New York

Tomi Ungerer: All in One at the Drawing Center

Tomi Ungerer: All in One, now on view at the Drawing Center, is a joyful retrospective of the artist’s career as children’s-book author, satirical cartoonist, political illustrator, and erotic artist. Sadly it’s also incredibly timely. Because though Ungerer was a beloved illustrator, he was also rejected for the explicit imagery in his political and erotic work. As we engage in a global conversation about shock and humor following the attacks on the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, Ungerer’s work stands out for its visual wit. But beyond his mastery as an image maker, Ungerer’s work has something to say about power—to poke fun, to take pleasure, to harm.

1.Tomi Ungerer. Eat, 1967; self‐published poster; 21 x 26-1/2 in. Courtesy of the collection of Jack Rennert, New York.

Tomi Ungerer. Eat, 1967; self‐published poster; 21 x 26-1/2 in. Courtesy of the collection of Jack Rennert, New York.

Among the most potent works on view is EAT, a 1967 poster commissioned as part of a series by Columbia University in protest of the Vietnam War. Ungerer eventually self-published the poster after it was rejected by the university for its provocative imagery, which may be no surprise: the poster depicts a caricature of an Asian man—with slanted eyes, porcine nose, and fluorescent yellow skin—force-fed by a disembodied white hand. The hand shoves a hollow-eyed Statue of Liberty into the man’s gaping mouth. Another poster, GIVE, depicts a military jet releasing bombs along with presents garnished with flamboyant pink bows. EAT is certainly the more haunting of the pair, but both hinge on the violent twist of a peacenik slogan. As is the case in many of Ungerer’s works, pleasure and pain run a parallel track.

As a visual argument, EAT is chillingly effective. Is it also racist? Or is it a critique of racism, of American colonialism in the guise of democracy? I lean toward the latter reading, but if nothing else, the work is a concise illustration of what Art Spiegelman, of Maus fame, describes as the cartoon’s unique power to, “put things in a high relief…functioning as Rorschach tests for what actually we [are] living through right now.”[1]

The image draws a stark line around “us” and “them.” The “us” seems pretty white. But then, so is Ungerer—not only white but also a fantastically successful member of New York’s creative elite. Maybe part of our discomfort with EAT is its queasy depiction of both criticism of and complicity in racist structures of power and privilege.

Many have made similar observations about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, arguing that Western culture celebrates critique at a safe distance and only by a sanctioned few. The strength of Ungerer’s work is his willingness to implicate himself, turning the lens on his own community. In his series The Party, Ungerer grotesquely depicts members of New York’s literary select. I’ll highlight a personal favorite here: a pen-and-ink drawing of a rotund insect-like gentleman opening his mouth to reveal a tongue made of Swiss cheese. Its cutting humor is perfect.

2.Tomi Ungerer. Untitled (drawing for The Party), 1966; ink and ink wash on paper;
18 x 18 in. Courtesy of the Collection Musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre
international de l’Illustration, Strasbourg. Photo: Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg/Mathieu Bertola.

Tomi Ungerer. Untitled (drawing for The Party), 1966; ink and ink wash on paper;
18 x 18 in. Courtesy of the Collection Musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre
international de l’Illustration, Strasbourg. Photo: Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg/Mathieu Bertola.

But Ungerer’s rejection was not only political; it was personal. After years as a successful author of children’s books, Ungerer left New York, shunned by the world of commercial publishing after the exposure of his work as an erotic illustrator and BDSM participant. Since 1971 Ungerer has lived in self-imposed exile, first in Canada and later in Ireland.

In many ways Ungerer’s body of erotica lays bare the complex power dynamics always present beneath the surface of his commercial and political work. I was surprised to find that the Drawing Center itself seemed to shy from a wholehearted embrace of the sexy stuff: a wall text states, “Still, the drawings remain disturbing both in their explicitness and in their unsettling depictions of their mostly female subjects. What are we to make, for example, of a young woman in bondage for Totempole?” 

3.Tomi Ungerer. Woman Object, or Geometry of Eroticism (drawing for Totempole), 1972; grease crayon on paper; 36 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Collection Musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre international de l’Illustration.  Photo: Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg/Mathieu Bertola.

Tomi Ungerer. Woman Object, or Geometry of Eroticism (drawing for Totempole), 1972; grease crayon on paper; 36 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Collection Musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre international de l’Illustration. Photo: Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg/Mathieu Bertola.

These drawings, mostly in graphite and charcoal, depict dominatrices at work along with portraits of their apparel and tools. They are tender drawings. In one study, Ungerer lovingly depicts a flexed toe, eliding ecstasy and agony. Ungerer, whose four erotic books have become classics of the genre, writes, “These houses are for me black hospitals. The dominatrix performs a psycho-medical function…I would like to bear witness to the respect I have for those ladies who exercise with imagination, competence, and intelligence a misunderstood, unknown, profession.”

4.Tomi Ungerer. Untitled (drawing for Fornicon), 1969; ink on tracing paper; 14 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Collection Musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre international de l’Illustration, Strasbourg. Photo: Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg.

Tomi Ungerer. Untitled (drawing for Fornicon), 1969; ink on tracing paper; 14 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Collection Musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre international de l’Illustration, Strasbourg. Photo: Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg.

For me these are empowering images, testaments to real sentiment and respect. Of course, I can’t help but notice that in Ungerer’s telling, female pleasure is notably absent. These women, in the role of dominator or slave, perform a crucial function but always in the service of male pleasure. But putting aside Ungerer’s own analysis, these are images that revel in warping our expectations around pleasure, pain, and control.

In the end, there is something to be said for line. Ungerer is a master of concision and mark; that’s where he pivots. The work is funny; sometimes it’s lovely; sometimes it’s even cute. But at its best Ungerer’s work is a black hospital, where pleasure speaks through pain.

Tomi Ungerer: All in One is on view at the Drawing Center through March 22, 2015.

[1] Art Spiegelman interview, “Comics Legend Art Spiegelman and Scholar Tariq Ramadan on Charlie Hebdo and the Power Dynamic of Satire,” Democracy Now!, January 8, 2015, http://www.democracynow.org/2015/1/8/comics_legend_art_spiegelman_scholar_tariq.

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