Saturday, March 9, 2013

Chicken Fat at the Society of Illustrators

Even Harvey Kurtzman's signature is funny.
I don't live in New York, but I just happened to be there when the Society of Illustrators on 63rd Street opened its new exhibit, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman.  I have been a fan of Kurtzman since I was a pre-teen and discovered Mad comics through reproduced inserts in Mad magazine's "Super Special" issues. Even as a kid, I noticed there was something about those old comics that was lacking in the Mad magazine  of 1974.  I didn't know it then, but the missing piece was Harvey Kurtzman.  

Society of Illustrators building in Manhattan.  Bring your hardhat. 
  Photo by Steve Moore 
I was thrilled - and I don't get all geeky-eyed so easily - to be able to see this exhibit. I was curious as to how they were going to do a Kurtzman exhibit, since so much of his work was doing layout roughs that were turned over to artists like Will Elder, Jack Davis, and Wallace Wood to create the final piece.  I was extra thrilled - easy boy - to see their original artwork included in the show as well.  LOTS of Elder, my personal favorite, and in its full, original size. I could clearly see all the 'chicken fat' he would place in the nooks and crannies - little gags tucked in the background that made panels so fun to scour.  The amount of work and the level of craftsmanship that went into these pieces was jaw droppingly astounding.  Very few white-outs or paste-overs. Masterful inking.

The exhibit spanned two floors, covering Kurtzman's entire career, from his student life drawings through Two Fisted Tales, Mad, Humbug, Help!, magazine pieces such as The Grasshopper and the Ant and Little Annie Fanny, and some later work up to 1991.  Here's a sampling, and pardon my reflections....
Kurtzman life drawing, circa 1941.
Kurtzman vellum rough above, versus his polished ink work, below.
Kurtzman's famous portrait of Bill Gaines of Mad Magazine.
Bill Elder's finished artwork on an ad in the ill-fated Humbug features Kurtzman as the Salvation Army Santa. and lots of 'chicken fat".
 Photostats of Kurtzman's roughs were found under Will Elder's finished artwork for this piece.
Kurtzman finished piece for a freelance job where he hung out with James Cagney in Ireland on a film shoot  
An uncompleted Annie Fanny strip, featuring The Beatles.  The pencil work was done by Jack Davis, the finished artwork by Will Elder.  
 A 1970's Kurtzman self-portrait, addressing his students at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Tom Sito was a student of Kurtzman back in the '70's.  He told FLIP: 

"Harvey Kurtzman taught cartoon illustration at SVA in the 1970s and 80s. His pupils included people like Drew Friedman, Keith Haring, and Bill Plympton.  I learned from Harvey about graphic composition, how to arrange my gray values within the frame. Which is applicable both in comic art as well as storyboarding. I also learned about gag writing, what jokes succeed and which fall flat. Because of his extensive connections in the cartoon business, he brought in amazing guest speakers for us like Terry Gilliam, Al Jaffee and Robert Crumb. He exposed us to new forms of cartoon art, like the French illustrators of Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) and Asterix. He told us that in part he was responsible for the creation of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus, because John Cleese first befriended Terry Gilliam when they were both in his employ at Humbug magazine. Years later I met Cleese on the Warner Bros lot in 2003, and he confirmed to me Harvey’s story.

Harvey was a very patient teacher. For someone with so much to tell us, he was a very good listener. He seemed genuinely interested in his student’s ideas, and didn’t mind playing the straight man to even our silliest gags. He didn’t condescend or teach down to us from the mountaintop. He treated you like you were just another colleague in his bullpen, even inviting us to share a beer with him at the local tavern before he caught the last train to Mount Vernon. This was intoxicating to our young minds, all on fire to create cartoons. Today, as I teach my own courses at USC, I draw a lot upon my experiences with Harvey, not just in technique, but in his way of inspiring the professionals of the future. When I see them moving on into the field, I feel I am repaying a debt owed to mentors like Harvey."

Some of the pieces in this show were so familiar to me, to see them in person really illuminated just how much was lost in the printing process.  It's like seeing your favorite film in a theater with a new print after ever only having seen it on VHS tape. If you're in the area, treat yourself.  Stop in at the Society of Illustrators.  They're open 10 to 5.

Oh, and there's a bonus!  Upstairs is an exhibit of Arnold Roth!  I'll post some from that tomorrow!


  1. Great story about a cartoonists-cartoonist who is not as well known to the general public. Gotta book me a ticket to New York!

  2. Great blog Steve. Just 2 things, my last name is misspelled, and Keith Haring, although briefly a student at SVA, was never one of Harvey's students. It's possible he sat in on a few classes.

  3. Drew, thanks for the clarification on Haring. Tom Sito was a student back in the '70's and his memory must be a bit fuzzy. And my apologies for misspelling your name. I have made the correction.

  4. Thanks Steve. Tom was one of Harvey's earlier students, I signed up for his course in '78 and stayed till '81. Harvey was the center of the SVA week. Other students who occasionally sat in include Dan Clowes and Peter Bagge.

  5. For the record, "Chicken Fat" was Will Elder's invention, what Harvey used to call Tchotchkies. Harvey's greatness was humbly enhanced by Will's Chicken Fat! Any Chicken Fat at the Society of Illustrators show can easily be traced back to Villy's shoes :)
    -Gary VandenBergh - Keeper of Will's jar of Chicken Fat.

    1. Thanks Gary! I'm looking forward to your Elder documentary. I would have liked to have met him.