The Muppets have always meant so much to me. I was born in 1966, so when Sesame Street came onto the scene, I was just almost the perfect age, maybe a wee bit older, but when the Muppet Show hit in 1976, I was exactly the right age to appreciate the wackiness (and sophistication) of the humor and ideology of the Muppets, as a young queer kid growing up in Colorado.
At the beginning of the Muppet Show as they sing their theme song, the moment climaxes at the end when Kermit sings the ending refrains of his verse, sitting on a stage like platform framed by an arch, with primary players Miss Piggy and Fozzie the Bear in their own arches at each of his sides, and the camera pans quickly back as you see row after row of Muppets in arches joining in the climax of the song, only to have the Muppet Show logo dropped in from a stage pulley, with Gonzo sitting in the letter “O” of “Show” to blare out a trumpet signaling the end of the song (with a different funny action happening to him and/or his trumpet each time).
Muppets in Arches for generations of people around the world (The Muppet Show at its zenith for its five-year run was one of the number one shows in markets in America, Europe, and beyond) is a signifier of the wealth of agency for each individual Muppet, and the phenomena of Jim Henson and his brilliant creations and significance of their power. Ironic to be sure, as each Muppet itself is a somewhat hapless creature…. While painting any of my works, I submerge myself into the subject matter of its content, listening to music, audio books that have something to do with image, and during breaks or dinners, watching media that relates. For this work, like my other Muppet paintings, I enjoyed visiting the episodes streaming of years of the Muppets, and there was one show, in 1980 at the end of the fourth season when Diana Ross was the guest. The plot of this episode was that the audience (also ironically all Muppets) in the theater had turned against the Muppet performers, and only Diana Ross could win their hearts and turn the show around. She suggests well known different Muppet characters and skits to Kermit that he could roll out to appeal to the audience, and with each one Kermit sadly nods “no” and has a disclaimer for each for indeed Fozzie was a comedic Bear who only told bad jokes, the Swedish Chef speaks in a language that even Swedes don’t understand and can never catch what it is he is trying to cook, and so on. Even Miss Piggy is glamorous for not allowing her being a basically talentless full-figured pig get in the way of her being a Diva. But somehow by giving agency to any of these players, Henson and his amazing crew were able to make each a Star, not only within the plotlines of the show, but on the international stage of pop celebrity—they were on the covers of magazines, guests on talk shows, and went on to make successful films and many other projects.
Sesame Street was originally created to celebrate urban youth and in significant part, African American culture, coming on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, and using very deliberately ideologies from Dr. Martin Luther King and his followers embedded in educating entertainment meant to appeal to very young preschool viewers—also depicted in the show as a multicultural group like the adult characters who all lived in harmony (the main theme of Sesame Street was “cooperation”). The idea, beyond teaching rudimentary reading and math skills, etc., was to create a culture of compassion and empathy for all peoples (even Oscar the Grouch!) for children who would also hopefully grow up to have engrained within them these ideals, in part perhaps from the early influence of the show. The Muppet Show was not created by Children’s Television Workshop, but by Henson and Co. themselves, allowing for only one of the Sesame Street characters (Henson’s doppelganger Kermit the Frog) to appear, as the host and the stage manager and boss of the other Muppets (also true to life for Henson’s role in the company). Within the zany humor, special guests, musical numbers of this classic variety show that merged like minded 70’s variety shows like Donny and Marie with early vaudeville was a true heart and spirit for the characters and their message of love for all beings and one another that set it apart from other variety shows, then or now. As much as they may have battled and joked (and literally blow up), the characters all cared deeply for one another (and their special guests who were some of the leading cultural lights of the era). They would stand in awe of true talent, and sing along with John Denver, but also greats like Harry Belafonte, Broadway legends Carol Channing and Ethel Merman, Rita Moreno and more. Truly The Muppet Show was a celebration of culture, of the ability to set aside political strife and everyday burdens, and to be along together with a group of individuals who were all different from one another but could all agree that singing and laughing together was the enchantment of culture to bring people together for common goals of harmony.
The Muppets themselves were literally iconic, essentialized beings made out of fur and Muppet felt, in different colors and textures that transcended specific ideas of race and ethnicity—if you were purple—or any other color perhaps the characters could be any ethnicity (the main theme song of the Muppets was “It’s Not Easy Being Green” sung by Kermit that itself is an anthem of empowering any kind of “queerness”—not fitting into the mainstream “norm”). Class and age also come into play—there was George the Janitor, who was part of a community of workers on the show, who mixed with housewives, businessmen, all kinds of Circus and stage acts mixed in with true divas and stars like Kermit and Piggy. Like the populist allegories of Degas embracing ballet dancers, Manet, Lautrec, and other impressionists using the Moulin Rouge and stage as their subject matter, Picasso in his Rose Period painting circus folks, etc., the Muppet Show used the allegorical syntax of the theater to talk about different planes of peoples who would all get together (like the groundlings mixing with the socialites and royalty in Shakespeare’s time) to enjoy the theater of themselves satirizing real issues with humor and warmth to appeal, but also to have the catharsis of laughter, to bring people together and in so doing, hopefully making the world a better place. The shows still hold up—they are great and entertaining, some of the progression since this time outdates some of the references and politics, but as their heart was in the right place, and the energy and talent all were exceptional, along with their aspirations, the Muppet Show is still a joy.
I’ve always wanted to paint the Muppets in their arches, when I recently watched the “Warhol Diaries” documentary inspired from the book/project I was compelled. In the first episode they show the church that Warhol and his family went to every Sunday as devout Catholics, and the Polish cathedral-like church was festooned with portraits of religious icons, all in arches, along the entire altar walls. It was said that maybe these icons inspired the young Warhola to be enamored with this type of painting, and his Gold Marilyn’s and more might have come from this spiritual source. In his era it did seem like religion was being replaced by popular culture, and part of the power of Warhol is to monumentalize the everyday—or the divas of his world like Marilyn to replace the Madonna (and in so doing speak about our postmodern moment, as the silkscreen flatness of his imagery replicates how agency can be reified in Capital—why did Marilyn commit suicide if not because she became so exploited by the machinations of a Phallocentric Patriarchal culture she “lost her soul”?!). The Muppets, being felt and fur and all colors and textures could be any peoples, but they are also queer—if this means not fitting into the Patriarchal Symbolic order. Beyond their true otherness as anthropomorphized animals that don’t look like their referenced source in many cases, they are also mostly single, but have deep affection for one another. And there are the true homosocial bromances of Kermit and Fozzie, Ernie and Bert, etc., but also the character of Piggy—she is female, but Frank Oz, who was her puppeteer always remarked that Piggy was like a “truckdriver who wanted to be a woman”. Female truckdrivers back in 50’s was symbolically associated with Lesbians, and with her gender fluid attitudes—she could be supremely feminine in her moves towards Kermit—but in the same moment come down upon him with her famous, Bruce Lee and super masculine “Karate Chops”. But if Oz is performing her—is she a drag queen? Somehow within the realm of transgendered beingness? Of course, none of the Muppets had genitals—as puppets (when not in full figure but even then) their bottom halves were missing—with (mostly) men’s hands inserted into them making them erect and animated—were they all queer-even gay?! Many queer folks from my generation and beyond had a special affection for the Muppets (maybe like earlier generations for the gender bending Judy Garland?) and I believe it was part of their ability to shine a spotlight on otherness, celebrating diversity with a heart of gold that was a big part of this phenomena.
Also, as essentialized icons, the personas, like any cartoon universe, could represent different aspects of the same person. Kermit could be our Super Ego, trying in vain to control the chaos surrounding him. Piggy is pure Ego, doing her best to make the most of what she had and shape it into an undeniable star, Animal pure Id, following his most base desires for banging drums and chasing his impulses, etc. When painting this work, it was interesting as, like a method actor, I try to bring out aspects of my real life into each character to animate it, and the feelings of each one was individualistic and different, as each character drew out of me feelings and memories (along with contemporary problems and ideas) that best befit the character. It is like going through analysis, in a good way, when painting these works, and I was able to solve the problems of my every day and past by putting the pieces together of the puzzle of the composition. Like Tom Cruise in Risky Business I also used to “mirror dance”, a lot (!?), in my youth. Growing up in the suburbs of Colorado, there wasn’t much escape from conformity, and the Muppets were my vehicle for release and transcendence of the everyday. But I also had a wealth of amazing music I would listen to, great now as it was then, and I grew up dancing, and singing along (and pretending to be a performer!) all the 70’s and 80’s greats, but especially in this era of the late 70’s early 80’s the Talking Heads, Bowie, all aspects of early hip-hop. I was an early tween Deadhead and then Punk (all celebrated community) and particularly bands like the Clash were able to integrate very progressive political agendas, pop culture, pushback to conformity and patriarchy, etc., in incredible, driven, musical motifs. As a young gay and closeted kid (even to myself) I was good at skiing, but not many more sports, and I think dancing in front of my mirror gave me a sense of agency but also a healthy form of aerobic exercise—getting my ya ya’s out by dancing and portraying all these acts—much in the same way I grew up with a huge collection of puppets and would have them enact musical numbers when I was really a kid, and in my artwork then, making cartoons for the school papers and publications, and now as a professional artist. While painting some of these characters, in my meditation listening to the same music as my youth I would think/visualize my reflection in the mirror when I “performed” the same songs as kid, in the hopes to connecting to my younger self, and the spirit, and the essentialized drive of my agency in order to try to infuse my now 56-year-old being with the actual spirit of my youth. It was rejuvenating and vital to paint, and after coming from a very difficult and challenging period of being Chair of Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking as a tenured full Professor of Art at the University of Southern California on my first sabbatical (of my life!), it was literally freeing and liberating.
I teach Scott McCloud’s brilliant book “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” to all my classes, fine art, comics, and otherwise. In it (inspired by Art Spiegelman’s School of Visual Arts comics classes—which I also taught for 25 years before coming to USC) he talks about the “power of the icon”—when a figurative form is stripped down to its barest elements—like the “happy face”—that it has the power to be able to have anyone—no matter what their age, ethnicity, or position in life—identify and relate—and in comics—“suture” into the form and “become” the character, taking on the ability of have the reader become immersed into the avatar of character who then takes the reader on a “journey” of the narrative. This is true and is part of the reason of the proliferation of cartoons in our contemporary times, whether it to be to sell via advertising, or go on a narrative “ride” like the Avatar movies and more (and the entire world of video games, etc.). I have begun at USC a whole Visual Narrative Art program that brings my experience from SVA to a research university (that also has the George Lucas and friends driven world-class Cinema Studies students—many of whom take my classes and the Narrative Art classes I have written and hired teachers for), next door to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art that is soon to open across from the USC campus. It’s so important, that like the Muppets, we can make more narratives that audiences of all ages and all platforms can “suture into” and learn from, in art that appeals to popular culture that is in current peril of the loss of Democracy, the warming of our planet, and more. Joseph Campbell, Lucas’s mentor, in his Power of Myth series and books (along with his Hero of a Thousand Faces) espouses that an “artists job is to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for it to progress”, and the Muppets obviously were doing this quite consciously, and we need future generations of like-minded creators to be able to carry this torch both in popular media and entertainments as well as fine art.
For me, painting the Muppet Show Arches (the lyrics Sensational, Inspirational, Celebrational, Muppetational! were sung by the players as the arches were revealed), the puppets were a vehicle for different aspects of my conscious and unconscious, but the lights and colors behind them were almost like their spirits or souls (or my sprit or soul coming forth in my conscious and unconscious painting of the characters). We are all like puppets, in our way, we have our own flesh suits of our bodies that our minds are in control of—we are all our own puppeteers, but perhaps there is also something else driving our bodies, thoughts, and movements. Buddhists might say “are we our bodies? Our minds? A combination of both or neither?”, etc. I do believe in idea of spirit, of unembodied consciousness, and what we don’t’ know about our corporeal existence and consciousness. Picasso would say when drawing a circle without an aid of a compass, its imperfection is what is “you” about it. When painting from photos, how it is different from the photo is what is “me” about it (although the Muppet Arches are famous, the only true clear photo I could find of them beyond blurry video grabs was from a 1981 published Abram’s art book “Muppets and Men” that I had as a kid and studied fervently!). Muppet performers would be frustrated when people thought their true talent was their funny voices, when in fact, as performers what they are doing was infusing the whole beingness of a character to animate their (as Frank Oz would put it, they would “wiggle dolls”) to make them come to Pygmalion life. In Muppet Arches, the character was just part of the work, for me it would harness a particular energy that the character exemplified, and the color and the forms surrounding them was the spirit of what they represented in me and my life. In this way, much of the painting is abstract, like a Kandinsky, trying to bring out the synesthetic quality of different emotions and feelings surrounding like music the Muppet that would be more specifically emulating that feeling. This is all structured with the grid like forms of the man-made (?!) arches and platforms they are organized on, in addition to the materialist notions of the objects of the puppets themselves. I was even thinking the heads of the columns resembled human heads—or really skulls of any kind of anthropomorphized being/skeleton. Perhaps this life exclaiming itself in the face of death—as a middle-aged man, who gratefully has his health, but has seen the death of close friends and aging of parents—I’m still having a mid-life crisis of wanting to embrace life and the hopeful exuberance of my youth, perhaps also reflected in this painting. Hopefully fused together, the work has a life of its own, not celebrating the religiosity of the church fresco of icon paintings, but like them, in a non-religious way, having an iconic image that celebrates different kinds of diversity powered by the real painterly spirit of my artistry to try to bring the picture, like the puppets herein, to life.
The arch positions for the group, including both regulars, supporting players, and background characters, were as follows (I believe this image is from the Season Two (1977) but remained fairly consistent for the show’s five year run: