Jewish Culture & IdeasPop CultureChildren & YouthContemporary Art

Ben Katchor: Picture Stories

Mar 21, 2002–Jun 30, 2002

Enter the irreverent world of comic strip artist Ben Katchor, and meet the hilarious characters who live there at The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM)'s West Coast premiere exhibition of Katchor's illustrations, graphic novels, set designs and drawings. Explore his quirky, Yiddish-inflected cartoon metropolis, home to implausible heroes and oddly nostalgic places, all created by an artist pushing the boundaries of the comic strip into new, soulful terrain.

about the exhibition

Welcome to the unique world of comic artist and illustrator Ben Katchor, the first large-scale exhibition of Katchor's work, including the textually rich serial drawings he calls "picture-stories." While Katchor's work most visibly resembles the comic strip form, it inhabits its own dimension, suspended between graphic novel, comic, and cartoon.

In the 1980s, Katchor's picture-stories began attracting an ardent underground following in comics magazines, Yiddish newspapers and New York periodicals, and are now among the most admired—and ruefully funny—in all of contemporary illustration. Even though Katchor's noir cityscapes seemed to inspire nostalgia for a bygone era, it was hard to place them in a definite time and location. Many of his quirky characters, middlemen, and small-time entrepreneurs appeared to have sprung from the short-lived world of American Yiddish culture centered in New York City in the first half of the 20th century. But for all their anachronistic pursuits and style, characters like Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, and the Chipped-Cup Inspector—obsessed as they are with the futility and wry humor of everyday life—were equally our contemporaries. Here in San Francisco, so recently a land of half-baked business plans and dreaming entrepreneurs, the marginal business schemes and dogged enterprises of Katchor's characters are particularly poignant.

There is always something provisional, not quite stable, in Katchor's fictional worlds; ruins figured prominently. His characters are exiles, émigrés, and tourists, whether they inhabit the nineteenth-century setting of The Jew of New York or the contemporary island paradise of The Cardboard Valise. Through his fictional cast, Katchor explores national and cultural identities under a barrage of constant change.

In oblique and witty ways, Katchor's work reflects on the experience of American Jews of Eastern European descent in the Diaspora. His work plays on the conflicts between identity and assimilation, tradition and modernity. These conflicts are revealed in uncanny moments in his picture-stories, in the inappropriate use of Yiddish words, in the half-remembered, mis-remembered places that the characters encounter, and in the layered history of a city itself.

about ben katchor

Ben Katchor was born in 1951 in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and grew up there and in Crown Heights. His father, a Polish Jewish immigrant involved in Communist politics and Yiddish culture, was a small-time landlord. Katchor's exposure to the Yiddish inflected New York culture that flavors his work occurred simultaneously with his immersion into comics beginning in childhood. All of his friends were comic book aficionados and connoisseurs of individual styles, and by the time they were teens they were publishing their own comic strips in mimeograph form. Katchor studied painting at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and the School of Visual Arts (where he currently teaches cartooning) and then art history at Brooklyn College.

In the 1980s, he contributed to the underground comics magazine RAW, and in 1988 he began the strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer for The New York Press. He createdThe Jew of New York, a fictional narrative inspired by the failed attempt of a real-life figure, Mordechai Noah, to create a Jewish homeland in upstate New York, in 1825, for The Forward in 1992-1993. He has published four novels: Cheap Novelties: The Pleasurse of Urban Decay, with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (1991); Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories (1996); The Jew of New York (1999); and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, The Beauty Supply District (2000). Katchor is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship grant and a prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the so-called "Genius Award," in 2000. The comic book opera The Carbon Copy Building (1999), for which he wrote the words and designed the sets, won an Obie Award for best new production.

Image Credit

Header image: Ben Katchor, cover illustration for Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories, 1996; Courtesy of the artist © 2001.