Ben Katchor: Jewish Museum

Artforum, December 2001

As Ben Katchor is the first to admit, there's something counterintuitive, even perverse about a museum exhibition devoted to cartoon strips. Most of what was on view in this show--highlights from twenty years of deadline-sponsored creativity--is readily available, and more comfortable to peruse, in book form. So maybe the point was to encourage viewers to scrutinize the subtleties in the original drawings--to savor, for instance, careful archipelagoes of Wite-Out, lost in reproduction and now lustrously visible? Devoted Katchor fans could spend hours indulging in this kind of connoisseurial peering and snooping; I did. But I didn't glean much. Katchor is not a conventional fine artist taking a sneaky detour around the gallery system; he's a maker of cartoons, reproducible amalgams of image and text. As if to underscore this point, many of the pieces on the walls weren't original drawings but ink-jet prints, enlarged somewhat for our opthalmic pleasure. In short, rather than an opportunity to encounter precious objects, the show was a form of acknowledgment and promotion, a chance for people who have missed the weekly strips and bound anthologies to be infected by Katchor's strange, desultory genius.

The heart of that genius is a kind of fanciful nostalgia. Katchor evokes a world that, if not vanished entirely, is at least a half-century past its heyday. It's a world of stoop-shouldered small-time salesmen, all-night cafeterias, and elevated subway lines. The presence of Julius Knipl, a wandering photographer with a pencil mustache, links most of the fragmentary vignettes. Knipldom is full of dreamers and hoarders, hawkers of quixotic products and services (Dourmat's Mud Applique, the Museum of Immanent Art , the National Birthmark Registry). Knipl and his neighbors mull over remembered stains, dream of riding escalators professionally, and sell tickets to tours of the Oldest Continuously Vacant Storefront in America .

The implicit Jewishness of this world goes as much without saying as the ethnicity of the characters on Seinfeld. Even Katchor's drawing style--with its jittery, schlumpy anatomies and its cousinly relationship to Ben Shahn, Leon Kossoff, and William Kentridge--compels us to think in these terms. But in 1992 the editors of the Jewish weekly Forward, looking for a successor to Art Spiegelman's Maus serial, commissioned Katchor to create something more explicitly ... denominational. They got what they asked for in The Jew of New York, an ultimately novel-length strip set in the early nineteenth century and inspired by Major Mordechai Noah's attempt to establish a Jewish homeland between Buffalo and Niagara Falls . It's a testament to Katchor's imagination that this nugget of historical fact (the real Major Noah abandoned his efforts in 1825) reads as quintessentially Katchorian--hardly more plausible than another character's dream of carbonating Lake Erie .

It is maybe too easy, in the present context, to think of Katchor's various fictions as constituting a kind of Brooklyn Brigadoon--a bialy-scented, pre-middle class refuge. But Jewishness is far from the only lens through which to view Katchor's creations. As a memorialist of ephemera, Katchor is in a class with Nicholson Baker; as a pictorial stylist, with Chris Ware. And then there's Katchor's humor. Dry often to the point of pedantry (he loves faux-technical jargon), his strips are funny in the surreptitious way that John Ashbery poems are funny, shifting between gusts of banality and glib puns, melancholy and whimsy. "I would forfeit my life to have that ravishing woman as a steady customer." It's easy to imagine Ashbery beginning a poem with an improbable salvo like this. But the connection runs in both directions: At their best, Katchor's pages offer a pessimism-tinged, absurdist poetry that feels, despite its antiquarian settings, utterly contemporary.