Alex Ross’ comic-book art shows influences including Norman Rockwell
It may seem an odd idea to see comic-book art in a museum. But one look at the work of Alex Ross and you will understand why it is featured in a major exhibit, “Heroes & Villains,” at The Andy Warhol Museum.
Truth is, there could be no better place to laud Ross’ art than The Warhol. After all, Ross is considered by many to be the Norman Rockwell of the comics world and his photorealistic works are oft noted as being the first to represent superheroes as if they are real people.
But when the Warhol’s director of exhibitions, Jesse Kowalski, an ardent comic book fan, first proposed the idea of organizing a retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work, it wasn’t well received.
“To many, people comic books have a stigma of being amateur fantasy art thumbed through by pimply adolescents in their parents’ basements,” Kowalski says. “‘Comic books do not equal art.’ It is true that a lot of comic book art is not terrific, especially now that artists have left pencils for computers, figuratively and literally distancing themselves from the paper surface.”
But when Kowalski showed high-resolution images of Ross’s work to Warhol director Eric Shiner and staff, opinions changed.
“I posited that much of Ross’s art is an extension of classic American illustration, from early 20th-century Saturday Evening Post covers to the Americana of Norman Rockwell to the pop art of Andy Warhol,” Kowalski says.
Now, visitors to the museum have an opportunity to either agree or disagree with the curator. And more than likely, upon seeing “Heroes & Villains,” they will agree.
Occupying the entire seventh floor of the museum, the exhibit includes 134 works by Ross, including paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures from Ross’s personal collection, and works by classic American illustrators J.C. Leyendecker, Andrew Loomis and Rockwell. As always, there are a few wonderful works by Warhol thrown in for good measure.
The exhibit begins with some of Ross’s earliest works, comic books he created at age 4. Above those, arranged on a shelf, are a series of cardboard figurines he made at age 11 of all of his favorite superheroes, proving that, even at a young age, Ross was a comic-book protege like none other.
Ross, who was born in 1970 in Portland, Oregon, is the son of Lynette Ross, a successful fashion illustrator in Chicago during the 1950s. She has more than half a dozen works on display, too. But other artists influenced the young Ross as well, which is why an entire gallery is dedicated to those influences.
Here, visitors will be surprised to find not one, but three original works by Rockwell. Most impressive is “The Golden Rule,” an oil-on-canvas on loan from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., one of Rockwell’s most famous works.
Rockwell’s influence continues in Ross’s work. Rockwell’s impact was so great that the lighting and composition of works like Rockwell’s “The Golden Rule” — as well as “United Nations” and “The Right to Know,” also on display — form the basis of the covers of Ross’s comic-book series “Kingdom Come” and “Justice” that hang nearby.
Looking at the cover pieces for the two-volume paperback version of “Justice” (2006) next to Rockwell’s “United Nations,” one can see that the sense of light employed in the charcoal study that Rockwell intended to be the basis for a 10-foot-long mural to be hung in the United Nations building in New York had a direct influence as the way Ross chose to treat the characters in his piece.
The main gallery features many original paintings and cover art from some of the comic books that have made Ross a household name in the comics world, especially “Marvels” and “Kingdom Come.”
Ross had worked on assignments for Marvel Comics as early as age 19 while a student at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, the city where he still lives and works.
But it wasn’t until five years later, after a stint working as a commercial storyboard artist at an ad agency, that he painted a visual history of Marvel Comics’ central characters in the groundbreaking comic-book event “Marvels” (1994). This was followed by another hugely successful comic book series “Kingdom Come” for DC (1996, also co-authored by Ross).
Not just Marvel characters, but paintings of many DC comics characters are on display. Both Superman and Batman are represented in a great many original watercolors and digital prints.
One painting in particular, “Superman #1” from 1998 , draws inspiration from the original cover of the comic book that first appeared in June 1938. But here, the hero looks all the more real thanks to Ross’ inimitable realistic style.
Looking at this piece, it’s easy to see why Ross would go on to win the Comic Buyer’s Guide Award for “Favorite Painter” so many times that the award was retired.
And though nearly every painting is of an easily recognizable DC or Marvel comics superhero, one painting in particular is a real standout for being e different.
A painting of Andy Warhol flying up into the sky, as if a superhero himself, was painted by Ross as a gift to the museum. The image, which depicts Warhol flying alongside a flock of geese, accompanies a small comic-book-size gallery guide for the show. A fitting tribute to both artists.
‘Heroes & Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross’
When: Through Jan. 8. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, until 10 p.m. Fridays.
Where: The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Shore
Admission: $15; $9 for senior citizens; $8 for children and students
Details: 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org