Loyola Marymount animation professor Tom Klein's first job out of college was watching cartoons.
In 1994 and again in 1998, when Universal was working on a Woody Woodpecker reboot for FoxKids, Klein was brought on by the studio to act as its resident Woody Woodpecker expert. As a graduate student at UCLA, he'd cataloged the school's collection of materials associated with Walter Lantz Productions, the studio behind Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy and the perhaps-less-iconic Andy Panda.
"I really had a blast, with access to the studio backlot and an electric cart to buzz around," Klein recalls of his time at Universal, via email interview. "Some of my favorite work was watching from their collection of archived cartoons, which were really hard to see then because this was before the home video release. I was fresh out of college and I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to watch Woody Woodpecker."
One day, in a small screening room he had access to, he cued up a cartoon called "The Loose Nut," animated by Shamus Culhane, whose work for various studios — but Walter Lantz, in particular — Klein had become a fan of in college. (As editor of UCLA's graduate journal, Klein wrote his first scholarly article on a dispute Culhane had with another Lantz artist.) The seven-minute cartoon ends with an explosion when Woody whacks a golfball made of TNT with a five iron. In the midst of the explosion — which leaves Woody pink and featherless — Klein noticed something remarkable: flashes of what could only be described as modern art. (Go to 6:25 in the video.)
In the exhibit he curated for Loyola Marymount's Laband Art Gallery, "Woody Woodpecker & the Avant-Garde," which opens today, Klein draws connections between WWII-era cartoons and the art their animators would have been exposed to at the time, particularly at Hollywood's long-defunct and nearly forgotten American Contemporary Gallery.
Klein explains, "The American Contemporary Gallery was an exciting place where a lot of people found kindred spirits in a wartime Los Angeles that didn’t have a lot to offer to an artistic community. Nonetheless, people flocked westward because of the allure of Hollywood. So the gallery played this role when people arrived, some who were émigrés fleeing the war in Europe, after they realized L.A. was a city without a single good museum. A community was fostered here and it had an enormous impact."
Hung alongside cells drawn by Culhane are paintings and watercolors by artists who exhibited at the ACG in the mid-1940s: Jules Engel, Byron Randall and others. And alongside HD digital transfers of select Woody Woodpecker cartoons, films by Man Ray and other avant-garde filmmakers play on a loop — films that might've influenced artists like Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington when they attended gallery screenings as teenagers.
According to Klein, who corresponded with Culhane and even visited him on break from college, Culhane was a self-described New York liberal who supported the war effort but leaned left in terms of labor issues, which wasn't taboo in the pre-McCarthy era. Klein says, "Culhane felt right at home with the prevalent social activism of the crowd he met at the art gallery. There were communists among the artists and filmmakers, but because the Soviets were our wartime allies fighting Nazi Germany, it was a really convenient time to be open about one’s conviction. People were even learning to speak Russian at the Lantz studio, it was just cool to do, even patriotic in a way. Then when the war ended, that turned on a dime and the hardliners used a resurgent Red Scare to turn the tide against the labor movement."
He adds, "I imagine none of the animators spoke Russian at Lantz after that."
The American Contemporary Gallery didn't survive the McCarthy era. Which may or may not be a coincidence.
For all their perceived triviality, cartoons were and still are a sort of subversive way to expose unwitting viewers to modern art.
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Klein says, "I always liked how stylization or absurdity in cartoons was an easier pill to swallow for mainstream audiences than fine arts. If something was meant to be funny then the audience laughed too, but if it was serious then there was resistance to it. The most celebrated artist of the 20th century is Picasso, and in my opinion he is fundamentally a cartoonist. He was playful with his lines. This exhibit places the modern art of the American Contemporary Gallery and the cartoon art of Woody Woodpecker in proximity and lets viewers make those connections for themselves."
"Woody Woodpecker & the Avant-Garde," Laband Art Gallery, 7900 Loyola Blvd., Westchester; through Nov. 20. cfa.lmu.edu/labandgallery/exhibitions.