If you haven’t been to the Morgan Library & Museum lately, then you might be under the impression that it’s a musty, gilded mansion stuck in the olden days, albeit laden with treasured works on paper. But one of the current shows, On the Money, shows that the Morgan has a sense of humor and a contemporary kick to go along with its airy Renzo Piano greenhouse addition. This comes hot on the heels of the wonderful and very popular Babar drawing show which no doubt introduced the Morgan to a whole new generation of collectors.
The exhibition of original drawings of money-themed cartoons from The New Yorker magazine turns a mirror on this institution, begun as the private library of magnate Pierpont Morgan. Many of the cartoons poke “poor little rich guy” fun at tycoons, or the Wizard of Oz-like façade of executive work. Others hit all too close to home in this house-of-horrors economic climate.
Aside from a couple from the 30s and 50s, a good deal of the cartoons in this show ran in gloomy economic times of recent decades: in the 70s, Black Tuesday in the late 80s, and again in the 90s. Come to think of it, it’s perversely reassuring that in each of the past several decades there have been dips in the country’s financial strength, and we managed to recover each time. We will again (right?), but the question is, after how much pain? It’s not nearly as bad as after 9/11 when it felt like the entire city might never laugh again, but I suppose it depends on your point of view.
”Hey, why don’t we just say we have ninety-one per cent full employment?” published 1976. Cartoon by Lee Lorenz. Photo: Joseph Zehavi.
The array of artists shows how widely varying stylistic approaches can succeed on different merits. Cartoonist Lee Lorenz has one of the most eyecatching graphic styles. He uses a bold, lively line and draws on all gradients of black. His characters are fat cats, but they’re also sympathetic and ignorantly jovial – caricatures of themselves.
Dana Fradon’s style is more deadpan, with sardonic captions that capture a sense of entitlement or fatal realism. “Listen, pal! I didn’t spend seven million bucks to get here so I could yield the floor to you.”, grandstands a politician. A well-dressed panhandling couple carries a sign reading, “Not as well off as our parents were at our age”. Ring any bells?
A series of photographic portraits of the cartoonists accompanies the exhibition. Taken by Anne Hall primarily in the 80s, the photos are notable as they show how largely male and caucasian the artists are, and that they mostly live in Connecticut or suburban New York. And some have adorable pets.
There are a couple of cartoons by Roz Chast (not represented by a portrait), whose unique neurotic scribblings have earned her a dedicated legion of fans. Her manner of cataloguing our worst fears is perhaps the most cathartic method of dealing with bad times. At least we know we’re not alone, and not even close to thinking the worst!