The illustrious R. Crumb

Installation from “Drawing for Print” at the David Zwirner Gallery, 2019.

I’m still going through the boxes in this blog’s attic and came across the below review of a 2019 R. Crumb exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery, which was first published here on March 19, 2019. The exhibition catalog for the show was belatedly published two years later by David Zwirner Books under the title Crumb’s World.

For my birthday, Marilyn and I dropped in at Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact by the Illustrious R. Crumb, an exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery that runs through April 13. The retrospective show, covering Crumb’s career from his earliest talking-animal cartoons through his LSD-soaked fantasies of the 1960s and 1970s to his more recent musings about art, life, and eroticism, is an excellent chance to enjoy an overview of the 75-year-old artist’s work — and, given its controversial nature, such an exhibition would be unlikely to find a home at the larger warehouses of contemporary work like the Museum of Modern Art.

Fortunately, the Zwirner Gallery and exhibition curator Robert Storr have no compunction about showing off Crumb’s shameless explorations of his culture’s and his own perversions. An opening room sets Crumb’s career in the context of the work of other graphic arts satirists, particularly James Gillray, William Hogarth, Thomas Nast, and Art Young. Their political interests do carry through to Crumb’s own work, but Crumb also plumbs his own worst impulses as well as those of his culture. Not a little of his art is in questionable taste, but then, taste is a social construct, and that taste inevitably reflects the deviancies of that society as well. Crumb is, after all, a satirist in the Swiftian mode more than anything else, and his devastating observations about the sexism and racism of his culture resemble the savagery of “A Modest Proposal” and Swift’s more scatalogical parodies and satires. That Crumb implicates himself in his satire as well is another similarity with his Augustan co-conspirator against the human race.

The primary joy of the exhibition is the exquisite craftsmanship of Crumb’s art (Crumb may have the greatest visual acuity of any cartoonist at work today, recalling the traditions of Walt Kelly and George Herriman) — exhibition specimens of his recent work, primarily the Art & Beauty series of publications, demonstrate that he may now be at the top of his form, the detail and texture of his cross-hatching technique most evident with close examination of these original drawings, an examination endlessly revealing.

Crumb is a satirist in the American vernacular tradition, perhaps among the last of them, joining Twain, Mencken, and Gaddis in his mastery of popular form and language. Like them, Crumb can brilliantly parody the varicolored lingo and patois of his nation; like them, too, he revitalizes and reinvents his chosen forms — the comic book, the popular novel, the newspaper column — and twists them to attack his own particular targets. (Crumb, along with being a great graphical artist, is also a great writer, with a rich feel for words and the verbal rhythms of a wide variety of Americans; as Twain once pointed out, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning,” and Crumb nearly always has access to the right word and the well-placed pause and ellipsis.)

Most of the Zwirner exhibition is composed of comic book ephemera, tearsheets, and sketchbook pages, and it only scratches the surface of Crumb’s career, leaning heavily towards his work of the 1970s and 1980s. Previous exhibitions here and elsewhere have thrown a spotlight on his work with his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and a few samples of collaboration are on view, but they’re not the center of the exhibition’s project; nor is Crumb’s comic-book rendering of Genesis. Among the most interesting samples of his later work are the Art & Beauty drawings and, most recently, Crumb’s two-page evocation of a recent conversation he had with curator Robert Storr. Both reflect Crumb’s ongoing discomfort with his status in the culture as an icon of underground comics and, also, as a fine “artist,” a more contemplative version of the self-mockery with which he regards himself in the earlier stories for his fine Weirdo project of the 1980s.

Drawing for Print offers a portrait of a diseased mind in a diseased culture, which Crumb dissects with the acuity of an Otto Dix or George Grosz. These days, Crumb has entered a more meditative part of his life, and exhibitions like that at the Zwirner seem to be something of a last chance to consider his accomplishment. As Crumb himself told ArtNews in a recent interview to accompany the opening of the exhibition:

In my youth, I was constantly drawing. Drawing was the only thing I could do with competence. I was afraid of people. I hid behind my sketchbook. I don’t draw all the time anymore. Nowadays, I hide behind my ukulele. I guess I’m still afraid of people. I take the ukulele with me everywhere instead of the sketchbook. Fame has made me inhibited and self-conscious about drawing. I stopped enjoying it. Playing those pretty chords of old-time melodies, though, is relaxing and pleasurable.

Durham dispatch

The uniformed representative of the United States Postal Service slipped the latest issue of Mineshaft magazine under my door a few weeks ago, and for that I am grateful. This issue, the 43rd, is as usual an excellent exhumation and examination of various features of the American landscape, and they’ve really outdone themselves this time. The late Aline Crumb and Sophie Crumb trade mother/daughter stories of their experiences with abortion; editor Everett Rand describes the challenges of zine publication in these fraught times; Christoph Mueller explores the environs of 1970s and 2020s New York in the company of Françoise Mouly, founder and editor with Art Spiegelman of the groundbreaking Raw; R. Crumb provides a few meditative landscapes; and there’s so much more behind that fine cover image from Drew Friedman (with lettering by Mueller).

Mineshaft is a magazine that should be read from cover to cover, straight through; Rand and consulting editor Gioia Palmieri create a unique journey through American culture with each issue, beautifully paced and befitting a magazine which, perhaps more than any other, is a contemplation of a passing American scene. Its lucid perspective (like those of its contributors) transcends nostalgia without neglecting a sense of loss; its surreality is the result of the past as seen through the prism of an angst-ridden present. And not just in America: In this issue, the final cartoon by the Italian Ivan Manuppelli, one of Mineshaft‘s new finds, speaks to me, and if it speaks to me, it speaks to others as well; Mineshaft is the antidote to this despair. You can purchase the issue and subscribe to future Mineshafts here.

This issue is dedicated to Justin Green, Diane Noomin, and Simon Deitch, who recently shuffled off this mortal coil, as did Aline Kominsky-Crumb after the magazine went to press. I raise my glass to all of them. And I should mention that contributors Drew Friedman and Noah van Sciver, both favorites of mine, will be featured guests at this year’s MoCCA Arts Festival here in New York at the beginning of April. I’ll be bringing the kids.

Philadelphia: The saving grace of modesty

Agnes Repplier and her friend Robert in 1916. Photo: Mathilde Weil.

It was with something less than agony — something much less, something more like bemused resignation — that I watched the Philadelphia Eagles lose this year’s Super Bowl only a few months after the Philadelphia Phillies lost last year’s World Series. I am, it’s true, a home town boy, so I accepted this as being a part of my Philadelphia patrimony. Now, of course, I’m a New Yorker, though only geographically; my kids are Greenwich-Village-born-and-bred, however, so this dual citizenship of mine is a two-edged sword. (I hope to be watching tomorrow’s spring training opener between the Phils and the New York Yankees; it’s the masochist in me.)

I think nobody put the differences between New York and Philadelphia best than the City of Brotherly Love’s essayist Agnes Repplier. Though she described these sentiments over a century ago, I can still recognize their validity as I walk that city’s streets today. Last April, in a previous iteration of this blog, I posted a few of her cogent observations; I republish that below, following a few of my own introductory remarks.

I’ve just gotten back from a visit to Philadelphia, my first in eight months, which was far too long. Though only in town for a long weekend, I managed to take care of some unfinished business — a first drink at the Pen & Pencil Club, introducing my wife to Dirty Frank’s — and perhaps even inspired myself to write more about the City of Brotherly Love in the near future.

But where to begin? Philadelphia’s charms are hard to define, but Philly native Agnes Repplier, one of the most celebrated essayists of bygone days, took a stab at it in the introduction to her 1898 Philadelphia: The Place and the People, and for now I’ll let her offer it in her own words, which might be mine had I her talent for elegance:

And now, after two centuries have rolled slowly by, something of [Philadelphia founder Quaker William Penn’s] spirit lingers in the quiet city which preserves the decorum of those early years, which does not jostle her sister cities in the race of life, nor shout loud cries of triumph in their ears, nor flaunt magnificent streamers in the breeze to bid the world take note of each pace she advances.

Every community, like every man, carries to old age the traditions of its childhood, the inheritance derived from those who bade it live. And Philadelphia, though she has suffered sorely from rude and alien hands, still bears in her tranquil streets the impress of the Founder’s touch. Simplicity, dignity, reserve, characterize her now as in Colonial days. She remembers those days with silent self-respect, placing a high value upon names which then were honoured, and are honoured still. The pride of the past mingles and is one with the pride of the present. The stainless record borne by her citizens a hundred and fifty years ago flowers anew in the stainless record their great-great-grandsons bear to-day; and the city cherishes in her cold heart the long annals of the centuries, softening the austerity of her presence for these favoured inheritors of her best traditions. She is not eager for the unknown; she is not keen after excitement; she is not enamoured of noise. Her least noticeable characteristic is enthusiasm. Her mental balance cannot lightly be disturbed. Surtout pas trop de zêle, she says with Talleyrand; and the slow, sure process by which her persuasions harden into convictions does not leave her, like a derelict, at the mercy of wind and wave. She spares herself the arduous labour of forming new opinions every morning, by recollecting and cherishing her opinions of yesterday. It is a habit which promotes solidity of thought.

To those who by right of heritage call themselves her sons, and even to such step-children as are, by nature or grace, attuned to the chill tranquillity of their foster mother, Philadelphia has a subtle charm that endures to the end of life. In the restful atmosphere of her sincere indifference, men and women gain clearness of perspective, and the saving grace of modesty. Few pedestals are erected for their accommodation. They walk the level ground, and, in the healthy absence of local standards, have no alternative save to accept the broad disheartening standards of the world. Philadelphians are every whit as mediocre as their neighbours, but they seldom encourage each other in mediocrity by giving it a more agreeable name. Something of the old Quaker directness, something of the old Quaker candour, — a robust candour not easily subdued, — still lingers in the city founded by the “white truth-teller,” whose word was not as the words of other men, — spoken to conceal his thoughts, and the secret purpose of his soul.

One year on

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, an anniversary with a few worrisome dimensions these days, despite the Biden visit to Kyiv earlier this week: the growing isolationist tendencies in Congress, on the far left and on the far right; the delays in delivering defensive materiel to Ukraine; a certain amount of exhaustion as the war drags on. But yesterday Olesya Khromeychuk, a Ukrainian historian, bluntly underscored the vital importance of a Ukrainian victory in an interview with the BBC’s Stephen Sackur (we really need to get one of him for the US media) on an episode of HARDtalk, and I encourage you to listen to her. You can do so below. And below that, as a personal gesture, I republish an essay about my own family’s Ukrainian origins, written in 2019, “before the current anguish” as I put it late last year. Slava Ukraini.

The city of Ternopil, Ukraine. Source:

As I repost some of my past essays, I offer the below, originally published here in 2019, before the current anguish. I should note that additional research points to the very real possibility that small municipalities like Urman were incorporated into the Ternopil administrative region some time ago — rendering genealogical research even more difficult from this distance than it already was.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a few direct-mail scam artists showed up offering to research and produce your family’s very own heraldry for a nominal fee. “Did you know that the [Insert Family Name Here] has its own coat of arms? Think of it — an courageous eagle against a field of blue, a sword-carrying warrior against a field of red,” went some of the bulk-mail letters that accompanied these scams. “Suitable for framing, your coat of arms reflects your family’s proud history in empires around the world.” These occasionally showed up in my father’s mail, too. He’d read these letters and laugh. “You know what’s on the Hunka family coat of arms, George?” he’d say to me, tossing the mail into the trash. “A peasant hut against a field of poverty.”

He was probably not far off. My ancestors on both my mother’s and father’s side were uneducated peasants in Eastern and Central Europe back in 1900 — Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Though family tradition had it that my paternal great-grandfather held some kind of position in a local Orthodox church in Ukraine, there is no real evidence to prove it (in any event, my paternal grandfather was a staunch atheist). And when they came to the United States in those unsettled years before the First World War, they found jobs suited to their family backgrounds. My paternal grandmother held a position as a charwoman in a local elementary school in Philadelphia; my paternal grandfather became a freelance electrician after being trained at the Valhalla Dam in New York; my maternal grandparents were coalminers, textile workers, and subsistence farmers in northeast Pennsylvania. While their children went on to earn college and university degrees in the 1950s and beyond, they themselves were the unskilled product of an agrarian land, and none of them was particularly cheerful — not surprising, coming from a region that was damp, cold, and gray every year from October through May. (I’m sure you can partially attribute the generally dour nature of Russian and Eastern European literature, even its humor, to the climate.)

Coat of arms or no, the casual amateur geneology research I’ve done over the past twenty years or so has turned up little in the way of my family’s history before 1900, indicative, perhaps, of their low status on the socioeconomic totem pole. The best I’ve been able to do is trace my grandfather back to the region from which he emigrated — Ternopil, about 125 km southeast of Lviv, which is listed as his original home on the register of the ship that brought him to Ellis Island in 1914. A little research, mainly through Roman Zakharii’s useful web site, revealed a tranche of Hunkas (or Gunkas) in a small town called Urman. He left behind a sister and brother when he embarked for the shores of New York.

Urman is “a village of 622 people in Berezhany Raion (county) of Ternopil Oblast (province) of western Ukraine. It lies in the historic region of Halychyna (Eastern Galicia) and during 1772-1918 was part of Austrian empire, consequently of Poland in 1920-1939 and of Soviet Union in 1939-1991,” says Wikipedia. This being the internet era (and I having a little time on my hands), I did a quick Facebook search and turned up an English-speaking Hunka who still lived in Urman; we engaged in a brief correspondence that, alas, did not reveal anything except that if there were Hunkas or Gunkas in Urman at the turn of the century, there were still a few left. It may be likely that we share some blood, those Urman Hunkas and those on New York’s Lower East Side; it’s not a common name in either of those places. But farther than that I cannot go with any certainty.

All this, anyway, is mere genealogical bookkeeping. Apart from genetics, though, what interests me is what all this means for one’s temperament — personality traits and philosophical perspectives that we imbibe from our parents with our mother’s milk. We are imitative creatures, and we’re never more imitative than when we’re young; we observe our parents’ ways of speaking, their attitudes towards the world and each other, their moods and their likes and dislikes, and we incorporate them into ourselves unconsciously. Of course, we change — as we get older, we accept or reject the traits that we inherit as we see fit. It’s both a conscious and an unconscious project, and it affects us for both good and ill. And because our parents were imitative creatures too, they receive their temperaments from their parents, and back and back into the distant past.

Nor do these temperaments appear from nowhere. They’re formed by our (and their) reactions not only to family dynamics but also to history. Our attitudes towards money, violence, humility or pride, politics, power, culture, art — we absorb our parents’ responses to these too, perhaps not as intensely as we do those things closer and more intimate to us, but we absorb (and later in life accept or reject) them as well. It is, in a way, a generational butterfly effect; we unconsciously repeat or exhibit a trait that may have originated several generations ago, passed on to us through our grandparents and our parents in some small, protean way. But that trait is still there, whether we recognize it as an internalized characteristic or not.

Alas, short of asking Facebook strangers whether or not they share a penchant for alcohol, cynicism, or an appreciation of bad folk music, there’s only so much we can learn about how the geography and history of our ancestors has affected ourselves. Fortunately, though, there’s one other avenue open to our investigation, and that’s culture. A few days ago I wrote about my enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European culture, literature, and philosophy. These writers and philosophers were affected by the same cultural, political, and historical milieux that affected my potato-digging ancestors — on a grander intellectual and artistic scale, perhaps, but affected nonetheless. I share some of my temperament with those of these writers and philosophers, who sprang from the same soil as old Maxsym Hunka back there in Ternopil, who may have received (or lacked) the same early education, were rendered dour by those gray winter skies, or experienced the regional and political disasters as Max and his neighbors. And as far as those left behind — well, there’s the Holodomor for Ukraine, as there were other catastrophes in Central and Eastern Europe in the last century.

Is like necessarily drawn to like? I can’t say. But it is intriguing that, quite without knowing it, I married a woman whose ancestors came from the same region; my two best friends these days also have their family roots in western Ukraine and Lithuania. These days I’m brushing up on my Ukrainian history and my Gogol, both of which appeal to my temperament. And I’m sure that a part of my hostility towards the current President is tied to the despicable way he’s been treating the country I consider my homeland (not to mention the country in which I live now).

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to knock on a few houses in Urman to see if there’s any physical resemblance between me and their occupants. But perhaps there are a few, in more ways than one — even if we don’t, in the end, share any blood.

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”

Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Joe Grifasi in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2023 production of Endgame. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

A few days ago I mused very briefly about how audiences and theatre artists in this fraught 21st century might respond to the “absurd” drama of the 20th. Soon we’ll have a chance to see just that. Now in previews and opening next Thursday, February 2, the fine Irish Repertory Theatre will offer Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame in a new production directed by Ciarán O’Reilly and featuring Bill Irwin as Clov, John Douglas Thompson as Hamm, Joe Grifasi as Nagg, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Nell. Both Irwin and Grisafi are old hands at Beckett, especially Endgame, and this promises to be a notable revival in several ways. Endgame runs through March 12; more information and tickets here. I’ll see you there.

Endgame, generally considered to be Beckett’s most daunting play and his own favorite among his dramatic works, premiered in London in 1957. As a special Friday treat, I offer below an appropriate bauble from the past. A few months after Beckett’s 1989 death, the BBC aired “A Wake for Sam,” a short program in which the playwright’s comrade and enthusiast Harold Pinter shared his memories of Beckett and closed with a powerful reading of the final pages of The Unnamable, published in 1958, just a year after Endgame‘s premiere. It was first televised on February 8, 1990. Pinter’s performance is curiously akin to Beckett’s 1972 play Not I (you can see Billie Whitelaw’s performance of that play and description of her own memories of Beckett here), so fasten your seat belt.