A respectful hush hovers over the galleries at the UCLA Hammer Museum and at MOCA in downtown, where hundreds of visitors move at an unusually slow pace from one display case to another. For a moment I thought I'd knocked on the wrong door and had entered a library instead of a museum. The blockbuster exhibition, titled "Masters of American Comics" and co-organized by these two museums, traces the development of this unique genre during the 20th Century. The galleries are filled with people glued to the funny pages of newspapers and comic books. I don't recall another museum show with so many teenagers enjoying themselves in silence, or adults---well into their mature years---having so much guilty pleasure in reconnecting with a passion of their youth.
There is plenty for these visitors to be passionate about. According to the museum press release, there are more than 900 sketches, drawings, proofs, newspaper Sunday pages, and comic books providing insight into the development of the comics, as the most popular and influential type of mass media in the 20th Century. Not being born in this country, I found myself at a disadvantage at this exhibition, where so much pleasure comes from seeing the beloved funnies that everyone remembers from their childhood. Who knows, maybe if I'd have had the chance to sit in a comfortable chair with these books on my knee, perhaps then I would discover the joy and pleasure associated with the reading of the comic strip. But going to a museum, I am conditioned, first and foremost, to look at art---not to read it---which is a necessary requirement of enjoying "Masters of American Comics" exhibition. And, in observing the crowds filling the museum galleries, I can say that people enjoy reading these comics, in both the figurative and the literal sense of this word.
Many of the artists whose works are highlighted here are superb draftsmen, with the enviable skill of storytelling and a sharp sense of humor. But seeing hundreds upon hundreds of these dense pages of images and text, each one subdivided into numerous tiny frames, gave me a sense of claustrophobia. I wonder if the curators could still have gotten their point across with much tighter editing. As it stands, this exhibition doesn't break any new ground, as was the case with the controversial exhibition "High and Low," organized 15 years ago by the late and brilliant Kirk Varnedoe, curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He didn't equal high and low art, but argued the case of their debt to one another. His exhibition was a provocative and highly theatrical juxtaposition of two different energies.
In my opinion, this new exhibition of American comics doesn't have the courage of its convictions, and plays it very safe. If the curators deemed this material worthy of being shown on museum walls, then why didn't they present it in the context of the closely related artworks of such celebrated artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein or Raymond Pettibon, each of whom acknowledged their debt to this genre. Lack of such context diminished for me the impact of this survey, and I don't think that many people, like myself, who didn't grow up reading the comics, will be converted by this exhibition. You get the sense that the curators, instead of challenging their audience, are trying to preach to the choir. With two separate locations for this survey and over 900 items on display, the only challenge I found was the test to my endurance.
"Masters of American Comics"
Through March 12
UCLA Hammer Museum
10899 Wilshire Blvd
The Museum of Contempory Art
250 South Grand Ave