Art Young, the Legend, Revisited

He drew for The Masses’s successor radical magazine, the   Liberator, as much as he could allow himself at the low pay on offer. In Spiegelman’s phrase, “Young finds a way to hate the sin but not the sinner that arises from his deeply ingrained sense of humor, manifested in masterful exaggeration.” Here Spiegelman has captured the keystroke of the art itself, but artistic exaggeration was by no means Young’s only move. By the time that he came to socialist convictions, at age 40, he was already an admired figure of graphic expression in the world of newspapers and magazines — at least by those who knew the fields and recognized his talent. Thomas Rowlandson   (1938), a 54-page extended pamphlet in a trade book series on historic popular artists, is perfectly charming in its own right, with crisp prose. His own illustrator’s era, set in place before the photograph’s domination of newspaper and magazine pages, lay generations in the past. Recovered and already a veteran of sorts, Young covered the World’s Columbian Exposition, which put Chicago itself on the world’s stage. In all, the book’s bibliography lists almost two dozen pamphlets or booklets that were essentially illustrations of others’ writings. Woodrow Wilson’s administration put The Masses   on trial for sedition in 1918, guaranteeing the destruction of the magazine — the administration’s aim — without, however, successfully sending any artist to jail. There was nevertheless something anomalous about Young’s presence at the magazine. Young had never been one for romanticizing Bolshevism, and he never seems to have reconciled himself entirely to FDR or the New Deal, which he suspected of saving capitalism (charge true) and blazing a path toward war (also true). Addressing the scandal-ridden creation of the Exposition, he might have moved along in a political vein. SEPTEMBER 9, 2017
NEARLY 80 YEARS AGO, one of the sweetest books in the history of American radicalism appeared:   Art Young: His Life and Times. Marc Moorash, an archivist and book dealer personally intent upon reopening the Bethel gallery of Young’s creation, supplies a fine mini-essay on Young and The Masses. Young,   is the successor volume to the memoir in many ways. With the arrival of the brilliant young journalist-agitator, Max Eastman, and the creation of a board that included major artists John Sloan and Maurice Becker, The Masses made history. In this environment, human interest early on caught Young’s artistic eye. His crosshatching, shading, sense of perspective, and more look so easily accomplished that we forget that he took his craft as seriously as any master painter. So little is said of Young’s private life in these pages that we might wonder if he had any. The mostly local population, although loyally Republican, did not, as he later wrote, concern itself much with politics. These are painful, socially critical, and above all hilarious — much of the humor about living in New York or any modern metropolis — while still being deeply humanistic. There remain, nevertheless, definite — one might say inevitable — problems of understanding and appreciating the richness before our eyes. Thomas Nast’s famed contemporary drawings of Boss Tweed understandably won Young’s attention. Instead, he became seriously ill and recovered slowly, at first in Paris and then back in Monroe. Still, he remained a few years away from his apex. Did a clever, modest fellow, almost cute in his pudginess and sometimes with plenty of money, attract girlfriends? No books devoted to 20th-century artists, at least none reaching my desk, have been awarded more loving treatment, and it shows. We see unnamed women in photographs of his later years, and wonder. In it he highlights some of Young’s most magnificent political art, most especially but by no means only on the themes of war and class exploitation. As Rebecca Zurier has described the big city world of the 1910s in her marvelous volume,   Metropolitan Lives, the newspapers struck gold with drawings of everyday life, affording a cadre of mostly young artists the opportunity to make a decent living. Rather, he seems to have worked in Bethel and taken the train in for editorial meetings and social events. He could have predicted political failure for himself as a candidate, and probably did. This would be   his work for The Masses   magazine, founded in 1911 to support the cooperative movement but refounded, the following year, as a heavily illustrated, avant-garde magazine. Young’s captions to his own work, periodically interspersed throughout the book, are wonderfully wry. Dell was fresh from Chicago, where he had edited a weekly literary supplement. He headed back to Wisconsin for the electoral campaign of “Fighting Bob.” He then returned to New York, where he drifted out of marriage and into socialism. Besides, his health was waning and his interest in his little museum of his own work in Bethel had grown apace. If today we find in the best examples of this art a fine touch, a satire of class society, an underlying sadness at where all our so-called progress has got us (as well as the flora and fauna of the planet), we see Art Young again and again. He was already the notable old-timer, admired by all, but somehow distant. A wonderful memoir in every sense, it encompassed and expressed the beloved socialist artist’s saga, from Midwestern small-town boy suspicious of radicals to the greatest of all radical cartoonists in the English language. His work had an old-fashioned look in a publication that radiated a youthful ambience. Young’s father, a fairly prosperous grocer, allowed the boy time and opportunity to become an observer of the locals’ collective personality, which led to a wonderfully humorous series drawn in the 1930s. Meanwhile, Young married, took newspaper jobs as far from New York as Denver, freelanced with considerable success, and moved to Bethel, Connecticut, where he spent most of the rest of his life. Within a decade or two, before his work slowed down to almost nothing, in 1940, he had passed through other cycles of art and politics, including his own literary versions of artistic history. But his drawing developed in a way that no self-conscious radical or even political-minded illustrator would predict. That Young produced so much humorous work about the trial shows his strength of character, or perhaps just his commitment to his art. Lack of opportunity, blind egotism, alcohol, and assorted other stumbling blocks made the promised land of achievement seem further and further away. Or had it? He was unlikely to enter the social world of free love in Greenwich Village, and it is hard to believe that he would have had the stamina for the social life around the magazine. Nearly 50, in a movement of young people, he portrayed himself as plump and mild, a nebbish among Bolsheviks. Reader, dig in. The Masses, meanwhile, was a magazine of a sort previously unknown on either side of the Atlantic. The reader is left, at any rate, to enjoy a great deal of diverse Art Young work without the kind of systematic, detailed annotation that a smaller volume would have allowed. Appearing long after Young himself has slipped down the memory hole of American popular cartoon art, this is a massive volume in every sense, with the format designed to highlight hundreds of forgotten or rarely seen drawings located by a heroically hardworking circle of book and printed art collectors. By the time this final version was published, Young had done many drawings of hell, his special hell, for popular magazines that included the   Saturday Evening Post. This series, writes Green with only slightly exaggerated phrases, is “as close to immortality as popular art can achieve,” sans the “gravitas and pretension of fine art.” Now, in a planet facing extinction, the trees have grander meaning, a kind of botanical greatness. Picking up little fees for drawings, Young got into the   Chicago Daily News — where he covered the anarchist trials, sometimes showing a little sympathy for the defendants, but mainly his own ignorance — then the   Tribune. He married a hometown girl, they bore two children, and after several attempts at domestic life, he gave up, his wife moving to California with the kids. And besides, the left was largely in hiding. He received an offer from a popular writer to travel to France and illustrate essays for another of Chicago’s papers, the   Inter Ocean, which featured an elaborate pictorial weekly edition. He hated the spoils of capitalism and war with a ferocity scarcely to be equaled in art anywhere, Picasso or John Heartfield or Spain Rodriguez notwithstanding. Good Morning   (1918–’23), his very own comic publication, brilliantly designed, with staggeringly beautiful drawings, could only be a financial failure. ¤
As an erstwhile magazine editor and currently a comics editor,   Paul   Buhle has reprinted Art Young drawings often and … plans to go on doing it. Rousseau, that “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” Young would have added, indeed did add more than metaphorically in his many drawings over 50 years of work, that the rich and powerful did not seem to suffer so greatly, but nevertheless bore the scars of meretricious lives. The book design, by Fantagraphics’s own Seth David Williams, is remarkable in its sheer luxury of space, the feel of the work highlighted, and the meticulous reproduction of varying paper and ink qualities in order to bring out every detail possible — down to Young’s own handwriting noting captions to be added. Diverse examples of human foolishness abound in these drawings, which are especially abundant in the pomp of the wealthy. But beneath Young’s rage, evident to any reader, could also be found a deep sense of sorrow at the outcome of civilization at large. The newer leftish art, from 1930s WPA murals to 1940s war posters, seems to have passed him by. Young experienced no such failures in the short run. The 19th-century material is easily recognizable by style, the rest less so. Now his drawings for   Life   (the light-hearted, pre–Henry Luce publication) tended toward the downright radical, mixed with comical memories of the old hometown and its inhabitants, among other subjects. La Follette. Young had been hired full time before the changeover, but another native Midwesterner, younger yet close to Young’s temperament, now entered as full-time employee: Floyd Dell. Meanwhile, his commercial outlets dried up. Eugene V. Beloved of the bohemians, he was no businessman. So were half a dozen earlier little picture books excerpted in   To Laugh. A popular favorite, his drawing of a caged lion dreaming of free life in the jungle captures the aphorism of philosopher J. In a way, even these events were fortuitous. Still a Republican of the progressive sort, he was drawn, at a distance, to the great idealist governor of his native state, Robert M. He had become an entertainer. Then he went to New York, where at the Art Students League he studied the works of the great satirists intensely. He planned to study for a year in Paris. But the political cartoon is forever. (In a drawing reproduced here, Young contrasts women’s fashionable open-toed shoes to the “airy” care-worn shoes of the poor: a cryptic political note.) Meanwhile, drawing for himself as much as for the press, Young began his lifelong practice of putting into artistic form the obstacles that hindered any aspiring young person, including himself, from attaining some distant goal. Young’s story begins with a childhood in little Monroe, Wisconsin, where his family moved a few years after his birth. When he died in 1945, it was the   New Masses   that devoted a special tribute issue to him (whose cover To Laugh reproduces). Young continued to support the family, he and his wife never divorced, and, after his death, his widow seems to have moved to Bethel. Here, in his childhood and later visits home, the past lingered or, perhaps, hung heavy. The brilliance and humane qualities of his work are as real in these pages as they ever were. But perhaps there is a value in the transhistorical Young, beyond such precise specifications. Justin Green, one of the strangest and most influential underground comic artists, was selected by the editors to introduce Art’s little book of trees viewed as displaying philosophical truths or human characteristics. Young’s work escapes easy categorization surprisingly often, and much of the “found art” in the volume is undated. Perhaps he mainly liked to meet and greet friends old and new. J. Debs, the socialists’ 1920 candidate for president, campaigned from a prison cell or two. The impact of Doré’s version upon the young lad prompted him to make his own, first in 1892, then in 1901, and finally in 1932, when he produced the definitive   Art Young’s Inferno. His art from this era, especially vivid in   To Laugh, speaks for itself, depicting a time of intense class struggle, an imperial invasion of Mexico, and impending repression as something far worse approached. Following his own instincts, he marveled at the rubes in the White City seeming to enjoy themselves while being fooled in one way or another. Young certainly had his arty side. After the suppression of The Masses   and the   Liberator, Young did occasional work for the   New Masses,   now more closely connected with the Communist Party than its predecessor. He even ran for Congress on the Socialist Party ticket in 1934, shortly before the party took a nosedive. By the time of his final adaptation of Dante, Art himself was the traveler, undisguised. Who had a new barn (or even buggy), where the honeymooners visited, and what relatives they saw along the way — these were among Monroe’s most discussed topics, even as the national economy went up and down, and vast protest movements appeared and disappeared. The American flâneur was born, along with the sophisticated tastes that would make both the Armory Show and Ashcan realism possible. Young himself described his situation, in words quoted in To Laugh, as “having a free hand on The Masses   to attack the capitalist system and its beneficiaries.” This made him feel akin to “a crusader […] set forth to rescue the Holy Land from the infidels.” This phrase is worth mulling over, because Young actually sought to save civilization’s accomplishments from those capitalist-minded creatures he thought would surely destroy it. The editors have responded in part by arranging the illustrations using nearly a dozen topical chapter categories (e.g., “Fantasy & Musings,” “Quotation Cartoons,” “On Religion”) rather than chronological ones — although some chapters, like the one dedicated to Young’s drawings for the   Saturday Evening Post   in the 1920s, encompass discrete phases. His   Johnny Appleseed, Green Dreamer on the Frontier, appears in September, drawn by Noah Van Sciver, a latter-day Art Young. The Socialist Party press was flourishing by this time, and he was eager to make up for lost time politically. To Laugh That We May Not Weep, edited by Glenn Bray and Frank M. The countryside was nearby (and still is). By age 15, when the Chicago papers had just begun publishing pen drawings, he got a few items published and began to be viewed by locals as hugely promising. Young returned, during this later period, to his favorite themes, most especially the continuous reinterpretation of Dante’s   Inferno. Let us return to Young’s personal saga, explored in several essays beginning with Art Spiegelman’s. The Ashcan school would be rejected by the European avant-gardist abstractionists of the Armory Show. Yet it remained the most forceful American innovation at home. By the time Art Young died, he had perhaps in some ways outlived his artistic time. Still under 30, raised near Davenport, Iowa, he had the sort of sprightly mentality, optimism, and sense of humor perfect for Young. Perhaps intense work, good food, and drink filled his life to the brim. Young and his friends created a little Vaudeville-type show with Young doing fast crayon drawings, accompanied by music — sometimes by a chorus of young women! He certainly saw fascism in all its horrors, but the socialist alternatives seemed to disappear around him. Reeking of Greenwich Village temperament, Ashcan art offered up slum life seen without condescension, but with a touch of humor and wonder. It seems likely that he appreciated the best qualities of the Popular Front, with its abundance of artistic talent united against the threat of fascism. Young wanted to be an artist at least from the moment that he discovered a Doré volume in the local library. Yet Young remained a much-desired artist in numerous circles, especially in New York, and found enough commercial work to stay afloat. He got a drawing of his own published in   Judge, a comic weekly, gathered up his best work, and headed for Chicago.