When I was 12 years old and a hopeless nihilist, I took to Edward Gorey the way other self-dramatizing adolescents embraced J.D. Salinger. My introduction to the diabolical creator of more than 100 witty books like The Doubtful Guest and The Fatal Lozenge was his animated opening for the PBS series Mystery! If you weren’t watching PBS with your parents back in the early ’80s, then let Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey, an exhibition at the McNay through September 13, be your introduction to Gorey’s singular oeuvre.
Edward Gorey, who died in 2000, was an eccentric of the highest order, or at least that was the persona he cultivated. (“Part of me is genuinely eccentric, part of me is a bit of a put-on,” he once said. “But I know what I’m doing.”) He began working his famously Oscar
Wilde-ish look — a bearded, bejeweled, fur-clad dandy in tennis shoes — during his Harvard days, where he roomed with the poet Frank O’Hara and ran with a crowd of brilliant young things including John Hawkes, John Ashbery, and Alison Laurie. After moving to NYC in 1953 to take a job designing paperback covers for out-of-print classics at Doubleday Anchor — a couple of terrific examples are featured in this exhibit — he began writing and illustrating his own books, deadpan little comedies with a surrealist bent. “Line drawing is where my talent lies,” he said, but he chose to work almost exclusively in black and white for pragmatic reasons: Since it was cheaper to print, he was more likely to get his marketing-challenged creations published. Over the years, he freelanced for magazines and newspapers, illustrated scores of books by other authors — including T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, and Edward Lear — and dabbled in theater, though it’s something rather more than dabbling when you win a Tony, as he did for costume design in the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula.
Gorey worked out of his cramped walk-up apartment stuffed with musty volumes and a half dozen cats. In certain rarefied circles, he became renowned for obsessively attending every performance of the New York City Ballet — for 25 years. When NYCB artistic director George Balanchine died in 1983, Gorey moved to Cape Cod, where he lived a semi-reclusive life in a rambling cottage (described as “something out of Grey Gardens” in a 1992 New Yorker profile) with more books, more cats, oddball collections of yard-sale finds, and poison ivy growing out of the walls.
A cultural omnivore, Gorey cited influences as disparate as Balanchine, Max Ernst, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Louis Feuillade, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Buster Keaton. He loved true crime and bad TV, sprawling Victorian novels and daytime soaps. He loved movies and claimed to have watched as many as a thousand a year (though he joked that cinema as an art form really “went downhill after 1918”). He could wax eloquent on French surrealism and Japanese literature as well as discourse learnedly on the latest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Golden Girls. Amazingly, out of this seeming hodgepodge of inspiration comes a style so distinct as to be instantly recognizable.
Gorey’s postcard-sized volumes are hand-lettered, meticulously drawn, and crosshatched to an eye-crossing degree. Some of his narratives are nonexistent or nonsensical; others are tightly plotted wonders of economic storytelling. He once described his books as “Victorian novels all scrunched up,” and it’s fair to say he distills the essence of many a 19th-century tome in this limerick from The Listing Attic:
“An innocent maiden named Herridge
Was cruelly tricked into marriage;
When she later found out
What her spouse was about,
She threw herself under a carriage.”
Most of the action unfolds in Edwardian drawing rooms wallpapered to dizzying effect, or in stark landscapes where boulders, urns, or vaguely sinister topiaries figure prominently. His cast of characters rarely changes — raccoon-eyed flappers, robust bearded gentlemen in furs, crisp maids wielding feather dusters, odd skittery critters of uncertain species, and perhaps most notoriously, those wide-eyed waifs with terribly short life spans.
Some have found his cavalier treatment of those waifs distressing. In The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Gorey dispatches 26 small children in alphabetical order: “K is for Kate who was struck with an axe / L is for Leo who swallowed some tacks / M is for Maude who was swept out to sea / N is for Neville who died of ennui.” In The Hapless Child, a riches-to-rags tale of woe, angelic Charlotte Sophia suffers more indignities than the Little Match Girl and every Dickens urchin combined, before dying unredeemed in the street. In The Tuning Fork, the irritating Theoda (“a homely child / whose presence drove her family wild”) throws herself off a cliff — though she’s the rare Gorey moppet to exact revenge, thanks to a sympathetic sea monster. Poor Little Zooks, tiny subject of a typically harsh limerick, suffers a more characteristic fate:
“Little Zooks, of whom none was fond,
They shot towards the roof and beyond;
the infant’s trajectory
passed him over the rectory,
And into a lily-choked pond.”
Quizzed relentlessly on the subject of his (dull, suburban Chicago) childhood and his attitude toward children, Gorey (who never had kids and described himself as “asexual”), replied, “I don’t know many children. And I don’t know if I really remember what it was like being a child, or not. I use children a lot, because they’re so vulnerable.”
In Gorey’s world, children stand for all of us, powerless denizens of an inexplicable universe, where at any given moment anyone — conniving old bastard and innocent baby alike — might get brained by a piece of falling masonry. “I think there should be a little bit of uneasiness in everything, because I do think we’re all really in a sense living on the edge … ” said Gorey, who generally resisted attempts to explain his art. “One minute something is there, and then, the next, it is not there.” In other words, the only thing we can predict with a modicum of confidence is that we’ll all one day journey into a dark tunnel — like the aimless trio in one of his finest works, The Willowdale Handcar — and never come out the other side.
Existential anxiety aside, the books are so cleverly done, the rhymes so ingenious, the narration delivered with such black-humored detachment, they’re hard to resist. Something akin to the appeal of Larry Hagman, according to Gorey: “That’s why I like J.R. on Dallas. He’s so mean you get angry at him. But you like him. There’s pleasure in it but it’s disturbing. That’s a good definition of interesting.”
“The Disturbing Pleasures of Edward Gorey” is a fine alternative name for this exhibit, which by this definition and any other, is interesting.
Elegant Enigmas: the Art of Edward Gorey
Through Sep 13