In 1972, artist Art Spiegelman spent four days interviewing his father, Vladek, about his experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland and then at Auschwitz. Over the course of thirteen years, Spiegelman illustrated these recorded interviews and created Maus, which in 1991 would become the first-ever graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Millions have read the book, in which Jews are depicted as cartoon mice and Nazis as predatory cats. But few have seen the hundreds of sketches and preliminary drawings that went into its making; or the very first comic strip Spiegelman ever illustrated (at age 12, called “The Loonies”); or his trading card designs; or his more recent forays into stained-glass and modern dance.
All this and more is featured in Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective, now on view at the Jewish Museum. Spanning fifty years of work, the exhibit reveals how Spiegelman turned the lowbrow medium of comics, once catering almost exclusively to Superhero fantasy, into high art capable of weightier subjects as serious as the Holocaust. Spiegelman’s graphic talent co-mixed with his linguistic gifts is overwhelming, but perhaps most astonishing is his ability to find humor and beauty in the darkest of places.
“Spiegel means mirror in German, so my name co-mixes languages to form a sentence: Art mirrors man,” Spiegelman once noted. Born in Stockholm in 1948 and raised in Queens, the young Spiegelman devoured every comic he could get his hands on, from Zap Comix to R. Crumb to Basil Wolverton. He would start a zine, “Blasé,” while in high school, then in the 1960s and 70s, get involved with the underground comix movement, starting the avant-garde RAW magazine with his wife, Francois Mouly.
Trauma was often the emotional fuel for Spiegelman’s work. In the harrowing strip “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” he recounts his 1968 stay in a state mental hospital after a nervous breakdown and his mother’s subsequent suicide. Decades later, living in lower Manhattan, he would witness the events of 9/11 from four blocks away. Again, he translated trauma into art, designing a now-classic New Yorker cover featuring black on black towers. But Spiegelman doesn’t see art as therapy, per se—as he told Vulture in a 2008 interview, “Therapy is vomiting things up. Art is about eating your own vomit. There’s a therapeutic aspect to all making, but the nature of working is to compress, condense, and shape stuff, not to just expunge it. It’s not just an exorcism.”
Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix: A Retrospective is on view at the Jewish Museum until March 23rd.