Dorothy Iannone


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Last fall, I saw the New Museum’s small show of work by Dorothy Iannone. A quick introduction. Iannone is a Boston-born artist, born in 1933, who started painting in 1959 and has since also made video installations, sculptures, and drawings. Her work uses explicit imagery—highly stylized, resembling Egyptian art and fertility goddesses—to describe both the “ecstatic unity” achieved with fellow artist and lover Dieter Roth and the female sexual experience. (Shows of her work have long been plagued by censorship; she’s seventy-five and, this show was her first solo exhibition in an American museum.)

The work from the New Museum show that has really stuck in my mind is An Icelandic Saga, forty-eight bound drawings depicting her trip by freighter, in 1967, to Reykjavik, where she and Roth first met. But it isn’t just pictures; there are words, too. Though plenty of critical accounts have called the drawings “narrative picture stories,” for me it adds up to comic book. There’s comparatively little written about Iannone and her work (considering she’s been making art for half a century), but from what I can tell, she never read comics. And that’s what makes An Icelandic Saga all the more interesting: She arrived at the medium from a completely different path.

Dorothy Iannone, "An Icelandic Saga." Installation view, New Museum.

Each page in the Saga roughly stands as a single panel (or panel-less page). Iannone uses hand-lettered text—commentaries, flashbacks, and interludes as well as detailed lists and shipboard menus—in cursive and block fonts to tell the story, and the black-and-white images mainly consist of flattened, front-facing figures. There aren’t any word balloons, but Iannone’s writing, in first- and third-person, moves between narration, reminiscence, and introspection.

Though Iannone wouldn’t begin An Icelandic Saga until her affair with Roth had ended, she started working in that form when their relationship began in 1967. Her Dialogues are straightforward comics. Dialogue I, for instance, consists of six pages that relate the story of her getting into bed and turning out the light. Each page is a single panel, some with dialogue, some silent. About this series, Iannone says, “I made art out of the things we said to each other.” She studied literature at Boston University before embarking on painting, and much of her artwork contains text. Even the paintings about her relationship with Roth convey, in a sense, the story of their love through individual moments. But in thinking specifically about comics, her early move from abstraction to figuration reveals an impulse to arrange the canvas so that it might be read as much as looked at.

In her early paintings—Big Baby from 1962–3 is a great example—you can see a kind of regulation of the picture space. Though she doesn’t use a grid, the painting’s vertical and horizontal lines arguably perform the same function panels would, directing the flow of the painting and organizing the forms within it. In one essay on her work, the author compared these lines to Matisse’s use of axes in his late collages. Matisse himself writes, “The plumb line defines the vertical and together with its counterpart, the horizontal, forms the draftsman’s compass . . . The ‘arabesque’ develops around these imaginary lines.” Sounds like abstract comics.

In a figurative painting from 1970, called The Next Great Moment in History Is Ours, the lines actually become panels, though the various figures (the “arabesques”) arrayed around a central woman often break those barriers. Yet even when they’re unable to contain a figure’s actions, the panels still symbolize a structural rigor.

"The Next Great Moment Is Ours"

Another example is At Home, 1969, which maps out the interior of the artist’s house. We perceive the boxes/boundaries even if they don’t control our reading of the art.

"At Home"

It’s the kind of orgy of form (pun totally intended)—where a thousand things occur on a page or spread, but they’re all still related—that I’d expect from J. H. Williams, especially in Promethea, where the images are positively metaphysical, but also in his recently completed run on Detective Comics. (There’s something of this, too, in Killoffer’s deranged Mobius strips.)

Page from "Promethea"

In the Iannone and in a page like this from Promethea, where do you look first? And does it really matter? There’s still a sense of story, of narrative progression, but the images act more as emblems than as explanatory illustrations of each and every act. (In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Iannone traveled throughout Asia and Europe where she was exposed to Japanese woodcuts, tantric painting, and Byzantine mosaics. The forms all often work from an emblematic or symbolic foundation, as does Egyptian art.) Certainly, there are instances of these kinds of pages in lots of comics (another great example is JT Waldman’s Megillat Esther and Lauren Weinstein’s quadruple-page spread for Ganzfeld 7); the difference is that Icelandic Saga consists only of these kinds of pages.

Double-page spread (badly scanned) from "Megillat Esther"

Lauren Weinstein.

For me, An Icelandic Saga combines all these earlier impulses: the emblematic approach to images in her figurative paintings, the description of everyday life in the Dialogues, the spatial mapping in her abstract paintings.

Detail of "An Icelandic Saga"

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13 Responses to “Dorothy Iannone”
  1. Joan de' Arc says:

    great great post.

    i want to see more iannone.

    i can get annoyed with the reception gallery or museum “narrative art” can receive because the currators and critics can make such a big deal out of say kiki smith referencing wizard of oz… and whereas I like the impressionistic effect on my imagination of smith’s reference(s) i become rankled when some curator or critic (or artist) pisses in my ear about how smith’s stuff transcends narrative or is more sophisticated and multi-layered than what she’s referencing… and truth be told, i’d rather have kiki smith (or philip guston) take the plunge and produce a comic… of course all this is my problem but i thought i’d share my cranky opinion because your post suggests iannone is on a different path when it comes to “narrative art.”

    your post also makes me want to check out j.h. williams.
    where’s a good place to start?

    jason t miles.

  2. Nicole Rudick says:

    I think single works of art–like paintings–are less able to tell stories. They can offer a moment within a larger story (lots of Renaissance paintings do this with mythological subjects, for instance), but paintings (or drawings or sculptures) aren’t sequential by definition. It seems that if a painter (or sculptor) wants to transcend a single moment or scene, to tell more than that one part, they’d have to make references that are multilayered in order to expand the frame of meaning. Plus, most painters don’t use recurring characters, so that hampers their ability to build narratives across multiple works. But then there’s someone like Dana Schutz, who did a great series of paintings about a guy named Frank. And there’s Greek “black-figure” vases, which (roughly) relate stories about great battles and mythology.

    That’s not to say you shouldn’t be cranky if curators/critics/artists suggest a single work is more sophisticated than something like Iannone’s Saga. That’s just snobbery. I’d actually love to have the Saga published as a floppy.

    I don’t know what to recommend as a starting place for JH Williams, but his runs tend to be pretty short (not too surprising, since he his art is so involved). “Promethea” is his longest run–32 issues–and it’s positively stunning. But it’s also a commitment.

  3. J. Overby says:

    This is really good, and it’s obviously comics. It doesn’t neatly fit into the formalist notion of comics in vogue now, i.e. figures operating rhythmically within a proscenium arch, but it’s definitely co-mix, like Sue Coe or Pettibon or, maybe Ed Ruscha. Thanks!

  4. J. Overby says:

    Also, reminds me a lot of Sakura Maku (

  5. nrh says:

    Was actually just reading Nadel’s Hairy Who interviews from Ganzfeld 3 and thinking there were interesting parallels here. I just wish the “Icelandic Saga” were displayed differently in the museum; something about that format seems dreadfully unflattering to the kind of engagement this work seems to demand, was curious if it was just me who felt that way.

  6. simon says:

    was the “icelandic saga” at whitney biennial a few years ago? it looks really familiar…

    • Nicole Rudick says:

      You’re right. “Icelandic Saga” was at the biennial in 2006. There was a small show of her work within the larger show.

  7. Robert Boyd says:

    “truth be told, i’d rather have kiki smith (or philip guston) take the plunge and produce a comic”

    That would be quite a feat on Guston’s part.

    As for narrative in painting, there’s plenty of it. Lots of religious paintings feature multipart narratives–obvious ones are crucifixions/resurrections and the stations of the cross. Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings are quasi-narrative.

    That said, I don’t think there is anything special about “narrative,” and I’d also say that viewing most premodernist paintings as merely frozen moments of time is just plain wrong. That way of seeing really didn’t become common until the photograph. Even though a painting may be depicting an episode that is fixed in time (say, David’s “Oat of the Horatii”), there is a kind of implied time passing (or of the painting being not in time)–often because of the assumption made by the artist about the viewer. David knew his viewers knew their early Roman history, and that this painting implied a whole story.

    Obviously, the issue becomes more confused with modernist paintings.

    I. for one, am very glad that Philip Guston never tried to paint any narrative comics.

  8. Guston did do a “comic” of sorts. He did a book of drawings of Nixon that are read sequentially. Very cartoony.

  9. Robert Boyd says:

    I’ve seen the Nixon cartoons. I like them as drawings, but as a narrative? Eh. On the other hand, Guston was a great painter. Even before he started doing his cartoony imagery, he was a great painter. His skittering brushstrokes, his rosy-yet-earthy palette–he’s simply great. Each painting is a piece unto itself–I simply can’t imagine a story about his Klan guys or about his cyclopean self-portrait being better than the individual paintings.

  10. Jeet Heer says:

    Great post, great discussion. I’d love to see someone — Nicole? — tackle the larger subject of people who come to comics from outside of comics or late in life (like Miriam Katin). It often seems that they have a very different, intuitive visual language, one closer to picture books than to comics. Which is all to the good. It shakes up our sense of what comics can be. We need these outside influences.

  11. Nicole Rudick says:

    I completely agree that people who come to comics through another medium often bring something new to it, expanding not only what comics can be but also what other art forms can be. LIke the way Panter incorporated comics (and other) imagery into painting without making it Pop art, which was the only other similar instance of the use of popular culture in fine art. He was (and is) shaking up modern art. However, I’m not sure I’d agree that the visual language of those who come to comics late or through another medium is necessarily closer to picture books. Katin’s “We Are on Our Own” is very much a comic book and is very different than her children’s books. It’s narrative style may be more literal than that of, say, Spiegelman’s “Maus,” but it’s visual language is still primarily that of comics.

  12. Jeet Heer says:

    Katin is probably not the best example. But I’ve definately seen “outside” comics that interestingly bring in other sources be they picture books, childrens illusration, painting or animation.

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