Bill Kartalopoulos
Sun & Moon Comics: Uncovering MoMA’s Hidden Narratives
by Bill Kartalopoulos

(This piece originally appeared in slightly different form in the Fall 2015 issue of Artenol Magazine.)

Although it has no comics collection, no comics department, and no comics curator, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is absolutely full of comics. I must stress that I do not refer here to the museum’s few anomalous holdings from the history of “comics” proper: Lyonel Feininger’s 1906 Kin-Der-Kids newspaper comic strips, for example, sit in storage as part of a larger collection including the Bauhaus instructor’s paintings, prints and drawings; the Museum is also strangely in possession of two Batman original comic strips from the 1960s, erroneously attributed to Batman co-creator Bob Kane and donated to the museum by Kane himself (presumably to burnish his prestige as a kind of Pop artist avant la lettre at the height of Adam West’s fame). No, the best comics in MoMA’s collection are typically works that exist outside of the disciplinary orthodoxy of comics. Scattered throughout multiple areas in which the Museum specializes — drawing, photography, printmaking, painting, etc. — these works perform the essential structural operation of comics even if they’ve never been identified as such.

Comics in North America have frequently been strongly identified with their most commercial manifestations and with the now ostentatious fan culture that has developed around them. Even self-described comics scholars and critics have often implicitly accepted and ratified the self-proscribed boundaries of the discipline, wherever those boundaries might stand at any given moment. And yet the artists who have moved comics forward at every stage — Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, to name a few obvious examples — have always understood comics to be more than a tradition, more than an accumulated history, and certainly more than a professional field.

These artists and many more have understood that comics represent an elegant, neutral formal approach — like collage or assemblage — that can incorporate all manner of visual styles, materials, approaches and meanings into its method. At the most basic level, comics are nothing more nor less than interrelated images in sequence, a conceptual practice that has functioned without a name for millennia, from the walls of Lascaux to the tombs of Egypt; from narrative tapestries to the pages of countless illuminated manuscripts; from the broadsheets and bilderbogen that are the forgotten wallpaper of early modern European life to the celebrated eighteenth century print sequences of William Hogarth, and beyond. Comics may in fact have been our first conceptual art form, a form whose status derives not from any material medium or technology but from a core theoretical strategy.

Comics have sometimes been described as words and images, but that’s not entirely correct; at the very least, it’s far too literal. The comics medium rests upon a linear, syntactical, language-like arrangement of images (regardless of whether or not they contain language). But comics begin to function most powerfully as art when the global, compositional arrangement of these images produces an ultimate meaning beyond the expository meaning apprehended in a step-by-step reading. Great comics derive their most profound meanings from the dynamic between the linear, propulsive, expository, typographical, industrial, Apollonian order of sequence and the compositional, reflective, global, pre-modern, Dionysian experience of overall composition. Comics-as-art are, in other words, the product of the interaction between the structures that underlie text and image.

Seen in this light, comics are everywhere in MoMA’s collection. Artistic works of sequence held by the museum include many wonderful pieces by Jennifer Bartlett. These include her Drawing and Painting (1974), which in its very title, speaks to a dual status. This installation, consisting of seventy-eight 12x12” carefully arranged steel plates painted with enamel, performs a dual sequence: arranged in a triangular grid, the piece articulates step-by-step the drawing of a line in its left-to-right procession, while demonstrating the variation and application of color and tone in its vertical dimension.

Peter Halley’s brightly colored 1992-1994 Cell prints depict, in various permutations, the stages of a mysterious box-like building or object overheating and exploding, all flowing from a germinal 1992 iteration simply titled (of course) Narrative. Sol Lewitt’s thirty-seven foot long colorful abstract comic strip, Wall Drawing #1144, Broken Bands of Color in Four Directions (2004), is currently on permanent view in the entrance to the Museum’s film theater. The sequential linearity of Lewitt’s piece ushers the museum visitor from the composition-oriented space of the main galleries to the expositional world of cinema in the building’s lower level.

Does this sound like a bit much? Here is Lewitt talking to Saul Ostrow in a 2003 interview for BOMB Magazine:
Serial systems and their permutations function as a narrative that has to be understood. People still see things as visual objects without understanding what they are. They don’t understand that the visual part may be boring but it’s the narrative that’s interesting. It can be read as a story, just as music can be heard as form in time. The narrative of serial art works more like music than like literature. Words are another thing.
These abstracted, poetic visual narratives are everywhere in the Museum. In my most recent visit, I was struck by two pieces in particular, both of them photographic sequences. The first was Lunar Alphabet II by Argentine artist Leandro Katz, permanently on display in the museum’s Painting and Sculpture gallery. Approximately two and a half feet wide and nine feet tall, the gelatin silver print presents a 9x3 grid of images of the moon in consecutive phases, each labelled with a letter of the alphabet, from A to Z (including the Spanish diacritical Ñ for 27 characters).

Katz’s piece addresses the arbitrariness and the necessity of both semiosis and sequence. Each alphabetical character functions like a caption in a comics panel, and its association with each assigned phase of the moon is arbitrary, imposed only by intentional juxtaposition. The harmonious disjunction between text and image here brought to mind the détourned comics of the Situationist movement, which substituted political texts in the word balloons of banal comic strips, subverting social messages while pointing out semiotic fault lines in hybrid texts. The sequence of moon images in this piece is both necessary and also arbitrary; necessary because each subsequent phase follows that which precedes it, and arbitrary because the linear representation of a cyclical pattern must choose beginnings and its endings that have no correlation in nature. Katz’s piece further highlights the arbitrariness of the alphabet itself: the first contrived sequence we ever learn, perhaps, and one with no inherent meaning or pattern whatsoever. But it must have an order, both as a mnemonic device and a lingua franca. Further, its own order helplessly resonates with the linearity of language, in which words build upon words to develop new contextual meanings. Lunar Alphabet II is wise about sequence and text-image hybridity, both core elements of comics.

The temporary exhibit Art on Camera: Photographs by Shunk-Kender, 1960–1971 examines the collaborative photographic work of Harry Shunk and János Kender. The bulk of the exhibit features photographic documentation of conceptual performance pieces from the 1960s and ’70s. These include a presentation of the Pier 18 project first organized by artist and curator Willoughby Sharp in 1971. Sharp invited a group of twenty-seven international artists (including John Baldessari, Gordon Matta-Clark, Michael Snow, Lawrence Weiner and William Wegman) to produce performances and conceptual works at the then-disused Manhattan dock. These performances were all photographically documented by Shunk-Kender. Needless to say, many of these documents of time-based physical performance pieces, presented as serial images, necessarily present as photo-comics (as does the duo’s earlier collaboration with Yves Klein, Leap into the Void). There is much to visually read in this exhibit.

But the piece that drew me the most was Shunk-Kender’s untitled collaboration with Dutch artist Jan Dibbens. Unable to physically participate in the Pier 18 performances, Dibbens sent Shunk-Kender a note with instructions: he asked the photographers to set up a camera at a point on the pier from which the sunset would be visible. He then provided instructions for two specific sequences of photographs. The first would produce a simulated sunset, progressively darkening the sky using a series of f-stops that limited the amount of light exposed to film over the course of twelve images. The second series of images recorded the actual sunset, the disc of the sun visible and setting in twelve roughly parallel images. The paired sets of images were hung in a two-row grid, progressively going from light to dark, with the simulation of each phase of sunset above a consonant image of actual sunset.

The two rows of images present a fascinating grid. The top row, with its manipulated light, calls into question the illusory nature of apparently diegetic sequence while affirming the viability of a structural approach to sequence. This recalls various structural comics, including experimental early work by Spiegelman (such as “Little Signs of Passion” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”) inspired by his contact with filmmakers including Ken Jacobs and Ernie Gehr. More globally, the two rows together can be read horizontally as a sequence of vertically paired images that underline the work’s investigation into truth and illusion, maintaining a dynamic balance between artifice and nature.

But the comics-trained eye finds a third reading. Reading the first row in isolation, with its apparition of false sunset, from light to dark, the eye is drawn downward to tonally connected final image in the bottom row. The disc of the sun, invisible above except by implication, finally becomes visible, and the iconic subject draws the eye from right to left. Step by step, the sun now rises and illuminates the sky, ending at the left hand side of the bottom row with a bright, washed out image nearly identical to that above it, leading the eye upward again to repeat the cycle. The two parallel sets of images prompt a surprising circular reading order, evoking the endless cycle of sunrise and sunset. But this image of a celestial rotation is the artificial result of a process, and quickly startles the mind with its impossibility: the absurd image of a sun rising and setting in the same westward sky. Where Katz’s piece artificially imposes sequence onto a natural cycle, Dibbets and Shunk-Kender artificially imposes a natural cycle onto a sequence.

For a comics critic, touring the Museum of Modern Art — or any art institution — is a thrilling adventure. We are not led by the hand, there are no infantilizing departmental divisions or didactic labels to guide us. Our art is secretly woven throughout the world of art, and we see our comics where we find them. But there are as yet relatively few comics artists and critics possessed of such broad-minded comics-consciousness (let alone art critics), and I must confess that it gets a little lonely sometimes. I insist that it is time for arts professionals and aficionados to recognize sequence as a formal category of art that cuts across all categories. Such a perspective will enlarge our concept of comics, and will enrich the museum by formalizing a critical dimension that helps us further understand what some of our already-celebrated great works of art are doing.