Superheroes are fictional personas that inspire us to be our ideal selves and fight for justice and a better society. They, along with other comic book characters, have always been present in contemporary art, a theme that carries timeliness and importance considering the popularity of current and recent films based around superheroes and comic book figures. A list that includes the Black Panther film that sits atop current box office ratings, as well as films from 2017 including Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Superman and Mickey Mouse made an appearance in Andy Warhol’s 1981 Myths Series; Warhol’s Superman image sold for $146,500 in 2012. SEEN, the legendary graffiti artist, has depicted various characters, including as the Pink Panther and the Smurfs, in a majority of his work.
In 1981, SEEN and Warhol were part of a group exhibition titled “New York New Wave” alongside two of NYC’s most recognized artists, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The exhibition was a pivotal moment as it brought graffiti art from the streets to the gallery space.
SEEN, whose real name is Richard Mirando, began his career in the 1970s by creating subway graffiti with his crew, United Artists, in New York City. While SEEN incorporates his fascination with superheroes, he also includes comic book themes found in Roy Lichtenstein’s work – think Booms and Kapows.
“My whole life was full of comic books and TV, I would watch everything from Warner Bros. to Top Cat, all the comics,” SEEN told The Independent in 2014.
Erró is another example of an artist who was influenced by comic art and other mass media such as advertisements, magazines and posters. During a trip to New York in 1963, he was exposed to Pop Art and began creating works that incorporated consumer goods and popular media. Unlike Warhol and Lichtenstein, Erró took these pop images and created works inspired by Old Masters and other artists he studied in school. In 1964, he created Tears for Two, a comic-strip style interpretation of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman, 1937.
Superheroes and cartoons are relatable and universally comprehensible – they are characters that people from across the world can describe and they will carry on into the future. Most superheroes live in big cities and their stories surround city life, adding a deeper connection to the street art realm.
Sometimes, such as in the case of the Superman image in Warhol’s Myths Series, the superhero or comic character who makes an appearance in modern and contemporary art is recognizable immediately. In other cases, characters can be presented in a more abstract or alternative light, sometimes forcing the viewer to look twice to see the familiar character. KAWS’ 2015 The Things That Comfort, Stay Steady and No One’s Home (three works) is built around unorthodox images of Snoopy, the lovable dog in Charles Schulz’ iconic Peanuts comic strip.
In either case, the artists use characters who are familiar to those who see the art, creating an immediate familiarity not afforded to other, more anonymous characters.
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Written by: Katya Khazei