I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Now that Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, and Gomez have made it back from Hollywood to the Great White Way, take an afternoon to learn about the inspiration behind the popular 1960s television show as well as the creepy, sardonic cartoons that inspired them in Charles Addams' New York, a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.
Addams (1912-1988), a transplant from Westfield, New Jersey, lived in New York City for more than 50 years and knew it better than most. His clever drawings, hundreds of which are on display uptown, captured urban drama largely for The New Yorker, where he was reportedly "paid by the square inch."
Museum patrons will be delighted by the insider jokes and funny jabs as Addams poked fun at the city of cities, all with a dark and macabre sense of humor that made his work outshine other cartoonists'. In one image, Morticia greets a railway officer at the door holding two small pet carriers. She calls up to Gomez, "It's the children, Darling, back from camp." In another, Uncle Fester finds himself experiencing a moment of indecision at the automat while trying to choose which barbecued human head to devour.
Visitors will note Addams' willingness to find the extraordinary in, upon first glance, what appears to be a typical urban landscape. Ghosts jump out of skyscraper windows on the eve of the crash of 1929, a man walks toward a subway stair entrance and is greeted by an enormous and beaconing human hand, chess players in the park are so absorbed by their game they are covered by copious amounts of snow.
Though few realize it, Addams' life in New York was anything but typical. In the 1930s he studied at Grand Central School of Art—at Grand Central Station of all places—a facility founded and operated, in part, by the famed painter John Singer Sargent and that even employed Arshile Gorky as an instructor. Addams, forever in search of inspiration and authenticity, was known to skip classes and instead ride around on city buses sketching buildings and portraits, establishing a seemingly infinite mental cache of the urban vistas and characters that would later make him famous.
The Museum of the City of New York is the perfect space to showcase the beloved cartoonist's work and the exhibit is well organized, playful, and comprehensive. In addition to Addams' drawings, many other rarely seen items are on display including annotated book jackets and promotional materials, a series of masks made for the circus, a portrait of Addams at work by Irving Penn, artifacts from the artist's personal collection of bizarre items, and even his drawing desk and notebooks. Curator Sarah Henry gets points for not basing the show only on the popularity of the Addams' Family characters. In this wonderful collection, much of it donated to the museum by the artist himself, the main star is New York City and Addams' intimate relationship with it.