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Masters of American Comics

April 29 - August 13, 2006 

(above: R. Crumb, Artistic Comics, 1973, Drawing for comic book cover. Collection of Art Spiegelman. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and the Paul Morris Gallery, New York, New York. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.)


The history of one of America's great popular art forms is traced in the landmark exhibition Masters of American Comics, on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum April 29 - August 13, 2006. It is the first major museum exhibition to examine the development of comic strips and books from their genesis at the beginning of the 20th century to the present through in-depth presentations of 15 influential artists. Masters of American Comics features sketches, drawings, proofs, newspaper Sunday pages, and comic books by Winsor McCay, Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter and Chris Ware. The exhibition is co-organized by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). Unprecedented in its scope, the exhibition provides understanding and insight into the medium of comics as an art form. (right: Lyonel Feininger, Willie Winkie's World, September 23, 1906, Newspaper Sunday page. Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library, San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection. Photo by Ron Hughes, Slide Service International, Columbus, Ohio. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.)

"Among the most innovative and influential art forms of the 20th century, comics have made a singular impact on visual culture that continues to this day," said Margaret Andera, coordinator of the exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum. "This exhibition underscores the importance of the art form and the extraordinary contributions of these 15 artists."

Comic strips and comic books were among the most popular and influential forms of mass media in the 20th century, and have been described as "one of America's few indigenous art forms" by Art Spiegelman. These 15 comic art masters defined an original form and raised it to the highest levels of artistic expression, reflecting on American culture with critical insight as well as popular appeal.

"Comic strips and comic books are quintessential components of American culture," said Andera. "We are very pleased to present an extensive exhibition that brings to light the work of these 15 cartoonists and establishes their roles as significant American artists with mesmerizing storytelling abilities, brilliant draftsmanship, and often biting social commentary."


Exhibition Details

Masters of American Comics is the first art museum exhibition to examine comic strips and books on this expansive scale. Each artist is represented by in-depth groupings presented as a series of individual retrospectives featuring a range of each artist's works from conceptual sketches and finished drawings to printer's proofs, tear sheets, printed newspapers, comic books and graphic novels. The exhibition layout highlights individual contributions of the artists and the ways in which they reinvented the medium to significantly influence their peers and subsequent generations.

The exhibition is organized chronologically, beginning in the early 20th century with American newspaper comic strips through the influential work of such pioneering comic artists as Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat), who set the stage by defining the formal attributes of the genre in the early 1900s. Focusing on the great achievements of this new art form through the century's first decades, the exhibition also includes the groundbreaking work of Lyonel Feininger (The Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie's World), E.C. Segar (Thimble Theatre), Frank King (Gasoline Alley), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), and Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts).

The exhibition continues with the early Golden Age to the rise of the independent comics movement. Comic books began as a form in which newspaper comics were reprinted and, with the rise of such series as Will Eisner's The Spirit and Jack Kirby's Captain America and Fantastic Four, became the dominant popular medium for narrative illustration. In addition to Kirby, particular attention is also paid to Harvey Kurtzman, whose MAD Magazine transformed the medium into one capable of great artistic expression and social commentary beginning in the early 1950s. By the mid-1960s, R. Crumb's work in Zap Comix added a new level of personal expression and extended the significant role of independent and underground comic books and graphic novels. This medium continues to evolve today through the innovations of such artists as Art Spiegelman (Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers), Gary Panter (Jimbo), and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth). (right: Jack Kirby, Fantastic Four #51, June 1966, Comic book page. Michigan State University Libraries, Comic Art Collection. Digital image © 2005 Echelon. Fantastic Four & © 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. Used with permission.)


Organization and Tour

Masters of American Comics is jointly organized by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The exhibition is co-curated by independent scholars John Carlin and Brian Walker and coordinated by Hammer Museum deputy director of collections and director of the Grunwald Center Cynthia Burlingham and MOCA assistant curator Michael Darling. The exhibition is made possible, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts. At the Milwaukee Art Museum, the exhibition is coordinated by Margaret Andera, associate curator of contemporary art.

Before traveling to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the exhibition was on view at the Hammer Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. After Milwaukee, the exhibition travels to The Jewish Museum, New York, and the Newark Museum, New Jersey, September 15, 2006 - January 28, 2007.



The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive, fully illustrated catalogue co-published by Yale University Press with the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. It features a historical essay by John Carlin and contributions on the individual artists by a variety of novelists, historians, critics and artists. Designed by award-winning graphic designer Lorraine Wild of Green Dragon Office in Los Angeles, the publication features more than 300 color reproductions. The catalogue is on sale in the Milwaukee Art Museum.

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