Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Benjamin Pritchard @ David Klein Gallery

Installation image of three paintings DKG 4, 2024

Artist Benjamin Pritchard opened a solo exhibition, Nature Worship, comprised of paintings at the David Klein Gallery on March 23, that will run through May 4, 2024. The thick oil paint in these mostly monochromatic compositions with heavy line work, either dark or light backgrounds, are Expressionistic Abstractions with attention paid to the structure by working in multiple layers of color that seek to find the balance and substance in each canvas.

Prichard grew up in Franklin, Michigan, and set voyage to grad school in London, earning his MFA from the Royal Academy of Arts to time spent on the West Coast, ending up in Brooklyn, N.Y., only to return home to a small studio space that seemed to nurture and find answers.

He says, “The irony is that I left for so long to find a solution or an answer… And then, of course, I come back, and here it is. It’s always been right here.”

Benjamin Prichard, Light Years, 108×132″, Oil on Canvas, All images courtesy of DKG

It is easy to say the painting that dominates the exhibition is Light Years. This large (108 x 132”) diptych does so with its scale. The orange and red circular organic motifs place themselves throughout this roadmap of lines and shapes. The feel of these designs can be described as a field of organic Petroglyphs (not figurative but more plant-like) that meander space informally. If only all these paintings were larger in scale, the power and influence would follow.

Benjamin Pritchard, Structure/Surface, 36×30″, Oil on Canvas.

One of the most successful smaller paintings (36×30”) is Structure/Surface, where Prichard divides the rectangle with a white line. Here, the artist lays down an attractive grid over a black horizontal field of brush strokes.

Benjamin Pritchard, Arboreal, 48×36″, Oil on Canvas

The painting Arboreal (48×36″) pulls on the heartstrings from the sky in The Starry Night by Van Gogh, using an Ellipse shape instead of circles. However, color and abstract expressionism are present in both. The spirit of Van Gogh lives in the sky, while the spirit in Arboreal lives in the trees.

In a statement from New York Artist Equity, he says, “I like to think that the direct, honest daily practice of painting over time reflects both the cares and concerns of the deep self and an optimistic projection regarding concerns of the world. I believe that being with work over long periods reveals humanistic qualities in relation to the observer and is added to by the viewer. In this way, art functions as both psychic nourishment and as a mirror to the self and the world. I think of painting as a quasi-religious activity involving the concept of the sacred. What this actually means and how it is represented is revealed piece by piece in the work. In this way, I think that the subject of painting exists outside of language and is more involved with the unsayable experiential aspects of life and the world.”

Artist Benjamin Pritchard at the home studio

Benjamin Pritchard is a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Detroit. He has had solo exhibitions at Daniel Weinberg Gallery (Los Angeles, CA), John Davis Gallery (Hudson, NY), and Life on Mars (Brooklyn, NY). The artist earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from the Royal Academy of Arts, London. He attended the New York Studio School from 1994-1996. Ben Pritchard lives and works in Detroit and Brooklyn.

Benjamin Prichard’s Nature Worship at the David Klein Gallery on March 23 will run through May 4, 2024.

David Barr @ Collected Detroit Gallery

David Barr: Structural Relief, at Collected Detroit through April 13, 2024

An installation view of David Barr: Structural Relief, which is at Collected Detroit through April 13.  Images courtesy of Detroit Art Review. 

Novi artist David Barr, who died in 2015, was a creative polymath whose work ranged across media, including giant metal sculptures, wooden-relief wall hangings of great precision, and lithographs documenting a preposterous geometric intervention in the earth’s crust.

David Barr: Structural Relief at Collected Detroit gallery through April 13 focuses mainly on the artist’s multiple “structurist reliefs,” large, 3-D wooden wall hangings with layered straight lines and curves of varied colors that achieve an almost immediate architectural presence.

The exhibition was curated by Leslie Ann Pilling of the Metropolitan Museum of Design Detroit.

Also on the walls are the four rather elegant lithographs that “document” Barr’s Four Corners Project, which the Archives of American Art spotlit in a 1985 film for the Smithsonian Institution. In the early eighties, Barr enlisted the University of Michigan’s Institute of Mathematical Geography to figure out how to embed an imaginary tetrahedron – a pyramid – in the earth, with its four corners just poking through the soil in South Africa, Easter Island, Indonesia and Greenland. Barr traveled to each site to mark it with a small marble pyramid.

David Barr, Four Corners Project, Lithograph, 1981.  Image courtesy of Collected Detroit. 

But it’s the structurist reliefs that occupied most of Barr’s attention for several decades, and the geometric works on display here in Collected Detroit’s airy, fourth-floor digs are defined by crisp, sharp-edged lines, whether straight or curved. As noted, at times, these multi-layered compositions seem to leap out of an architect’s sketchbook. Structurist Relief No. 104 leans particularly hard in this direction, with its floating planes and cubes – see the detail below – looking a bit like something that might have emerged from Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus Studio, circa 1928.

David Barr, – Structurist Relief No. 104; Mixed Media 44.5 by 48 inches, 1974. 

David Barr, Detail, Structurist Relief No. 104; Mixed Media 44.5 by 48 inches, 1974.

Barr, who grew up in Grosse Pointe, was going to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Chrysler engineer. However, once enrolled at Wayne State, the young man found himself unexpectedly seduced by the fine arts. Barr ended up focusing on sculpture and industrial design, borrowing materials and concepts from the engineering trades that he deployed in installations and reliefs. After graduating in 1965 with a Master’s in Fine Arts, the artist began a lifelong career as a professor teaching at Macomb Community College.

Exactly thirty years later, Barr founded what in many respects might be his greatest contribution to the arts — Benzie County’s remarkable Michigan Legacy Art Park near Crystal Mountain, with 40 sculptural installations along 1.6 miles of forest paths that wind through 30 acres of deep woodlands. Installations include his lumber-industry Sawpath series, as well as other remarkable pieces of great size by Lois Teicher, Sergio DeGiusti, David Greenwood, Leslie Laskey and Joe Zajak, among others.

David Barr, Structurist Relief No. 310; Mixed media, 41 by 47.5 inches, 1991.

But Barr never abandoned his trademark reliefs. And over time, the compositions seemed to stretch and assert themselves in new ways. A budding sensuousness crept into what initially had been a mostly rectilinear universe. Starting in the 1980s, curvaceous forms began to compete with narrow verticals in charged juxtaposition, as in the rather breathtaking Structurist Relief No. 310, above.

Surfaces began buckling and cracking, spurning the strict geometry of Barr’s early years, as with Structurist Relief No. 271 from 1986. But even here, while the edges may be curved or slightly irregular, each element, as with the pink pieces below, still occupies a single plane. No waves or undulations are to be found.

David Barr, Detail – Structurist Relief No. 271; Mixed media, 50 by 66 inches, 1986.

Curator Pilling says she was immediately mesmerized by the shadows that the elements in the reliefs cast. She adds that the works’ unusual magnetism can be read in the way visitors progress through the gallery. “People spend time with each relief,” she said. “A lot of times people going through exhibitions are, like: Walk, walk, stop, walk, walk. But this is more: Walk, walk, STOP. They really take them in.”

If you haven’t been to Collected Detroit since the pandemic, be aware that the gallery has moved from its first-floor location on Fourth Street just around the corner. It’s now on Henry Street, on the top floor of an adjacent building.

Also well worth a look if you visit the gallery are freestanding works here and there by Harry Bertoia, Joseph E. Senungetuk, Detroit’s legendary Charles McGee and, most astonishing, the Hollywood actor Anthony Quinn. The sinuous “Nude” that this Renaissance man sculpted out of marble sits on a ledge right by a window, one ankle resting delicately on the other, cool as a cucumber.

David Barr: Structural Relief will be at Collected Detroit through April 13.

Marisol: A Retrospective @ Toledo Museum of Art

Marisol, The Party, 1965-1966, installation, Toledo Museum of Art, 15 figures, 3 wall panels, painted and carved wood, mirrors, plastic, television set, clothes, shoes, glasses and other accessories. Toledo Museum of Art Collection, photo: K.A. Letts.

It’s far from common for a major artist’s retrospective to drop at Detroit’s doorstep rather than on the coasts, but “Marisol: A Retrospective,” at the Toledo Museum of Art has just landed like a thunderclap, shattering previous dismissive evaluations of the artist’s work and life. Until June 2, anyone with eyes and transportation should be beating a path to this paradigm-shifting survey of a boundary-breaking artist.  For museum visitors who may previously have seen only one or two of Marisol’s pieces, this exhibition will be a revelation.

 Born in Paris in 1930 to an elite Venezuelan family, Maria Sol Escobar spent her early childhood traveling between the U.S. and South America. Despite the family’s comfortable circumstances, Marisol suffered early trauma when her mother, Josefina, committed suicide. In response, she began a prolonged period of silence, a gesture that became a habit. Throughout her life Marisol maintained a Garbo-esque mystique which both intrigued and alienated her audience and may have contributed to later critical neglect of her work.

Marisol arrived in New York in the 1950’s where she studied at the Art Students League, the New School for Social Research and the Brooklyn Museum of Art School. Several works from this early period, during which she was influenced by Pre-Columbian clay figures, as well as Rodin’s Gates of Hell, are on display in the museum’s entry gallery, and along with a comprehensive timeline of her life, provides an introduction to the more iconic work that follows.

Although Pop art, with which Marisol was later strongly associated, was in its early stages, her work was first noticed and shown by Leo Castelli in 1957. Spooked by the sudden attention, the artist left for Rome in 1958 and stayed away for two years, a pattern of alternating visibility and absence that repeated itself several times throughout her life. Upon returning to New York in 1960, Marisol found herself drawn to Andy Warhol and his circle. She began to work in assemblage, combining found, carved and drawn components in sculptures that came to define her singular style.  She was a sensation, both artistically and socially. Warhol included her in two of his films, and she was often photographed for Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times Magazine, and Vogue.   Her exotic good looks made her both a victim and a beneficiary of the casual sexism of the time.

Marisol  Baby Girl, 1963 wood and mixed media overall: 74 x 35 x 47 inches (187.96 x 88.9 x 119.38 cm) Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1964

The central gallery of Toledo Museum of Art, in which the most iconic of Marisol’s sculptures are displayed, shows Marisol’s art practice during the 1960’s at the most critically successful period of her career.  The quantity and quality of the work is breathtaking. The artist’s output from this period is both intensely personal and often baldly political, formally inventive yet thematically transparent. Though Marisol’s career pre-dated the second-wave feminism of the seventies, and she was never a fully “feminist” artist, many of her pieces are filtered through an unmistakable female identity.

Two of the most celebrated sculptures on display from this period are the enormous Baby Boy (1962-1963) and Baby Girl (1963). These sentimental yet monstrous infants–Baby Boy is 8 feet tall, and Baby Girl, if standing, would reach 10 feet in height—are psychologically fraught comments on the dominant role children play in society’s definition of women as mothers. Each child clutches a tiny representation of the mother, both of whom are likenesses of Marisol herself.  The artist also said that Baby Boy, who is wearing red, white and blue, was a representation of the United States as an infant, heedlessly throwing his weight around on the world stage.

Marisol, Mi Mama y Yo, 1968, wood and mixed media, 74” x 35” x 47” Buffalo AKG Museum, Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1964 (K1964:8) © Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Brenda Bieger, Buffalo AKG Art Museum

Though it would be hard to pick out a favorite piece among the many masterworks in the gallery, a few stand out. One is an installation with multiple figures, The Party, which coincidentally is in the Toledo Museum of Art’s permanent collection. A flock of fashionable ladies in mid-century formal attire– and all with Marisol’s face– gather for cocktails, a group portrait of social isolation. Marisol puts an even finer point on her alienation in a photograph taken by John B. Schiff in 1963. The real Marisol sits at a table with two 3-dimensional images of herself in Dinner Date. She is alone yet keeping herself company.

Marisol, Pope John 23, 1961, wood, mixed media, Abrams Family Collection, photo: K.A. Letts.

In many of her assemblages and installations, Marisol shows herself to be wickedly clever at mocking social pretension, political hypocrisy, and male privilege. Her assemblage Pope John 23 (1962) shows Marisol at her most deftly satirical. A barrel-clad pope sits astride a roughly knocked-together hobby horse, its head featuring the face of the artist, literally being ridden by the patriarchy. Marisol created sculptures of prominent political figures such as the Kennedy family, the British royal family and even Lyndon Baines Johnson, holding 3 small birds representing his wife, Lady Bird, and two daughters.

Marisol, The Fishman, 1973, Wood, plaster, paint acrylic, and glass eyes, 68.25 x 28 x 33.25, Buffalo AKG Art Museum Bequest of Marisol, 2016 (2021:37a-g) © Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Brenda Bieger, Buffalo AKG Art Museum

At the height of her fame in the late 1960’s, Marisol once again abandoned the New York art world for Tahiti, where she took up scuba diving and spent several years creating a new body of work centered around environmental themes. The artworks in the penultimate gallery at the TMA are devoted to these misunderstood images and objects, which to contemporary eyes now seem prescient. Though Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published in 1962, and the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, the destructive relationship of humans to the planet–and its implications–hadn’t fully registered with the cultural elite. The new work also had a surrealist edge that was at odds with art fashions of that moment such as conceptual art and post-minimalism.   The glossily finished, figurative sculptures of fish she made and then exhibited in 1973 met with bafflement and critical rejection.

Marisol,   John, Washington, and Emily Roebling Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for the First Time, 1989, wood, stain, graphite, paint, plaster, Buffalo AKG Museum, photo: K.A. Letts

 

Marisol,   Georgia O’Keeffe and dogs, 1977, graphite and oil on wood. 52.5 x 53 x 60.25” Buffalo AKG Art Museum Bequest of Marisol, 2016 (2021:44a-i) © Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Brenda Bieger, Buffalo AKG Art Museum Marisol (Venezuelan and American, born France, 1930-2016

The final gallery in Marisol’s retrospective is filled with maquettes and examples of public art works the artist designed for North and South American sites. Her often controversial commissions featured historical and cultural figures such as the revolutionary Simon Bolivar , Father Damien(a Belgian born missionary to lepers in Hawaii), Mark Twain, Georgia O’Keeffe (and her dogs) and Queen Isabella. A particularly impressive piece is a model for a monument to John, Washington and Emily Roebling, builders of the Brooklyn Bridge, shown crossing for the first time.  Unfortunately the final work was never completed.

After a period of relative obscurity at the beginning of the 21st century, Marisol was the subject of a traveling survey of her work in 2014, organized by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The exhibition curator, Marina Pacini, stated at the time that Marisol was “an incredibly significant sculptor who has been inappropriately written out of art history.” Indeed, when the artist died in 2016, the headline for her obituary in the Guardian read “Marisol: The Forgotten Star of Pop Art.” This reductive assessment has begun to change through the efforts of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, which received the artist’s estate and papers as a bequest. “Marisol: A Retrospective” is a welcome step toward the reassessment and rehabilitation of this neglected visionary.

Gallery Installation, Toledo Museum of Art, sculptures and photographs by the artist during the 1970’s, photo: K.A. Letts.

Marisol: A Retrospective is organized by the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (Cathleen Chaffee, Charles Balbach Chief Curator) in cooperation with several major museums, including the Toledo Museum of Art ( Jessica S. Hong, senior curator of modern and contemporary art.)  Exhibition schedule: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Oct. 7, 2023-Jan. 21, 2024; Toledo Museum of Art, March 2-June 2, 2024; Buffalo AKG Art Museum, July 12, 2024-Jan. 6lm2025; Dallas Museum of Art, Feb. 23-July 6, 2025.

 And a Bonus: Caravaggio!

For museum visitors who can make it down to Toledo before April 14, a small but fascinating collection of Renaissance masterpieces awaits. Four paintings by Caravaggio, on loan from The Kimball Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas), the Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, Conn.), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), and the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit) form the framework upon which the organizers of this exhibition build their survey of artworks from the Toledo Museum of Art’s own collection.  Caravaggio’s influence is foregrounded here in paintings by Hendrik ter Brugghen, Artemesia Gentileschi, and Jusepe de Ribera, to name only a few.

Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity @ Henry Ford Museum

When Diego Rivera came to the Detroit Institute of Arts to create the Detroit Industry murals, the communist painter formed an unlikely bond with arch-capitalist Henry Ford over their shared fascination with technology. Ford had zero interest in art, but he was an avid collector of obsolete machinery, relics of the only sort of history he respected. When Rivera heard of Ford’s collection, he had himself driven to Dearborn early one morning and stayed until well after dark, poring over the metal menagerie that would eventually become the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

The intersection of art and technology is on display throughout the Henry Ford Museum: in Charles and Ray Eames’ playful “Mathematica” exhibit, in the quirky product designs of Michael Graves and the Apple graphical user interface created by Susan Kare, and in the array of works displayed in the Modern Glass Gallery. It’s a connection that’s further explored in Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity (open through March), the inaugural exhibit of the Ford’s new Collections Gallery, a space that will feature some of the museum’s more ephemeral objects that seldom go on display.

World’s Fair, 1970, Kinetic sculpture & Proxima Centauri, 1968   Kinetic sculpture

Schwartz is a pioneer in the field of electronic art. Beginning in the late 1960s, at a time when computer-generated art was still something of an anomaly, Schwartz collaborated with numerous engineers, programmers, and fellow artists to use the emerging technologies of the day in off-label ways to create her work. The Henry Ford recently received Schwartz’s archives and is still in the process of sorting through it all, but the current exhibit of 100-plus items is an exciting distillation of her life story. It features paintings, prints and drawings, sculptures, short films, plenty of ephemera from Schwartz’s long career, and, true to form for this museum, some of the gadgets she worked with, such as film editing equipment and projectors. It’s especially fortunate that this celebration of Schwartz’s work should be mounted while she’s still with us — born in 1927, the artist is now 96 years old.

Art supplies were hard to come by when Schwartz was a child, so she made use of whatever she could get ahold of — scraps of wallpaper, salvaged bits of sidewalk chalk, even leftover bread dough for sculpting. Some of her earlier artworks, from the 1950s, are on display here. Bright and colorful, they are decidedly analog but hint at the improvisatory ethic of her childhood and at the boundary-jumping approach Schwartz would apply to her art throughout her life: some feature collaged elements, others are painted onto overlapping layers of repurposed thin, translucent fabric rather than canvas.

On display nearby are some of her sculptures from the 1960s. They look wonderfully retro-futuristic, like they’d be at home on the set of a classic science fiction movie. In fact, one object called Proxima Centauri, a translucent globe that rises from inside a dark pedestal and flickers with colorful light when the viewer steps on a pressure pad, was used as a prop on the original Star Trek TV series (as well as appearing in the 1968 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, The Machine As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age). Another work, World’s Fair, a glowing box full of spiraling glass tubes that siphon up multicolored fluids, could be the circulatory system for some cybernetic organism. The tubes were trash-picked from a glass factory, and the red and green liquids coursing through them were originally cough syrup and creme de menthe!

Grandma and Grandpa, Etching, 1975

In 1968, Schwartz was invited to come to Bell Labs, the storied incubator of tech innovation, as part of an initiative to humanize computers in the eyes of the public. Technological pointillism!” she declared upon seeing an image at Bell of a reclining nude woman comprising a grid of hundreds of computer code glyphs. The nude had been printed out by a couple of Bell programmers as a joke, but Schwartz saw the real art-making potential in the technology. Hopping back and forth between the analog and digital worlds, she first drew faces onto graph paper, fed them into computers to be encoded, and then made silkscreen prints of the resulting pixelated portraits.

Later, using Bell’s circuit etching equipment, Schwartz rearranged the mazes and starbursts of circuit boards to create two figures she named Grandma and Grandpa; appearing both high-tech and primordial, they suggest totems erected to ancestors yet to be born. She used the same technique to create a streamlined variation on a Marcel Duchamp masterwork; hers is called Nude Ascending a Staircase. It doesn’t function as a circuit board anymore; it’s “merely” art, an homage that the Dadaist disruptor and creator of Fountain would no doubt have appreciated.

Still from Olympiad, 1971, Film transferred to video

In the center of the exhibit is a small black-box theater showing a number of short animated movies Schwartz made in collaboration with technicians and fellow electronic art and music innovators. Again, she melds the physical with the nascent digital technologies; one film includes abstracted images of a brain scan, while another juxtaposes matrices of growing crystals with distorted laser beams that waft around onscreen like deep sea creatures. In Olympiad, Schwartz animates digitized photos of a running man borrowed from Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking motion photo series of the late 1800s (another technological advance that affected the art that came after). She later created a life-sized analog image of this pixelated athlete using a grid of black and white thumbtacks, once more swerving across the boundaries of different media.

In an era of sophisticated CGI, when video games are nearly as realistic as blockbuster movies and the “uncanny valley” gets narrower every day, it may be too easy to regard Schwartz’s films, with their chunky graphics, vivid color, and bleeping soundtracks as quaint baby steps toward modern computer animation. But they deserve to be appreciated on their own merits. They are by turns whimsical, hypnotic, and disorienting, sometimes like racing at warp speed through a Color Field painting exhibit, other times like drifting into a psychedelic dreamscape in which the acid-colored eyes of swirling galaxies seem to stare back at you.

Olympiad, c. 1970,  Mixed media collage

There’s much more to explore in this exhibit: how her bout with polio while living in post-war Japan affected Schwartz’s art, and how scar tissue in one of her eyes caused her to see “Picasso-like” visions; her pioneering TV spot for MoMA, the first computer animated advertisement to win an Emmy; her attempt to use computers to prove that Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was partially a self-portrait (a dubious theory, but an interesting use of the software). There are also her run-ins with sexism and her sometimes awkward relationship with the suits at Bell Labs. In the mid-1980s, after many years of involvement with Bell, Schwartz was finally given a job title of sorts — resident visitor,” an appropriately sci-fi-sounding designation. She was also called a morphodynamicist” in order to make her seem sufficiently scientific to visiting Bell shareholders. Schwartz once half-jokingly referred to herself as a pixellist.” But whatever her name badge reads and whatever high- or low-tech media she takes up, Schwartz is an artist through and through. In the midst of current debates over how artificial intelligence will disrupt the art world, Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity is proof that it’s the human being wielding the tools that will always make the difference.

Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity @ Henry Ford Museum on display through March 2024.

Look At Me! Look At Me Now! Magical World of Dr. Seuss @ Art Leaders Gallery

An installation view of Look At Me! Look A Me Now! Exhibition at West Bloomfield’s Art Leaders Gallery, up through March 30.

In a treat for anyone who loves cartoons, The Imaginative, Profound & Magical World of Dr. Seuss: The Rare Editions Exhibition will be up at Art Leaders Gallery in West Bloomfield through March 30, 2024. On Saturday, March 23, the gallery will host a special open house for the Seuss exhibit from 3 to 6 p.m.

This show of prints and sculptures, which you’ll find at the center of the Art Leaders space, is surprisingly magnetic. On display are a number of treasures that will appeal to fans, including several “before and after” pairings, where the original rough draft – with multiple, seemingly messy lines working out each visual element – is framed in a diptych with the polished, final version. It makes for fun viewing and gives a little glimpse into the process that produces what looks like simple art.

Consider the two versions of Look at Me Now, starring Seuss’ best-known creation, the Cat in the Hat, who’s juggling all manner of breakable items while balancing on a ball. It’s classic Seussian absurdity, and an almost universally recognizable childhood image.

Dr. Seuss, Look At Me Now!, Look At Me Now!,  Diptych, 26.5 by 17.5 inches. (Photos courtesy of Art Leaders Gallery.)

Dr. Seuss published his first children’s book, “And to Think I Saw That on Mulberry Street,” in 1937. But it was “The Cat in the Hat” exactly 20 years later that really catapulted the artist into the pop-cult stratosphere. It was fame that never flagged. His death in 1991 at 87 prompted all sorts of elegiac summaries: In its front-page obituary, the New York Times called Seuss “the modern Mother Goose,” while Time Magazine declared he was “one of the last doctors to make house calls – some 200 million of them in 20 languages.”

(“The Cat in the Hat,” by the way, was significant not just for its unhinged hero — who generated childish excitement and anxiety in equal measure — but also because it employed a limited vocabulary of about 220 “beginner’s words” recommended by reading specialists. Seuss then wrote it all up in a cadence — “anapestic tetrameter,” if you must — that was particularly easy for young readers to master and learn. From there on in, his books aimed to make learning how to read fun – quite a shift from the old “Dick and Jane” primers of the time.)

One of the charms of Seuss’ work, of course, has always been its complete lack of pretension and his willingness to make fun of himself. Four months after the launch of “Cat in the Hat,” the Saturday Evening Post helped the artist do just that when it ran what would become the most-iconic Seuss self-portrait, The Cat Behind the Hat – featuring the good doctor as his famous feline, looking dyspeptic, complete with stovepipe hat – in its July 6, 1957 issue.

Dr. Seuss, The Cat Behind the Hat, 20 by 10 inches.

Theodor Seuss Geisel – aka Dr. Seuss – initially got his start in advertising. Two years out of Dartmouth College in 1927, the young Geisel, from Springfield, Massachusetts, got a job drawing ads for “The Flit” — a household insecticide spray Standard Oil of New Jersey produced which promised to kill almost anything that crept, fluttered or crawled. Charmingly, the style of one ad from the early forties is unmistakably Seuss-ian, with an impish bug in a red-striped shirt who’s just flown right through a woman’s fancy hat, sparking predictable outrage.

Once Seuss was working full-time on children’s literature – his output was staggering – he took to working on his own personal art at night and on weekends, much of which is in the Art Leaders exhibition. Some, like the luridly colored Worm Glowing Bright in the Forest in the Night, approach abstract expressionism, albeit with the puckish intrusion of a befuddled yellow worm. Others, like Life’s a Great Balancing Act, play with patterns in a way that’s slightly reminiscent of Escher, but always, again, with a dash of oddball humor.

Dr. Seuss, Life’s a Great Balancing Act, 30.75 by 22 inches.

A man of his times, Seuss has, perhaps inevitably, come under fire for depictions of minorities that now seem tone-deaf and condescending. The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, announced in 2017 that it would replace a mural that included such images. And in 2021, the Seuss estate said it would voluntarily stop selling six titles, including Mulberry Street, thought to contain egregious examples of racial and ethnic stereotypes.

Happily, the art in this spirited exhibition avoids those sorts of dated allusions. Most just underlines Dr. Seuss’ gift for enchanting idiocy, and his ability to spin magical, gossamer worlds out of thin air. His approach is almost unfailingly gentle, indulgent, and tolerant of the frailties of this brittle world. In Seuss-land, all human rancor can be boiled down to the contentious standoff between two neighbors featured in My Petunia Can Lick Your Geranium, competing over who had the better garden.

Dr. Seuss, My Petunia Can Lick Your Geranium, 27 by 34 inches.

 The publisher of The Art of Dr. Seuss, Robert M. Chase, notes that almost everyone has a “significant Dr. Seuss memory” and that any number of creative artists and writers acknowledge the master’s influence on their work. “Indeed,” writes Chase on the website of the same name, “what Walt Disney was to entertainment, Theodor Seuss Geisel was to art and literature.”

Dr. Seuss, Cat from the Wrong Side of the Tracks, 22 by 44 inches.

The Imaginative, Profound & Magical World of Dr. Seuss: Look At Me! Look At Me Now! The Rare Editions Exhibition will be at West Bloomfield’s Art Leaders Gallery through March 30, 2024.

 

 

 

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