“I’m a mixed bag and a jack of all trades,” the artist Tomi Ungerer said during a telephone interview, laughing. “I’ve done over 150 books, I write as much as I draw, and I have my sculptures and my architectural designs. I have my fingers in so many behinds.”
“When I saw the variety of the works he had produced, I thought this was really the kind of show we need to do,” said Claire Gilman, the museum’s curator, who is organizing the exhibition. “I realized we had never done a show of an illustrator before, which I think is sort of an oversight for the Drawing Center.”
The show is a homecoming for Ungerer, who lived in New York from the mid-1950s until around 1970, and also part of an ongoing redemption story stateside. “There’s nothing in America,” he told me. Indeed, though he has a state-funded museum with 8,000 works in his hometown of Strasbourg, France, his books had effectively disappeared from print in the United States— victims of censorship until very recently. (Gilman had read his books as a kid—I had, too—but neither of us knew his name.)
The youth-publishing crowd got wind of his BDSM–rich books in the late 1960s, and his career in the industry evaporated. He didn’t exactly help himself. Confronted about his interests while speaking at a children’s-literature conference, Ungerer was unapologetic: “If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have any children, and without children, you would be out of work,” he said. (“They really went after me, just like a pack of bitches,” he explains in a 2012 documentary about his life.) Ungerer and his wife decamped for Nova Scotia around 1970, and then after two years to rural West Cork, Ireland, where he still lives. “This is really the end of Europe,” he said.
However, “Everything’s fine again,” Ungerer added. He won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration in 1998, and Phaidon has gradually been reissuing his books since 2008. “I’ve been very lucky in my life,” he said.
Why has it taken so long for America to catch up? “The European sensibility is more open to someone working in an eclectic way,” Gilman said. And aside from Ungerer’s incredibly disparate subject matter, “he doesn’t have one recognizable style—he has many different styles, and he really gives himself over to the subject matter.”
But Gilman sees a through line in his work—“For him, it’s always about showing what is considered abnormal,” she said. “The protagonists are outsiders, they’re people who are not accepted by society,” whether it’s fearsome villains appearing in children’s stories or dominatrices and their clients in Hamburg, the subject of another one of his books, for which he spent time living in a dungeon.
He’s planning to visit New York for the show, but said that he’s more focused on new work. (“It’s the past,” he said.) Still, the Kunsthalle Zurich is readying a full-dress retrospective for 2016, which will travel to Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany. “I can only be excited about what I’m doing,” he said. “What is done is done, and that’s it. It’s a need, for me. It’s like you go to the toilet, and then you flush it.”