Tons of exhibitions have traced the influence of pop culture on modern and contemporary art. A show at Loyala Marymount University’s Laband Art Gallery flips that premise. It’s exploring the influence of modern art on Woody Woodpecker.
That’s about the thinnest premise ever, and the thinness is part of the fun. Curated by LMU’s animation chair Tom Klein, “Woody Woodpecker & the Avant-Garde” argues—convincingly—that two brief explosion sequences in the 1945 Woody Woodpecker cartoon The Loose Nut are prescient compendia of mid-century abstraction and emergent action painting.
It’s Hollywood legend that animator Walter Lantz’s coitus was interrupted by an avian pecker at his High Sierra honeymoon cottage. Thus was born Lantz’s toon brainchild, Woody Woodpecker. Woody was a fast-talking amoral anarchist who always got the best of dopey, slow-burn humans. Mel Blanc adopted the “laughing” vocalizations of woodpeckers in creating the voice of Woody. But Blanc left the franchise after signing an exclusive contract with Warner Brothers. There his voicing duties included Bugs Bunny, Woody’s approximate smart-alecky counterpart.
The protagonists of the Laband exhibition are neither Lantz nor Blanc but a hipster animator, Shamus Culhane, and an art gallery he frequented, American Contemporary Gallery on La Cienega Blvd. It was one of the most advanced L.A. galleries of the 1940s, showing paintings by Oskar Fischinger (above, Composition 44, 1944), Jules Engel, and Knud Merrild (below, Sidereal Parturition, 1947). Fischinger and Engel had day jobs at the studios. The American Contemporary Gallery also had a film program borrowing from the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. Culhane, along with many other Hollywood types, was there exposed to the experimental cinema of Eisenstein, Man Ray, Fischinger, and many others.
The Barber of Seville, a 1945 Woody Woodpecker cartoon, has fast cutting inspired by Eisenstein. (The better-known, Chuck Jones-directed Rabbit of Seville, a Bugs Bunny cartoon set at the Hollywood Bowl, was six years later. Opera once played a bigger role in pop animation than it does now.)
There is a long tradition of animators hiding Easter eggs in cartoons. In The Greatest Man in Siam (1944), Culhane subverted Hayes Code censorship by sneaking phallic and vaginal shapes into a family-friendly cartoon. But for the 1945 Woody Woodpecker cartoon, The Loose Nut, Culhane threw in something as taboo as sex to mainstream sensibilities: modern art. Culhane invented two “explosion” sequences riffing on Fischinger and the pre-Pollock drip painting of Merrild. They run as much as 7 seconds, so they’re definitely not subliminal. “Woody Woodpecker & the Avant-Garde” has three screens showing the full cartoon in regular time plus slowed-down loops of both abstract sequences.
The first has Woody, in a bulldozer, flatten a human adversary. In the second, said human gets revenge by supplying duffer Woody with a golf ball made of TNT.
Each abstract sequence is a short flicker film of hand-painted pop abstraction. Some frames blend a Russian constructivist aesthetic with comic book shorthand explosions.
This makes an interesting contrast to Roy Lichtenstein‘s cartoon explosions of generation later. Lichtenstein made high art of low art; Culhane did roughly the opposite.
It’s said that Culhane and background artist Terry Lind collaborated on a panoramic painting for the explosion sequences. Here’s an image of about 2/3 of it, from the blog Tralfaz. The film sequence pans left to right, intercutting to figurative close-ups, cartoon explosion frames, or single-color frames.
There is definitely a figurative element representing the planet Saturn. The part I’m likening to 1950s Sam Francis is to the right of the portion shown.
Unfortunately this painting/drawing, a monument of hi-lo art history, isn’t in the Laband show. Consider the date, 1945. That’s just a few years after Knud Merrild’s first Flux paintings (1942) and Jackson’s Pollock’s 1943 Guggenheim-Iowa Mural. It shares with Mural the panoramic format. It predates the first Jackson Pollock drips (c. 1947) and the 1949 Life magazine article that introduced Pollock to the American public.
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