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Sendak
September 12, 2008 7:52 AM   Subscribe

Was there anything he had never been asked? He paused for a few moments and answered, “Well, that I’m gay.” "Maurice Sendak’s 80th year — which ended with his birthday earlier this summer and is being celebrated on Monday night with a benefit at the 92nd Street Y — was a tough one. He has been gripped by grief since the death of his longtime partner; a recent triple-bypass has temporarily left him too weak to work or take long walks with his dog; and he is plagued by Norman Rockwell. Or, to be more accurate, he is plagued by the question that has repeatedly been asked about Norman Rockwell: was he a great artist or a mere illustrator?"
posted by Astro Zombie (48 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
SLNYTP. But I love Sendak, and this is a sad, exquisite, intimate look at the man.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:53 AM on September 12, 2008


Too short - a tiny complaint.
Brilliant & fascinating - thanks so much.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:58 AM on September 12, 2008


I've been thinking about Sendak a lot lately. I went back and reread his We're All In The Dumps With Jack and Guy a month or so ago, and was struck by what a strange, haunted work it is.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:00 AM on September 12, 2008


I hate to think that the only two choices are "great artist" or "mere illustrator"... Surely almost everyone can agree to meet in the middle and call him a "great illustrator."

I really enjoyed the article, especially his dark sense of self-deprecating humor regarding his heart surgery:

Even his heart attack doesn’t seem up to snuff. People aren’t impressed with a triple bypass, he lamented; now it has to be a quadruple: “You feel like such a failure.”
posted by amyms at 8:06 AM on September 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


Sweet Jebus, I just realized I've had Maurice Sendak and Mercer Mayer confused this whole time. At least I realized it before I praised Sendak for the wordless Boy/Frog/Dog books (or condemned him for the Little Critter ones).
posted by DU at 8:11 AM on September 12, 2008


Yes, he's brilliant! That line got me too. Also, his funny reply to Bill Clinton about becoming a doorman.
I love his work. Growing up it was all about Sendak, Hirschfeld, and H. A. Rey.
posted by JBennett at 8:12 AM on September 12, 2008


I've got second-generation Sendak fans; we get a daily dose in our house, because the go-to calm-down-mama's-making-dinner trick is to curl up on the couch with an episode of Little Bear, based on Sendak's original illustrations for Minarik's books. And the Nutshell Kids have been in heavy rotation since Mr. Padraigin was a little kid.

Anyway, I think illustration is art, because I think literature is art, so a picture book would have to be art by definition. And anyway, anyone with so much angst and agita can be nothing less than an artist. Sendak seems to be a great artist by any metric. I'm sorry that someone who's brought so much joy and provoked so much thought in young and old alike isn't able to chill on those laurels a bit.
posted by padraigin at 8:18 AM on September 12, 2008


Wait, did this article really just describe Sendak as "a square-shaped gnome"??
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 8:21 AM on September 12, 2008 [8 favorites]


Or, to be more accurate, he is plagued by the question that has repeatedly been asked about Norman Rockwell: was he a great artist or a mere illustrator?

“Mere illustrator,” he said, repeating the phrase with contempt. It’s not that Mr. Sendak, who has illustrated more than 100 books, including many he wrote, is angry that people question Rockwell’s talent; rather, he fears he has not risen above the “mere illustrator” label himself.


That's a bit harsh. Shouldn't an artist who himself fears being labeled a "mere illustrator" have a more expansive view of art?
posted by three blind mice at 8:22 AM on September 12, 2008


I had no idea he was gay. I'm glad he's out now though.

Did everyone know that he has his own museum gallery? I feel like I've gone too long knowing too little about this amazing artist, outside of his Kushner opera and of course, Where the Wild Things are.
posted by cal71 at 8:22 AM on September 12, 2008


thanks for the link...

Sendak was a staple at my house when the boys were little.... it really is authors/illustrators like this that instill a love of reading in little ones....
posted by HuronBob at 8:34 AM on September 12, 2008


In the Night Kitchen is #25 on the ALA's list of most frequently challenged books from 1990-2000.

Some people are dumb. Fortunately, Sendak is not one of them.
posted by rtha at 8:38 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thank you for the great post. I really didn't know much about Mr. Sendak before.
posted by kingbenny at 8:39 AM on September 12, 2008


Kinda sad, but I really hate those sorts of people who are always down on themselves, especially individuals with as much talent as Mr. Sendak.
posted by smackwich at 8:42 AM on September 12, 2008


I've bought eight copies of Where The Wild Things Are over the last four years -- it has become my standard gift for friends having their first baby. I don't want any child I know to grow up without that book in their library.
posted by Shepherd at 8:42 AM on September 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


I had no idea he was gay.

Me neither. I posted this article from 1993 in an earlier thread, but it's interesting to re-read knowing that:
Mr. Sendak is just beginning a lecture tour, but he is already spending much of his time answering questions about the book's hidden meanings, about whether he modeled a picture of the moon returning the baby to Jack and Guy after the Pieta, for instance, or whether Jack and Guy are supposed to represent a gay couple who adopt a child, a la "Heather Has Two Mommies." 'A Very Literal Illustrator'

"No, no, no, but some of those are very good meanings," Mr. Sendak said. "I like these overtones, but I can't be either praised or blamed for having consciously put them in. I'm a very literal illustrator, and people give me far more credit than I deserve. What I meant was a continuation of my oldest theme: the tenaciousness of children to survive. They will go live with a porcupine and a kangaroo if they're provided for. They don't stop and say, 'Oh, this is a same-sex marriage.'"
I can only imagine what the stink over In The Night Kitchen might have been like if he'd been out at the time.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 8:48 AM on September 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


In the Night Kitchen is #25 on the ALA's list of most frequently challenged books from 1990-2000.

Um, what? Any idea why?
posted by Artw at 9:24 AM on September 12, 2008


Because the little boy in it is naked for much of the book.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:31 AM on September 12, 2008


In the Night Kitchen is #25 on the ALA's list of most frequently challenged books from 1990-2000.

Um, what? Any idea why?

The fleeting nudity?

(I've always hoped it couldn't just be that...but I don't know another reason.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:33 AM on September 12, 2008


Yeah, it's the nekkidness.

Dumb dumb dumb.
posted by rtha at 9:38 AM on September 12, 2008


In the Night Kitchen is #25 on the ALA's list of most frequently challenged books from 1990-2000.

Um, what? Any idea why?

This Amazon customer review of In The Night Kitchen (more of a rant, really) would seem to be representative. I like how it attacks "open-minded librarian types." (scroll up a bit to top)
posted by longsleeves at 9:48 AM on September 12, 2008


I'm against "In the Night Kitchen" because it led my children to believe I'd be serving them cake for breakfast. Other than that, it's a fantastic book.
posted by padraigin at 9:57 AM on September 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


That's such an awesomely understated way to come out.
posted by Arturus at 10:22 AM on September 12, 2008


There was actually a pretty excellent post on In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are not too long ago, with a great discussion on that awful, terrible, immoral, nakedness. Hmm... I'll have to see if I can find it.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:24 AM on September 12, 2008


Here it is. Strangely, it has less discussion than I remember. I bet the mods censored it all out. Yeah, that's it. Someone should write a poem about them.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:27 AM on September 12, 2008


It's sort of funny, because the night before reading this article a few days ago, my aunt and I were perusing a copy of In the Night Kitchen, which is something we used to read together when we were both kids.

I agree that it's too short a profile. Too bad the event sold out a while back. I wasn't aware of it. And yes, I wondered at the "square-shaped gnome" comment myself.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:27 AM on September 12, 2008


I was so sad to hear that he lost his partner of 50 years, and I never knew about him. I wish that, when I was a kid, I had been able to read "Mr. Sendak lives in New York with his husband of 20 years" on the flyleaf of my books--that would have made me happy.

And then I think of how amazing it is for any relationship to last 50 years, even without society and family prejudice against it. I wish I knew more about Sendak and Glynn and their life together.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:32 AM on September 12, 2008 [8 favorites]


It's strange that this has suddenly become news – there was a New Yorker article from last year that explicitly named his partner. It's not online, but here's the abstract.
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:35 AM on September 12, 2008


Two years ago, even. If you're bummed that the NYT article is too short, the New Yorker profile is great.
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:41 AM on September 12, 2008


There is nothing "mere" about being a great illustrator. Sendak is certainly one of them.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:53 AM on September 12, 2008


I do love his visual work. But I especially love the story of Where the Wild Things Are. It ends with Max's dinner waiting for him, and it was still hot. You have to read the book to understand it, but I find it very, very endearing. My son loved it a lot.

Let the wild rumpus begin!
posted by theora55 at 11:11 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Although it still annoys me that I didn't get to meet the man, I learned most of what I know about design and typesetting working with the great art director Amelia Edwards on Sendak's version of I Saw Esau (the Opie collection of children's verse) for Walker Books. A tremendous though long-winded experience - we originally set the poetry (in Pagemaker - this was 1990), printed it out and had it made into booklets, which Sendak sketched on, then we scanned in the sketches, amended the text and he did the final drawings. So I got to see how his sketches turned into the completed artwork, which was hugely educational in itself.

No one had ever done a book quite that way before - I think it was the first time at Walker (or possibly anywhere else in the children's book industry) that a Mac had been so central to the way the project was achieved, and it's interesting that it was to produce such a traditional-looking book. Now, of course, it's all done on computers - the typesetting industry collapsed the following year, or perhaps the year after.

That was where I learned to really hate Pagemaker, too, with its silly window blind system of text flow.

I do have a signed copy of Esau somewhere. Somewhere safe, I hope.
posted by Grangousier at 11:12 AM on September 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


Oh, and it goes without saying that Sendak is a giant, possibly the giantest.
posted by Grangousier at 11:13 AM on September 12, 2008


It's strange that this has suddenly become news – there was a New Yorker article from last year that explicitly named his partner.

Sadly, I strongly suspect that "tl; dr" is to blame for why (apparently) so few people knew this previously. Which really is too bad, because it's a great article.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:15 AM on September 12, 2008


That's a bit harsh. Shouldn't an artist who himself fears being labeled a "mere illustrator" have a more expansive view of art?

I read it that way at first, too, but then I realized he's repeating the phrase because he disagrees with it. He's not saying "Norman Rockwell is a mere illustrator." He's saying "A Mere illustrator? Pfft! He's an artist!" Imagine him sneering when he says "A mere illustrator," as though the very idea were stupid, and I think that's how he was saying it.

on another note: I'm ashamed to say that I've never read Where The Wild Things Are. Somehow it just escaped my parents' attention, I suppose.
posted by shmegegge at 11:17 AM on September 12, 2008


Being Max for Halloween was one of my favorite costumes, despite the simplicity of it. I was surprised by how many people who had no idea who I was, even after I mentioned the book. I haven't ever really read much about Mr. Sendak, though, so thanks for this.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 11:33 AM on September 12, 2008


Count me as one of the few non-fans (I wanted more interesting stories when I was a kid), but c'mon. He's a great artist, and so is Rockwell. Art is art. (I think I may be a formalist.)
posted by mrgrimm at 11:38 AM on September 12, 2008


Grangousier:

I learned most of what I know about design and typesetting working with the great art director Amelia Edwards on Sendak's version of I Saw Esau (the Opie collection of children's verse) for Walker Books.

That was the first "fancy book for keepin'" I ever bought for myself, after a lifetime of used paperbacks that I'd read to death... I was in grade 9 or 10, I think, and saw it in a bookstore, flipped through it and thought it'd be nice to have a nice book, one that I could keep on the shelf and pull down and flip through for years, appreciating it as an object as well as a text-conveyance medium.

So kudos to you, and thanks for that.

Also, a thousand curses on you for sparking a lifelong addiction that led me to the nefariously gorgeous money-sink that is the Folio Society and its dastardly ilk.
posted by Shepherd at 11:44 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sendak rules. His art moves me inexpressibly. He is also a brilliant designer for theatre and opera.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:34 PM on September 12, 2008


schmegegge: I didn't read it that way at all. Rather, to me it reads as the kind of comment that a man in that cognitively bent headspace where nothing, ever, is good enough would make to justify his own view of himself as a mediocrity destined for future obscurity.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:38 PM on September 12, 2008


To what extent DO people sneak at Rockwell and/or Sendak?
posted by Artw at 3:42 PM on September 12, 2008


Um, what? Any idea why?

So does anyone have any clue what 'Where's Waldo' did to make it on that list?

Was it that some of these complaining ninnies were just too boneheadded dumb to find Waldo?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:44 PM on September 12, 2008


PeterMcDermott: So does anyone have any clue what 'Where's Waldo' did to make it on that list?

Single topless woman in the corner of a beach scene.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:49 PM on September 12, 2008


Kinda sad, but I really hate those sorts of people who are always down on themselves, especially individuals with as much talent as Mr. Sendak.

I know very few creative people who don't in some way deal with high levels self-doubt. If you're lucky, you can mask it with humility.

To a lot of artists, the creative process is an itch that can never be soothed. Your scratching may be brilliant, but the itch remains.
posted by billyfleetwood at 5:28 PM on September 12, 2008


To what extent DO people sneak at Rockwell and/or Sendak?
posted by Artw


Knowing how many Rockwells or Sendaks are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan or the Moma would, at least in a way, answer your question.
posted by bru at 5:50 PM on September 12, 2008


The nutshell library is an excellent present for any quirky 4 year old.
posted by Rumple at 6:28 PM on September 12, 2008


There was a great interview with Sendak on Fresh Air a few years ago. He told a hilarious story about signing books for children. Often the children are just there because their parents have pushed them into it, some of them don't realize he's the guy who wrote the book and drew the pictures, and they don't know why they should be trying to get this old guy's autograph. But he also encountered one child who had waited in line, and, handing it to sendak said, "Don't crap up my book!"

Fans should try to hear him in his own words. In this interview he sounds like a lovely man.
posted by cogneuro at 7:58 PM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


six-or-six-thirty, I also was max for halloween, although in college. I was so proud of the costume I'd made with my girlfriend at the time (well, she made most of it) that I wore it to class that day on a whim. One of my professors recognizes it and challenged me to recite the last line of the book.

"And it was still hot."

Thank you for bringing back that memory.

And this was a great article. I know nothing of the man, I grew up on In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are.
posted by Hactar at 1:50 AM on September 13, 2008


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