The Private Art of Theodor Dr. Seuss Geisel – Dinner in the Library 2019

(dramatic music) – The library has been
the fortunate beneficiary of over 20,000 works of Ted, including sketches,
drawings, and writings, and we just recently learned of the new additions to
the Dr. Seuss collection coming to the library which are being publicly displayed for the first time this evening. To help us explore these themes, we’ve asked three incredible
speakers to join us tonight. It’s my job to introduce them and then head it over to Seth and get off the stage. So first, let me, or please join me in welcoming Mary Beebe. (audience applauds) Mary has been the director
of the Stuart Collection here at UC San Diego since
its inception in 1981. As you likely know, the Stuart Collection
is an ongoing program commissioning outdoor sculpture for the UC San Diego campus. Mary has also served as a director of the Portland Center for Visual Arts, has worked in the Portland Art Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Fogg Art Museum
at Harvard University. Please join me in welcoming Seth Lerer. (audience applauds) So Seth is a Distinguished
Professor of Literature at UC San Diego and the former dean of
Arts and Humanities. Prior to his time here, he taught at a few other okay places: Stanford, Princeton, Cambridge, (audience laughs)
Washington University, St. Louis, anywhere else, Seth? (audience laughs)
Okay. He’s written some great books: “Inventing English: A Portable
History of the Language,” a book on your table, the “Children’s Literature: “A Reader’s Guide, From
Aesop to Harry Potter,” and most recently,
“Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage.” So welcome, Seth. And please join me in
welcoming Rob Sidner. (audience applauds) So Rob became executive director and CEO of the Mingei International
Museum in 2006. He’s been at the Mingei since 1993 after owning The Cable
Gallery in Mission Hills. As executive director at the Mingei he has overseen over 20 exhibitions. So thank you, Mary, Seth, and Rob for being our panel tonight. Seth, the floor is yours. Please lead us in a great conversation. – Well, thank you.
– All right. – Thank you, Erik. (audience applauds) Thank you so much. Thank you all for coming. Am I mic’d, can you hear me? – Yes.
– Wonderful. First, let me say a few
special words of thanks. I want to thank my
co-panelists Rob and Mary for joining me here to talk with you about a truly unique opportunity, this collection of what
we might call the unknown, or the unseen, Dr. Seuss. I’d like to acknowledge
once again, of course, Erik, for his remarkable
leadership in the library, Linda Claassen as well,
in special collections, for overseeing
(audience applauds) this special collection as well, and I would like to mention just formally that these materials that you’ll see here are actually on loan from the Geisel trust with JP Morgan as trustee. And I understand that
JP Morgan has a table and I think we should acknowledge as well. (audience applauds) So what I hope you’ve
all had a chance to see, in the entryway downstairs as well as in the small
gallery area up here, are a collection of drawings, paintings, doodles, sketches, insights into the
imagination of Ted Geisel. Many of these pictures
may be familiar to you. The strange heads of his characters, the bizarre creates that populate his zoo, and the at times disturbingly, how can I put it? Awkward figures in
landscapes that dwarf them. These are, how can I put it? The vocabulary of Dr. Seuss and what we are looking at are the ways in which that vocabulary is expressed privately. Some of these are clearly
sketches for larger works, some of them are clearly doodles that Ted must have done
while he was on the phone, (audience laughs) and some of them are acrylic paintings. And I think that very few of us really recognize that
Ted Geisel was an artist in many different medium. So what we’re going to try to do tonight, from a variety of perspectives, is talk about some of the ways in which this material stimulates our rethinking of the legacy of Dr. Seuss and more pointedly, about what it means to look at
this particular kind of art. That is, what does it mean to look not just at finished
paintings or drawings but at works-in-progress
or works-in-practice? Now, having said all of this, let me just preface my individual remarks by saying that I am a teacher
and scholar of literature. I’ve been very involved in the history of children’s literature and I teach the the history
of children’s literature here at UC San Diego. This course is fascinating for me because it is not just a course
in the literature department but it is a course that
fulfills the major requirements for the program in education and in human development. And so I see many, many students who come from development and education, students who are intending
to be K-12 teachers, students who are interested in child psychology and child development, and the question is what is the place of the children’s imagination in the expression of art and literature? And we do at least a week, and sometimes two, with Dr. Seuss. And what is fascinating to me is what the students think Dr. Seuss is. If you say Dr. Seuss to
most of our undergraduates, they will say it’s the copy
of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” that they got when they
graduated high school (audience laughs) and how disappointed they are that they have not gone there. (audience laughs) And so one of the challenges we have today is first of all, to make very clear that Ted Geisel and Dr. Seuss really is not the poster child for, as my undergraduates would
say, neoliberal individualism. That is, that Ted led a
fascinating and complicated, and we know this, complicated, politically
and socially involved life and everything he did has a rich resonance with the society he worked in. Secondly, it’s very important to see how not everything in this
collection is happy or funny. Some of it is in fact quite dark and I think we should
acknowledge that darkness. You may have noticed in the
acrylic paintings in particular the way in which you see small individuals almost lost in these enormous landscapes and that may reflect something about the inner life of Ted Geisel or it may say something about the public life that we have today. I would love to take
my undergraduates here and show them those pictures to show them how they
are not the only ones who think of themselves as small people lost on a large campus. Now, having said all of this, I’m here on this stage with two remarkable museum
and curatorial professionals, two people who have built collections and worked with collections
in the community and come to this material and come to the legacy of
Ted Geisel and Dr. Seuss with different kinds of
perspectives than I might. And I’m going to ask Rob, since I noticed that he actually typed up some things to say, (audience laughs) if he’d like to open up. We’ve all had the opportunity individually to look at the aggregated bulk
of this collection privately and so each one of us is going to have a particular take on it and each one of us is going to have a particular sensibility that
we bring to the discussion. Rob, would you like to share with us some of your impressions of this material? – I’d love to.
(audience laughs) Hi, everybody, it’s great
to be with you tonight. When I came a couple of days ago to look at the collection, I had in mind a couple of questions and one is, what surprises do I see here? And then I asked myself, these have all come from Audrey’s home and from Ted’s home and I wonder if there are any particularly personal things here or things that must have been
personally very important. I’d love to comment a
little bit on each of those. Surprises, I was wondering
what images I might see that I’d never seen before in the books, and I’ve loved the books, as we all have for a
couple of generations. But there are at least two pieces here that are completely new to me that I understand from Linda, also, have never been published before and yet seem to be totally
complete artworks in themselves. The one is a little, maybe eight by 14, a painting called “Lion Stroll.” Maybe some of you saw it. A group of four, a family of four lions walking
across a savanna in Africa under a wonderful group of red trees, quite spreading out, that
reach off into the distance. And I thought, this is
so complete in itself and where has it been all this time? And why has it not been
in something before? Is it a great idea that
there wasn’t a storyline for, or what? And I don’t have the answer to that. There’s another one, I’ve gotta think about it now– – The tree with the flamingos? – Oh, thank you very much. You loved it too?
– (laughs) Yes. – It’s called “Nine Flamingos in a Tree.” And again, complete in
all wonderful color. Nine flamingos with all interwoven necks overwhelming a tree. I kept thinking of the parrots
in the trees in Point Loma, how they would overwhelm a tree, and here is a totally visual expression of how parrots or other
birds can dominate a tree and the neighborhood, or at least a yard. And I found these just really
wonderful expressions that, I’m thrilled that they’re
being seen at last and I hope others will, I’m sure others will
enjoy them as much as me. The other surprise is
not as happy a one for me and it was the acrylic paintings. There were only, what, 10
or 15 of them, I think, so I don’t think we wanna
make too much out of this but I was disappointed
by the acrylic paintings. I find them so different from the masterworks of Ted in crayon and pen and ink and pencil. They seem to be not nearly so accomplished and I wonder what, he wanted very much to
try another medium out and obviously didn’t pursue it, but full painting, that’s another kind of investment of yourself in acrylics, different from pencil and ink and so on. So that was another surprise for me that I think is worth some discussion but I don’t think it is
worthy of a great deal because it’s 14, 15 things over against thousands and thousands and thousands of masterworks. Those are initial ideas. – That’s wonderful.
– Thank you. – Mary, do you wanna chime in? – Sure, I think the paintings
are a disappointment but they’re very amateur, very unsure, completely unlike his drawings which are so sure and easy and swift and, really, he was an
incredible draftsman, quick, obviously. But he himself said about the paintings that he did them in the
night just as sort of, in the middle of the night, and they look like that. They look amateurish, they look like somebody
doesn’t really care, I’m not gonna invest too much in this, I’m just gonna diddle
around and see what happens. And that’s, to me, what
the paintings look like. And it’s interesting that he was really an incredible draftsman
and artist in that way and it just didn’t translate
into the paintings. and it’s interesting to see them because they are little people doing little things in
these vast landscapes. But some of the drawings are just heavenly and one of my favorites
is this little one, there’s a woman in a
sort of coffin-like thing and it’s just a small pencil drawing, maybe you saw it, with a little note down at the bottom, “I would love to come
but I’m almost dead.” (audience laughs) You know, RSVPing for a party. You know, just sort of my, that’s the kind of thing
I (chuckles) respond to. I thought that was such a, and there’s a picture of
her lying in this coffin and very perky, you know,
hair sort of aflutter, and it’s over there somewhere, around here somewhere. But I love that. And I love the penguins, I mean, the flamingos in the tree. And the way he depicts trees, you know, it just sparks your imagination and that’s what he does. And his use of words, you know, his play with words, over and over the way he, there’s one list that he made, “Apricots, peaches, pineapple,” something, “custard,” something, “custard, squash.” (chuckles) You go, okay, you know, squash obviously did not fit in with these other things but he’s just doodling
and thinking out loud and making these,
playing with these words. And I think that kids
really respond to that. Obviously, everybody knows
Sam-I-Am, “Green Eggs and Ham,” and everybody has stories about that and their mother dyeing some eggs so they might see if they really would eat green eggs and ham, or whatever. But it’s wonderful, just the way he engages you
and your own imagination. And I had this other thought which is that looking at these things, he’s making monsters really friendly and Niki de Saint Phalle,
who did the “Sun God,” has done that too. Now, there’s not, it’s pretty hard to
compare the two of them on any other level but she loved doing drawings, she was really good at drawings, and her thing was her inner demons came out as friendly things and that’s what she dealt with. And I don’t know, you sort of wonder because
of Ted and his dark side if that was part of making
these demons friendly but in such a way that children just, everybody responds, not just children, but that’s the miracle of it in a way, to me, that is just, these delightful, wonderful images that are so strange (chuckles). – Well, I think this is wonderful because it really raises
some important questions. What does it mean to encounter the unexpected
side of an artist? This is the same that we encounter when we, for example, will realize that Shakespeare was the author
of brilliant plays and poems yet there’s a whole body of
poetry and doggerel verse that is attributed to Shakespeare that we don’t wanna believe
is Shakespearian in any sense. And I love the fact that you share with us that Ted did these acrylic
paintings at night. And, you know, I think of these, I’m not gonna elevate them technically but I do think that they’re fascinating as a kind of dark dream mirror, you know, that that is
what we do at night. And what does it mean then for an artist to step out of
a comfort zone and recognize, all right, maybe the work is not at the same level
of technical facility but there may be a
psychological or artistic or an aesthetic facility
to some of them as well? One of the things that, I think, both of you are also saying is this relationship between Ted’s work and our modern sensibilities. That is, so many of the artists represented in the Stuart Collection are of the generation or
two younger than Ted Geisel but are indelibly stamped with that kind of surreal or imagination, that sense of Ted as, I’ve always found this as a
kind of, how can I put it? Almost subversion, that’s the word I want. You know, that “The Cat
in the Hat” is subversive and that for people of my generation, I believe very strongly that the American youth
movement of the ’60s and ’70s was prepared by Dr. Seuss. – That’s really interesting. – That the anarchy of
“The Cat in the Hat,” the verbal lunacy of “On Beyond Zebra,” is so much a part of my
generation’s experience. I have to say, betraying my own age, when I saw the acrylic paintings the word that came to mind was trippy. (audience laughs) So you’ll forgive me for imposing that, for imposing that on Ted, but I wanna get back to what
Rob was saying about surprise and what is there that is surprise, we talked a little bit about
surprise as disappointment, what is there a surprise as
thrill, as excitement here? – The other surprise, that I was seeing some personal things, and I’m thinking of two particularly and they’re both out front. They are paintings in colored inks that were both in the
master bathroom and closet of Ted and Audrey’s home. And one is a man bare chested
in green pajama bottoms, quite grizzled, shaving
with an electric razor. And the other is a woman
seated at her dressing table with a handheld mirror, saying, “Do I look as old as all that?” And I think–
– Well, he has a sort of bird-like face too.
– Right. – And I think how marvelous
that either Ted and Audrey, or perhaps Audrey did it
herself after Ted’s passing, that these were very special to them as a, maybe a reminder of their humanity amidst the glitter and
celebrity of their lives, that they were both reminding
each other of their celebrity, or of their humanity. That’s the only thing that I could see. I found it very delightful and honest and quite touching. – My favorite, I think it’s downstairs, is the strange stick figure that looks like a kind
of surrealist Moreau or Yves Tanguy or even a Dali, where the title is “The
Thunderbird in Retirement.” And it’s just this shell, and I think of this as I
approach that particular time, (audience laughs) you know, am I the
thunderbird in retirement? But I think there is a poignancy, that’s what I mean, there’s always a humor, there’s a wit, but there’s always a poignancy or a tenderness, sometimes, to it. What do you think, Mary? – Well, I think that’s absolutely true. The political cartoons are so direct and irony and poking fun at and having a good time with
the political situation which was very dire, as it might be today, but he just has a good time with it. There was something else I was gonna say and now I can’t think what it– – Well, the politics is very interesting because there’s a lot of
explicit political work but there’s a lot of work
that is implicitly political and that’s kind of what I was
getting at about subversion or about performance in some ways. What I find fascinating, I don’t know if you both noticed this, but Rob, as a curator of material objects, as someone who at the Mingei specializes in the three-dimensional, did you notice all the gloves? – (chuckles) Yes. – What is that about? (Mary laughs) What do you think that’s about? – I have no idea. (audience laughs) And I would love to hear you, I truly–
– Well, we’re among friends and this will be recorded for posterity, so speculate.
(Mary laughs) – [Man] It’s to keep the cold out. – The gloves did not pull my attention, honestly.
– They did not? – But I agree with you, there are a load–
– They’re everywhere. – A load of them there.
– Did you notice these things? – He didn’t like to draw hands. – Okay, he didn’t like to draw hands, so? – (laughs) He left them out. – He left them out?
– I don’t know. He put gloves on, I don’t know. – I think, yeah, I think that gloves, I think hats, right? – Yeah, hats.
– He loves hats. – He loves hats. What is there about hats? Are there hats at Mingei?
– Costume. Costume, oh, sure. – What is the hat–
– We’ve done a hat show. (Mary chuckles) It’s a way of taking
on another personality, along with masks, along
with other textiles, costume, apparel. I think it’s all performance. I think it could be all of those things. – There is a sense in which I
think Ted was very influenced, and he was born in, I think, 1904, so he must have been very influenced by what we might think of
as pre-media performance, musical, minstrel show, vaudeville. There’s a powerfully–
– Stage performance. – [Seth] Stage performance. – He was also, you can see the influence
of Dali, obviously, and the surrealism, but some of the time, I sort of thought I noticed the influence of Japanese prints. Not in all of them but– – What in particular? What aesthetic did you find, what did you find in those? – Well, again, just the clarity and the graphic sense and the, there’s one, just the way he uses lines to present rain or other, mountains or other things. There was one of a particular creature that made me think that. I can’t remember which one it was now. But it is interesting
to see him pulling in all of these different
influences into the– – All the traditions, yes.
– Yeah, yeah. They were around at the time and he would have known about
them and been interested. And I think it goes back in a way to his pushing himself at night into a different medium
that he didn’t really, wasn’t really comfortable with. It’s clear in the paintings that they’re not easy for him and that he’s sort of searching for a way to do something
out of his range, which I think is always an artist– – [Seth] It’s what artists do. – Yeah, is to push
themself into different, and when they’re not successful they don’t really, you know, they just try. They don’t take it up as a thing. – Yes, well–
– It’s a nighttime. – I would like to really
emphasize that though. Something I noticed in how
many doodles there were, how many tryouts there
were in what he did, and I found that, to me, as a rank amateur, I found it very encouraging (audience laughs)
that a man of, that a man of such mastery whom we all recognize as without peer in what he has done that for even him, it
was often 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. He tried again and again and again, both with visual expressions and trying out words, again and again and again. And there’s many, a lot of that in what is
coming to the library, both in what we’re seeing here and in what is also in the 275 works that are promised, I understand. I had a chance to look at
all of those in thumbnails and it’s really fascinating
to see the artist at work. And with that in mind, I wanna draw attention to one
other drawing that’s there and it’s a self-portrait of the artist worrying about his next book and it’s just such a, (Mary chuckles) so encouraging to anybody who’s ever sat in front
of a blank sheet of paper and been wondering about, where’s the idea going to come from? (audience applauds) – Yes!
– Thank you. (Mary laughs) – Absolutely. No, that reminded of many years ago I had a colleague who was
extremely self-important, we don’t know people like that, (audience laughs)
but I remember he waltzed into the
mailroom when I was there and he said, “Well, I’ve
just finished another book.” And I said, “Reading or writing?” and he got so upset. (audience laughs) It’s always wonderful
to have a new audience who hasn’t heard these stories before. But that picture reminds me of that, it’s just sort of the
self-consciousness of this worry, like where is it going to come from? And then the exultation
that, I’ve just finished it, and the remarkable quality of it. We started a little late tonight and I think we don’t
wanna keep people too late but we did wanna have an opportunity for some question and answer. And I think we have a
gentleman here with a question. – [Audience Member] So
back in the Dark Ages, and I’m referring to my high school days and early college days, professors and teachers
would ask their students, would give out assignments and they would say compare and contrast. – Yes. – [Audience Member] Some of
you are nodding your heads, you seem to remember that. I would like any of the three of you, or all three of you, to compare and contrast Theodor
Geisel and Maurice Sendak. – Theodor, oh, Geisel and Sendak, compare and contrast, the two iconic children’s illustrators and writers of the mid-20th century. That’s a wonderful question. Well, I think Mary is a good start because you talked about the monsters. How would you compare and
contrast Ted’s monsters with “Where the Wild Things Are?” – Well, I think the Wild
Things are much scarier. – Well, they’re much more Jewish-looking. (audience laughs) I can say that.
(Mary laughs) You know that Sendak modeled
them on his relatives. – [Mary] (laughs) I don’t know that. – Yes, that’s what he said. Whereas, I doubt that Ted Geisel modeled his characters on his relatives. – That’s probably true. Maybe he modeled some of them
on his friends in La Jolla. (audience laughs)
– You think so? – We don’t know.
– But you think Ted’s are less scary? – Well, they’re friendlier in a way. I mean, I think Sendak–
– Oh, I think the Wild guys are phenomenally, oh, that’s my problem.
– Yeah, they are. I don’t know, they’re
sharper, for one thing. They’re much sharper and thornier, the play of words isn’t there. So I’m not sure what else. – Rob, compare
– I have to think – and contrast.
– about this longer. – Geisel’s things are much more benign. – You think so?
– I really do. And friendlier, more accessible. The others are fearsome
and engaging in that way, attractive in that way, much more of an edge to them. – But, you know, in a way I think they’re, look, Geisel and Sendak are
both immigrants in a sense, because Sendak is a European
who comes to America and Geisel is an East Coast Jew who comes to California. (audience laughs) Could you tell I’m from the East Coast? (Mary laughs) And as we know, you walk around La Jolla and you see these bizarre trees and this strange succulent vegetation and it’s Seussian. So I think that both of
them are in some way, are both dealing with what it means to grow up in one place and show up in another place. Where were you in high school? You talked about your life, yes. – [Audience Member] Where was
I physically in high school? – Where were you physically? – [Audience Member]
Right here in San Diego. – Really?
(audience laughs) Well, that says a lot for the San Diego public school system. (audience laughs) – [Audience Member] I was always traveling from one to the other. I was actually born in Poland. – So you understand the sensibility. You see what I’m getting at? I mean this seriously, of how that sense of
displacement and immigration generates a vivid imagination in both. Do we have another question? – [Audience Member] Okay, when I went to New York as a young person and got a job at Random House, I was given a desk right
outside of Ted Geisel’s editor and so every time he
got a postcard from Ted. And then I come to La Jolla and magically, a few years later, my friend is Gene Jones and then we become very
close friends with Ted. So I had a chance to spend a lot of time, because I’m a literary agent, talking about his motivation and what it was about his books. He said he never wrote
the books for children, they were for adults. And the fact that they
became children’s books, you know, bestsellers,
was an enormous surprise, because, this is great, because it was getting a vaster audience than just the adults. So this is a man who worked
six days a week unfailingly and then when I hear about
the work you’re talking about it had to be a release. – I see what you’re saying.
– I would think it’s a release for him.
– You mean the acrylic paintings at night?
– The acrylic paint. – Right.
– I see. – [Audience Member] Because
here he’s trying to please a publisher who is making demands on him and so every once in a while
you’ve gotta let go, right? – Absolutely, well-put, thank you. Are there other questions? Do we have another– – [Woman] She has a question. – Down there, can we? – [Audience Member] I worked
in economic development for many years and we once organized an entire program around an editorial cartoon that Ted Geisel drew after some, and I can’t even remember what referendum it might have been, but his question was, “Onward to where?” (audience laughs) And my question to you is, do you think he would
have asked that question no matter where he was? He happened to be in San
Diego and living in La Jolla, but it was so, at that time, prescient about the questions we
were trying to answer. And do you think that he
would have brought that to any community he was living in? – Go on. – I wouldn’t be surprised if he did bring that to any community. It’s interesting ’cause a
lot of artists work 24 hours or like six days a week
and maybe off on Sunday because they’re pursuing something and they need to keep going and they need to keep pushing themselves. But I think Ted, I mean, where are we going is an existential question
of all time, right? And so, yeah, I think, you know, he was questioning all the time. – Where do you think he was going? – He said that he never began a book with the idea of a moral in mind that he wanted to achieve by the end and yet he said, “Every story has a moral to it.” I think he was constantly trying to teach and trying to encourage and inspire people to think
about very basic life questions. I think that’s the
attraction of these books for so many of us, even as adults, that there is something
that’s deeply encouraging and inspiring about them. – I think that’s true and I think that’s why it teaches so well. And I think that bringing Seuss
into the college classroom, a story like “The Sneetches,” and the star-bellied Sneetches, there’s this wonderful episode in it in which a man comes to
Sneetchville with a machine and if they pay him money he will send them through the machine and those who don’t have
stars on them will get stars. And I was teaching this
to my undergraduates and one of them said,
“That’s just like college.” (audience laughs) You pay somebody money
and they give you a star. And I think that that’s part of the–
– That’s magnificent. – Sorry?
– That’s magnificent. – I think that part of the moral of this is that by continuing to look at both the familiar and the unfamiliar, the good and maybe the disappointing, part of what we’re going to recognize is that in the end it doesn’t matter whether or not we have a star. Really all that matters is the way in which we’re
able to look at the world and, as you say, to go, to have the courage to go
some place we don’t know. And I can thank my panelists here because we’ve gone to places we didn’t think we would go tonight. (audience laughs) And I’m sure that all of you have felt the same throughout your lives. I hope you do have a chance to see at least some of the material on exhibit and I’m looking forward to the time when this material, ideally,
comes to UCSD permanently. But all I will say is this, that on your tables there are books and every book is a portal
to a place you haven’t been and that’s why I became
a literature teacher. So I wanna thank you all,
(audience applauds) thank our panelists. (dramatic music)

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