The name Woody Woodpecker has not often appeared in the same sentence with the term ‘modern art,’ but a soon-to-open exhibition in Los Angeles could change that forever.

“Woody Woodpecker & The Avant-Garde,” opening September 22 at Loyola Marymount University’s Laband Art Gallery, makes a strong case that director Shamus Culhane integrated avant-garde artistic references and modern film techniques into the shorts he directed at Walter Lantz Productions during the first half of the 1940s.

Curated by Tom Klein, a leading authority on Lantz cartoons, the exhibit documents Culhane’s visits to the American Contemporary Gallery in Hollywood during that period, showing how it exposed him to modern art and inspired him to incorporate it into films like The Loose Nut and The Greatest Man in Siam.

The show will display Lantz studio materials alongside paintings and watercolors by California modernists like Jules Engel, Oskar Fischinger, Lorser Feiltelson, Knud Merrild, and Byron Randall, who all showed their work at the American Contemporary Gallery. An on-going screening of avant-garde films by Man Ray, Maya Deren, Oskar Fischinger, and Mary Ellen Bute will accompany the exhibition.

In addition to new HD transfers of Lantz films, “Woody Woodpecker & The Avant-Garde” will present archival storyboards, model sheets, animation cels, and development artwork from the films. Klein catalogued the Walter Lantz archives when he was a graduate student at UCLA, making him a perfect candidate to mine the archives for exhibition material.

Images from "The Loose Nut" (1945) directed by Shamus Culhane. Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC. All rights reserved.
Images from “The Loose Nut” (1945) directed by Shamus Culhane. Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC. All rights reserved.

The key challenge of the exhibition will be to contextualize what Culhane did in his films within the broader context of early-1940s animation, an unusually fertile period for the industry during which many animation artists incorporated modern and abstract techniques into commercial films. While Culhane was certainly a part of the modernist milieu of Forties animation, the exhibit will have to labor to convince people that Culhane did more than occasionally incorporate an avant-garde trick or two into otherwise standard Lantz fare. For example, some of the Culhane experiments that Klein has cited in the past, such as the imagery above from The Loose Nut, are similar to the abstract effects created by other studios during that period, and why they are more worthy of being highlighted over similar work will have to be explained.

But looking at it another way, this exhibit is already a success simply in its willingness to position animation within the broader contemporary art tradition. Animation is arguably the most modern art of the 20th century, yet it’s rarely presented in a framework that acknowledges its innovative spirit. “Woody Woodpecker & The Avant-Garde” looks to be a smart step in the right direction.

“Woody Woodpecker and The Avant-Garde” runs from September 22 through November 20 at the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester (near LAX Airport). Admission is free.

To find out more about the exhibit and programs behind held in conjunction with the show, visit the Laband gallery site. To learn more about the ideas behind the exhibit, read this piece by Tom Klein.

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