At a time when something as harmless as a painting can summon up bloodthirsty debates over how Baudrillard’s view of reality differs from Derrida’s, it’s a pleasure to know that there are full-time artists out there who want little more than to make you smile or even laugh—a service New Yorker cartoonists have always tried to provide. Deep thought might set off at this point a theoretical battle about high art versus low art, but I prefer to relax and assume that two of my favorite funny artists, Steve Gianakos and William Anthony, operate at the higher end of the spectrum. Perhaps it’s because they’re so plugged in to the last decades of art history (Pop, appropriation, and so on) or because they’ve always shown their work in the much less funny New York art world, where, bless them, they offer welcome comic relief.
Both of them instantly derail us from any furrowed-brow concentration with the sheer absurdity of their images, which offer a loony gallery not only of real-life soap-opera situations but also of icons of art history running amok. I’ll start with Gianakos, who is, as the fancy word goes, “transgressive” (his paintings and drawings are nonstop assaults on family values of every kind). For three decades, he has, like Mel Brooks, pushed the envelope of bad taste, crossing one boundary after another, from Hitler to feeble old ladies. Moreover, he works in an equally bad-taste style that, to be art historical for a moment, is a big branch off the tree planted by Roy Lichtenstein, a great admirer of Gianakos’s work. Most of the time, Gianakos tells his outrageous stories with gross, comic-book contours minus Lichtenstein’s Benday dots, leaving us with the graphic punch of the lowest-grade cartoonist.
Gianakos’s unbridled imagination is no less offensive than his style. Just thinking over some of the hilarious shockers he’s been turning out, I can savor, with many smiles, an anthology that might include his Good Housekeeping–type mother tidying up in a kitchen and suddenly stricken with a heart attack, rendered as a Superman-style lightning bolt. Gianakos is pretty good at holy images, too. A three-image sequence of Jesus’ thorn-crowned head concludes with a pie being thrown in his face, Marx Brothers–style; or in another pious moment, he is seen carrying not the cross but a baseball bat. Doggies are up for grabs, one pitifully protesting about the turds on the living-room floor, “I didn’t do it”; others, a smiling dozen of them, arranged in a factory-perfect, belt-line gang bang that responds to the crossword-puzzle grid below where we read the handwritten solution to the madness above: “Menage a Twelve.” Children are constant victims of Gianakos’s black humor. I especially enjoy the criminal-shocker series of eight lithographs, “Missing Children” (1986), in which would-be heart-wrenching disappearances are evoked by, say, an infant being dropped through a porthole; an abandoned tricycle; or a baby, not a turkey, that Mommy is shoving into the oven.
Sex and bestiality are never far from Gianakos’s mind and come in insane combinations, often with Glen Baxter–type captions. In Her Parents Were Enthusiastic When She Told Them (1994), a shy little girl, dress raised, is being probed by an octopus. In The Day Long Workshop Included a Delicious Lunch (2003), a couple is having ecstatic sex in a bubble bath while a child’s rubber ducky paddles by. In His Thoughts Were Considered Among the Finest in the World(1986), an unwitting preview of White House shenanigans to come, the high-minded thinker, seated in a dignified, erect posture behind a desk from Fine French Furniture, is being serviced from below by a kneeling secretary with very high heels, whose bottom half is all that is visible to us. Of course, when you write about Gianakos, or about William (Bill) Anthony, a picture is worth a thousand words, including mine.
Anthony, like Gianakos, has been keeping me cheerful for decades. And his signature style, like Gianakos’s, is meant to match his jokes on such serious themes as the classics of art history or historic fields of battle. As I once heard him explain, he had to work hard to unlearn all his acquired art-school drawing techniques, in order to create his grotesquely funny race of gnarled and shaggy humanoids who, in a full-scale preview of the Beavis and Butthead look of the 1990s, might be confused with root vegetables. It was a style he codified in a 1965 art-school manual, A New Approach to Figure Drawing, which demonstrates both “how to” and “how not to.” (He chose the latter course.) Anthony got a jump start in the 1960s, when, with a precocious leap into the ever-growing domain of jokes about art that we often refer to more fancifully as “appropriation,” he made wacky translations of such icons as Warhol’s soup can, Rauschenberg’s goat, Bacon’s pope, Goya’s majas(clothed and naked), and Munch’s screamer, all looking as if rendered in a kindergarten for the mentally and physically handicapped. He also takes on more-recent artists, including Vanessa Beecroft in his spectacle of naked girls, girls, girls—all lined up like an army of art-school models who could never have made the grade.
Like Gianakos, but with a more delicate touch, Anthony thrives on puncturing balloons of seriousness. Art-world goings-on are among his fortes, whether catching Pollock dribbling paint on the floor while a cranky and jealous Krasner looks on; witnessing a symposium of intellectuals at loggerheads; or confronting an angry young artist whose thought balloon reads, “Thanks for your honest opinion, goddamn you!!” But Anthony also takes on harder targets, especially World War II, with Hitler, Rommel, and the invasion of Normandy all depicted as if an American kid had re-created the movie Saving Private Ryan as a video game on Utah Beach. And speaking of tragedy and beaches, Anthony does wonders with Munch’s Dance of Life, reinventing the couples as a bunch of American teenagers at an outdoor prom where the sun sets on the horizon. But again, why go on with words, words, words? Laugh at the pictures.
Robert Rosenblum is Professor of Fine Arts, New York University, and Curator, Guggenheim Museum.