Where Cartoons Meet Fine Art
#ARTWISEUP by SAL McINTYRE
JULY 20, 2018 

Many a fine artist has discovered an appreciation and even a love of comics and cartoon art, perhaps because many of our most enduring cartoon characters were created by fine artists themselves— either plumbed from the depths of their own searching or to respond to the opportunities presented by television, film or print publishing. Everybody can recognize the magic that hides amongst the motions and sketch lines in pop culture’s best crew of players, and artists especially know how to find right where that magic lives. In the fine art that results from the combination of forces— the artist’s personal style and the homage to a perfected archetype— we experience a spark quite like no other. The fine art of cartoons can be simultaneously deeply emotional, superbly talented and casually relaxed, qualities afforded to it perhaps by the nature of cartoons themselves.

Ronnie Cutrone – Art Expo (green), offset lithograph 1988

Pop artist Ronnie Cutrone is known for his uncanny ability to juxtapose famous cartoon characters with current relevant concepts and media, building a simmering mix of imagery that makes powerful socio political statements in a wryly lighthearted way. He was a true artist activist with his stream of visual social commentary, using his art to make statements that flew in the face of accepted ideologies, utilizing the brilliantly succinct immediacy of visual art. This piece Art Expo (green) from 1988 shows Woody Woodpecker as a stock image painter, and in No Glove, No Love, a signed silkscreen with Felix the Cat and some Smurf types, also from 1988, the title says it all.

Ronnie Cutrone – No Glove, No Love, SIGNED silkscreen 1988

As for Felix, the beloved anthropomorphic black cat of the silent film era, even a static depiction brings a flood of nostalgia, his very lines infused with the radiance of his character— perhaps so enduring due to the masterful combination of simplicity and intricacy in his narratives. Both grandly stylized and complexly surreal, these stills Laughing Felix and Felix Swimming feature all of his charm against a subdued flat toned background, small 9 x 12 pieces beautifully printed in France.

Pat Sullivan – Laughing Felix and Felix Swimming, offset lithographs 1992
"In the fine art that results from the combination of forces— the artist’s personal style and the homage to a perfected archetype— we experience a spark quite like no other."
Hergé – Les Aventures de Tintin: L'Etoile Mysterieuse, offset lithograph

And with an admiration for everybody’s favorite comic adventurer Tintin, either a poster of the graphic novel’s cover itself or a reinterpretation through the eyes of a pop art great may satisfy the desire. A tirelessly endearing hero, the character of Tintin created by Belgian artist Hergé carries with him an indelible spirit of wanderlust and investigation, personified in each iteration— Les Aventures de Tintin: L'Etoile Mysterieuse being no exception. And in Tintin Reading Roy Lichtenstein brings the art conversation full circle with his characteristic dots, lines and graphic lettering, a visual language taken from the very printing of comic books. He even includes a few further art jokes like the reference to the famous Matisse painting of the dancing figures, which in turn is an arrangement borrowed from an even earlier painting by William Blake.

Roy Lichtenstein – Tintin Reading, offset lithograph 1995

It is hard to deny the appeal of Lichtenstein’s comic art as fine art, crystallized in every piece— Girl and Spray Can is another classic demonstration, somehow epitomizing all the many tones of his vision and wit.

Roy Lichtenstein – Girl and Spray Can, offset lithograph 2013

Jeff Koons’ usual combustible instigation is evident in his work Hulk Elvis Monkey Train (Blue), the exhibition poster for his Gagosian Gallery show in 2007. A wild cocktail of contemporary styles, he leaves us to put the pieces together ourselves, or perhaps not at all— a poignant commentary in and of itself.

Jeff Koons – Hulk Elvis Monkey Train (Blue), offset lithograph 2007

And in a veritably shooting star of a work, the coming together of two of the most iconic forces in art history creates a perfect storm, where Andy Warhol does Mickey Mouse. We are reminded of the depth of Mickey’s appeal and all of the charisma imbued in his character when the graphic arts monument himself describes him. Mickey Mouse, Galerie Kammer is truly a unique moment in our art history’s time.

Andy Warhol – Mickey Mouse, Galerie Kammer, offset lithograph 1982

The originality and universality of Disney’s work is sometimes easy to overlook, as we get accustomed to seeing the images many times over again— though with a pause to appreciate the wonderful line qualities, character design and enigmatic ambiance, their oftentimes subtle beauty is re-discoverable. We could find ourselves lost in the magnetic details in this 1975 print of Donald Duck in storyboard sketch, and in this film still Cinderella's Coach Sets Off for the Palace we find suspended the full range of Walt Disney’s enchantment.

Disney – Donald Duck, offset lithograph 1975
Disney – Cinderella's Coach sets off for the Palace, offset lithograph 1995

Last but not least, Superman as seen through the lens of artist Mel Ramos seems to bring this monument of comic culture and personal identity within reach, Ramos’ wavering lines and sensitive rendering a bullseye to the feeling of a hero within us all. Leave it to an artist to invent such a character, and to another one to bring it back down to earth again.

Mel Ramos – Superman, offset lithograph 2014