Because it is really too easy to forget just how talented Jules Feiffer really is, consider the following. He has won an Academy Award (in 1961 for the animated short “Munro”) an Obie (for the 1967 play “Little Murders”) and yes, a Pulitzer Prize (in 1986 for cartoons). He wrote the screenplay for “Carnal Knowledge” and for “Popeye.” He has written a bunch of plays, some graphic novels and at least seven children’s books. Did I mention that he illustrated Norton Juster’s classic, “The Phantom Tollbooth”? And of course he did most of this while penning a weekly strip for The Village Voice that ran for 41 years.
Feiffer makes it look like a snap. He is most famous, of course, for those cartoons, the minimalist confections that did so much to define New York from the ’60s to the ’90s. On the whole, the draftsmanship looks deceptively simple — mere outlines with some shading, squiggles and jiggles, with the barest delineation of facial features. There are rarely any backgrounds, just individual bodies (or pairs of bodies) moving through an undefined space. Yet those lines and those bodies express so much. Feiffer’s characters — especially that wonderful female dancer in her leotard, who was a constant companion from the late ’50s until the end of the ’90s — are in perpetual motion, gesturing this way and that, revealing themselves at every turn.
Feiffer’s trademark visual style — really nothing more than an inspired reduction — was actually meant to be practically invisible. Feiffer has claimed that the pictures were intended to do nothing more than to serve the words, the scripts of his strips. Words —that is where the real action is. One of the many pleasant revelations of the School of Visual Art’s current retrospective, which places due emphasis on Feiffer’s methods and process, is that the man works hard on these scripts. The drawings come later, as improvisations, a form of unobtrusive visual accompaniment for the all-important vocals.
It is there that the secret of Feiffer’s enduring and wide-ranging success might lie. It is tempting to think of him as a cartoonist who just happens to write plays and movies. It would probably be more accurate to see him as a scriptwriter who just happens to be a gifted illustrator. As the strips and movie clips assembled for this show indicate, Feiffer’s satirical glee expresses itself mostly through conflict and dialogue, the very stuff of narrative and theater. Sometimes the dialogue is interior, confined to the warring halves of a single self. Or sometimes the conflict appears inadvertently, as the expression of a half-hidden but deadly hypocrisy.
In any event, Feiffer, like Woody Allen, has brought a particular New York sensibility to the fore. He analyzes its fashions and blind spots through a close attention to its favorite turns of phrase, its particularly earnest, psycho-sexual chatter. The talking heads and kinetic bodies of Feiffer’s cartoons owe much to the always serious, sometimes hip, existentialist fashions of the early 1960s, the same milieu that produced Woody Allen in the first place. In their alienation and loneliness, Feiffer’s characters look and act like self-conscious members of the enlightened middle classes who suddenly find that they have strayed into the bold, refracting light of a Beckett play. In this space — one that is oddly claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time — they talk and move with an equally odd mix of tentativeness and desperate assurance.
This edgy unease — married as it often is to a sometimes nebbishy form of self-reflection — is the subject of a wonderful and somewhat bizarre tribute to Feiffer, on display in this exhibition. In a Steve Canyon cartoon of the late 1960s, the square-jawed (and, to use Lenny Bruce’s fine taxonomy, undeniably goyish) hero of the skies asks his readers outright if they really want him to act like “a Jules Feiffer character made of coat hangar wire, getting his jolls telling how lousy the world is.” Given the vivid and offhanded mix of sex and violence of this strip, one in which Steve not only wins dog fights but also machine-guns Viet Cong before bedding a voluptuous, racially mysterious woman, the answer might well be “Yes, please.” If this kind of destructive action is the alternative, a little navel-gazing could be a very good thing.
Such is the power of Feiffer’s critical gaze that the context of the show transforms this Steve Canyon cartoon into a pointed and satirical self-parody. Feiffer’s old-fashioned lefty distaste for violence, especially sexual forms of violence, is nicely represented here in a number of places, most notably in a fiercely understated Playboy cartoon of the late 1950s. There is also a fine smattering of his outright political cartoons, such as one in which he lampoons the still ubiquitous Dr. Kissinger; or the sadly prescient (or is that persistent?) one, penned during the Reagan administration, in which a middle-aged man in a good Republican suit claims that “before truth, this was a happy country.” He praises the president for “barring the press from reporting our wars,” and ends up claiming that “America does not need any more truth. It needs to feel better.” Twenty-three years after its original publication, that one still stings.
Feiffer gave up his strip a few years ago to devote himself to children’s books. While we could use his acerbic impatience with cant these days, it is hard not to be won over by his most recent work. By matching his wickedly accurate ear to a very generous eye, the 79-year-old kid from the Bronx manages to avoid both sentimentality and crabbiness.
According to the press release, the School of Visual Art’s annual Master’s Award aims to honor “great visual communicators,” those artists and designers who have created the look of our times without being properly recognized by the public at large. Feiffer falls into this category, for even though he has been recognized, he is taken for granted, as if he were a natural effect or merely part of the ambient cultural hum. He is part of that hum, true, but only because he helped create it. This exhibition, with its posters, playbills, movie clips, drawings and cartoons, should remind us of this very welcome fact.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.