To me, cartooning is really close to puppetry. The Muppets are just dolls, and it’s Jim Henson’s hand up Kermit’s butt that makes it animated and alive. This reanimation is what you do with cartooning—and now for me as an adult, painting and drawing. This image is obviously Kermit as the Blue Boy appropriated from Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 original, now at the Huntington Library, but it also is from a Muppet calendar and book that I grew up with, Pictures from the Kermitage Collection, where the Muppets posed as famous paintings. It was done by the National Lampoon people as well as the Muppet people. It was extremely well done—with their collective talents, the wardrobe and everything was spectacular and hilarious for each of their appropriations. But instead of merely translating the photo of a dressed-up Muppet in front of a staged, or backdrop painted background, as I’ve done in a few of my appropriations from this series, I transpose their fake backgrounds for my analytical appropriations of the real source painting. In this case, Gainsborough, behind the appropriation of The Blue Boy, I wanted to paint through the irony of it. For it to work, it must be, hopefully, a really great painting, in that it’s about an appropriation of an appropriation. And as it’s Kermit the Frog, it could be a joke—but I strive to turn the joke image back into a new “master painting.”
Instead of Kermit’s face being just flat and iconic, I hoped to bring out three-dimensionality, soft and material of the antron (Muppet!) fleece, caring for him and trying to cherish him by a ton of different layers—using cremnitz lead white, which gives you that texture that Rembrandt used, but also listening to a lot of Muppet skits and the Muppet Movie soundtrack, and Muppet soundtracks, and thinking a lot about Jim Henson.
To me, Jim Henson—kind of like John Lennon or the Beatles—is the ultimate artist, in that he was incredibly popular and successful and yet he didn’t sell his soul for rock & roll. It was still about the great ideas that he had to bring forth, both in terms of entertaining people in an unexpected way, and reanimating puppetry through the TV lens. He turned the puppet stage into the actual parameters of the TV set itself. But also, how he was able to drive that spirit—and he was also a very spiritual person. He was raised Christian Scientist, but he had his own wonky religion where he believed that, like Fraggle Rock, there were entities. Or like the American Transcendentalists, which I also love, like John Muir who believed nature was alive. He really felt like there were a lot of different secret, enchanted worlds within our world that were alive.
Although there were other avatars of himself in the Muppet universe, Kermit the Frog was Jim Henson in so many ways. And that he could make that animated and alive, and that the character—like a great opera character or something—extends beyond the creator. Jim Henson created him, but now obviously Kermit is still very much in our popular culture and alive as a character.
Frank Oz, who performed Miss Piggy, said that she was like a truck driver who wanted to be a star. Even though hypothetically, they weren’t gay, I always wonder what killed Jim Henson, because he passed during the AIDS crisis from a mysterious pneumonia. Maybe it wasn’t HIV-related, but … Henson and Oz were like Laurel and Hardy, a great duo. There’s the Ernie and Bert gay couple thing, which is obvious and “out there,” but the same is true of Kermit and Miss Piggy. They were a gay couple. And maybe Miss Piggy was trans.
For me with the Muppets, it’s not just nostalgia, their work has content. Even watching the old Sesame Street episodes. Guy Smiley was one of my favorite childhood characters, and I was watching a lot of Guy Smiley skits, and they were hilarious! So funny! But also full of wisdom, allegorical wisdom. The Muppet Show was literally art for the people. Especially when Henson & Co. were in charge, where they were making popular entertainment, but very mindful about—obviously in Sesame Street—how they’re making the world a better place. Then, the Muppets were almost auteur created. And obviously The Muppet Show was turned down by a bunch of people. Lord Lew Grade gave it the green light, and they went to England, and they made the show. It fumbled a little bit in the first season, but then it became the most popular show of its time worldwide. And then when Henson died it was a world moment of mourning.
It’s because it was art! And it was of that moment. Especially in the ’70s and the ’80s, when we really needed a genuine popular art. Henson did try a lot of experimental things afterward, he was always into art, he was always following his direction. He’d wanted the Muppets to be sold to Disney—at least the characters that weren’t the Sesame Street characters—so he could move on to more adventurous projects. Of course, he died, and now that Disney has them, they’ve never been able to get the spirit back.
It’s like the lesson of the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, where an inventor believes he has learned the magic trick of the old master, to project his image from real life onto a canvas surface and copy—but he does so laboriously and without life. One can have the Muppet characters now—and they do live a life of their own—but they don’t let the fantastic synergy of the players happen, where they had full control of the content and what was going on. There were so many heads, and so many bureaucratic things, and it’s all about money in return. It killed the spirit of it.
In some ways, the Muppets are nostalgic for me for the era heralded the auteur in films and television more than today, but also as a queer place. Because I think the Muppets—kind of like RPG video games, some of my students are gaming students and many of them are trans or LGBTQ. And one of my theories is that one, you’re isolated, maybe you’re growing up in an environment that doesn’t understand you, so you’re playing a lot of video games. But also, obviously, suturing into avatars as a video game that can be any gender or being, was also true with the Muppets. Because the Muppets, they’re all oddballs. They’re all queer in an Eve Sedgwick kind of way; they don’t fit into any kind of order. Even Kermit the Frog is this kind of hapless, sensitive guy who may or may not be straight, who goes out with a pig, who’s a drag queen or a trans person. He’s finnicky, he’s kind of bossy, and he’s arty.
I am now Chair of 2D at USC, and me being chair has been really this intense process, where I’m trying to help this program and start a narrative art program. I feel like Kermit in The Muppet Show, where I’m the guy trying to keep order, and I have all these people around me who are all their own artists … I think the Muppets, in their own way, celebrate agency, and they are all wonderfully talented at being so amusing and funny. Painting Kermit helped me. I’m channeling Henson, I’m channeling the Muppets, but I’m also definitely trying to garner from that channeling a sense of my own self.
Like the Beatles, innovation, popularity, and artistic integrity, hopefully the spirit of the Muppets can be replicated again in a different format or form as they brought it on in the spirit of ingenuity and creativity. Henson wanted The Muppet Show to be popular, but at the same time, while bringing entertainment to the masses, not losing their spirit or their soul in doing so. The history is that there was Punch & Judy and Kings & Queens kind of puppet shows before them. Part of Henson’s innovation was he made Muppets individuals that weren’t these stock characters. Neither Jim Henson nor Frank Oz really wanted to be puppeteers. They just found themselves doing it. But they were performing as artists, and they realized that they could do it through this medium. They were always resistant to calling themselves puppeteers, it’s weird. It’s like a cartoonist who wants to be an artist and not a cartoonist. I think they were self-degrading in that way.
Frank Oz, after Henson died, didn’t do puppetry. He was a film director—and still is. But while in their heyday, the whole team was bringing EVERYTHING into their work … And it is an eclectic group of all different kinds of characters, and many of them are gender-queer. I mean, most of them are—they’re anthropomorphized animals! I think also how it works with Duccio too, is that it’s about bringing good spirit—in the ’70s and the ’80s—to squash out the negativity of what the ’60s became after Monterey and “Helter Skelter” and Charles Manson and all that stuff. And the dark elements of drugs and sex and rock ‘n’ roll in a negative way for entertainment.
The Muppets—even though Henson was always a business guy who just happened to have the long hair and beard and be an artist—had, not necessarily a hippie, but there’s a lot of hippie-isms embedded in the Muppets, in a kind and gentle way. But just like Disney took over The Muppets and ruined it, capitalism took over a lot of those ideas and sensibilities. They brought it into the mass marketplace, and by commodifying everything about it, killed it.
Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” talks about how capitalism at one point will give everybody the ability to communicate with one another, or feel the communication that’s happening, in order to kill the resistance. Because you feel like you have a voice, you might not feel the need to act on the underlying forces behind your discontent to affect change. If you watch the Muppets blow themselves up, even as humor, then maybe that’s cathartic for you—you don’t have to really blow up something …
However, in the end, the Muppets helped to create the Gen X generation ideologically, and Kermit was their grand leader. In this image, I like how he takes center stage, with all pomp and circumstance, but innocent wisdom, of the original Gainsborough, who himself was a dandy. I played a lot of Roxy Music and Bowie to get under the feeling of this, glam rock, T Rex, the New York Dolls and the Smiths added to the royal frenzy while painting. Gainsborough had a successful life, like Henson in some ways, as he never lost his agency as an artist even while painting the gentry in the seaside resort town he lived in to hobnob and gain their interest in portrait commissions. He was fast, but focused, and his backgrounds bliss out into otherworldly landscapes. I tried my best to concentrate on him and his masterwork, especially not just in the landscape, but how he might have handled painting the satin on Kermit the same as his original figure. Along with Sir Joshua Reynolds, they both are late eighteenth-century British masters, and their figures and spirit live on just as Henson & Co. to inspire new generations of the future.