Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why Doesn't MOMA Have a Department of Comics?

Robert Boyd

I just read Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps, the lushly-produced catalog for the Art Speigelman retrospective that has been traveling around the world for almost two years (the last stop is at the Jewish Museum in New York from November 8, 2013, to March 30, 2014). It's a lovely catalog--I highly recommend it. Right now, we seem to be at a high water mark for comics in museums. Three weeks after the Daniel Clowes exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago closes, Co-Mix opens in New York. So three cheers for comics, right? Well, two cheers. After all, how much comics are in any museum's permanent collection? How many curators specialize in this type of art? Does any major museum have a specific collection or department of comics?

These questions came to me in response to the essay written by Robert Storr that is included in Co-Mix. The essay, "Making Maus," is in two parts--one originally written in 1991, then a long postscript added in 2012. The first part was written for a small exhibit focused on Maus at MoMA, Making Maus. The subsequent part addresses comics as an art, but also discusses comics in relation to MoMA.
It was my hope in 1991 that, as the first MoMA exhibition of comics as art rather than as an inspiration for art, Making Maus might initiate a process of reevaluation that would eventually lead to MoMA's full recognition of this quintessentially modern medium. This would, I hoped, result in the creation of its own department much as was done for film, another genre whose identity is determined by the contradictions of its simultaneous existence as a means of artistic expression and of mass entertainment, its divided territory as a site of independent, artisanal invention and corporate, industrial production. Consistent with that goal I tried to interest colleagues in the Department of Drawings in the curatorial process that, largely driven by Spiegelman's fervor, finally led to the Masters of American Comics exhibition jointly mounted by the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2005--but to no avail. Bu 2005 I was out of MoMA and unable to pursue any further campaign for such recognition. But I persist in believing there is a place for comics in any museum of modern or contemporary art, and the evidence that they have become among the most fertile fields for young artists continues to grow. Someday soon the citadels of culture will be forced to open their gates and let "the barbarians" in--only to discover how sophisticated they are. Then that happens at MoMA, I will be proud to say that I was in the advance party that prepared the way.
I was staggered to read this--Robert Storr tried to start a Department of Comics at MoMA. MoMA has seven departments: Architecture & Design, Drawings, Film, Media & Performance Art, Painting & Sculpture, Photography and Prints & Illustrated Books. How exciting it would be if "comics" had been added to the list! And Storr, far from being a rebel or outsider, is as much an insider in the art world as one can imagine.

But MoMA isn't the only museum in America that could take up the gauntlet. In my fantasies, I imagine that Gary Tinterow reads The Great God Pan Is Dead in slow moments at the office at the MFAH. The MFAH, much more broadly focused than MoMA, has 15 departments, including a film department. So Mr. Tinterow, if you are reading, what do you think of Mr. Storr's proposal? I know the museum is in an expansionary mode right now. Here is an art form primed and ready for major recognition by large institutions devoted to art. Why not be first? And if you are worried about your budget, I can guarantee that a curatorial department devoted to comics as art would be the least expensive department you would have.

Well, we all have fantasies.



  1. Fantasy or nightmare? Most general museums still don't understand how to handle photography for Chrissakes.
    The Clowes exhibit is a great example. Clowes is a wonderful narrative artist, but he's a rather mediocre visual artists (why waste your time looking at crap drawings outside of the story context?). Someone like Klaus Janson, who is nowhere close Clowes' heights as a narrative artist is by far the better visual artists, wouldn't rate a museum exhibit and yet his work makes more sense on the wall (those drawings are electric). So how do you decide what to include? Only the ones that meet both criteria? That's a very short list.
    Art academics know the "artsy" ones: the Wares, the Porcellinos, the Panters. Everyone else will be missing: the Everetts, the Buscemas, Quitelys, the Grahams. Imagine a film department that ignores Kurosawa, Ford, Fuller, Melville, Lewis. That's what you're signig up for if a museum starts a comic department right now. Until you can point me to an academic that as easy discussing Alec as The Invisibles, I just don't think the artworld has the experience to open up a worthwhile department.

    1. Personally I would have no particular problem with a comics curatorial department that ignored Klaus Janson or The Invisibles.

  2. Just a note: MoMA does have some copies of the political comics anthology World War 3 Illustrated, which I have seen displayed in their contemporary art galleries: