallspace, the drawing can be read as individual abstractions that come together as a gigantic picture of a canine in distress.

There are a number of public programs, including a walk through with author and co-curator Andrei Molotiu on September 11 at 6:00 pm; a panel discussion on September 12 at 4pm at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, and a discussion about the animated film program with art historian Noam Elcott on September 25th at 6:00 pm. Please visit the website for information. Silent Pictures is on view through October 11, 2009 at the James Gallery, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. 212.817.7138.