The Whitney Museum's Keith Haring retrospective has moved on to other venues (i.e., the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Oct. 17, 1997 - Jan. 10, 1998), though Haring's sculptures linger along Park Avenue, cavorting shapes in cut-out steel, flat, ribbon-like, looking all the world like multicolored gingerbread men. At the same time, Tom Otterness has opened his first show at Marlborough Gallery on 57th Street.
Both artists produce work that is widely popular and that uses the forms and idioms of cartoons. Both artists arose in the '80s and are (and were) committed public artists. Their art would seem to occupy opposite poles in formal terms: Haring's is flat, pictorial and linear, while Otterness' is round, sculptural and plastic.
As was remarked in the Whitney's Haring Symposium, Haring admired Walt Disney, and the hedonism and adventure of that cartoon world inflect his art. Otterness figures, on the other hand, recall the deliberative moral universe of Gumby, a world fraught with bizarre events that challenge character. Otterness gives his sculptures the static, socially constrained winningness of characters like Hello Kitty and Paddington Bear, both of whom enact multiple social roles through costume changes.
Haring's forte is line; he was a monomanic virtuoso in his two-dimensional realm. The histrionics of his faceless characters -- a frenzy, a dance, a chase -- are nearly metaphysical, emblematizing the pursuit of pleasure within a universe bent on retaliation.
Otterness is a molder, a carver, a worker in the round, turning out not gingerbread men but doughboys. Like Pillsbury's, they might giggle when touched, or turn on you like the Sta-Puft marshmallow man, a giant city-crushing villain in Ghostbusters, a movie with very strong sculptural themes.
Haring's characters, in their animate aspect, announce their genesis as drawings, as "cels." Otterness figures, on the other hand, claim sculpture-ness: they are action figures, almost bendable, almost posable.
Both artists share a kinship to the forms of mass culture. They embrace universality, the classical aim of figural art. Haring's line creations remain pictographic, conceptual. Otterness' works are tangible things, made of bronze but modeled after the motile and the stuffed. (This is formal territory Oldenburg worked in his prime Pop years.) Otterness characterizes the blandness of images made for children, seeking to reveal the grandeur of the toy.
Haring referenced the Greek. An especially resonant series of works are his painted terra-cotta vases, with figures recalling Geometric-Era Greek kraters with their depictions of funeral games. Otterness' point of historical reference is medieval, the grand secular tradition of manuscript marginalia, and the grotesques of column capitals. In the worldly carnival of the medieval era, cartoonish animated beasts played human roles, enacting common lives and petty economic relations. The small affairs of that world were rendered as comic allegory. All this was just a sideshow to the central medieval drama of salvation and redemption, absent of course in Otterness' work. The over-arching dogma of our era is materialist, and Otterness invokes it explicitly in its Marxist passion play version. The "god" and "goddess" figures in his great work Table quote Soviet monumental sculpture, although they have fallen into ruin, their construction thwarted and incomplete.
Finally, Haring was gay and Otterness is straight, and the works of both are deeply responsive to and expressive of their sexual identities.
Otterness' objects are so ingratiating because they speak the language of animation, the toy story, which has become a universal discourse between adults and children. This is the pictographic language of entertainment, sales and education. We are primed to look upon it with good humor, as a vital part of a socially embedded system of communication, rather than as art, as a code of representations with philosophical props.
The cartoon-as-art lineage, from Lichtenstein, Oldenburg and Warhol through Haring and Otterness, is widely seen as part of a Pop tendency to appropriate imagery from commercial sources (rather than from other art or from "nature"). This seems just; after all, it is the art of U.S. consumer society, and part of an esthetic and political discourse on commodification. But despite what some critics claim (most recently, Roberta Smith in the New York Times), an artist like Otterness is not preceded by a conglomerate like Disney. Rather, Otterness in his sculpture and drawings actually rediscovers and revives the humanity that Disney first plunders from popular culture and then repackages in debased form for purposes of commerce.
Tom Otterness at Marlborough, Sept. 25 - Oct. 25, 1997, 40 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art historian.