The Cartoonist as Artist, Part 2

Cartoonists in the Armory Show

In my previous post I argued that cartoonists’ reactions to the Armory show may have been born as much out of sympathy for and interest in the formal experimentation of the more revolutionary European modernists represented in the show, and that it seems possible to me that these cartoonists may have “seen themselves as within the broader orbit of the art world, in one way or another.”

This interpretation is reinforced further by the fact that there were actually several newspaper cartoonists who participated in the Armory show– who were actually among the artists shown at the Exposition. A site created for the University of Virginia’s American Studies program lists four newspaper cartoonists in the show, each of whom had worked on multiple recurrent newspaper comics features: Rudolph Dirks, Denys Wortman, Marjorie Organ, and Gus Mager. These artist each deserve at least a moment’s individual attention, as it’s quite an impressive list.

Fledglings by Rudolph Dirks
“Fledglings” by Rudolph Dirks, 1908. Not (to my knowledge) the painting shown by Dirks at the Armory Show, but of approximately the same time period. From the collection of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Rudolph Dirks was the cartoonist who created The Katzenjammer Kids, one of the earliest strips to take the form of the comic strip as modern readers would likely define it: it used sequential panels,  word balloons, and had– at times– narrative continuity from strip to strip. Dirks is given a lot of credit as one of the most innovative creators of what became the standard graphic lexicon of comics.

In 1913, his work as a cartoonist would have been by far the most recognizable to New York audiences of all the cartoonists participating in the Exhibition. The Katzenjammer Kids still runs in a handfull of papers today, syndicated by King Features, making it by far the longest-running comic strip in history.

The wording of the UVA website is a little confusing, but it looks as if Dirks may have had two paintings at the Armory show, in galleries N and E.

Denys Wortman, "Bermuda Waterfront," 1912.
Denys Wortman, “Bermuda Waterfront,” 1912, displayed in the Armory Show of 1913.

Denys Wortman was, until recently, a largely forgotten cartoonist, though he was remembered by fellow cartoonist  Coulton Waugh in his 1947 book The Comics as “of all newspaper drawings, perhaps the most artistic.” (p.168) Fortunately, with the publication of a recent collection of his work, as well as an exhibit of his work at the Museum of the City of New York, Wortman’s work is beginning to get the credit and remembrance it deserves.

There is a remarkable continuity between Wortman’s paintings and his single panel cartoon feature, Metropolitan Movies.  He was a genre painter and a genre cartoonist: in both cases, his work is imbued with the same feeling of quickly-sketched but masterfully rendered moments from everyday life. Looking at his paintings, his sketches, and his published cartoons, one quickly comes to feel that they were all very much part of the same project for the artist.

Marjorie Organ, "Robert Henri in Bed"
Marjorie Organ, “Robert Henri in Bed”

Marjorie Organ is by far the most obscure of the four cartoonists under discussion, which is unfortunate. She seems to have been the first woman to have a recurring comic feature in a newspaper, Little Reggie and the Heavenly Twins, which began running in 1902, when Organ was only 16. Six years later, she met the artist Robert Henri, one of the leading figures of the Ashcan School and “The Eight,” and they were married soon after, retiring almost immediately from newspaper work to focus on her family and her art.

Organ seems to have been relegated to obscurity for several reasons. Her work is not without merit, but she was certainly a journeyman among that first generation of newspaper comic strip artists, and she did not have the chance to mature due to her early retirement. She also suffered the misfortune of being a woman, and a quite attractive one at that– she is perhaps best remembered today as a subject of portraiture by her husband, especially in his painting Lady in Black with Spanish Scarf. She seems to be one of a long line of female artists who were overshadowed in a patriarchal society by their more-successful artist spouse.

Gus Mager, Self Portrait
Gus Mager, Self Portrait, 1914

Finally, Gus Mager was one of the first cartoonists to have a recurring strip in the black and white dailies, as well as an accomplished artist. Mager had begun as a comic strip cartoonist with his Monks series, a somewhat idiosyncratic and crudely (though expressively) drawn strip featuring a whole procession of different “monk” characters– anthropomorphic monkeys with names like Knocko the Monk, Sherlocko the Monk, Groucho the Monk, etc. In 1913, he had just begun a run in the New York World with his new strip, Hawkshaw the Detective, a humanized adaptation of his “Sherlocko the Monk” character. As a painter, one sees little of the crude simple lines of Mager’s early comic strips. His works are painterly, expressive, and comparatively quite complex.

The story of how the collection was built for the Armory Show is largely an account of the social networks that made up the art world in the US and Europe in the Progressive Era, and Mager apears to be an important member of that network and to why he and other cartoonists were included in the Exhibition– he seems to have been friends with Armory Show organizer Walt Kuhn, and served as an assistant to Dirks.

From the evidence available, it seems Mager viewed himself as existing in both the world of newspapermen and cartoonists as well as the art world. An article about Mager in the American Magazine of Art from 1916 by artist and critic Guy Pène du Bois emphasizes Mager as an artist of merit, while treating his work in newspapers as a trial overcome. Nevertheless, Mager continued at it for quite some time, and Hawkshaw alone ran until the 1950s.

"Monks" cartoon by Gus Mager, 1910
“Monks” cartoon by Gus Mager, 1910

These newspaper comic strip cartoonists participating in the Armory show points to their own belief that they were not apart from the art world, but of it. Other Armory Show participants did illustration work for papers and magazines, like George Bellows and John French Sloan, and there are two other cartoonists omitted from the UVA site that are particularly important— and those two cartoonists will be the subject of the next posts in this series.

Edited To Add, 14 June 2013: 

It has come to my attention from this article that one other strip cartoonist was in the Armory Show that I had not been aware of: the largely-forgotten cartoonist Herbert Crowley, one of the cartoonists rediscovered by Dan Nadel in his book Art Out of Time. Little is known about Crowley, but Nadel describes his work beautifully:

There has never been a comic strip that treated its two component parts– writing and drawing– as strangely as Crowley’s. The action unfolds in panoramic panels populated by expressionless characters that resemble artfully designed pewter toys set on a stage. The backgrounds are meticulously crosshatched, making the characters seem all the more unreal and removed from the environment…

The Wiggle Much is really just barely a comic– its glacial pacing, lack of any formal ingredients, and separation of text and image make it tough to qualify. But, like Gustave Verbeek, Crowley accomplished a vision in newsprint that could only have snuck into print under the guise of a comic strip, at a time when the medium was first finding its feet.

The Crowley pieces in the above-linked article indicate that Crowley was a man of a unique and singular vision, and one who could hardly be lumped in with the image of American artists in the Armory show as conservative and traditional. Rather, his work looks more contemporary than it looks like something of its own time. If I saw it in a gallery, I would assume it was by a living artist with a Jim Woodring obsession.


"The Wiggle Much," by Crowley
“The Wiggle Much,” by Crowley


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