At first, it looked as if 30 years of running an art gallery in East Lansing had finally gotten to Roy Saper.
Two weeks ago, I walked into Saper’s gallery, tiptoed past the pricey vases and sculptures, and found him lying on the floor, clutching a bright yellow book for babies.
“I Can Read With My Eyes Shut,” he recited, grinning through his graying beard.
Who can blame him? If you’re American and under 65, you probably started life that way, with your diapered butt on a carpet, glued to the adventures of the Cat in the Hat, Yertle the Turtle or some other Dr. Seuss beastie with a long neck and girly eyelashes.
But Saper wasn’t reverting to childhood. He was clearing the decks for a big new show. He looked as excited as McGrew, the hero of Dr. Seuss’ “If I Ran the Zoo.”
Down went the sober landscapes and portraits in the main galleries. For his 30th anniversary show, Saper wanted big fun.
He also wanted to showcase an artist everybody knows and nobody knows.
The result is “The Art of Dr. Seuss,” a touring exhibit authorized by the estate of Dr. Seuss that kicked off Sunday in East Lansing.
Of course, the show salutes Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss, as the subversive fantasist who liberated children’s books from the conformist blahs of Dick and Jane.
But the exhibit also goes outside the margins to put Geisel into context as an advertising man, editorial cartoonist, magazine artist, wartime propagandist and moonlighting painter.
“Millions of people grew up with his books, but Dr. S euss is only be gi nn i ng to be recognized as a fine artist, and all but unknown in the way this show reveals him ,” Saper said.
Or, as Seuss put it: “My new zoo , McGrew Zoo, will make people talk. My new zoo, McGrew Zoo, will make people gawk.”
People began to gawk and talk as soon as the Saper show went up last week. At the First Sunday opener, Saper greeted almost 1,000 people in one afternoon.
Visitors ranged in age from nine weeks to nine decades, and smiles were much more abundant than they were at Saper’s 2006 Picasso show.
When it comes to shared cultural experience, you can’t press a bigger, brighter multi-generational button in the American brain than Dr. Seuss.
Flanked by friends, Michigan State University freshman Katie O’Donnell stood under a wall-mounted animal head with ram’s horns and giant eyeballs like hard-boiled eggs.
A label under the trophy read “Goo-Goo- Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast.”
O ’Donnell whipped out her cell phone and called her parents, who live in Battle Creek. “Now you have to come visit me, because you have to see this thing,” she told them.
The Wolghast is one of several pieces of “unorthodox taxidermy” peering from the gallery walls.
“Every pompous corporate board - room should have one,” Saper said.
Geisel built the fanciful creatures from real animal parts his dad brought home from the Forest Park Zoo in Springfield, Mass.
Across from the taxidermy, two college students looked at a display of advertisements dating from the 1920s to the 1940s. Several ads trumpeted the virtues of Flit, an insecticide. One ad shows a Suessian mosquito committing suicide with it. “Improved with DDT,” another ad boasted.
“That’s against the law now,” one of the students said in awe.
Geisel’s slogan, “Quick, Henry, the Flit,” became a national catchphrase in the 1930s. A 1936 Flit ad showed a little girl urging her brother, who has swallowed a bug, to gargle with the stuff.
About 40 years later, in 1971, Seuss created “The Lorax,” a landmark children’s book advocating environmental stewardship and bemoaning the “gluppity-glup” and “schloppity-schlopp” poisoning rivers and forests.
That’s the kind of twist that fascinates Bill Dreyer, curator of “The Art of Dr. Seuss.” For 10 years, Dreyer has been researching and writing a book on Seuss’ artistic legacy, to appear in 2009. “The show is not just about Dr. Seuss’ work,” he said. “It’s a history of the changes in our culture.”
Little-known stuff like the old ads make up the backbone of the show, a not-for-sale, museum-type array of 32 panels with 200 images that cover Geisel’s magazine covers, ads, oil paintings, unpublished material and many other facets of his career, with lots of explanatory text. It’s an impressively thorough collection; there’s even a rusty old Flit spray gun. About 200 more prints feature the familiar Dr. Seuss characters, in various sizes, with text cards by Saper and fanciful frames to match the images.
Dreyer said the material for the show began to come out in 1995, when Seuss’s widow, Audrey Geisel, authorized a book, “The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss.” (Theodore Geisel died in 1991.)
“In 1997, she gave us permission to recreate some of these as limited editions,” Dryer said.
Saper and Dreyer admit up front that all the Dr. Suess images in the show are reproductions. (The magazines and other ephemera are original.) Most of the originals are in archives at the University of California in San Diego, or hanging in Geisel’s home in La Jolla, where Audrey still lives.
The comprehensiveness of the show makes it easy to trace Dr. Seuss’ distinctive style (the “golden thread,” Dreyer calls it) through the phases of his career. A 1933 magazine cover sports a prototype of Yertle the Turtle. A 1949 Ford ad uses a glove-on-a-stick contraption Seuss used 20 years later, in “Green Eggs and Ham.”
Even when the material is racy or politically charged, it’s still obviously Seuss. An unpublished book, “The Seven Lady Godivas,” bulges with inflated-looking Seussian nudes. A caged elephant in a 1944 political cartoon is winningly Horton-esque, even with a Nazi swastika on its backside.
One amazing painting, “The Rather Odd Myopic Woman Riding Piggyback on One of Helen’s Many Cats,” features a signature Dr. Seuss cat, strategically positioned in a woman’s crotch.
An unpublished 1938 novelette addresses Depression-era unemployment in familiar imagery and verse: “Then back to Nobsks with sighs and sobsks…There are, in Bobsks, no jobsks for Obsks.”
For those who are used to seeing Dr. Seuss’ contraptions, creatures and landscapes in the flat coloring-book format of his children’s books, another aspect of the Saper show will come as a shock.
Wedged into the crowd at Sunday’s opening was Dennis Preston, longtime Lansing caricature specialist and commercial artist. Despite the crush of bodies, Preston wasn’t budging from a row of prints reproducing Geisel’s phantasmagoric oil paintings. Dreyer said the paintings (cheesily dubbed the “secret art” in this show) were made at night and never left Geisel’s house in La Jolla until Audrey Geisel began to authorize prints in the late 1990s.
One of the paintings, “The Joyous Leaping of Uncanned Salmon,” looks like paisley rain falling in reverse from a rainbow-dyed shag rug, in close-up.
“This is psychedelic,” Preston said. “Get some 3-D glasses and this would pop off the wall.”
Preston, who had his own show of psychedelic rock posters at the Creole Gallery a couple of years ago, saw a kindred spirit in Dr. Seuss. “I used to copy his characters and paint them onto shirts,” he said. “Of course, I grew up reading his books. But when you’re a kid you don’t think about this dimensional stuff.”
Another print, “O solo meow-o,” features a cat poling a gondola through a wild network of canals and streets. The colors drench your eyes until they sink into your face like two shreds of sponge in a lake.
“He was like a Fauvist from the earlier part of the last century,” Saper said, naming the color-mad early-20th-century modernist movement that produced Matisse’s eye-spanking “Woman With a Hat” and many other vivid works.
In the oil paintings, Geisel seems to spin the color wheel with total abandon, but Saper pointed out that the combinations are carefully planned.
“Some people are born with perfect pitch,” Saper said. “He was born with perfect color. He just knows which colors go with others.”
The same goes for the more controlled world of the Dr. Seuss books.
Geisel’s career as the most beloved and best-selling children’s author began in 1937, with “To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street,” but was interrupted by wartime propaganda work with film director Frank Capra and Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones. One of the characters they created was Private Snafu, a bumbling soldier who demonstrated the wrong way to do everything. (You can check out some of these films on YouTube.)
Geisel came back after the war with a string of brilliant books, from “McElligot’s Pool” in 1947 to his last, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” published in 1990.
Some of the most interesting panels in the show are reproductions of Geisel’s book pages as they were delivered to the printer, with “color calls” written in the margins specifying hue, saturation and other details.
“He’s not just thinking regular three- or four-color children’s book,” Saper said. “’Cat in the Hat’ is a great example. He uses saturated blues and reds, because he knows they grab your eye.”
When Saper chose Dr. Seuss for his 30th anniversary, he wasn’t motivated solely by admiration for Geisel’s technical prowess.
Saper doesn’t conceal his disdain for a lot of modern art, a view he shares with Geisel. “He didn’t like the pompous attitude of some people, particularly museum curators who would hang works of art where you couldn’t tell whether it was upside down or right side up,” Saper said.
According to “Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel,” a biography by Judith and Neil Morgan, Geisel once played a trick on a friend who lectured him condescendingly on modern art. Geisel rubbed a piece of art paper with charcoal, dabbed it with hunks of bread soaked in vodka and sold it to the man for $500 as an “original Escorabus.” (There is no such artist.)
“If I can do this stuff, it couldn’t be that great,” Geisel is said to have cracked.
It’s a philosophy after Saper’s own heart. Forget the shock of the new, little Cindy Lou Who — there’ll be no ooze or goo when McGrew runs the zoo.
Due to a reporting error, the publishing status of Dr. Seuss' "The
Seven Lady Godivas" was misstated in last week's cover story. The
book was published in 1939 and re-issued in 1987.