Yuck for Yucks: The Art of Basil Wolverton

Basil Wolverton‘s drawings are a visually witty mishmash of human organs: glands, blistering skin, distended proboscises, eyes swinging from their sockets, and barnacle teeth pointed in every direction. A new show of his original drawings at New York’s Gladstone Gallery spans his career and range of style, from his first comic strip drawing to his late post-apocalyptic visions.

Wolverton specialized in ugly. His style famously became known as “spaghetti and meatballs” both because of the works stylistic resemblance to the food, and for its ultimately nonthreatening status, (the portraits are ugly, but kind of cute-ugly). This ushered in an era of underground comics and influenced generations of artists from R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, to Walt Disney.

Detail, Comet Carson, 1930  Ink on paper; 19 x 14 inches (48.3 x 35.6 cm)
Detail, Comet Carson, 1930 Ink on paper; 19 x 14 inches (48.3 x 35.6 cm)

Born in 1909 in Central Point, Oregon, and a lifelong resident of the Northwest, Wolverton was active in the world of cartooning from 1925 through the ’70s. He had his big break in 1946 when he won the competition to illustrate Lena the Hyena, the world’s ugliest woman. The contest ran in Al Capp’s newspaper strip, Li’l Abner, as well as Life Magazine, and was judged by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Boris Karloff, and Salvador Dali. He went on to draw illustrations for MAD Magazine and Topps Chewing Gum cards, many of which are included in the exhibit.

Late in life Wolverton turned to illustrating Biblical scenes from the Old Testament, and scenes from the Book of Revelation in his Apocalypse series. The thirteen pictures from this series are some of the most intricate and spectacular in the show, and move away from the loopy caricature of previous work to terrifyingly detailed illustrations of apocalyptic, post-war destruction. Pockmarked faces take on new meaning when surrounded by crumbling skyscrapers and bizarre moonscapes.

Eyeball Doctor, 1956  Ink on paper; 14 x 12 inches (35.6 x 30.5 cm)
Eyeball Doctor, 1956 Ink on paper; 14 x 12 inches (35.6 x 30.5 cm)
Sci-Fi Pulp Illustration, 1935  Ink on paper; 11 1/8 x 9 inches (28.3 x 22.9 cm)
Sci-Fi Pulp Illustration, 1935 Ink on paper; 11 1/8 x 9 inches (28.3 x 22.9 cm)

Wolverton’s drawings are on display at the Gladstone Gallery through August 14. There is certainly a statement to be made with a show like this at a blue chip gallery: an acknowledgement of this extraordinary individual’s place as king of the lowbrow and challenger to the high. Note: While you’re there, don’t miss checking out Huang Yong Ping’s installation through July 31.