Elegant Oddball

If you've spent much time at South Florida's art museums this summer, you've probably come to the grim conclusion that, for these institutions, art is all about sharks (Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale), minigolf (Boca Raton Museum of Art), or Lego (Art and Culture Center of Hollywood). Even the Norton Museum of Art got caught up in the pop-culture feeding frenzy and gave us "Clubs, Joints and Honky-Tonks," a photo exhibit focused on nightlife. It has been the summer of what I call object-based art.

Fortunately, the Norton also saw fit to bring in "Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey," a traveling exhibition of more than 150 drawings. Granted, the show is both pop-culture-obsessed and somewhat object-based in that it includes a wide sampling of the books for which Gorey — primarily an illustrator and a designer — is known. But the show is first and foremost about the art produced by the Chicago-born Gorey, who died on Cape Cod in 2000 at age 75.

Although Gorey has sometimes been embraced by gay culture as one of its own, the artist once said in an interview, "I'm neither one thing nor the other particularly. I am fortunate in that I am apparently reasonably undersexed or something... I've never said that I was gay, and I've never said that I wasn't."

This could explain the almost complete lack of sexual content, even innuendo, in Gorey's work. (He did produce The Curious Sofa, an allegedly pornographic book that is widely seen as a spoof. It is not included in the exhibit.) And Gorey's lack of interest in sex may have played a part in freeing him to become an astonishingly prolific artist. He produced more than a hundred books of his own, and he illustrated another 50 or so by others, including Samuel Beckett, Hilaire Belloc, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Edward Lear, Muriel Spark, John Updike, and H.G. Wells.

It seems as if Gorey was never not engaged in creative enterprise, and the exhibition gives us a satisfying sample of his other odds and ends. There are set and costume designs, for instance, created for a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, mounted at Carnegie Mellon University in 1983. Then there is the "Fantod Pack," a deck of playing cards that generate a narrative no matter how you shuffle them. There are even seven exquisitely illustrated number 10 envelopes from 1948, used to send letters to Gorey's mother when he was a student at Harvard (where he majored in French literature and shared a room with poet Frank O'Hara).

Visiting curator and Gorey expert Karen Wilkin describes the Norton show as "a brilliant and sympathetic installation" and says it attempts to dispel the notion that Gorey was only macabre. Rather, he was an artist whose specialties were indirection and obliqueness, not to mention verbal agility. Consider such titles as The Glorious Nosebleed, Donald Has a Difficulty, Leaves From a Mislaid Album, Dancing Cats and Neglected Murderesses, and The Fraught Settee.

You can also see the artist's influence throughout popular culture. Just look at the opening credits of the PBS series Mystery!, the video for "The Perfect Drug" by Nine Inch Nails, musicians as diverse as Robert Wyatt and the Kronos Quartet, and goth culture in general. Long may Gorey's freak flag fly.