Frieze Los Angeles 2024
The Peanuts Dance, 2023-2024 Oil on linen 80 × 60 inches
The Peanuts Dance, 2023-2024
Oil on linen 80 × 60 inches

I love everything Peanuts, and this is image is a modified appropriation from the famous dance sequence in the first ever Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas from 1965.  In the ½ hour special (that was repeated every year growing up for me—a real “event” for my generation around the holidays) Charlie Brown has been recruited to direct a Christmas Pageant play at their school, and the Peanuts gang doesn’t pay attention to him as he tries to bring things to order during a rehearsal, and instead do their wonderful individuated dance moves to the soundtrack of Vince Guaraldi’s Linus and Lucy theme.  In the original image, Charlie Brown is offstage, and beyond Frieda (with the naturally curly hair!), Linus, Sally, and Schroeder leading the onstage band with Pig-Pen on upright bass and Snoopy on guitar, the rest of the dancers are “extra’s,” or marginal/outdated characters.  I replaced these with more pertinent ones, to make the image more my own and to update for contemporary times of diversity and inclusion:  Violet is replaced by the much more prominent strong female protagonist Lucy.  Franklin, who hadn’t been invented yet (he was introduced during the height of the Civil Rights era in 1968), I took from the (controversial—as he sits by himself during Thanksgiving) A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special and put in the front and center here.  Peppermint Patty (first introduced in 1966) and her friend Marcie (introduced in 1971), who many people gay or straight have always considered a gay couple, dance in tandem, replacing the twins from the original special. Woodstock was officially named in 1970 after the music festival, and I included an early version of him here, from his first appearance in film in 1972’s Snoopy Come Home. And I included Charlie Brown at the top, dancing (from 1975’s Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, after he receives one in the mail!). Hopefully, ultimately, in my painterly interpretation, with warmth, emotion, color and texture derivations of the image, how it’s not like the original cartoon film cell and background is what is “me” about this.

Schulz was obviously a genius, and had great integrity in his art, but always considered Peanuts a commercial comic strip and “commercial art”.  His art instruction came from the Art Instruction, Inc. (Draw the Pirate!) correspondence course—that he later became one of their teachers for cartooning, and like so many creators of his generation and before, wanted to become a “rich and famous” cartoonist at a time when few people considered cartooning a serious art form.  He was in total control of his product, however, and wanted total integrity with how his characters met the world in different mediums.  In the early 60’s, Ford asked Schulz to use his characters to promote their new 1962 Ford Falcon, and Schulz, having grown up with a proud midwestern Ford owning family, was delighted, feeling like he “finally made it” with this great new client.  The person who animated the characters (interacting with “live action” photos of the car and more) was Bill Melendez, proudly Latino, who had just created his own studio, after working in the golden old Disney days on Pinocchio and more, then transitioned to the Warner Brothers “Termite Terrace” group of those pioneering wild Looney Tunes of Bugs Bunny and the gang, then the UPA group, home of Gerald McBoing-Boing and the Bullwinkle cartoons before creating his own studio, with these commercials being some of the first he produced.  In collaboration with Schulz, who demanded the kids have real kid voices, and that the strip was kept intact in style and feeling in the animation—basically a 2D flat cartoon style of the UPA, but with Schulz’s character designs, the commercials were a hit.

Lee Mendelson, a local San Francisco KPIX-TV television producer, who was young and breaking out on his own, just starting to make his name with a documentary on Willie Mays, thought he “done the world’s greatest baseball player, now [he] should do the world’s worst baseball player, Charlie Brown” and approached Schulz, who loved Mays and the doc, and agreed. For the short bits of animated sequences in the documentary (that at first didn’t have any buyers?!) Schulz asked to please use Melendez, as he had done such a great job with the Ford commercials.  Mendelson agreed.  While he was trying to find a sponsor for the documentary, Coca Cola had seen the doc, and approached him about doing a Peanuts Christmas special—and Mendelson agreed without even consulting Schulz and Melendez, knowing they would jump at the opportunity.  Less than a week later, they had a script that was approved by Coke, and went to work.  Schulz based much of the special on strips he had already written, based around his idea of wanting to bring about the true meaning of Christmas by way of the kids putting on a pageant, and demanded for the now famous scene of Linus speech quoting the Bible.  This was radical, then as it would be today, and Schulz also demanded NOT using a laugh track, which also was unheard of.  But Mendelson had an epiphany listening to the radio going overing the Golden Gate bridge, listening to the local station and hearing the bay area based jazz of Guaraldi, and this was the last component put together to make the incredible special that defied all expectations as being one of the most watched shows when I premiered on CBS on Dec. 9, 1965, getting most of the market, and becoming a legendary special that continued to run for 56 years until going to Apple TV and streaming platforms.  It spurned on over 50 more specials, all animated with Melendez and produced by Mendelson, and their movies, 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown and Snoopy Come Home.

I signed the work with my name, but also Melendez and Schulz, as Bill was a trusted collaborator with Schulz, I felt it important to follow his designs as much as he did Schulz’s—and it was Schulz as a Master artist who oversaw all and hope he would have liked this painting.  Schulz would always say if he could write better, he would write novels, and if he could draw or render better, he would like to be like Andrew Wyeth.  Of course, this is overly modest and humble of him, as he was an artist who had greater impact arguably than Wyeth to culture but wanted to bring out his spirit in this work.  I was also thinking of this work into a “fine art oil painting” of Matisse’s famous Red Studio from 1911, Caillebotte’s Floor Scrapers from 1875, and the way Japanese woodblock prints would “flatten out perspective”, and the emotive agency of Rothko, in the way the composition is separated into thirds, and his being inspired by the Red Studio.  I listened to of course Guaraldi—and from his many soundtracks and original albums now streaming online to get into the “right brain” of the image.  But I also listened to Schulz’s interviews and lectures, and in-depth interviews from the Television Academy of both Melendez and Mendelson, and Schulz’s favorite music—mostly classical, Beethoven of course, but also Brahms, showtunes from Man of La Mancha and My Fair Lady to old country of Hank Williams and more.  I also listened to the full audiobook of his biography by David Michaelis “Schulz and Peanuts” and read the anthologies of the strips and lectures about them.

I believe in the method acting way of rendering—literally inspired since I was a kid on how Schulz would say when he was drawing wood, he “thought wood” and when he was drawing grass he “thought grass”, but most importantly, when he was drawing he is thinking about “what is happening to the character, I’m not thinking about what I’m trying to do with each item, I’m just thinking about the emotion that is happening at each time”.  I revere Charles Schulz so much and have devoted my life to not only making art, but teaching comics, in part from his influence.  I was the lead comics teacher at the School of Visual Arts in NYC for over 25 years and their “Cartooning Coordinator”, while I taught fine art and painting at NYU, Columbia, Yale, Brown, Brooklyn College and more.  When Schulz died in February 2000, I had a prescient dream of seeing him in his studio, and I remember distinctly his glasses, sweater, and Mister Rogers-like voice and temperament, thanking me for teaching new generations of cartoonist the art of comics and carrying on the tradition(?!)  At the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California, where I’m now a full tenured Professor of Art, I have also created a Visual Narrative Art program and interdisciplinary minor (with the School of Cinematic Arts Animation—where serendipitously Melendez used to teach– and Gaming depts, also Theater Arts and Dorsife/English schools) to teach future generation of what the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is going to be celebrating across the street (whom I’m also in the collection and working in collaboration with).  One of George Lucas’ mentors was Joseph Campbell, and to paraphrase Campbell “an artists’ job is to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for that culture to progress” and this is the ideology I have with my own work and teaching, in part inspired by Charles Schulz and his vision.

While I’m not religious, I’m spiritual, and Schulz was very religious in his life (although he modified his beliefs from the strict dictates of the church and his strip engages in the good spirit of the essence of the strip).  I realized while painting this that Charlie Brown, as subjugated as he is, never gives up hope and his beliefs, a bit of Christ figure, and have given him a halo here.  Woodstock, like so many doves in religious Western European painting, beyond the Holy Spirit, has golden emanate emanating from him the spirit of peace, renewal, transformation, and love—which to me is what this scene has always been about.  Beyond the dogma of religion, like how the characters are ignoring the bullhorn of Charlie Brown and dancing to their own tune, the way they dance creates a synesthetic feeling of the true meaning of Christmas of love, generosity, and happiness for all.  While painting at the end, I was listening to the original Broadway cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar (as being queer and half Jewish, like the original Christmas special, my way “into” Catholicism and what it may represent—in face a recent NY Times article mentions that for the Jewish writer, Linus was like a Jewish character and the special itself was a welcome entertainment during Hanukah!) and was painting in a fervor the backdrop of the scene, which in the original had a modern abstract feeling, but hopefully here transcends into heavenly abstraction of joy.