Remy Charlip's Postmodernism for Kids
The artist exploded the idea of what a book can be. For him, it was not a thing, but an instrument—something to do something with.
March 2, 2020
Mar 2, 2020
21 Min read time
The artist exploded the idea of what a book can be. For him, it was not a thing, but an instrument—something to do something with.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and ’40s, Remy Charlip wanted to be a farmer. But other talents had already been noticed, and when he constructed a model Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks, a school guidance counselor advised his mother that her son should be an artist.
Sarah Charlip, a Lithuanian Jew probably familiar with the drudgeries of the pastoral life, agreed; art would be “more practical,” she said. Remy did go to art school, though not the High School of Music and Art, then located at the North Pole (West 135th Street, Manhattan). Instead—to be practical—he attended an academically enhanced schmata biz trade school downtown, where he learned textile design. From there he went to Cooper Union, graduating in 1949 with a fine arts degree.
Charlip did not become a farmer. Instead he became virtually everything else: dancer, choreographer, performer, theater designer, writer, illustrator.
Charlip did not become a farmer, or, as he saw it—and this is disputable—a fine artist. Instead he became virtually everything else: dancer, choreographer, performer, theater designer, writer, illustrator. He recognized no boundaries between these arts; he combined, cross-fertilized, and hybridized. He drew dances and danced his writing; as the title of one of his articles put it, he made “books into theater and theater into books.” For over fifty years, almost until his death in 2012, at eighty-three, he produced a harvest so nutritious and abundant that he could have been mainlining creative Miracle-Gro.
As such, Charlip was a cherished cadre of the postwar avant-garde. In a time of fecund collaboration, his most celebrated contributions to choreography were the epitome of collaboration. Each page of the Air Mail Dances, of which he made dozens over the years, carried drawings of figures in a series of postures, with an invitation to the recipient to fill in the blanks. Joan Acocella called these dances “anti-authoritarian, minimalist, tender, and fun.” The adjectives could also describe Charlip’s oeuvre, and Charlip himself.
Yet it was in less rarified precincts—among the little chairs and tables of the library’s children’s section—that Charlip established himself as an artist truly in the vanguard. From the stereotype-stodgy mid-1950s through the often didactic and Disneyfied early 2000s, Charlip wrote or illustrated some forty children’s picture books, alone or with such children’s lit legends as Ruth Krauss and Margaret Wise Brown. The books are inventive, gorgeous, witty, endearing, and inimitable. Today they are hard to find. Only one, Fortunately, has remained in print continuously since its publication in 1964. There are two copies of the marvelous What is the World? (1964), written by Betty Miles, available to the public in New York City, and both are interred in rare books collections.
For Charlip, creativity entailed not so much conjuring something from nothing, but “something out of something other people would think [of as] nothing.”
This situation may be starting to change. In 2018 New York Review Books reissued Charlip’s Thirteen (created with Jerry Joyner in 1975) and his other masterpiece of hilarious, wizardly word and picture play, Arm in Arm (1969). Charlip’s fan—as in fanatic—club includes Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), Lane Smith, illustrator of Jon Scieszka’s Stinky Cheese Man (1992) and other bestselling subversions, and Jon Klassen, creator of This Is Not My Hat, We Found a Hat, and other deadpan, oddly compelling, and massively popular Hat stories. When Selznick gave a shout-out to his guest, Charlip, in accepting the 2008 Caldecott Award for Hugo, he recalls, “all 2,000 librarians leapt to their feet to give him a standing ovation.”
The club has been growing, thanks to the evangelism of Canadian artist and designer Michael Dumontier—who has reproduced Charlip’s pages at every opportunity on his Instagram of astounding book design and illustration—as well as bloggers like bookseller and marketer Burgin Streetman (Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves) and Will Schofield at 50 Watts. A Remy Charlip Pinterest page has over 21,500 followers.
Why this renaissance? Situating Charlip in the context of the three-quarters of a century of art and children’s literature history through which he lived reveals what makes him important, even revered by those who know his work: he was the first postmodernist children’s book writer. He is still one of the best.
• • •
At twenty, Charlip seems to have walked directly out of Cooper Union’s Foundation Building on Astor Place to the cold-water flats and ramshackle stages of Manhattan’s creatively seething downtown scene. By 1951 he was a resident at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, arriving in a car with one door missing. Two years later he was dancing in Merce Cunningham’s first company and designing its publicity and costumes. He was listed on the program as “Entrepreneur and in Charge of Spectacle.”
Charlip queered the children’s book, melting relationships between dance and text, text and illustration, creator and reader.
Charlip’s charisma, magnanimity, and derring-do were on display from the start. “Remy walked the Village streets with his bouncy, lopsided, lilting gait, his eyes twinkling, with a smile on his lips, and every third person he passed would greet him,” writes Carolyn Brown, Cunningham’s unofficial prima ballerina, in Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham (2007). “He seemed to know everyone and everyone seemed to love him.” Charlip shared an unheated loft on Suffolk Street with lighting designer Nick Cernovich and photographer Norman Solomon, and the three were valued contributors to the community’s sharing economy. In trade for tub and towels at Carolyn and her husband Earle’s apartment, they’d show up in massive Army surplus coats from whose linings they’d pull loads of purloined groceries. “Only Remy had the guts and fearless fingers to actually take the stuff,” Brown says (he also altered the pockets for the job), but the others were agreeable co-conspirators, and the friends gathered for meals asked no questions. She recalls one five-pound T-bone steak feeding a multitude of penniless, ravenous artists.
Charlip indeed knew everyone. He collaborated with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank O’Hara, Al Carmines, Vera Williams, MC Richards, Maria Irene Fornes, the Living Theatre and Judson Poets Theater, and scores of other dancers, directors, performers, and writers. In 1958, he cofounded the Paper Bag Players, whose recycle-bin stagecraft—turning cardboard boxes into rowboats and colanders into crowns—was inspired by Dress Up and Let’s Have a Party (1956), the first book Charlip both wrote and illustrated. “Remy was magical, charismatic, a sweetheart,” recalled Joyce Aaron Funk, one of the Players. “His creativity had no bounds.”
From Charlip's 1969 children's book Arm in Arm, reissued in 2019 by New York Review Books. Used by permission of the publisher.
In 1967 he started Sarah Lawrence College’s children’s literature and theater department, where he gave a “Workshop in Making Things Up.” After that he directed the National Theater of the Deaf, where he learned the finger spelling and sign language he would incorporate into his choreography and from which he’d create (with Mary Beth and George Ancona) a duo of highly successful Handtalk books for children. Over the decades he traveled the globe teaching improvisation, dance, and children’s theater to adults and children, amateurs and professionals. And all this time, he was developing a singular voice and graphic vocabulary—and his work was exhibiting the qualities of emergent postmodernism.
“‘Postmodern’ is a great sponge,” commented Philip Nel, director of Kansas State University’s Children’s Literature Program. Even so, Nel agreed, “You can see Charlip’s work as part of [that legacy]—his use of collage, experimental design, fragmentation, pastiche.” Add to these Charlip’s economy of gesture and modesty of source, his disruption of narrative and interrogation and reinvention of the book form, and the open-ended multiplicity of meanings these strategies give rise to. Charlip took these, the signal attributes of the artistic movements from which he fledged, and alchemized them for an audience whose sophistication had gone mostly unnoticed: kids.
Heroism of the ordinary
Postmodern dancers broke not just from the formalism of classic nineteenth-century ballet but also from the heightened expressionism of modern dance. For them, everyday movements—walking, turning, falling—held rich, unexplored fascination and humor. In the iconic 1940 photograph, Martha Graham performs “Letter to the World,” her huge dress arcing in an operatic whoosh, her wrist at her forehead signaling something like despair. Two decades later, in “We Shall Run,” Yvonne Rainer sent non-dancers in street clothes running around a stage. “The anti-illusionist approach” of the new dance “combined low-key presentation and physical intelligence in a way that seemed to define a new virtuosity,” writes Sally Banes in her history of postmodern dance, Terpsichore in Sneakers (1980).
Small and slender, dressed in rainbow-colored sweaters, he was a sophisticate of silliness, a perfectionist with an “ego the size of Texas,” a Buddhist practitioner of letting go—of authority, judgment, self.
Charlip was similarly uninterested in the grand gesture. His drawings resemble doodles—exalted doodles, their refinement and complexity recalling Saul Steinberg, but doodles nonetheless. His humans and animals, even when simplified to how-to-draw circles and oblongs, are perfectly anatomically proportionate. The faces, sometimes no more than two dots and a curved line, telegraph feelings from terror to contentment, deceit to hauteur—iPhone emojis as drawn by Rembrandt.
Like all good picture-book illustrators, Charlip is an animist, and in that sense, a fantasist. Birthday cakes and musical notes have legs, arms, and faces; a “big fat lie” is a round pink face (with feet) sticking out a red tongue. Flirtations transpire between peanut butter jars (“I’m chunky.” “You’re hunky!”). Pines whisper. Yet the stories evince what Banes calls “a heroism of the ordinary.” Plenty of improbable things happen to Ned in Fortunately: he flies a plane, the plane explodes, his parachute has a hole in it, he falls to earth (a tiny figure in a vast blue sky, like Bruegel’s Icarus). He’s chased by sharks and tigers and finds himself in “a deep dark cave.” But each near-calamity is averted by an unremarkable human ability: Ned can swim, he can run, he can dig. Even the eponymous Tree Angel—who magically gives feet to a trio of felled pines so they can escape a woodchopper—carries a to-do list.
For Charlip, creativity entailed not so much conjuring something from nothing, he told dance scholar Jeff Friedman in a 2002 Legacy Oral History Project interview, but “something out of something other people would think [of as] nothing.” Dress Up is about just that: “Under a blanket, Sarah crawled in as a mountain.” “Last came Vera as a meatball covered with spaghetti” (dragging a large ball of yarn). Edith Cohen, a volunteer at the Library of Congress Children's Literature Center, summed up Charlip’s sorcery: “Here is someone who transforms, embroiders, and enchants ordinary experiences into magical excursions, encouraging children to imagine and improvise for themselves.”
Charlip also borrowed and curated from what other people think of as quite something, from history, other media, and other styles—he was a master of postmodern pastiche. In Arm in Arm dreamy pastels fill shapes as meticulous as eighteenth-century botanical drawings. Mother, Mother I Feel Sick, Send for the Doctor Quick, Quick, Quick (1966) is a consummately silly update of the decorous nineteenth-century silhouette. The pages of What is the World? are saturated in mink brown, summer-dusk indigo, and spring-bud green—a Midcentury Modern Pantone. The book features visual cameos from Cage, O’Hara, and Ray Johnson; it pays homage to Chinese paper cutters, William Morris, and Leonardo—a Vitruvian girl in red playsuit.
The postmodernists liberated art from the museum and the concert hall, made performance venues of skating rinks and outside walls, let spectators catch meanings on the wind.
Friedman uses the term “parsimony” to describe not just Charlip’s something-from-something ingenuity, but also the Marie Kondo–worthy decluttering of gesture, text, line, and even décor in his studio and home. The bare-bones venues and performances of the Fifties and Sixties avant-garde and its successors were parsimonious by necessity. Before foundation grants and art as a profit-compounding commodity, this arte could be nothing but povera. But thrift was also an artistic, political choice. “Analytic post-modern dance was a style and approach that was consistent . . . with the values of baring the facts and conserving means that were the legacy of a post-Watergate, post-oil-crisis society,” writes Banes. “The energy of post-modern dance was literally reduced.”
Debuting in 1982, at the dawn of the greed-is-good Reagan Era and a new Gilded Age, “Ten Imaginary Dances” took conservation to its logical conclusion. The piece is a collection of prose poems masquerading as a dance concert. It consists of titles and brief description of ten dances—involving a “huge hand,” a “dog ballerina,” and a mosquito, among other players, but no actual performers—read aloud with pauses for the audience to envision them. A sardonic joke on the dance world’s (suddenly chic) shabbiness, “Ten Imaginary Dances” is also a sly anti-consumerist statement. “Storm” calls for a “well-drained waterproof room” in which “a glorious sunset” gives way to clouds, thunder, and so on. “Hurricane, tornado, and flooding can be added if budget is big enough.” In 2005, with Eric Dekker, Charlip created the book Nothing (published only in French and Spanish), a mock TV ad about a product called Nothing, represented as a large transparent cube. “See how nothing can wash your hair?” it exclaims. “Clean out the sink with nothing!”
Towers from toothpicks, steak dinners from coat linings, words from silence, dance from stillness. Mused Friedman: “I think Remy understood something about working with the bare necessity, the minimum needed to say the maximum thing.”
The non-narrative narrative
It’s almost a given that a children’s book needs a strong narrative. At first glance, Charlip would seem to concur. “I was, and still am, fascinated with art forms in which sequence, transformation, and continuity are possible: movies, comic strips, flip books, picture books, dances, and theater pieces,” he wrote in 2000. “The elements common to all these art forms can be interchangeable, such as how an idea or story can proceed from beginning to middle to end, close-ups or long shots, general lighting or spotlighting, rhythm and phrasing.”
Can a dance have no dancers? Can a picture book have no pictures?
If a sequence is infinitely pliable, though, an identifiable story is dispensable. At their blog, Curious Pages, Lane Smith and writer-illustrator John Shea praise Krauss and Charlip’s A Moon or a Button (1959) as “a perfect book for readers with attention disorders. Each page introduces a new storyline that is never completed.” The book presaged Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by twenty years, pronounce Smith and Shea, and Calvino “didn’t have any pictures either.”
Thirteen is Charlip’s (and Joyner’s) furthest leap from conventional narrative. A dozen series—from radical transmogrifications (“Stars becoming tree. Tree becoming lobster . . .”) to a tiny proscenium stage play—proceed simultaneously from spread to spread, paginated 13 down to 1, with a “preview of coming attractions” on each spread.
Like Arm in Arm and the Air Mail Dances, Thirteen is profligate in imagery and parsimonious in explication. The reader may make sense or revel in nonsense. “The stories are circular, interconnected. They don’t have a beginning or end. You can read it backwards and forwards,” New York Review Books senior editor Susan Barba told me. “The books stand out as departures for all the various ways in which children experience creativity.”
Roger Sutton, editor in chief of Hornbook, a magazine covering children’s literature, said Charlip bequeathed freedom to younger writers. “You can have different things going on without explanation,” he said, “and trust readers to make their own connections.” But Charlip’s influence extends beyond the picture-book community. On Thirteen’s book jacket, the choreographer John Heginbotham writes that when he was a child the book taught him “without my knowing it . . . that a story could be experienced up and down, diagonally, here and there, not merely left to right.” Peter Brosius, director of the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, would love to turn Thirteen into theater: “It’s Charlip as a visual and movement artist as opposed to a storyteller,” following an “associative, poetic, surreal logic,” Brosius said.
Does a picture book need a narrative? “Where is the pleasure in the book?” Nel asked. “Narrative is one pleasure but not the only one. Nonsense is a pleasure. Deciphering a puzzle is also a pleasure.” What do the disparate bits of Thirteen add up to? Merce Cunningham said: “We don’t interpret something. . . . We do something.” Meaning is in the eyes of the beholder.
Deconstructing the book
Charlip’s sequence scrambling is not without precedent, noted Nel. For one, there’s the nineteenth-century “myriorama,” a set of cards forming a continuous busy city- or landscape, which the player arranges in any order. Artists have recently revived the myriorama “to pull children back to the physical book,” Nel notes, naming João Fazenda’s Endless Landscape: Lisboa and Mark Bischel’s Endless New York.
“Narrative is one pleasure but not the only one. Nonsense is a pleasure. Deciphering a puzzle is also a pleasure.”
The physicality of the book was always on Charlip’s mind. “A book is a series of pages held together at one edge, and these pages can be moved on their hinges like a swinging door,” he wrote in “A Page is a Door,” a sort of manifesto for book-making. “A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book's unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.”
The book, to Charlip, was not just a thing. It was an instrument—something to do something with. “Thirteen most vigorously embodies this idea—the project of making a book as a kind of interactive object,” reflects the puppeteer and performance artist Dan Hurlin, a student and friend of Charlip’s. Selznick called Thirteen “a valentine to the art of the page-turn.” Said Barba, “He explodes the very idea of what a children’s book can be.”
Dumontier ticked off some of Charlip’s explosive devices. He uses the spine as a mirror, with images on both sides reflecting each other. In Arm in Arm, a precarious pyramid of cat acrobatics appears in reverse postures on opposite pages, all calling each other “Copy cat!” Two tall men in top hats face off. “Ah Ah ah ah,” says one. “Ha ha ha ha,” his double responds. Charlip reorients text and illustration. In Wise Brown’s Four Fur Feet (1950) the feet (we never see the beast) tread the surface of the globe, and on each page the buildings, jellyfish, or palm trees rotate in orientation to his journey, throwing a straightforward story off-kilter.
From Arm in Arm (1969). Used by permission of the publisher.
Where is Everybody? (1957) casts the book as a character in the story itself. The first page is blank except for the text: “Here is an empty sky.” “It’s the idea of the page as an object rather than an illustration,” noted Dumontier. The story fills the pages and the filling of the pages is also the story. “A bird flies up into the sky”—onto the blank page—followed by a yellow sun (the only color in the book), river, house, people, boat, deer. A black rain cloud floats in stage right. It drop rains, the raindrops grow denser, the pages grow darker—“Where did the bird go? And where is the sailboat?”—until all is dark, a full but empty sky.
It Looks Like Snow: a picture book (1952) goes even further. In this tiny book—maybe four inches square, handset in a limited edition of 750, finished with silver endpapers, signed, and mailed out as a “White Christmas Greeting” card—every page is blank but for the text. “If you look closely, you will see that it’s snowing,” it begins. “That’s because we are way up north / and up north it snows almost always.” “It snows so hard up north / that you can barely see a thing.” The book introduces Whitey the Eskimo boy, his huskie Blanche, the igloo with lunch (milk and whale blubber) on the table. Dad’s been eaten by (you guessed it) a white whale. There are no pictures. It’s a child’s version of Wallace Stevens’s “Snow Man”: “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
The book, to Charlip, was not just a thing. It was an instrument—something to do something with.
Emptiness and the meditative techniques of accessing it found their way explicitly into Charlip’s work and teaching, especially by the 1980s and 1990s. But nothing qua nothing always intrigued and amused him. A few years before he published It Looks Like Snow, Charlip was at Black Mountain with Cage, who asked him to make a performance program. Using tweezers and a magnifying glass, Charlip set the text in eight-point type and printed it on cigarette papers. He placed matches and a bowl of tobacco beside the stack, which barely reached an inch in height, and an ashtray on each seat, “so that the audience could smoke their programs as they listened to the program,” he wrote. The work went up in smoke.
Can a dance have no dancers? Can a picture book have no pictures? Such questions animate many twentieth-century art movements, from Dada to conceptualism. Postmodern dancers and performance artists were asking these questions too. In the introduction to her essay collection The Tail of the Dragon: New Dance, 1975–1982 (1991), Marcia B. Siegel suggests that the answer is yes—as long as all parties are game. “If someone downtown wanted to call standing still a dance—or pulling a wagon or throwing paint around—there was an audience that would go along with that,” she writes. “If a happening could be a theatrical event, why couldn’t the disparate, unpredictable elements of a happening, a little more structured, a little more selected, be thought of as choreography?”
It Looks Like Snow is a picture book without pictures. Dedicated to Cage, it is the realization of Cage’s koan “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” It Looks Like Snow has nothing to show and Charlip is showing it. It stands still and asks the reader to see a dance.
• • •
“This work is not for everyone,” wrote Tobi Tobias of Charlip’s choreography. “It verges on the precious. It verges on the sentimental.” A few of the books—Sleepytime Rhyme, I Love You—teeter at that verge; even the title Baby Hearts and Baby Flowers makes the teeth hurt. Other Charlip books may be too cool for preschool. A typical spread in A Moon or a Button is a pair of scribbles with stick legs, one big, one little, captioned “Big sister,” “Baby brother.” Conceptual art? Some of the early work is irremediably anachronistic. In Wise Brown and Charlip’s David’s Little Indian (1956) a white boy finds a tiny brown person in hides and feathered head dress who teaches him to name the days—“Day of the little blue dish,” “Day of the dreary grownups.” Despite some sublime writing and illustration, it’s doubtful the book will be reissued.
A Remy Charlip picture book is like Pharrell Williams’s happiness, a room without a roof.
Charlip cut the treacle with tart wit. (My favorite example: “Unfortunately, there was a pitchfork in the haystack. Fortunately, [Ned] missed the pitchfork. Unfortunately, he missed the haystack.”) He told Friedman he felt rachmones—pity—for the parents who had to read the books over and over. And while his tropism was toward the light, Charlip did not shun darkness. He made lovely, sober illustrations for Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird—it would be decades before death and regeneration were deemed appropriate themes for young children.
His books are populated with loving parent-child pairs—moons, houses, and in A Perfect Day (2007), a father and son. But that was not Charlip’s story. His father beat him, perhaps because he was a “sissy.” He joined Cunningham’s company aware of the master’s tyrannical methods and emotional unintelligence. When he left after a decade, his fury was outsized. Cunningham failed to be the father Charlip must have sought. He labored to expiate his anger through his work. In the dance Glow Worm (1977) he narrates the abuse in spoken and sign language; in the 1990s, he collaborated on a play about the links between masculinity and child abuse and sexual violence. “I became as a choreographer and teacher the good father,” he told Friedman. “People were more important than the choreography.” He grew more publicly gay. By 2001 he was performing a dance at a lesbian and gay festival, clad in a yellow raincoat, being hefted by twelve gorgeous naked men. At the age of seventy, he dedicated Sleepytime Rhyme, a paean to unconditional love, to his father.
Aside from his sexuality, what was queer about Charlip? I asked Hurlin. “Everything!” he replied—from “the fact that he can’t be pigeonholed in one box” to “capitalizing on the transgressive qualities of childhood.” To queer is to destabilize. Shaking up the distinctions between high art and popular culture, performance and daily life, postmodernism is a queering enterprise.
Charlip queered the children’s book, melting relationships between dance and text, text and illustration, creator and reader. Small and slender, dressed in rainbow-colored sweaters, he was a sophisticate of silliness, a perfectionist with an “ego the size of Texas,” as Hurlin put it, laughing, and a Buddhist practitioner of letting go—of authority, judgment, self. For better or worse, he could not forget what it was like to be a child. That gave him X-ray vision to the hearts and funny bones of kids.
Yet he seems to have been an adult forever. You cannot find a photo of him in which he is not bald. His books are rigorously concise, as the genre demands, yet for the child’s imagination, they are infinitely spacious. The postmodernists liberated art from the museum and the concert hall, made performance venues of skating rinks and outside walls, let spectators catch meanings on the wind. A Remy Charlip picture book is like Pharrell Williams’s happiness, a room without a roof.
Correction Notice: An earlier version of this essay mistakenly referred to Joyce Aaron Funk as the only living member of the original group of Paper Bag Players. Another is Paper Bag Players cofounder Shirley Kaplan.
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March 02, 2020
21 Min read time