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Remembering Herblock at the Portrait Gallery

September 8th, 2008 · 4 Comments

Nice Tapes Boy!

Look! --- Nice Tapes, Okay, Boy?---Okay?--

Now that we’re hitting the homestretch of a three year Presidential campaign that has lasted longer than most major wars, its a fitting time to look back at the recent history of the American presidency through the eyes of the inimitable Washington post cartoonist Herbert Block, who caricatured every president between Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush until his death in 2001 (at the time, newspapers lamented in his obituary the added frustration of losing the perspective of Herblock shortly after September 11th–after all, he had helped give perspective to a nation during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Watergate, the Cuban Missle Crises, the Iran Hostage and most national tragedies and hardships of the 20th century). Check out the exhibition of original cartoons the National Portrait Gallery has on display.

Going by the trade name of Herblock, he coined the term “McCarthyism,” now a required vocabulary word for every 11th grade American history student, and gave us some of the most memorable images of Richard Nixon ever drawn. The exhibition includes his minimal set of drawing supplies and the beautifully goofy bronze National Cartoonist Society’s Rueben Award (named after Rube Goldberg. It looks sorta like this). Most interesting of all is the opportunity to see how the artist worked–the still visible non-photo-blue pencil drawings, his large, fluid sketchy inkings, and the frequently whited out and taped over faces he corrected again and again and again.

Lets See If You Can Do Any Better

Now Lets See What You Can Do!

In short, this is a real gem of an exhibition, rare in its unusual subject and scope, well curated (except for a curious shortage of George W. Bush cartoons), and universally fascinating. My major critique of the exhibition is that the exhibition designers bought into the growing trend of putting a group of labels far from the artwork (to be less distracting). This works beautifully for adding existential weight to the purity of color field paintings and the like, but when you have to keep walking back and forth to read the title ofan artwork that doubles as the caption of the cartoon, it is just inappropriate and discouraging to the viewer.

(Thanks to a voracious appetite for anything resembling a cartoon, I first started reading Herblock around age 9 with no understanding of the political topics the work touched upon, and received his autobiography for Christmas from some encouraging family member around the same time. My copy is now pitifully worn and dog eared, looking a little bit like it was dragged through the political unrest of the 20th century itself, and I can safely say that Herblock was a primary influence in both my political interest and development as a painter.)

Tags: Art · Art Exhibitions · comic · washington D.C.