Contemporary art Commemorating 9/11 USA

Art goes back to school

The artist and author of Maus returns to his old high school for his first public mural project

Spiegelman and the plans for the new High School of Art and Design

NEW YORK. Art Spiegelman, who chronicled his father’s experience in Auschwitz in a then-improbable medium, a comic book entitled Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, is at work on his first public art project, a glass mural for the high school he attended in New York.

The mural, now in production at a factory in Munich, won’t be installed until more than a year from now says the artists, in a corridor at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, which will move into a huge multi-use structure on East 56th Street, near its original location on 2nd Avenue and 57th Street. Spiegelman said the provisional title of the work was It Was Today, Only Yesterday.

“It’s about the past, present and future, since it’s my old high school. It’s looking back and looking forward from the present, so it makes a three-paneled comic strip, with one panel of past, one panel of present, one panel of future,” said the author. “It functions with panels moving in time. People get to walk back and forth between past and future.”

“There are lots of colours — very comic book colours, and it’s very comic book inflected,” he said.

Like much of his work, the mural will have autobiographical elements. “From the back, should someone be patient and hold up a mirror to the text, one can read the open spread of a book, which consists of three anecdotes, cut off at the beginning and the end — the book is called Spiegelman: The Early Years, and it consists of high school memories.”

“We have nothing on glass yet,” cautioned the author of Maus, who was reluctant to provide additional details.

Spiegelman is also the creator of the “Garbage Pail Kids”, a popular collection of satirical and grotesque trading cards, which were banned in many schools. Nonetheless, the high school’s current principal suggested that Spiegelman propose the mural project. The artist noted that an earlier principal expelled him temporarily from the school in his final year, for publishing an article in the school newspaper deploring the school’s decision to name its student gallery for a corporate sponsor, Pepsi-Cola. “I thought that was disgusting,” he recalled. “I didn’t think that a billboard for Pepsi should be the centrepiece for what is produced by and for the school. Now, with stadiums, whole cities are up for sale.”

The new $500 million building that will house the high school is itself something of a corporate project. Designed by the large architecture film Skidmore Owings and Merrill, it will include a Whole Foods grocery store. A tower of 350 luxury apartments will be built atop the school in a second construction phase. The budget for Spiegelman’s mural comes from the Percent for Art programme, which devotes a fraction of the building’s construction cost to art. A new work by Lawrence Weiner will also be on site.

Spiegelman acknowledged that he found it odd, as the author of Maus, to be working with a manufacturer in Munich, the city of Hitler’s 1923 beer hall putsch. “I can’t help it when I see people walking around in lederhosen without irony. With the smell of beer hops reaching the factory where I’m working, the ghosts of the past definitely come forward,” he said.

The author noted that these sentiments might have been influenced by another recent project, MetaMaus, a new book (published in October in the US by Pantheon) in which Spiegelman re-examines the comic on the 25th anniversary of its publication. The book, which includes a DVD of the complete Maus hyperlinked with source materials, is structured around an extensive interview with Spiegelman.

He confessed to misgivings about promoting the book. “I feel it’s a bit absurd to be interviewed about an interview, but the book came out way better than expected, so I feel protective of it. I’m in my usual situation, which I think is called ambivalence. I know I have to do something with the press. I’m not going to JD Salinger this one out. On the other hand, I don’t relish being in a hall of mirrors, like MetaMetaMetaMaus.”

“At the moment I’m ducking press about September 11,” he noted, “since everybody’s obligated now to do a story about it. Basically, on that story, Bin Laden sort of stole the thunder of the anniversary, by getting himself caught.”

The World Trade Center attacks, which the author witnessed while walking near his home and studio in Soho, inspired In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), Spiegelman’s haunting broad-sheet meditation in the style of early 20th-century comics.

On Bin Laden’s killing, Spiegelman was typically ambivalent. “It was a good moment, although I cringed at the vengeful beer party that took place there ten minutes later. It seemed that the toothpaste had been long out of the tube there, and we’d never get it back in, no matter what,” he said. “It wasn’t an emotional response like, ‘I’ll dance on your grave,’ although I wouldn’t have lifted a finger to deflect the bullet.”

The cover of Spiegelman's new book, MetaMaus
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