Category Archives: Artist Interiew

Art Spiegelman: “Five Books That Deeply Dented My Skull and Shaped Me”

For our Artists Bookshelf initiative we asked select artists on the season to share 5-10 books that have had a lasting impact.  Graphic novelist and all-around creative philosopher Art Spiegelman took a slightly different approach and wrote us this wonderful treatise which we will share in its entirety here.

Art (left) with Phillip Johnston. Photo by Sarah Shatz.
Art (left) with Phillip Johnston. Photo by Sarah Shatz.

Art will be performing in Royce Hall October 15 as part of WORDLESS! with composer Phillip Johnston. (For Philip’s bookshelf selections check out our Artists Bookshelf homepage. )

Art’s selections:

  • The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

The greatest “cartoon” novel I ever read, populated by grotesques and stereotypes, but (or therefore?) drilling into the heart of the human condition. It’s a seriously hilarious work drenched in alienation and despair, written during Great Depression I (1939), and focused on the losers and lowlife on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It uses Hollywood as a metonym for an America populated by “innocent” monsters, and ends—spoiler alert!—with Armageddon. Sentence for sentence The Day of the Locust is one of the most beautiful books I ever read, and one of the most visual—as in this description of our protagonist, Tod Hackett, a hack Hollywood set painter, washing his hands: “He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.”

(With new books precipitously piling up around me like kipple*, I don’t reread novels as often asI’d like—a pity, considering that with my rapidly fading memory, I could save a lotta dough rereading all the ones I’ve got—but I still re-dip into this short novel every few years. The only book I’ve compulsively returned to more often is….)

  • The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett

If I was more rigorous, I’d have limited myself to Godot (the first Beckett play I read and the one most cited by people who never read Beckett) or maybe Endgame, but—happy days!—this set includes Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape and all the rest. Beckett’s floridly minimalist and precise language is so deadpan funny and wise it makes me sob. A couple of years back, facing a brain operation and fretting more than usual about mortality, I realized I was too confirmed an atheist to have any sort of deathbed conversion so I steeped myself in his writings (the Molloy trilogy as well as the plays) and realized I indeed had Religion: I’m a devout member of the Church of the Absurd.

(And speaking of holy texts….)

  • The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard & Martin Williams

We now live in a golden age of comics reprints that includes enough beautiful multi-volume collections of Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy Peanuts, et al to break any library’s budget and bookshelves—but this 1977 anthology of the first 60 or so years of newspaper strips was seminal. Bill Blackbeard was a peerless connoisseur, collector, and scholar of comic who curated this inspiring collection of lost treasures, a book so essential to understanding my medium that a number of my closest cartooning cronies simply refer to it as ‘The Book’.

  • Inside Mad, edited, written and laid out by Harvey Kurtzman

This 1955 paperback collection of Harvey Kurtzman’s early issues of Mad (back when the no wailing magazine was still a comic book) is the very first book I read that changed my life. I was seven or eight and, if nothing else, it doomed me into aspiring to become a cartoonist. (The cartoonists who collaborated with Kurtzman—a genius cartoonist in his own right—all seemed to draw with pens manically overflowing with seratonin rather than india ink!) Mad also changed the life of America. Kurtzman’s self-referential anarchy may get taken for granted now, but he held up a cracked mirror that told the truth about a then Very Bland and Monolithic American culture. For better or worse, Harvey Kurtzman made literary irony mainstream. Without Mad there’d be no generation that grew up to protest the Vietnam War; nor the one that at least tried to Occupy Wall Street; no Simpsons or Colbert Report or Daily Show…. and certainly there could’ve been no Maus without Mickey Rodent!

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski

Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish poet and journalist, a non-Jewish Communist prisoner in Auschwitz, who committed suicide in 1951 by sticking his head in a kitchen oven. His short stories, strikingly written even in translation, are seen through the eyes of a brutalized and brutalizing kapo, whose wide-open eyes are a camera, and whose emotions are clamped shut. It’s as if a less romantic and sentimental Raymond Chandler had lived through Auschwitz.

In the decade or more that I fully immersed in the grim world of “Holocaust Lit” in order to turn my father’s memories into comics panels, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the oxymoron of daily life in a death-camp until I found this book. If, as Franz Kafka once wrote, “a book must be an icepick to break the sea frozen inside us,” then Tadeusz Borowkski’s book of short stories is the volume that broke me the most.

****

Also in my top five are

—Kafka’s collected stories

—and Nabokov’s Lolita (as well as his Pale Fire)

—and Portnoy’s Complaint

—and maybe a collection of Harvey Kurtzman’s anti-war (or at least Humanist) War comics of the 1950s to show the flipside of that artist’s furshlugginer genius. (“Corpse on the Imjin” and Other Stories was published by Fantagraphics in 2012)

—and definitely the two-volume compilation of Lynd Ward’s six woodcut novels published by The Library of America that has an introduction I wrote that catalyzed the Wordless! performance at Royce Hall on October 15th (which occasioned the UCLA library’s request for this list.)

(At the moment I’m reading book on elementary math so I might to learn to count to five with greater accuracy….)

—art spiegelman, 2014


∗A word coined by Philip K. Dick (whose Ubik and The Three Stigma of Palmer Eldritch would be on this list if I put it together yesterday or tomorrow), defines kipple in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, (also on tomorrow’s list):

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself…. the entire universe is moving towards a final state of total, absolute kipple-ization.”

Cedric on Cedric

Cedric Andrieux takes the stage tomorrow night in the eponymous solo work created by Jerome Bel. We asked him a few questions about this very intimate and revealing piece of dance theater.

CAP UCLA:You worked very closely with Jerome Bel on the creation of this work and in it you speak very candidly about your early inspiration and your work with Merce Cunningham. What part of the piece was the most difficult or challenging to synthesize into a brief period on the stage?

CEDRIC: I think we struggled a bit more on the Merce Cunningham section. The rest of the script follows a chronological order, but we couldn’t do that for the middle part, the Cunningham part. We then had to find a different way of organizing ideas and thoughts.

CAP UCLA:Do you have a favorite part and if so, what is it?

CEDRIC: I am very happy that we found a way to render onto the stage the creation process that Merce used to create new dances. I also love performing one of the scenes of “The Show Must Go On.” It is one thing to perform it in the context of the whole piece, but it changes completely when I do it in the solo.

CAP UCLA:Was it challenging or nerve-wracking to be solo on stage and speaking directly to the audience throughout? As a dancer in a company, I assume it’s rather rare to have spoken moments. Was that something you had to work on as a performer or did you already have some experience with that?

CEDRIC: I think it is part of the project, to have on stage a performer who is in a situation that he knows, the stage, but having to use a tool that he doesn’t necessarily control, in my case, voice. But since it is not about pretending to be comfortable, or trying to hide the discomfort, the challenge becomes more about being in the moment and letting go of the image of oneself that one wants or is used to portray on stage. It is about allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

CAP UCLA: Toward the end of the piece you say that working on the creation of this solo made you realize you had never spent that much time thinking of what you had done and why you had done it. Are you still learning, still discovering more about yourself and what drives you? If so, what continues to surprise you?

CEDRIC: Since the solo, I would say that the flood gates are open! What continues to actually surprise me is the realization that you always end up banging your head against the same issues. They take different forms, but it always come back to the same, even though you constantly feel that you’re resolving those issues, or that you finally have enough distance….

CAP UCLA:You have performed this work extensively in France and toured the world, most recently even a stretch of performances in Africa. How does your performance translate when you are visiting audiences of other cultures? Do you get different reactions at different moments? Is there a particular kind of audience who “gets it” the most quickly or deeply?

CEDRIC: That is another interesting and challenging aspect of the solo for me, the fact that from one audience to the next, even in the same city, even in the same theater, the response might entirely be different. There is an aspect of Jerome’s work that plays with the codes of theater, and theater goers, what are we doing here, what are our expectations, and the deconstruction or the highlighting of those codes, that can get lost with people that may not have as much experience or awareness with those actual codes. But the solo was made to be comprehended by everyone, not just the elite of theater goers, not just dancers, so whatever the context is, I always feel like the information that the solo exposes comes across….

Meredith Monk: A Spirit of Renewal

The beginning of a new year is always accompanied by a sense of reflection and renewal, themes that are very much at play in the forthcoming world premiere (Jan 18-20) of Meredith Monk’s newest work, “On Behalf of Nature.”

We’re especially proud to play host to the ever-evolving Meredith Monk as she is one of our resident artists this season. Meredith generously arrives early next week to begin working with students on yet another new original work that they will perform in the Freud Playhouse courtyard prior to each performance of “On Behalf of Nature.”


Though she recently turned 70, Meredith also remains a tireless explorer of her own craft. “On Behalf of Nature” is an exploration that builds on compositional themes she set last year during the creation of “Realm Variations,” a piece originally commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony.

Reflecting on the difference between “On Behalf of Nature” and her earlier, more-theatrical work such as “Education of the Girl Child,” Meredith says that her continuing evolution as a composer has had a great impact on the resulting work she creates.

“As I’ve gotten older my form is to the bone,” she describes. “I go to essentializing. It seems more simple but it’s a very very complicated process, and the result is very pure.

“My music has developed so much, it has become more complex,” she says. “Once that element has become complex, some of the other elements become less complex.”

Monk says “On Behalf of Nature” is an elegiac “meditation on the fragility of nature,” not set in any one particular landscape.

“I think almost any piece I’ve ever done is about nature,” she said. “I’m evoking the mystery and the wonder in the processes and workings of nature and the inner structure of nature, and the mystery and wonder and the beauty of what we take for granted.”

The piece is purposefully abstract, as is natural to Monk’s aesthetic and process, and audience members are meant to make their own interpretations, Monk says. It’s not an activist piece, but in its own subtle way, it is certainly meant to inspire eco-conscious thought, a purpose that Monk says also drove elements of its creation.

Monk imbued the entire creative process of On Behalf of Nature with a spirit of re-using, rediscovering, transforming and re-imagining something new from something already in existence.

Two sections of “On Behalf of Nature” are from “Realm Variations” but re-orchestrated for Monk’s ensemble of six vocalists and three instrumentalists. (“Realm” was created for six singers and seven instrumentalists).

Monk said she also revisited old notebooks from the 1990s, extracting elements and phrases that would become wholly new pieces. For video in “On Behalf of Nature,” Monk used elements of footage from her 1998 film “Book of Days, ” re-cutting and adding new imagery.

In creating the costume design for the piece, Monk’s longtime collaborator Yoshio Yabara worked with a collection of previously worn items the performers brought in from their wardrobes. The result is some “really wild creations,” Monk says.

(Side note: A couple of years ago Yoshio was inspired to create a series of cleverly minimalistic Meredith Monk puppets).

Next weekend’s performances constitute the birth of “On Behalf of Nature,” but Monk says she fully expects the work to continue to grow and evolve.

“The beautiful thing about live performance is it’s a very process-oriented thing,” she says. “It’s always an organic process. This piece is extremely organic in the structure, the music. I tried to follow that and not be afraid of that.”