Like many of us, Ted Geisel felt unfulfilled by his day job. Does it matter that, as Dr. Seuss, Geisel produced some of the world’s most beloved picture books and introduced generations of children to the pleasures of reading? For the sake of his young audience, Dr. Seuss had to keep his drawings simple and his color palette limited. But before he’d gone to work as a commercial illustrator, Geisel had trained as a fine artist.
So late at night, he painted. He experimented with color and style and more adult themes. He hung his “midnight paintings” in his house in La Jolla, California, but didn’t want them released into the world while he was still alive.
“He had issues with being onstage,” says Gene DeFillippo, curator of the Art of Dr. Seuss Gallery, which recently held its grand opening on the second floor of Water Tower Place. “He was very shy. He never felt he was good enough.”
Geisel died in 1991. In 1995 his widow, Audrey, released The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, a coffee-table book of his paintings. Two years later she made arrangements to create limited-edition prints of his work to be shown and sold at art galleries around the world. (The originals she decided not to keep for her personal collection she donated to the University of California, San Diego, and, oddly, the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.) The Art of Dr. Seuss Gallery, however, is the first gallery completely dedicated to the art of both Geisel and Seuss. Its location, within shouting distance of both the Lego and American Girl stores, is meant to draw in both children and adults who want to buy presents for them. At the insistence of Audrey Geisel, all the prints are priced not just to sell, but to be collected; prices range from $30 to $3,000.
“People get very emotional,” DeFillippo says.
At the gallery you can see how your favorite characters evolved in framed diptychs that show early crayon-and-pencil sketches of the Cat in the Hat and Hop on Pop beside the finished illustrations.
But it’s arguably more fun to see these characters transmogrified into fine art. There’s a Jackson Pollock-style Cat in the Hat. And there’s Yertle the Turtle’s art deco ancestor in After Dark in the Park, and a colorful surrealist version of One Fish, Two Fish in the delightfully titled The Joyous Leaping of Uncanned Salmon.
Geisel wasn’t just a painter. He also did sculpture. His “Unorthodox Taxidermy” collection incorporates beaks and antlers discarded by real animals (sent to him by his father, who was superintendent of parks, including the zoo, of Springfield, Massachusetts) into mounted heads of fanciful creatures.
As one might expect, Geisel had a wicked sense of humor. The “Bird Women of La Jolla” is a series of satirical avian portraits of his California neighbors sunbathing and drinking martinis. He was also fond of the Pink Panther movies, and paid tribute to them in a 1970s cubist painting, Cat Detective in the Wrong Part of Town.
“The more you find out,” DeFillippo says, “the more fun he is.”
Correction: This review has been amended to correct the spelling of Gene DeFillippo’s name.