RARE’s current exhibition, “Rick Meyerowitz’s National Lampoon,” showcases over 20 years artwork by one of the seminal humor magazine’s most prolific illustrators. Meyerowitz (pictured at left) was was born in 1943 in the Bronx, New York; attended Boston University to study fine arts and literature; and started working with the founders of the Lampoon in the autumn of 1969, continuing through until 1991. As such, he was an integral figure in the influential humor magazine’s genesis and development, and his “no sacred cows” attitude toward political or social causes, as well as his Bosch-like style of sprawling tableaux and—at-times—grotesque detail, married well with the Lampoon’s irreverent attitude. His effortless bridging of high- and low-brow culture was irresistible to the ambivalent youth of the Vietnam generation, and its appeal was perhaps best summed up in a comment by George Plimpton: “He does illustrations only a sourpuss wouldn’t love.”
“National Lampoon’s Inferno (Rick Visits Hell)”
In 1971, while entertaining two Lampoon founders—Henry Beard and Doug Kenney—at his New York loft, Meyerowitz devised one of the magazine’s most enduring images: “Mona Gorilla.” Now on view at RARE, the piece transforms Da Vinci’s beguiling womanly visage with that of a bemused ape’s face: an absurd and defacing gesture similar to Duchamp’s L.H.O.Q.Q., yet with the joyful silliness that marks Meyerowitz’s work. The piece was called by one critic “the best Mona Lisa parody ever,” while by another, “one of the enduring icons of American humor,” and the Wall Street Journal declared it “the most celebrated American magazine illustration of the 1970s.”
Pieces Meyerowitz originally created for Lampoon articles sometimes spun off into other avenues, most notably his book Dodosaurs: The Dinosaurs That Didn’t Make It, which first debuted in the Lampoon in 1972, then became a formal book with text by Henry Beard in 1984. Inspired by the observation that dinosaurs were “so weirdly constructed, who would notice a few changes here and there,” the Dodosaurs present a range of evolutionary quirks and surreal physiology, such as the “Titanicasaurus Rex,” which bears the look of a cruise-liner sinking, and the majestic “Blunderdon” who has another tail instead of a head.
Sketchbook for Dodosaurs (Signed copies of the published book are available at the gallery.)
Meyerowitz’s collaborations with the Lampoon extended to projects outside the magazine proper, such as the poster for the Lampoon’s first film, the blockbuster comedy Animal House. His design’s raucous, effusive energy reflected the manic activity of the film itself, and proved integral to the film’s identity. John Belushi, upon seeing the poster, reportedly said to Meyerowitz, “You nailed it maaaannn. You really fuckin’ nailed it.”
Original artwork for the Animal House poster
His deflations of political figures and critique of American military efforts abroad are also prevalent in the exhibition. A particularly sharp illustration recalls Ronald Reagan’s highly controversial visit to a Nazi SS cemetery in Bitburg, Germany: as the former president weeps over the graves, his face melts like wax under intense heat. And in Meyerowitz’s last piece for the Lampoon, he depicts a scene of corporate-subsidized attack machines crawling over a field of battle: bombers release payloads of “Obsession” by Calvin Klein as a “Ground to Air Jordan” plane cruises by.
“Bye-Bye Bozo: Reagan at Bitburg”
“Operation Desert Sales”
Since his time at the Lampoon, Meyerowitz has continued his work as an illustrator and author. On the visual side, he collaborated with fellow artist Maira Kalman to create “New Yorkistan,” one of the New Yorker’s most popular covers. Released in the wake of 9/11, the New York Times reflected, “When their cover came out, a dark cloud seemed to lift.”
“New Yorkistan” cover from The New Yorker
And to codify the enduring legacy of the magazine, in 2010 Meyerowitz released a compendium of work by its numerous contributors entitled Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great. (Signed editions are available at the gallery.) A recent documentary about the Lampoon by Magnolia pictures borrows the title of this book, and is now available online.
From surreal political jabs to all-out farce, Meyerowitz’s work for National Lampoon touched upon many of the era’s singular issues with a humor that is still relevant today. The question is whether the world has bent to Meyerowitz’s vision, or if he was just ahead of the game.
Rick Meyerowitz’s National Lampoon is on view at RARE through December 5, 2015.