issue 27 > visual art > kuspit
Trick Or Treat?: Ronnie Cutrone's Cartoon Imagesby Donald Kuspit
Halloween, also called All Hallows' Eve, or Evening, a holy or hallowed evening observed on October 31, the eve of All Saints' Day. In modern times it is the occasion for pranks and for children requesting treats or threatening tricks. …The date was also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times and was the occasion for one of the ancient fire festivals when huge bonfires were lit on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits….The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about….In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favorable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes. …In later years, the occasion has come to be observed mainly by small children, who go from house to house, often in costume, demanding "trick or treat" (the treat, often candy, is generally given and the trick rarely played).
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition
1. It All Began With Andy
Today is my last day after ten years with Andy—I get a surprise party and a strip o gram (Lindsay the stripper! I leave feeling confident, relieved, and higher than I've ever felt in my life—I call Patrick and go to St. Lukes to celebrate. Ronnie Cutrone, diary entry, Friday, June 4, 1982
Had the capitalist "Pope of pop" gone Commie? Hardly. Andy was still out shopping in the morning, eating McDonald's, and working with me in the afternoon on the Hammer and Sickles. Andy was a master of the paradox…. It always amused me that Andy, the ultimate capitalist, and me, the ultimate libertarian, could be suspected of Communist activity. Ronnie Cutrone, "Hammer and Sickle Essay"
…the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease. William James
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
James Truslow Adams, Epic of America, 1931
Andy Warhol was a poor boy, and so was Ronnie Cutrone. Andy Warhol was a first generation American, and so was Ronnie Cutrone. Andy Warhol grew up in a working class family in Pittsburgh, Ronnie Cutrone grew up in a working class family in Brooklyn. Andy Warhol was a devout, churchgoing Catholic, and Cutrone was a devout Catholic, if not churchgoing, at least not as regularly as Warhol. Both migrated to Manhattan in search of fame, fortune, and success—and because it was the place to make art. The avant-garde baton had passed from Paris to New York after the fall of Europe in the Second World War, and it tightened its hold during the fifties and sixties. Both were lower class upstarts in life and art, ambitious to make it in both, whatever it took. Both believed in the American Dream, and realized it, if in different ways, which is why, inevitably, they finally had to go their separate ways. Cutrone attained a measure of independence from Warhol, however emotionally attached to him he remained, the way a child is to a magical doll, as Cutrone's Raggedy Andy, 1997 indicates, a wonderful momento mori of Warhol, a tribute to his profound influence on Cutrone. Made ten years after Warhol's death (1987), it bespeaks Cutrone's devotion to Warhol, his tender feeling for him, even his obsessive worship of him. Certainly his closeness to Warhol: in an interview with Robert Becker, Cutrone said that he sleeps with a "ragged doll." It was his first "model"—the model for Woody Woodpecker, Cutrone's altar ego, and his alternative to Andy.
Warhol always seemed independent, detached, removed, emotionally inaccessible—famously "cool"--yet he took Cutrone, born in 1948, exactly twenty years before Warhol (born in 1928), under his protective wing, perhaps the way an older brother might take care of his younger brother, or a father take care of his son. Or perhaps because Warhol needed admiring acolytes, perhaps because he wanted to give the adolescent Cutrone the break he never had—Warhol had to make his own way, and perhaps wanted to pave the way for Cutrone—or simply perhaps because he wanted an assistant who would take orders without questioning them and was cheap labor. Cutrone, fresh out of the then trendy School of Visual Arts in New York (1966-1970), and eager to become a trendy artist, could not help but gravitate to Warhol, the trendiest, hippest artist around.
He welcomed all in his Art Factory, from hangers-on to would-be stars, from dilettantes to hotshot hopefuls. But Cutrone was not just another follower, along for the exciting ride, bewitched by Warhol's fame and fortune, but wanted to learn from him, apprenticed himself to Warhol to learn the tricks of the artist's trade, to make art that pleased the crowd, as Warhol's did, but also had a cutting edge, a teasing uncanniness that showed it was not all fun and games, however game and funny it sometimes seemed. Warhol, after all, was socially engaged, and serious about art, however unserious—and with that inartistic and inauthentic—his art seemed, at least compared to the Abstract Expressionism that preceded it, and that it superseded, not to say contradicted, by reason of its seemingly facile handling and legible imagery. Pop Art, after all, was factory made and slick—Warhol thought of himself as an efficient machine making socially ingratiating imagery—rather than handmade and painterly, and thus seemed to lack the all too human touch that Abstract Expressionism had, however all too vulnerably and vacantly human Warhol's social subject matter was, which sometimes seemed as though it was seen through a distorting mirror, suggesting its subliminal grotesqueness. Abstract Expressionism was "enigmatic" and "obscure," as all authentic modern art was supposed to be since Cubism and Surrealism, while Pop Art, for all its cunning, was all too obvious, as its appropriation of popular imagery indicated. Warhol taught Cutrone to make popular art with a cunning twist—a paradoxical flavor—even as he taught him post-painterly methods of art-making. He taught him how to make art that was dead serious fun—fun on the surface, not so funny underneath the surface, even if it lacked the depth that Abstract Expressionism had, failed to evoke the dynamic unconscious.
Warhol stayed on the surface—he famously said there was nothing behind it--however much his subject matter implied that something deeper and more "real" was at stake. He seemed to be avoiding or denying it. HH HHHCatching a glimpse of a television program in a store window, he failed to keep an appointment with a psychiatrist. Similarly, when he was shot, he remarked, with a shock, that something real had happened, but then said it was like being in a soap opera or movie, that is, being an actor in a theatrical illusion which perhaps he thought he had staged himself. He fetishized appearance—and dealt with "celebrated" appearances, not to say hypnotically "spectacular" appearances of ordinary human beings fetishized into the extraordinariness of celebrities by their media-ted, camera-ready appearances, including his own appearance--at the expense of reality, suggesting that he felt unreal, innocently psychotic. At the least, Warhol's work and persona embody, with remarkable perfection, the society of the spectacle.
What eventually led Cutrone to separate from Warhol is that he outgrew the falseness and spectacle of it all. It was not just that he could no longer tolerate being Warhol's sidekick and instrument, but that he could no longer tolerate feeling unreal. He could no longer subsume his reality in Warhol's unreality, the Potemkin's village world of media fakes which Warhol had created to confirm his own celebrity. Cutrone could no longer subsume his true self in Warhol's false self, no longer avoid or deny his unconscious by submitting to Warhol's false consciousness of the world, whatever grain of unconscious truth it had in it. Warhol depended on Cutrone, but Cutrone wanted his independence. He wanted to make his own art, rather than make Warhol's art. Warhol was the master, Cutrone the slave, but he broke the chain that tied him to Warhol—the spell that Warhol cast on him, the spell that turned him and Warhol's other minions into art slaves--when he became Woody Woodpecker. It was a moment of self-recognition, self-assertion, self-realization: Woody Woodpecker stood tall, straight, upright; he never leaned on anyone, certainly not Warhol. Unlike Warhol, famously a passive mirror, Woody Woodpecker was hyperactive. He didn't just reflect the world, he acted in it. Warhol was running a business, but Woody Woodpecker ran himself. He was always manically on the run—and not with the crowd. Woody Woodpecker was elated and confident, as Cutrone was on the day he left Warhol, who seemed subliminally depressed, and perhaps depressing to be with after ten years. Happy go lucky, Woody Woodpecker was Cutrone's good luck charm.
Woody Woodpecker, Cutrone's self-symbol—not the only one, but the major one--symbolizes the instinctive, irrepressible, mercurial energy of the dynamic unconscious. It is invariably in conflict with repressive society, as Freud made clear in Civilization and Its Discontents. Warhol's celebrity imagery, however tongue in cheek--lamely ironic, I would say—embodies social repression. To become a celebrated appearance is to repress one's reality in the name of social success. To be idolized by society one must completely conform to its beliefs. Indeed, appearance-conscious celebrities—celebrities always concerned to make a good appearance, to take others in with their appearance—are the ultimate conformists, the true believers. The American flag--what could make a better appearance, what was more celebrated and dignified, what was more spell-binding and "moving"--symbolized social repression and conformity for Cutrone: this is one explanation of his defiant placement of the nonconformist Woody Woodpecker on an American flag--a comic figure standing on the ground of a flag that had come to symbolize the American tragedy for Cutrone. Tragic things were done in the name of the American flag—a symbol of the American Dream that finally made Warhol a tragic figure, reduced him to a pathetic if dear doll for Cutrone. Just as Cutrone stopped saluting and serving Warhol, he stopped saluting and serving the American flag. Both had become dirtied by history—thus the dirty X on one of Cutrone's flags.
The American flag was a battlefield, the symbol of a Pyrrhic victory, on which Woody Woodpecker stood, a lone survivor. Cutrone survived Warhol, and held his own against America, despite their great power, achieving an identity uncompromised by both however beholden to both. Warhol, a child of deprivation, born just before the Great Depression, bought into the American Dream. It led him to dream of becoming a celebrity, and to make art as dehumanizing and mechanical as celebrities appeared to be in their photographs—an endgame American version of what José Ortega y Gasset famously described as the dehumanization of art that began with its avant-gardization in Europe. It led Warhol to become what Erich Fromm famously called a marketing personality, a new type of personality that appeared with Capitalism.
Cutrone, born just as the postwar boom was getting underway, came to mistrust the American Dream and Warhol's marketing personality. He came to see their hubris, their tragic flaw: the Grand Old flag—hanging limply on the wall rather than flying briskly in the wind, it suggests that America's energy is flagging, that America has become lame and at a loss like the lame duck abstract painting the flag resembles, a stripe painting mechanically made according to a simple geometrical formula, a mock "pure" painting pretending to above-it-all autonomy, above-the-fray transcendence--Cutrone used in so many of his works came to symbolize the Big Lie of the American Dream. Cutrone's flag paintings are a species of gallows humor: pecked away at by the grand gesture that is Woody Woodpecker, the flag comes to symbolize the failure and folly of the American Dream--the absurd delusion of grandeur that the American Dream had become to Cutrone. The cornucopia that the ever-smiling, cock-eyed Woody Woodpecker holds in Fruits of the Spirit, 1982 is an illusion as cock-eyed and farcical as America. The seemingly dumb Woody Woodpecker has ironically gotten the better of pretentious America. Cutrone does not desecrate the American flag, as has been thought,(1) but shows it up, shows that what it represents is a mirage. Make-believe has become believable in America, but it is still make-believe. Acting on the stage of the American flag, Woody Woodpecker treads on people's illusions, which is no doubt offensive, for no one wants to be threatened with the loss of their illusions—with the disillusionment implicit in the skepticism behind Woody Woodpecker's ironical smile. Woody Woodpecker is a saboteur, a mocker of America's myth of itself. Woody Woodpecker stands on the flag, like a preacher on a soapbox, bringing what it stands for into question. It is an impious gesture—an insult to the religion of America—yet also a peculiarly admiring one, for Woody Woodpecker is a product of America, the epitome of the on-the-move American. He swears allegiance to the American flag, but he also swears at it: his beak is a double-edged sword. Cutrone's cartoon images always have a double meaning. They have the dialectical duplicity characteristic of modern art. The modern artist is a homo duplex, Baudelaire said, who finds the truth of modern life in its contradictions.
The American Dream led to American imperialism, under the guise of America's wish to save the world from itself—when America could not save itself from itself. It led to American Exceptionalism, the conviction that America was God's Country, the predestined Biblical "city on the hill." Constantly marketing itself as the greatest country on earth was the height of arrogance. Warhol, identifying with America, marketed himself as the all-American artist, a brave new up-to-date artist for a brave new up-to-day society, which however flawed—as his Civil Rights Riot and Electric Chair works make clear--was moving forward, leaving behind the old European world and the art it produced, art that all too many American-born artists fawned over and mimicked. Strange as it may seem, Warhol was a populist (if perverse) version of what Harold Rosenberg famously called the American Coonskiner artist, spontaneously responding to his immediate environment, in contrast to the Redcoat artist of Europe, eternalizing his society and its rulers by giving them aesthetic significance.(2)
The American Coonskiner artist had no style, as Rosenberg said, while the European redcoat artist was all style. As he noted, this made the American Coonskiner artist peculiarly avant-garde; "no style" was de Kooning's motto, or, as Vlaminck put it, "no uniform of style." As Cutrone might say, formal tuxedoes were out and ragtag clothing—such as Raggedy Andy wore—was in. The crude American Coonskinner artist was a vulgar clown by suave European high art standards, and the American Pop Artist was a peculiar kind of clown—clowning around with American society, its court jester, as it were, seemingly a frivolous performer but wise beyond his years, insightful into the society around him as no one else was. Andy was a clown for Cutrone, and Cutrone thought of himself as a clown, as Harlequin I and II, both 1999, suggest. Picasso showed himself as a defiant harlequin in Les Saltimbanques, 1905, and a melancholy Pierrot in many of the Pink Period works, reminding us that Cutrone's comic performers have a prestigious avant-garde heritage, traceable to the carnivalesque Punchinello figure of Italian comedy, and finally to Aristophanes' figures of fun. The ridiculous has its own artistic virtues. Satire is a vehicle of critical consciousness, and the clown criticizes the public he satirizes in his performances. Avant-garde art is critical of respectable traditional art, and has been said to be a satire of it, distorting it to tell the inner truth about respectable society, in modernity bourgeois society.
Warhol may show America's seamy side—his democratic America is not the never-never land of aristocratic Europe, which is as much a dream world as any fantasized by the American Dream--but he does not satirize it as ruthlessly as Cutrone does. Cutrone debunks the idealism implicit in the American Dream, while Warhol celebrates it by way of his cosmetic treatment of its media symbols, the culture industry idols who embody it—dream figures such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, both more image than individual, their individuality an illusion created by their image. Warhol may be perverse and cynical, but he is also reverential and envious—a spoiler who wants the power, prestige, and admiration the dream figures he spoils represents, and who appropriates it by spoiling their appearances--while Woody Woodpecker is irreverent without being cynical: he remains perpetually innocent, as Candide did however bad his fortune. Warhol's attitude could not help but lead to self-betrayal and the cynical use of his creativity. To make as much money as possible, as Warhol wanted to do, and succeeded in doing, was not a raison d'etre. To mimick and market oneself as a celebrity was not exactly the best use of one's consciousness. To be a celebrity was not to make the best of oneself and one's life, let alone to use one's time and energy wisely.
Cutrone, "Idolatry," 1984, acrylic on tapestries, 7' x 5'.
Woody Woodpecker is vital, energetic, ingeniously creative: he's hot and expressive, where Warhol is cool and inexpressive. He's full of irrepressible life, unlike Warhol's repressed celebrities. He has no self-doubt, which is what I think Warhol's famous Buster Keaton-like deadpan look masks. He's the opposite of all that Warhol stands for: healthy where Warhol is unhealthy, a nonconformist where Warhol is a conformist. Woody Woodpecker is a figure out of a fairytale and folklore, and as such has unconscious import and mythopoetic credibility, unlike a celebrity, who is a mass-produced product of the American Dream Machine, as Hollywood has been called. I am saying that where Warhol makes Pop Art, Cutrone makes Folk Art, if in a populist disguise. He is, as he says, a Post-Pop artist, and also a pre-Pop artist.
Raggedy Andy is a doll, and a cartoon figure, and all of Cutrone's cartoon figures are dolls, stylistically as well as conceptually, and cartoons and dolls are folk art.(3) Cutrone suggests that Warhol became a cartoon figure—a figure out of a cartoon or comic strip. But, being a popular celebrity--that is, a clever appearance, a façade behind which there is nothing, a sort of T. S. Eliot hollow man stuffed with media straw, a shell that never had any substance--he is all surface and no depth. The trendy hyped-up celebrity cartoon of the mass culture lacks the depth of meaning of the folk figure cartoon of traditional communal culture. Part of Cutrone's imaginative brilliance is that he transforms celebrity cartoons into folk cartoons—uses popular cartoon figures to tell a mythical folk tale, peculiarly unpopular because it expresses the unconscious truth, that is, the repressed truth about society and life. It is what fairytales always do, as Bruno Bettelheim reminds us: fairytales trick us by coating the bitter truth in teasing artistic form. The folk figure cartoon—such as Woody Woodpecker—is an archetype of the collective unconscious as distinct from a mass produced product of what Jung calls a mass-minded society, which is what the celebrity cartoon figure—such as Warhol--is.
Playing with dolls, Cutrone remained a child at heart, reminding us that from Baudelaire to Kandinsky, artists regarded the child as "the greatest imaginer." The child sees reality with innocent clarity--it was a child who pointed out that the Emperor was naked (which is what I think Cutrone did when he turned Warhol into a doll, in effect cutting him down to human size) rather than go along with the crowd who believed that he was wearing new clothes. Warhol went along with the crowd of celebrities, giving them new artistic clothing, confirming that they were emperors, with divine rights to power and wealth—as privileged and immortal as gods, placing himself among them as the imprimatur on their glory. In sharp contrast, Cutrone playfully—yet persistently--pecked away at the American flag, and the American Dream: the materialistic dream of everlasting abundance, a cornucopia overflowing with the fruits of life, there for the asking as though America was the promised land of Cockaigne, a land of opportunity whose streets were paved with gold (as they were for Warhol). Woody Woodpecker showed that it was dead wood underneath its glamorous appearance. Warhol was a true believer in the American Dream, whatever his veneer of cynical indifference; Cutrone is a disillusioned debunker, and with that a moralist. Warhol showed its troubling reality, but made it seem incidental rather than typical. To reiterate: he cosmeticized it, rather than criticized it. (It is not clear that Warhol's use of "abstract" cosmetics to create a striking image implies a critique of the reality the cosmetics covers, as though to deny it, or simply confirms its superficiality and illusory character, even if it is a superficial illusion to begin with, as the glamorous appearances of the celebrities he monumentalizes into as-if artistic and aesthetic significance are.) Warhol's art is amoral and immoral simultaneously—his films indicate as much---but Woody Woodpecker is an angel of the apocalypse passing judgment on American society. He's a tough bird, dive-bombing a society that has sinned against itself.
Did Warhol, in an unguarded sentimental moment, allow himself to become as dependent on Cutrone as Cutrone became on him, allow Cutrone to become his "immediate assistant" because he felt Cutrone's need for assistance, because the adolescent Cutrone reminded Warhol of himself when he was starting out, friendless, penniless, fresh from art school? Did Cutrone remind Warhol of his marginality? Was it the basis for their cross-identification, however different their ages? Warhol was not given to intimacy, but he achieved a certain degree of intimacy with Cutrone because he identified with his neediness.
Cutrone worked closely with Warhol from 1972 through 1980, when Warhol was developing Pop Art. It was the heyday of Pop Art; it was coming into its controversial own. In a 1987 interview, Cutrone declared: "I did the photos for those silkscreens Andy did—not the portraits which he did himself, but the hammers and sickles, the skulls, the cats and dogs. I mixed colors. I stretched canvases, and we worked on ideas together." Cutrone didn't "get paid very much" as he acknowledged. It was enough to be associated with Warhol; his star was in the ascendant and he was easy to work with, however demanding. He shared Warhol's "real working-class mentality about art—that art is a job. That it's not just a big mystical thing, although that is included. But I learned that it is honest work, and about the business of art. My attitude was influenced, not necessarily my ideas. But our attitudes were a little alike in the first place, and I found in him an endorsement that I was on the right track."
Compared to American Abstract Expressionism, the deep, insider, high avant-garde art when Warhol began to work, and the dominant art by reason of its distinguished European pedigree—it supposedly carried the avant-garde tradition of the new to a grand climax while advancing it into fresh aesthetic and expressive territory, as critics as different as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg argued (from different theoretical positions), and with that once and for all time grinding traditional representational art to irrelevant dust—Pop Art looked like shallow, outsider, "low life" illustrational art, cheaply representational by its dependence on déclassé commercial art, and as such "impure" and inauthentic, not to say embarrassingly regressive kitsch. In 1846, as Baudelaire wrote, "the great tradition has got lost, and…the new one is not established,"(4) but by 1946, with the emergence of American Abstract Expressionism, the new avant-garde art had become established, and preferred to the art of the great tradition: avant-garde art was the new establishment. Warhol's Pop Art—his mature illustrational style, as it were (the early illustrational style was based on advertising imagery not photography)—was a street-smart populist rebellion against American Abstract Expressionism that brought the elitist avant-garde tradition of the new to an abrupt end. It repudiated art's hard-won autonomy—its so-called non-objectivity, that is, its turn away from the representation of external reality towards the expression of internal reality, or as Kandinsky famously put it, the replacement of external necessity with internal necessity, the articulation of feelings by way of color and line conceived as aesthetic ends rather than instruments serving to describe natural and socially given objects.
The new avant-garde art supposedly tended to subjectivist—not to say introverted and introspective--abstraction from its French Impressionist beginnings. And yet American Pop Art was new, if not part of establishment avant-garde art—the American Abstract Expressionism that consolidated and legitimated the European tradition of the new. Compared to emotionally aristocratic non-objective abstract and intensely expressionist avant-garde art, Pop art was retardataire: representational, inexpressive, democratic, and objective—made for the masses, as has been much noted, rather than the individual. But democratic representational art—plebian mass art, if you want--suddenly looked new and fresh compared to aristocratic European avant-garde art. It seemed old and tired, familiar and clichéd, and homeless, after the collapse of Europe in the Second World War. Europe was no longer fertile ground—America was. Europe had lost its drive and momentum, but America was on the move, seemingly unstoppably—which is part of the point that American Abstract Expressionism made, insofar as it is American rather than a novel reprise of pre-war European avant-garde ideas of art. While all too familiar—even academic—in Europe, displaced to New York, in the form of Abstract Expressionism, they seemed unfamiliar (however nominally transformed), to American eyes, accustomed to social realism. But Abstract Expressionism quickly became acclimatized and familiar, even a new avant-garde code for art making.
Clearly a new socially realistic people's art was needed, and Pop Art was the perhaps unexpected form the new American populist realism took. It was the American Century, and an all-American art was needed, and Pop Art was that art. A new extroverted, outward-looking art was needed, and Pop Art was that art. America was a mass society, and needed a new mass art—an art that reflected the masses back to them, that showed the flaws underneath the flawless appearance of their celebrity role models even as it celebrated their appearance—and Pop Art was that new mass art, a new crowd art. And yet, to be taken seriously—as art not glorified, ingratiating kitsch--it had to have certain "elite" formal features—abstract features such as flatness, unadulterated color, gestural traces, sometimes muted but obvious enough to give the familiar image some avant-garde credibility, unfamiliarity, making it seem aesthetic and enigmatic, edgy and discomforting, however obviously banal and communicative. No delayed, "reflected effect," as Greenberg called it, but an immediate effect, indicating what he deplored as kitsch's comfortable continuity with life, everyday human and social life. Pop Art may not have been "radically" new by abstract standards, but it certainly was newsworthy. The socially and transiently topical—the historical--had become "in," the expressively "profound" and eternal emotions had become passé.
Cutrone's imagery, like Warhol's, deals with the topical. But there is something else to it: Woody Woodpecker is a distinctive, particular individual. He may be a fantasy figure, but he has the "full stature" of a self-realized person, to refer to the quotation from James Truslow Adams. Where Warhol understood the American Dream as a capitalist fantasy, Cutrone came to understand it as the dream of a society in which every individual can become whatever he is capable of becoming—which, Adams implies, means that he refuses to worship "motor cars and high wages," that is, the bitch-goddess of capitalist success. No doubt motor cars and high wages are desirable, even socially necessary, but they do not mean nor guarantee that one has a "better and richer and fuller life." They do not represent what one is "innately capable" of—what one is creatively capable of. Cutrone broke with Warhol because he repudiated the capitalist version of the American Dream, finally realizing that it stifled his creativity. Adams argues that there are two American Dreams: the dream of capitalist success and the dream of creative success—the dream of Big Money and the dream of self-realization. America is a land of creative as well as capitalist opportunity, and the two did not always synchronize: one could be a creative success but a capitalist failure, and vice versa. The dreams were not necessarily exclusive, but they did not always work together. The pioneer American Coonerskinner was an undisciplined innovator and self-made man, but he earned little compared to the disciplined and civilized European Redcoat. In America one could creatively realize oneself but not become a capitalist success, and one could become a capitalist success at the expense of one's creativity. It seemed that to realize one American Dream one had to give up the other: it seemed that one could only realize one dream at the expense of the other: one could be creative but not make money, or make money without being creative. It was hard to do both. Cutrone did not want to become a "business artist," as Warhol described himself—an artist who found it harder (and more important) to make money than art, as he said—but an artist who made art to realize, as fully as possible, his creative and human potential, and with that to become an authentic self rather than the consumer parasite Warhol became.
2. Woody Woodpecker And Cousins
It is no light task for me to write about the figure of the trickster in American Indian mythology….When I first came across Adolf Bandelier's classic on this subject, The Delight Makers,…I was struck by the European analogy of the carnival in the medieval Church, with its reversal of the hierarchic order….Something of this contradictoriness also inheres in the medieval description of the devil as simia dei (the ape of God), and in his characterization in folklore as the "simpleton" who is "fooled" or "cheated." A curious combination of typical trickster motifs can be found in the alchemical figure of Mercurius; for instance, his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and—last but not least—his approximation to the figure of a savior. These qualities make Mercurius seem like a daemonic being resurrected from primitive times, older even than the Greek Hermes. His rogueries relate him in some measure to various figures met with in folklore and universally known in fairytales: Tom Thumb, Stupid Hans, or the buffoon-like Hanswurst, who is an altogether negative hero and yet manages to achieve through his stupidity what others fail to accomplish with their best efforts. In Grimm's fairytale, the "Spirit Mercurius" lets himself be outwitted by a peasant lad, and then has to buy his freedom with the precious gift of healing.
C. G. Jung, "On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure"(5)
Woody Woodpecker is a trickster, and the trickster—Cutrone--has many disguises, and with that many overlapping meanings. Tricking or treating involves what was called "guising": children, disguised in costumes and wearing masks, went from door to door asking for food and coins. If one didn't give them anything, one was tricked--cursed. The practice dates to medieval "souling": poor people begged from door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the souls of the dead on All Souls Day (November 2). It derives from the Celtic tradition of attempting to placate evil spirits by copying them—in effect identifying with them. The dead were impersonated by young men, dressed in white, with blackened, masked, or veiled faces, turning them into ghosts. The young—later children, the youngest human beings able to move about and talk—became the dead, threatening one with evil (the trick) if one did not pay homage to them on the one day of the year they were allowed to wander in the world, souls raised from the grave but not resurrected in the body, for it was not yet Judgment Day. The food and coins—the alms for the poor dead, and the poor who would die if they weren't given food and coins, the minimum necessary to survive, the charitable pittance offered by the rich to atone for their guilt toward the poor, the small blessing they gave to the poor to avoid being attacked by them, and to acknowledge the good luck of being rich—were offerings to the dead and the living dead that the poor were. Receiving them, the dead returned to their graves to rest in peace and the poor returned to their homes to let the rich live in peace, no longer threatening the living with the evil they would do to one if they were not appeased, remembered, and provided for. The dead and poor were in effect paid off, a small sacrifice compared to the sacrifice of human and later animal life to the gods in antiquity, and the sacrifice of human life in warfare, always productive of death and poverty. The trick-or-treater keeps the peace, preventing the destruction of the social order—the war of all against all that takes the form of class warfare.
Along with Woody Woodpecker, Felix the Cat is another one of Cutrone's trickster personas. So-is Bugs Bunny. They appear again and again in Cutrone's works, so-called "screwball characters"(6) screwing up the works, especially art works: Woody in Birds Eye View, Felix in White Knight, and Bugsy in Bugsy Miranda, all 1987, challenge preconceptions about modern art—mock the avant-garde belief that abstract art is the be-all and end-all of art, the pre-destined best art of the 20th century. In Bugsy Miranda Bugs, wearing lipstick and a basket of fruit on his head, as Carmen Miranda did in her films—she's a sort of comic Latin sex bomb, shaking her hips seductively while smiling comically, as though her act was a joke, along with sex and the movies (she has the same fixed, charismatic smile on her face, at once deceptive and ingratiating, in your face yet innocently inviting, as Woody Woodpecker does)—stands in front of an abstract expressionist painting. It looks more cock-eyed than her eyes do. Abstract Expressionism is supposedly hyper-masculine—ultra-macho art, the epitome of aggressive masculinity—but Woody suggests it's feminine, as the expressionist gestures that serve as his beauty marks suggest. It's not what it seems—it's as false as his false eyelashes.
Similarly, in White Knight, Felix rides a white horse—it's the knight in a chess game—suggesting that the Vaserley-like abstract grid, with its systematically skewed psychedelic space, seemingly complex but littered with simple geometrical forms suggesting its simple-mindedness, is a cock-eyed chessboard: art is a kind of funny game, that you can only "get" with bug eyes. Felix, Bugsy, and Woody all have big bug eyes, signaling a kind of skeptical wonder. If Felix is a knight on the white side of the chess game, then the abstract grid must be the black side—the dragon the white knight is attacking. The white knight is a toy, but he's a confident, serious opponent. He waves at us, as though he's sure of winning the game, if only by suggesting that abstract art—the enemy--is just another art game, and not the only game in town: there's also the cartoon art game—the cartoon in which Felix stars, simultaneously a hero and anti-hero, an insider because he's popular art, and an art outsider for the same reason.
In Birds Eye View Woody gazes at another Op Art type grid, with its twisted space, also littered with geometrical forms, now looking like rags blown about in the wind, falling like false visual manna from art heaven. The gray weave pattern informs Woody's head and beak, giving it a certain ironic prominence in contrast to his orange feathers. He seems to be admiring the abstract design, but he stands apart from it, his beak pointed at one of its seams, as though about to tear the design apart—peck it to death. It is just a decorative design in all three works, suggesting the truth of Max Horkheimer's theory that even the most aesthetically and spiritually sophisticated abstract art eventually becomes amusing eye-candy—not to say a theatrical backdrop on a social stage—for the viewer. Especially such skeptical beholders as Bugs, Felix, and Woody, ostensibly taken in by it—brought into the abstract space, even as they stand defiantly apart from it. Their features may be marked by it-- ironically suggesting their own abstract character and construction, their own intriguing formalism—but their bodies remain independent of it. They are flat, boldly drawn, deceptively simple figures: under the influence of their perception, abstract expressionist gestures lose texture, flattening into clumsy scribbles--random visual gibberish--and Op Art grids flatten into banal optical illusions, not to say easily readable deceptions. It is worth noting that Jackson Pollock's abstract expressionist paintings—supposedly the first totally abstract, that is, figureless paintings (de Kooning said Pollock "broke the ice" by eliminating the figure, starting with a sort of scarecrow or schematic figure but painting it out, as Pollock himself said, an act of negation that for many theorists is the climax of avant-garde art's so-called "negative thinking")--first achieved fame (or at least became fashionable) when they were used as backgrounds in photographs of high fashion models. It was the moment of their social assimilation—the paradoxical moment when they became popular, superficialized into everydayness however mysteriously profound they remained for theorists. It is a moment that happens faster and faster, as Leo Steinberg argued. He said it took three to five years for an unfashionable, tasteless art to become fashionable and tasteful. Duchamp said it took thirty years for an unacceptably subjective art to become socially accepted art history. Things have speeded up, suggesting that even the most novel, shocking, enigmatic, obscure, transgressive etc. avant-garde art quickly becomes another public art joke, which is part of the point that Cutrone's screwball cartoon characters—jokes in themselves--are making. Even the most revelatory expression becomes part of the public spectacle, however uncomfortably so. But Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, and Woody Woodpecker are all too happy to make a public spectacle of themselves.
All three works are more than playful satires: they're a brutal attack on an avant-garde orthodoxy, indeed, on the abstract art establishment. Cutrone undoubtedly knows that "Bugsy" is the first name of the legendary gangster Bugsy Siegel, the visionary founder of Las Vegas: Bugsy Miranda is a gangster in drag, that is, disguise, attacking abstract art with his irony—indeed, assassinating the "presidential," that is, presiding art, of modernity with black humor, however colorful he and his compatriot cartoon characters, clearly from the other side of the art tracks, are. Jack the Dripper's gestures—as Pollock was called in the Life magazine article that made him popular, made his name a byword of avant-garde innovation--look like arbitrary squiggles in Cutrone's rendering of them. That's just the point: they're a sound and fury signifying nothing—noise rather than the music it has been said to be. The grid of abstract fame—the grid that has been said to be basic to abstract art since Mondrian, the grid that was reduced to serial anonymity in Minimalism, the grid that is the backbone and symbol of autonomy and purity—is also less than it seems: for Felix and Woody, it's comic relief, a sort of visual slapstick accompanying their vaudeville act.
Cutrone uses cartoon figures to sardonically criticize abstract art—figureless art, art that claims that the formal factors in art, as Greenberg calls them, are more of the essence of art than whatever figure they are used to represent. Greenberg also argues that abstract art brings the material medium to aesthetic life as representational art is incapable of doing because it is concerned to convey the life in the figure. Abstract art is primary art, because it engages what is primary in art; representational art is secondary art, because it engages what is secondary—even incidental—to it. There are abstract figures, Greenberg acknowledges, but he regards them as specious rather than substantial, a sort of experiential hangover infecting the artist's aesthetic concerns, his intense devotion to the medium and form, a sort of minor contaminant of his purity of purpose, which treats them as ends in themselves. Abstract figures are a trace of leaden experience that remains to be refined into aesthetic gold.
Yet we know that the totalization of art as pure aesthetic form and matter betrays it, which is part of the point that Cutrone is making in his use of the figure—his invasive insertion of it into abstract painting, his reduction of the aesthetic to a setting for the figure. The figure is more fundamental than the medium or form, which serve to mediate it rather than to upstage and suppress it, because we are figures, and art is at bottom about our idea of ourselves, our view of the world we live in, and our place in it—our world outlook and attitudes. It is an attempt to make sense of ourselves and our society and their effect on each other—the dialectics of their interaction, the shifting balance of power between them, or, if you wish, their tricky relationship. It is about the uncertain—anxious, difficult--relationship of subject and object, as T. W. Adorno argues. Harold Rosenberg makes a similar point in his theoretical defense of Abstract Expressionism. "In that it dared to be subjective," he writes, "to affirm the artist as an active self, Action Painting was the last 'moment' in art on the plane of dramatic and intellectual seriousness. The painters in this current have kept to the tradition of the human being as the ultimate subject of painting."(7) And, more broadly, of art, we might add. Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, and Woody Woodpecker are active selves—socially as well as artistically activist selves, in animal disguise and cartoon form. It seems to domesticate them, but they remain wild at heart. They are two faced, animal and human at once, hybrids capable of acting like both. They are even more paradoxically abstract than the abstract figures—hybrids of abstraction and representation, absurdly integrating both with seamless efficiency—that Greenberg deplored. The gods sometimes took animal form and sometimes were represented as part animal, part human—Zeus transformed himself into a bull and a swan, Horus had the head of a hawk—suggesting they were tricksters. The trickster is a sacred figure, capable of spontaneously metamorphosizing into profane form. It is the ultimate creative ability—a sign of primordial creativity at its most imaginative, and as such an indication that the trickster is a primordial being, that is, the archetype of creative power.
Cutrone's figures are creative tricksters; they are low, minor, earth gods rather than high, major, sky gods. They are forever bound to the earth; the higher gods can return to the sky after their adventures on earth, but they are bound to the earth forever: Bugs Bunny and Felix the Cat cannot fly, and Woody Woodpecker's wings seem clipped. We never see him flying, even attempting to fly. All three are always on the run—run like mad, as though to compensate for their inability to fly serenely, to reach the heights. They are daemonic creatures, as Jung said the trickster is. They are two faced or self-contradictory—cute yet cunning, amiable yet dangerous, ready to bite or scratch or peck at the slightest provocation, and even for the pleasure of it, the way an animal will bite the hand that feeds it even as it expects to be petted in return. Cutrone's art is as subjective as Abstract Expressionism—more insidiously subjective, I would argue--however formally and materially different. The fact that his cartoon figures are self-representations, symbolizing his view of himself and his feelings about the world he lives in, and his response to it, makes this clear. They have their own dramatic and intellectual seriousness, and a certain imaginative poignancy.
The point is that representation is innate to the psyche, as dreams--imaginative representations of internal objects—make clear, and Cutrone's cartoon figures are dream fantasies. Internalized, Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, and Woody Woodpecker become Cutrone's internal objects, that is, represent aspects of himself. Taken together, they represent instinctive aggression—the beast in all of us, as Freud called it—nominally socialized by being given cartoon form. Humor is a mature defense, as Freud said, a sign of ego strength, and in humorous form they become representatives of Cutrone's ego, making them seem less aggressive, without denying their instinctive character. Overt aggression becomes covert mischievousness: somewhere between a pet and a pest, Cutrone's comic animals seem amusing if untrustworthy. Instinct becomes devious in them, but still retains its drive: they all run, as noted, and, perhaps more crucial to their character, they can never be caught and caged. The stripes on the America flag look like prison bars, but Woody Woodpecker stands in front of them not behind them—he's a free spirit. Bugs, Felix, and Woody are not caught in the abstract trap—the cagey grid that seems to be closing in on them, as though to swallow them in its space, but sidestep it with a smile while acknowledging its presence. They have more presence than it, for it lacks their instinctive power and peculiarly human touch. They will never disappear in the grid—they'll never be another module in a homogeneous order, but always remain like a thorn in its side.
Cutrone, "Love," 1982. Acrylic on U.S. Flag, 10' x 6'.
Representation is a thorn in the side of abstraction, and the figure, with its complex geometry, is a thorn in the side of the grid, with its simple geometry (made to look less simple and rigid by being optically twisted, as though seen in a distorting mirror). The thorn can never be removed. Bugs, Felix, and Woody are more unsettling than any unsettled geometry. They are uncontainable, irrepressible, spontaneously alive, inexhaustibly energetic, uncontrollable: we not only can't catch and cage them—certainly not in the net of the grid--however hard we try, but they lead us into the unexpected world of the unconscious. They are creative rather than entropic, as the grid is, according to Rudolf Arnheim. The grid has no center, but they are always centered. They always outrun us, refuse to conform to the "system," resist assimilation into the collective order, however much they are collective creations.
We all dream, indicating that representation is inescapable, and cartoons are collective dreams. Cutrone gives them personal meaning, appropriating them for his own ironic—some would say perverse--purposes. "Everything is a cartoon for me," he has said, and his cartoon figures are dreams: popular dreams that he uses for his own unpopular purposes, making them all the more peculiarly popular, for he uses them to express what is socially inexpressible, and seemingly impossible in everyday society, in which we are all in lockstep like anonymous modules in a grid: radical individuality. Pop Art is a kind of collective art, and Cutrone's Post-Pop Art is collective art enlisted in the service of individuality. It is social expression made self-expression, common sense imagery given uncommon meaning.
There is something psychically fundamental about cartoons: like dreams, they condense content and displace meaning, and involve both repression and expression simultaneously. They are spontaneous expressions of the collective psyche even as they censor its contents by disguising them. The animal censors the human in Cutrone's cartoons by disguising it even as his animals behave like human beings, if with greater daring—and it was daring to mock abstract art when Cutrone reduced it to a cartoon, in effect banalizing and trivializing it, indeed, making it more trivial and commonplace than his cartoon animals, who look uncommon in their abstract surroundings. They seem shockingly new and fresh, while the abstract grid looks old and stale. And they express popular resistance to abstract art—its unpopularity until it was assimilated as high design. More crucially, they have unconscious appeal—instant emotional appeal, across cultures—because they seem archetypal. The trickster is a universal archetype, as Jung makes clear. Bugs, Felix, and Woody are animals, which are also universal—everywhere. We unconsciously identify with them—project ourselves into them--for they represent the animal in us, that is, our id. This makes Bugs, Felix, and Woody doubling appealing: tricksters in the form of animals, or trickster animals—animals that can perform tricks, suggesting they are as smart and tricky as human beings—they cannot help being universally loved, however cautiously. They are lovable—they delight us—but we cannot help being wary of them, because they signify our own instincts, which are always playing tricks on us, when we least expect it.
Bugs, Felix, and Woody are gadflies, and gadflies don't fit in, because they're critical and subversive, by definition. The trickster is a gadfly, disturbing society with his tricks, but, as Jung's remark about his gift of healing suggests, they heal the wounds that divide it against itself even as they acknowledge its division. The trickster performs the trick of making peace between warring opposites--performs it in his own paradoxical person. He mirrors society the way a microcosm mirrors a macrocosm, showing society's fault lines even as he shows that it can hold together despite them. He is the consummate dialectician, and he offers society a dialectical peace—a peace in which opposites unite while retaining their difference. At peace with one another, the will to power that led them to oppose each other accrues to society as a whole. It becomes the glue that holds it together, reinforcing its faith in its future. The trickster performs a dialectical trick: he shows that the destructive power unleashed by war can be harnessed for constructive good in peace.
Socrates was the epitome of the intellectual trickster, reconciling opposing ideas without denying their difference—forcefully presenting both and acknowledging the truth in each, suggesting they were equally necessary but not the whole truth. He was also physically tricky, being ugly on the outside and beautiful on the inside, as Alcibiades said. Repulsive and attractive at once, he made uncommon sense. He was in effect a god in animal disguise—a creative mind in an animal body, Alcibiades suggested. Socrates was a patriotic soldier as well as an original mind; he served his country with his body while disturbing its peace with his original ideas. He was an ironical being, mentally at odds with the society he lived in but physically at home in it, and at odds with himself even as he was uniquely himself. He had a unique dialectical gift—uncanny intelligence—and was physically unique, adding to the paradox of his existence. So-called Socratic irony—his paradoxical way of thinking--was regarded as the beginning of wisdom, for it refused to take things on face value, skeptically questioning conventional assumptions, challenging their authority and with that the society in which they were the ruling truths, unsettling its order to the extent of seeming to undermine its foundations. This was a sort of screwball thing to do, and Socrates was regarded as a dangerous screwball—all too unconventional for the conventional good, a bad boy however good his intentions (he seemed to have believed his irony was patriotic, for it was meant to enlighten society, lead to self-knowledge and the good life)—and eventually condemned to death. Socrates' uncommon sense conflicted with common social sense, and the common sense of the crowd had to prevail over the uncommon sense of the individual. The tense dialectical struggle between the individual and society, sometimes a fight to the death (as Socrates' martyrdom for his "different ideas," ironical presence, and the radical social difference he made suggests)—between the individual who challenges the status quo of consciousness with his "avant-garde" thinking and the society that wishes to preserve it at the cost of the individual—is an expression of the eternal philosophical problem of reconciling the One and The Many.
Cutrone, "White Woody," 1982, acrylic on U.S. Flag with velvet cross, 10' x 6'.
Cutrone said Warhol's art was ironical, but I think Cutrone's art is more ironical, because it represents the One lone individual standing against the crowd of the Many—the solitary Woody Woodpecker standing against the flag that represents them--while Warhol pictures the crowd of the Many, with an indifference that supersedes whatever irony his pictures are supposed to have. The celebrities he pictures are crowd types, that is, models for the Many, and as such false individuals, as anonymous as anyone in the crowd however more socially approved and recognizable their faces, while Cutrone's cartoon characters, however beloved and celebrated by the crowd, are individuals who stand against the mindlessness it represents, even as they represent its repressed individuality. Thus Warhol makes Pop Art, Cutrone makes Post-Pop Art—art that uses popular idols who are cunningly individual—who have an ironical edge that Warhol's slick stereotypes lack. Am I misreading Cutrone's cartoon characters by regarding them as Socratic ironists, overstating the significance of their whimsy by regarding it as a form of ironical wisdom? Like Socrates, they're One of a kind, and like Socrates they're quite social—he never stood apart from the Many, and was popular among the young, for he represented their questioning, revolutionary spirit (which is why the conservative elders had to get rid of him). Socrates hung out in the forum, a popular gathering place where ideas and goods were traded, just as Cutrone's cartoon characters hang out in the media forum, a modern gathering place where ideas and goods are exchanged—a more popular one than the ancient forum, because more people can gather in it. Socrates was a sort of noble intellectual savage, known for his biting wit—irony that cuts to the quick of an idea, conveying insight into its complexity. Cutrone's cartoon characters are also a sort of noble savage—they are as cunning as savages are supposed to be (the feathers on Woody Woodpecker's head suggest he's the wild Indian of the movies, and Felix the Cat is as "creepy" as an Indian sneaking up on you in a movie ambush—if less obviously intellectual than Socrates, but they also have a sort of questioning innocence and ironical relationship with the world in which they are let loose. Dare one even say that they are an ironical reprise of the animals whose natural grace Franz Marc admired? They also are composed and energetic and popular. And survivors, as Warhol's Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley—both suicides—were not.
Cutrone's images are dialectical constructions: opposites are juxtaposed, confirming that they are at odds—at war—even as they are linked, suggesting that they are reconciled to each other, if not entirely one with each other. A kind of truce—a peace of sorts—is usually declared, tentatively and ironically but necessarily. Thus in Stress, 1984 Woody Woodpecker is linked to the American flag behind him by the gestural flurry, confirming that he's a painter. He paints the flag in more ways than one—he's an un-American American, that is, an American in the loyal opposition, and as such ironically if inescapably American. America began with a revolution, and Woody is a revolutionary by nature. He's rebelling against the flag even as he pledges (a kind of) allegiance to it, suggesting his dialectical contrariness. Similarly, in Corporate Structure (with 7 Flags), 1987 Woody carries a pile of pure forms, all geometrical boxes—several look like Suprematist squares, the basic building block of the grid (a reduction ad absurdum of geometrical abstraction). All are in primary colors, except for the central square in white. They are the same few colors that compose Woody's body. His chest and collar—his center and the feathery aura that crowns it—are also white, suggesting his purity and innocence. The white square is the lynch pin of the whole precarious structure. For it is falling apart, suggesting it is a tower of geometrical Babel. Some forms have fallen off it, and others are unstably perched on top of each other. Woody carries the whole thing, moving with brisk enthusiasm, seemingly unaware of the structure's collapse. A catastrophe is in process, and Woody is its instrument, even as he has the same colors as the geometrical forms, however organically formed he is. They have something in common, but they're radically different—at odds yet sharing certain values. He's clearly more individual than they are; they're all look-alikes, however different in size. Woody's focused on the white square—he's almost at eye-level with it—as though magnetically drawn to it—as devoted to it as he seems to be to the American flag--but he couldn't care less if the whole structure collapses. He's an ironic revolutionary, rebelling against abstraction as a whole while preserving its most precious parts—its pure colors and idealism—just as he rebels against the American flag while celebrating it. Abstraction and America became self-righteous imperialist warriors in Cutrone's youth, and the result has not been happy: abstraction became slipshod and facile even as it became the gospel truth of art, and the American flag was tarnished, as the gestural scars on it suggest. Both were victorious, but the victory turned out to be Pyrrhic. Both abused their power, rendering them strangely impotent—the flag hangs limply and the geometrical tower is losing its phallic erectness. They've become dead wood, and Woody pecks away at them.
Again and again Cutrone shows himself to be a kind of protest artist—ironically protesting against the American Dream of Abstract Art, whether expressionist (gestural) or constructivist (geometrical), and the American Dream of the Good Life, sometimes mocking both at once, as in The More I Find Out...The Less I Know, 1989. A brilliant tour de force that makes ingenious use of kitsch imagery, it shows a naked Woody, with an all-white muscular body—he seems to be putting on his bird head, as though preparing for a masquerade—kneeling, with flesh-color penis dangling conspicuously and surmounted by hairy pubic flames (clearly on sexual fire, now that he's no longer a 97 pound weakling but a very physically fit Charles Atlas hero), in front of an array of nine scenic images. There's a Yankee Clipper and an American Eagle standing in a circle of Peace (ironically flanked by a fierce-looking lion and tiger), and also a sleeping Eve, naked and with a snake triumphantly coiled around her genitals, with a Statue of Liberty in the panel below her. In another panel she's awake and talking to an animal, the nature around her suggesting she's in paradise—indeed, is paradise, the perfect dream girl—unlike the sleeping Eve, oblivious not only to the snake but the colorless, desert-like field (a sardonic negation of Color Field painting) on which she is isolated (like the figures in the Op Art abstractions). There are humanized animals playing pool, an elephant in a jungle, an Egyptian scene with pyramids and Sphinx and Arabs and camels. Last but not least, there's a circular map of the world—a globe with a bloody red Africa its most conspicuous continent—opposite Woody. A sort of stake or pitchfork penetrates it, suggesting it's a devilish place. Perhaps the most significant of all the panels—the sequence of images resembles that of a medieval narrative, suggesting that Woody is Christ (the blood red feathers of Woody's head symbolizing a bloody crown of thorns and the mocking of Christ) or at least a saint (in ironical heaven?)—is the one with the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. It has pride of place—it is centered in the top tier, between the Yankee Clipper and the American Eagle, suggesting the End of the American Dream. Each panel conveys a dream state of the American mind, and the dream is coming to an end. Africa is in flames, suggesting the whole world is coming to an end. But Woody is strong enough to survive, even to transcend the whole mad affair: his lightning bolt tattoo suggests he's Zeus in disguise, half heroically human, half quick-thinking bird. The scenes are separate yet linked by bold red—bloody—gestures, in effect slashes or gashes—dueling scars, wounds that won't heal?
The whole work is rich with ambiguity—multivalent with a vengeance. It is an aesthetic masterpiece—blues and reds prevail, colors that Kandinsky said conveyed modern dissonance, even as orange and green balance each other, making for the so-called dynamic equilibrium that was the goal of pure abstraction. The panels are flat, and have broad flat passages, giving them a modernist cast. They are ironically modernist and abstract, even as they are post-modernist in their reconciliation of kitsch representation and avant-garde abstraction—opposites that Greenberg famously said could never meet, at least to make aesthetically convincing art. Cutrone gives us not only aesthetically convincing but socially meaningful art. And psychologically meaningful, for Woody has the ego strength necessary to survive the end of the world. He is an Atlas who has dropped the globe to save himself. It has become a hellish place in which the American Dream is going up in the flames of war. And in the blood of war, as fiery red and destructive as fire, as Bloodborne Sonata, 1999, makes clear. It is an apocalyptic color field painting and an apocalyptic American Flag painting in one—a double masterpiece. It is an American flag dipped in blood, even as it is an abstract painting informed by social reality. In both cases abstract prose has become tragic poetry. The Grand Old Flag is no longer so grand, and pure painting is no longer so pure. Both are contaminated by suffering and death.
Color field and American flag are ironically one, as they always are for Cutrone. It is a dialectical trick that he treats us to. The painting is flag and field at once even as we can distinguish them, suggesting a sort of reversible conceptual and perceptual perspective. Two in one, and one is two is the quintessence of dialectical vision. Cutrone is a visionary, and his vision is of the apocalyptic collapse of the two American Dreams—one of creating a Great Big Society, the other of creating Great Big Art—into one morbid mess. Color field painting and the American flag are both American "inventions" and both abstract, even though the former is pure art and the latter a representational symbol. Brought together, each cancels the other out, even as it creates what can only be called an abstract representation. Cutrone's cartoon characters are also abstract representations, and also American inventions. Cutrone uses them in a tricky way—at the least, by presenting them as serious art--and suggests that they are tricks that America plays on itself. America is a tricky place, a playful place that tricks one—that promises one treats but tricks one, a land of treats which turn out to be tricks, a land in which one is not sure whether one is being tricked or treated. There's no better place to be artistic—American is the promised land of artistic opportunity, for art is inherently tricky—a trick played on the mind and perception, the more imaginative the more tricky.
Cutrone's flag, then, is tricky, all the more so because we're not sure whether it's a flag of surrender, as the white X that replaces the black X in Gen-X, 1999 suggests, or a war flag, as the black X—a sort of attenuated ("minimalist"?) crossbones suggests. Do the contradictory Xs symbolize the conflict of black and white Americans in an implicitly on-going Civil War, even as it suggests that the opposites are twins, alike except that one is black and one is white, and also alike because black and white are both colorless, subsume and extinguish all colors in themselves, suggesting that both are peculiarly deadening in their one-dimensionality and purity? Both stand out against the field of the flag, suggesting individuality defiantly standing out against society. The X is a sort of screwball cross, suggesting the crucifixion of the individual. And suggesting that America is a screwball place—full of screwballs, people screwing each other the way Warhol screwed abstract art. (Did he have a screw loose, the way Pollock did? Aren't both Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism screwball art—isn't modern art a screwball art compared to traditional art?) Or is the white cross a phoenix rising from the flames, while the black cross is the charred remains of an individual burned alive in them? Is the angelic white cross a risen individual, and the devilish black cross a fallen individual? Is the white cross the saintly sign of a blessing and the black cross the sinful sign of a curse? Double meanings not only abound in Cutrone's art, they are its cognitive and expressive substance.
Paradox is always traumatic, and the paradoxical interplay of black and white crosses suggests the traumatic reality behind the American Dream: the Ku Klux Klan burned black Americans on a white Christian cross, desecrating it even as they made blacks Christian martyrs. America is hardly as Christian as it claims to be, unless to produce martyrs makes it ironically Christian. It is worth noting that Christ was sometimes shown on an X-shaped cross in some medieval paintings, signifying that his body was torn apart—like Cutrone's (Christian?, Communist?) red ant—before it was elevated. Indeed, it had to be destroyed before it could be resurrected in heaven. It is also worth noting that Christ was regarded as a sort of Communist: the twelve apostles formed the first commune. The Factory was a commune of sorts, even if Warhol was the anti-Christ.
Cutrone, "The Handwriting on the Wall (God's Graffiti)," 1982. Acrylic on Mid-Eastern Flags, 9' x 14'. Private Collection, Milan.
Cutrone is ironically apocalyptic, again and again. Bomm, 2003 makes the apocalyptic point clear, even as it suggests that cartoons—popular illustrations--have gotten a bum rap. They may look like bad art from the perspective of abstract art, but Cutrone's work—his art in general—shows them revitalizing a decadent abstract art. Mr. Softee, 2004 suggests that America has become soft. Study for tribute (Smurf), 2004 suggests that the revolutionary spirit of 1776 has become a joke. It's got the same yellow streak of cowardice that mars Woody Flag—Study for Tribute, 1984. ABC Mickey, 1990 mocks both so-called ABC Art, as Barbara Rose called Minimalism when it first appeared—the label has stuck, for it conveys the simple-mindedness behind its theoretical pretentions—and the charm of simple-minded fun-and-games America, symbolized by the ingratiating Mickey Mouse. He may know his ABCs, just as Minimalism knows the ABCs of art, but they don't know much more. Mickey is as American as the American flag—the American ABC, as it were--he stands in front of in Mouse with Flag, 1988, but he's after all nothing but a child's toy, confirmed by the fact that he has become Keith Haring's "radiant child," as his red and yellow aura indicates. In ABC Mickey's animal head is mounted on a blank wall and contained in a wide pitch black frame, suggesting he's a death's head, if also a trophy of the dead American Dream. Woody and Felix Go West, 1987, dreaming of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in California, but it's a dumb dream, as the meaningless marks that form the predella of the picture, and are also pictured in the speech balloon emanating from Felix's head, suggest. Beneath Cutrone's comic mask there is always the tragic face of America.
The brightly colored Trix, 2001, with its black and white death's head, makes the point clearly. The grid of look-alike breakfast cereal boxes that are the surface of the work form a façade in the Potemkin's village that is America. Death pops out of it like a Jack in the Box, disturbing the pretty pictures, the happy scene with its bowls of cheap cereal and radiant fruit—the illusion of America as a land of limitless abundance, of good things there for the asking, mass produced and cheap enough for everyone to afford and enjoy. It is an intrusive skull, every bit as unsettling as the skull in Holbein's The Ambassadors, 1546, and every bit as menacing. It breaks through the surface of the picture, as though erupting from the unconscious. It cuts us to the quick, and has only one purpose: to destroy illusions, especially illusions of the Good Life. We have become shadows in its empty eye sockets. The grim skull is at odds with the smiling Bugs Bunny, a symbol of American high-spirits and America's belief that it can meet any challenge, defeat any enemy. But Bugs is small and white, the skull is immense—monumental—and mostly black. And no animal or human being or country, however great, has ever defeated death. The Bunny doesn't stand a chance, however fast he may run. He is repeated—a serialized presence—suggesting he is running as fast as he can, but he's stuck in place, and sooner or later will be swallowed whole by the skull, the way a big fish swallows small fish. He may be a tasty morsel, and the cereal bowl, piled high with fruit, looks tempting and nourishing, but they signal the hollow redundancy—vacuousness--of the American Dream.
Twix , along with The More I Find Out…The Less I Know, is a consummate masterpiece. There are others, but the irony in these is sharpened to a fine point. The former suggests that one is betwixt and between the American Dream of Everlasting Plenty and the Universal Reality of Everlasting Death, and that both are tricks life plays on us. The latter suggests that the more one finds out about America the less one understands it. Perhaps it can never be understood, and perhaps there's nothing left to understand, once one sees through it its glitter and glow to its banality—sees through it the way the skull sees through the cereal boxes. Perhaps America is over and soon to be done with, as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse suggest. Cutrone's paintings are as nihilistic and disillusioning as the Horsemen are, however full of popular illusions. Cutrone's paintings are ingeniously pessimistic, for all the optimism of the cartoon characters—or are they Horsemen of the Apocalypse in disguise, making them even more tricky?--suggesting that America has become self-defeating, not to say a joke, like Raggedy Andy, with his dollar bills, American flags, and hearts—another radiant child, as his aura shows, who has tricked us into believing in him and America. It also tricks us into believing in it by treating us as children.
3. I've Got Religion: Cutrone as True Believer
I rely on the Bible for inspiration—a drug, a philosophy, imagination, or even a time of day, is much to iffy for me to trust in. Ronnie Cutrone, "Inspiration"
Praying. Research. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you. Ronnie Cutrone, "Guidance"
A soul (character) is in the blood; good or bad—that is where it is. Painting with blood to me is like painting with soul—life matter. Ronnie Cutrone, "Painting with Blood"
Shortly after this picture was taken I realized there was no Santa and therefore no easter bunny; no elves. I assumed that nothing invisible really existed. Logically, I concluded that there was no God. I was logically wrong. Many years later I felt the power of the invisible through God, and being somewhat of an elf, I can attest to that. Now I clearly see that seeing is not believing. Believing is believing. Ronnie Cutrone, "Santa Claus"
It's the spirit that counts. Ronnie Cutrone, "Graffiti"
I believe in death, resurrection, and eventually eternal life. Ronnie Cutrone, "Immortality" All of the above quotations are from the named sections in "Notes to myself"
There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience(8)
To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self, hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms, whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience(9)
Pop goes the weasel, as the saying goes, and Warhol was a weasel who went Pop. In Irish mythology the weasel symbolizes watchful love, which is a good trait, but also fickleness and falsehood, which are bad traits. A weasel is self-contradictory, and as such tricky, and Warhol was a tricky weasel. He had a good side and a bad side, and Cutrone accepted both, at least for the decade he worked for Warhol. Warhol's kindness gave him faith in himself, and Warhol's commitment to art gave him faith in art. But Warhol was also in bad faith: he made art that was as fickle and false as the celebrities it pictured. He used art to enviously appropriate their celebrity. Envy is a mortal sin, and Warhol was a sinner. Eventually Cutrone realized that it was better to be a saint—to become more good than bad, to become as good as one can, to overcome one's contradictory nature—than a self-contradictory sinner.
Celebrities were muses for Warhol, and as such sacred—higher beings—if only for the moment, for Warhol was fickle (some would say promiscuous), preferring now this one, now that one, abandoning each as soon as he was no longer inspired by them (which was quickly). He was true to none, suggesting he was a false lover, however watchful his love for Cutrone. In contrast, Cutrone was monogamous: "The only muse I have is Woody Woodpecker." Bugs Bunny and Felix the Cat were surrogates for Woody—back-up muses, as it were—and as such not as sacred, if still higher beings. Woody was a saint among saints, while celebrities were sinners among sinners. When Cutrone left Warhol he became Woody, and gave up the American Dream of becoming a celebrity. He no longer wanted to be false to himself—sin against himself, as Warhol did by becoming a celebrity. He became focused—one might say fixated--on Woody, and a few of his cousins (a sort of supporting cast), rather than capriciously moving from celebrity to celebrity, as Warhol did. Woody had enough celebrity for Cutrone, and Woody had integrity, as none of Warhol's celebrities did, and as Warhol didn't. Lacking integrity—loyalty to oneself, as it were--celebrities kept changing identities. They were actors, temporarily inhabiting a role the way sand crabs temporarily inhabited some shell, restlessly moving from empty shell to empty shell. They had no permanent residence in themselves. They had no secure sense of self: Cutrone secured his sense of self when he made Woody his muse, unlike Warhol, whose many muses—pseudo-muses, for he inhabited the photographic shells of celebrities, decorating them so they seemed less empty—suggested his profound insecurity. He too was an actor; Cutrone recalls only one moment when Warhol dropped the guard of his role, quickly recovering it, and with that his falseness.
Warhol parasitically associated himself with celebrities. He shamelessly worshiped at the shrine of celebrity, joined the consumer cult of celebrity that was the religion of the masses. He relished being a celebrity and consumer. Cutrone makes it clear that he was not as ironical about celebrities and consumer society as he has been said to be. The Big American Dream is to become a Big Celebrity, and with that economically and socially privileged. Warhol not only realized this Big American Dream, but became a sort of celebrity's celebrity, the artist celebrity whose imprimatur confirmed that a celebrity was really a celebrity. To have a photograph of oneself turned into a certified work of art by Warhol was to have one's inauthenticity authenticated. It was also to turn something not quite respected as art into respectable if risqué art. Similarly, pictured by Warhol, a non-celebrity instantly became a celebrity. A nobody became somebody, if only for the fifteen minutes of fame Warhol's "aesthetic treatment" of his or her appearance gave him or her. Warhol performed a kind of plastic surgery on Marilyn Monroe's face and Elvis Presley's body, reminding us that modern art—modern painting in particular--is heavily invested in the so-called plasticity of the medium. The photograph is a found object, and becoming an assisted photograph—assisted into becoming art, like Duchamp's readymades—one becomes one's own reproduction. Warhol taught Cutrone that one could use found images—which is what cartoons are—to make art. Indeed, one could use art to bring out the art in them—to show that they were inherently artistic, that is, aesthetically significant and uniquely insightful. He learned Warhol's lessons well, but Cutrone had to learn for himself that art could have a higher purpose. Warhol famously said what you see is what you get, but Cutrone came to realize that there is something invisible to "get." God was true to himself the way a celebrity could never be, and he realized that one had to be true to God to be true to oneself.
Cutrone, "The Dead in Christ in Space," 1983, acrylic on banner, 8' x 12'.
Such works as The dead in Christ in space, 1983, which show Woody as a winged angel in heaven—flying at last! (high on Christ rather than drugs, serenely above it all rather than making mischief on earth)--along with an untitled work from that same year showing Mickey Mouse, transformed into Superman, triumphantly flying in heaven, above a row of saints with archangel wings—also tricky hybrid figures, that is, half human and half divine--as well as Divine intervention, 1982, make it clear that Cutrone became a religious artist as soon as he left Warhol. 1982 was the year he left Warhol, and in 1982 he began to make spiritual art—Post-Pop Art indeed, for Pop Art is spiritless and irreligious: Warhol's celebrities are soulless, unless being sexy is to be soulful. Warhol may have reproduced a reproduction of Leonardo's Last Supper, ca. 1495-98, but it was a reproduction of figures who had become celebrities. It was divine intervention that saved Cutrone from Warhol—implicitly the fallen, bloodsucking, sinful creature the mysteriously amorphous forms (the pillar of smoke in which God became visible?) are coming to save. The same vile and violent figure—the same repulsive, graceless human being—appears in other works, without the presence of the graceful sky forms. Like a vampire, Warhol sucked the life and soul out of Cutrone. It is no accident that immediately after leaving Warhol he went to St. Luke's to celebrate—to replenish himself. From Lindsay the stripper, the sexy embodiment and symbol of the natural life, to St. Luke, the Christian embodiment and symbol of the spiritual life: it was a conversion experience. Superman may have had his sexual misadventures, and be sexually confused, as a 2007 work shows, but, when Clark Kent transforms himself into Superman, as he does in another work of the same year, he becomes unequivocally superior. He becomes an invincible angel—flying in heaven rather than earthbound, as Clark Kent is, an immortal rather than a mere mortal. No longer divided against himself, he becomes divine.
Not that Cutrone renounced sexuality, but that he became focused on death—the death Christ triumphantly stands over in The dead in Christ in space, the death symbolized by the skull in Trix, reminding us that death is always with us. Just as the saints always kept a skull beside them—Dürer shows St. Jerome in his study with a skull on his writing desk (1514)—to remind them of death, so Cutrone shows skulls to remind us of death. We must face it to become saved—we need Christ to be rescued from it. "Death, where is thy sting?," the Bible asks, telling us that Christ has taken the sting out of death. Thus Cutrone's is preoccupied with immortality, as his "Notes to myself" make clear: all his cartoon characters are immortal, as he doubts he is. Woody is saved by Christ, as Cutrone hopes to be, and the meek Mickey becomes the brave Superman that Cutrone would like to be—no longer an earthbound, elfin mouse but a big heavenly power. Cutrone borrows his Christ and saints and angel wings from medieval "cartoons," which is the way he thinks of the works that depict the lives of the saints, their path from sin to salvation, often by way of martyrdom—I think Cutrone thinks of himself as a kind of Christian martyr in comic disguise, or perhaps a saint manqué—just as he borrows his screwball characters from modern cartoons. Saints are sort of screwballs--abnormal, absurd, unrealistic--from a secular perspective, and so are Cutrone's cartoon characters. And saints have become cartoon characters in the modern world. Warhol turned himself into a cartoon character; Cutrone doesn't want to be one, however much he represents himself as one: he leaves the cult of Warhol to join the religion of Christ. The blessing of Christ lifts the curse of Warhol. Christ transcends Warhol, and is much more important, and Cutrone discovers his own importance by recognizing the transcendental import of Christ.
Religious imagery, ideas, and symbols occur again and again in Cutrone, for example, in Sword of Expulsion, 1983 (it evokes expulsion from the pseudo-Eden of the Factory as well as the inability of the world's religions to enter heaven because they are at war with each other), Buddah, 2000 (a godhead in the process of moving from invisibility to visibility, as the mystical atmosphere in which his face appears suggests), and, with tour de force brilliance, in Cult of the Feathered Cobra, 1987-88, where Felix the Cat witnesses a ritual of redemption, in which Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise, even as they are saved from death, symbolized by the skulls, with fiery eyes, in the hell below them, by the snake—now the cobra sacred to Hinduism--that got them into trouble in the first place. The Fall of Humpty Dumpty, 1983 probably refers to the fall of man as well as the fall of America. The cartoon figures are sacred, as the aura—in effect a halo--around the heads of many of them suggests. Cutrone thinks his cartoons belong in an illuminated manuscript, for they too illustrate and accompany a sacred text. Viewing an illuminated manuscript in an Armenian monastery near Venice, he was shown an image that a monk told him was the first cartoon. He said he knew it. Sometimes it's Hard to be Hero, 2007, but Cutrone clearly has his tricky sacred heroes.
Cutrone's characters are at war with themselves, and images of war abound in his art. From the R[ed] + B[lack] Ants (after Thoreau), 1981--two blacks ants are fighting over the dead body of one red ant, and red blood and black blood drip down the sides of the work, the delicacy of its execution belying the violence of the scene--to Cowboy and Indian, 2010 violence is a consistent theme in Cutrone's works. So is a sense of conflicted identity, as the tumble of contradictory words in his graffiti paintings suggest. He is tempted by "tits," as one of them says, even as he finds "God" at the bottom of another list of words in another graffiti painting. "It's twue it's weally twue the wove of money is the woot of all evil!," the angelic Tweety Bird—a halo sprouts from his head, adorning its baldness—exclaims in yet another graffiti painting. But the black and white Krazy Kat below him—its body has the same form as Woody's body, and the black and white are in the same place the red and white are on his torso, indicating he's a surrogate for Woody, who is a surrogate for Cutrone—is happily, indeed, ecstatically immersed in a grid of dollar bills. Apart from the space in which the moralizing Tweety Bird stands, money covers the work completely—another Potemkin's village façade behind which there is nothing, the black void in which Tweety Bird stands like a prophet of doom, offering his wise warning words to the unheeding lover of money, the cat crazy about money, and soon to be damned, if not already damned by his craziness. It's a stand-off between the radiant child—the baby Christ—and the black cat, the devil with his fool's gold. The evil dragon, a dumb adult, and the smart saintly child—the Bible tells us you must be like a child to enter heaven—are once again at odds. We're at the crossroads where good and evil meet, and it's not clear which road we'll take: the narrow high road leading to heaven or the wide road to hell. Sometimes one thinks Cutrone wants the dragon—money-mad Warhol, a crazy cat indeed—to win the fight. Warhol certainly possessed his soul at one time.
But clearly Felix the Cat, busily battling a canvas with palette in hand—the sword with which he fights his demons, as it were--is winning the battle,
which no doubt is why he is smiling, with a certain transcendental intensity, not to say the happiness of knowing he is saved. He is blood red—full of
soul--suggesting that he has bathed in the blood of the Lamb of God, sacrificing himself for art as Christ did for him, and using art to dedicate himself
to Christ. Art is his way of atoning for his sins while acknowledging—confessing—them. Christ, after all, came with a sword—he fought against evil,
shedding his blood for us, and successfully struggled against temptation, suffering it yet resisting it, as all the saints do--which is the way Cutrone
pictures him in The dead in Christ in Space. Cartoons may be entertainment, but Cutrone's are also dead serious. Warhol's cartoons—his works are
sort of blown up cartoons, and his celebrities are cartoon figures, funny despite themselves, just as his dollar bills are counterfeit, that is, funny
money, a treat that is really a trick--show us the damned in hell, while Cutrone's cartoons show us figures trying to reach heaven, and sometimes getting
there. Their liveliness is enlivening and inspiring, while Warhol's works are dispiriting and deadening. Strange as it may seem to say so, Cutrone is a
Christian artist, working in the medieval tradition of imitatio Christi. His cartoon figures try to imitate Christ—just as Christ descended into
hell to save the dead from their sins, so they descend into the tempting hell of America to save it from its sins--which is also what Cutrone is trying to
do by way of his art. Cutrone's story begins with Warhol, but it ends with Christ—a happy ending.
(1)It had to be removed from the Greenville County Museum of Art (South Carolina), where it was first exhibited, because it was regarded as "a disgrace to the U.S. flag," as Arthur Poston, vice commander of James Daniel Post III of the American Legion (of war veterans), said. "I realize everyone has their own individual views, but it's the wrong time, with the troubles we've got in Beirut and Grenada," Poston added. "It's unpatriotic," and it was re-located "to a conference room, where it can be viewed by those who request access to the room." Thus Cutrone's first amendment right to free speech was protected, even as his work was socially censored. Associated with the flag burnings in the sixties protesting the Vietnam War, it was "disrespectful," but he and the flag burners were entitled to their point of view, in whatever form they wished to express it. One viewer regarded Cutrone's flag work as an insult to the American Marines who had recently died in Lebanon, recognizing Cutrone's preoccupation with death, particularly the deaths caused by its political ambitions, its attempt to impose its will on country beyond its borders, a form of imperialism. Greenville Piedmont, November 9, 1983. It is worth noting that that Civil War began in South Carolina; the state remains profoundly conservative, not to say reactionary.
(2)In a famous metaphor, Rosenberg contrasted the self-defeating Redcoat type artist with the revolutionary Coonskiner type artist. The former was identified with the troops, wearing Redcoats that made them an easy target, led by General Braddock to put down the rebellious colonies, and the latter with the colonial Coonskinners who picked them off, defeating them by hiding behind trees in an early version of guerilla warfare. Ironically, what unconsciously defeated the Redcoats—"extreme European professionals"—was their "skill," their "highly perfected technique," so inflexible that it precluded improvisation, and blinded them to the rugged American environment in which they were deployed, in contrast to the "primitive" Coonskinners, sharpshooters who lived in the raw environment, and knew it from the inside, not the outside. They were so well adapted to it that they could move through it with ease and rapidly, improvising as they went along, unlike the British on a forced march through an inhospitable environment they had no understanding of. Braddock's Defeat was a critical battle of the American Revolution, which was a criticism and reaction to British tyranny, not to say autocratic rigidity. Redcoat art used European models that had become over-objectified tyrannies—reified to the point of expressive irrelevance, and thus of no critical and subjective significance (which is what abstract art had become for Cutrone)—while Coonskinner art conveyed the innovative American spirit, able to improvise as needed in response to society, and as such had a critical and subjective point to make. For Rosenberg to be a genuinely American artist one had to creatively—which meant critically--respond to the American environment, with whatever weapon one had at hand (weapons it itself unwittingly supplied, like the rifles with which the colonial sharpshooters hunted to survive in the American wilderness)—rather than use old European ideas of art, however avant-garde—improvised—they once were. The European environment they once creatively reacted to did not exist in America, nor for that matter in post-war Europe. Harold Rosenberg, "Parable of American Painting," The Tradition of the New (New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1965) 13-22.
It seems clear that American-made cartoon figures were Cutrone's weapon of choice, indicating his ability to adapt to what is in effect the mainstream of American art—popular commercial art—and that he used his weapons like a deft sharpshooter, always hitting the target: the American flag and what it had come to stand for in his lifetime—certainly no longer what the "Don't Tread on Me" flag stood for in revolutionary times.
(3)In a prescient essay, Baudelaire suggests that the child's toy—a "strange statuary art, with its lustrous neatness, its blinding flashes of colour, its violence in gesture and decision of contour"—epitomizes modern beauty and is the model of the modern work of art, with its "inextricable muddle of strange shapes and clashing colors." Charles Baudelaire, "A Philosophy of Toys" , The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. Jonathan Mayne (London and New York: Phaidon, 2010), 199. The description fits Cutrone's art to a T. It seems clear that he likes to play with dolls, and his pictures are rooms in a dollhouse.
(4)Charles Baudelaire, "The Salon of 1846," The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), 126
(5)C. G. Jung, "On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure" , The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959), 255
(6)The cartoon "screwball character," always an animal who behaved in a human way, was created in the late 1930s by so-called storybook artist Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, who worked for the Warner Brothers cartoon studio at the time. The first screwball characters were Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Hardaway created Woody Woodpecker in 1940. Felix the Cat was created by the American animator Otto Mesmer, first appearing in 1919 Feline Follies. He was enormously popular, perhaps because "felix" means luck in Latin, and America had just fought and won World War I. It is significant that Woody and Felix are both associated with war, a "tradition" that Cutrone—clearly a storybook artist, that is, an artist who uses cartoons to tell a popular story (such as the story of America and the Christian story)—continues. Krazy Kat appeared even earlier: he was the eponymous hero of the American comic strip created by cartoonist George Herriman. It first appeared in the New York Evening Journal, and appeared daily in newspapers throughout the United States from 1913 through 1944, that is, the year before World War I began in Europe—the beginning of its end—and the year before World War II ended, confirming that it had ended. It made a new start, but the glory and power had passed from it to the United States.
Cutrone "Front Yard," 1983, acrylic and mixed media on wooden fence, 6" x 8". Private Collection, Milan.
The phrase "Krazy Kat" originated in The Family Upstairs, a sidestrip Herriman made to accompany the comic strip. It was a mouse who gave "Krazy Kat" his name. It is worth noting that Krazy Kat had a profound influence on Dadaism and Surrealism. He came to symbolize a world gone crazy, the animal in society let loose and running amuck. Not coincidentally, Dadaism appeared during World War I, and Surrealism the decade afterwards. Dadaism's zaniness mirrored the war's madness, and Surrealism's perverse imagery reflected the absurd world it left in its violent wake. It was a world so full of contradictions it could not help going to war a second time. "Offbeat Surrealism," as it has been called, "innocent playfulness and poetic idiosyncracy," characterized the Krazy Kat comic strip.
It seems the comic strip was in the avant-garde advance, suggesting that the cartoonists were avant-garde artists. Isn't Cubism a sort of screwball art, and dependent on the screwball look—jerky motion and body language--of the first silent films, as scholars have shown? Body language was the only language before the talkies. It conveyed—dramatically acted out--emotion, often intense, the intensity punctuated by the broken—staccato--rhythm with which the film moved. Cutrone's cartoons are like stills from these early movies; run them together and you have a highly emotional silent film, as redundantly dramatic and suspenseful as they were. He understood that popular culture was a reservoir of images, and that avant-garde art began with the cartoon, mockingly offensive yet emotionally and socially truthful, as Daumier's cartoons were.
The obsessive Ignatz Mouse was the antagonist of Krazy Kat, who has an unrequited love for the mouse. The mouse throws bricks at the cat, who regards them as signs of affection, confirming he's crazy. Craziness never sees things for what they are, and always regards them as the opposite of what they mean. Krazy Kat misreads reality, in the person of the mouse, his violent enemy, whom he mistakes for his lover. Tweety Bird and Krazy Kat are also mismatched. The bird's remark about money is the brick he throws at the cat. It's clearly a marriage made in the emotional hell in which Cutrone seemed to live until he found God. Recognizing reality—including the invisible reality of God--is always a problem for the insane, for it is disillusioning: reality is not really a comic strip or soap opera—a dream world--as Warhol thought it was.
(7)Harold Rosenberg, "Action Painting: Crisis and Distortion," The Anxious Object (New York: Horizon Press, 1964), 46-47
(8)William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience , (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), 163