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From Ansel Adams To Unica Zürn, 'Scrawl' Finds Artistry Everywhere

Doodle by artist George Cruikshank in <em>Scrawl. </em>
George Cruikshank
Doodle by artist George Cruikshank in Scrawl.

If you want a nice little boost to your aesthete's ego, here's a fun exercise: Pick out a seemingly forgettable artwork and give it your attention.

Oftentimes, the result will be kind of like those stories in which someone takes off the mousy shopgirl's glasses and transforms her into a swan. Through an act of simple percipience, you can transform a work nobody else bothered to notice — maybe an oddball piece of outsider art, or a preliminary sketch by a member of some flash-in-the-pan movement — into something worth thinking about. (The editors of Found magazine, whose content consists of even humbler stuff, excel at this type of thing.) It's its own form of creation, even if it only takes place in your mind.

David Schulson was clearly an expert in such alchemy. Over the three decades he ran Schulson Autographs, starting in the '70s, he gathered and preserved the ad hoc jottings of some of the great geniuses of the Western world. It must have been a heady life — and a heady way to grow up. His son Todd Strauss-Schulson writes in the introduction to Scrawl: An A-Z of Famous Doodles, "to walk into his office was to walk through a New Yorker cartoon: He wore denim overalls and blasted the Chambers Brothers and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band as he wheeled and dealed on his Bang & Olufsen phone with French and British dealers." Strauss-Schulson describes a man obsessed with history — specifically, with feeling like he was a part of it. Through his work, Schulson was able to enjoy a sense of agency, of exerting some small amount of control over his subjects' legacies.

With Scrawl, Schulson's children have made it possible for readers to share his passion. Looking for a shopgirl to turn into a swan? You'll find one in Scrawl. These throwaway fragments of creativity from dozens of notable minds (helpfully arranged in A-Z order, from Ansel Adams to Unica Zürn) prove that the humblest, most slapdash artistic efforts can still matter.

In fact, it's the casual doodles that immediately compel attention. Scrawl can be loosely divided between tossed-off cartoons that seem to have been drawn almost compulsively and showy compositions penned with an audience in mind. The former, not surprisingly, are by and large the work of professional artists: James Ensor, Al Hirschfeld, Sol LeWitt, Conroy Maddox. Oskar Kokoschka draws himself as a Sphinx, complete with womanly bustline; Edward Gorey scribbles the vague outlines of five objects and gives them Dadaist captions like "potato bank" and "lasting pinchers." There's a compulsive quality, too, to George Cruikshank's row of demon heads, even though he takes the time to color them in red and blue.

But it's not just the visual artists whose work grabs the eye. Ford Madox Ford creates a modernist composition, simultaneously busy and frozen, with two minimal faces and blocks of badly typed, all-caps text. "BEAR SPLENDID CHILDREN... THAT IS GOD'S... PRESCRIPTION FOR WAGING SPLENDID WARS," he writes. "WAGE SPLENDID WARS... THAT IS GOD'S PRESCRIPTION FOR DIMINISHING SURPLUS POPULATIONS." O. Henry fills a postcard with a cacophony of Expressionist text. John Cage's mesostic poem is arresting thanks to his spiky handwriting and strangely eloquent cross-outs. Harry Houdini devises a clever self-portrait; to describe it would ruin the surprise.

Oskar Kokoschka draws himself as a Sphinx in a doodle appearing in <em>Scrawl.</em>
/ Rizzoli
Oskar Kokoschka draws himself as a Sphinx in a doodle appearing in Scrawl.

The less successful entries are mostly those with a sense of built-in import. Stephen King's depiction of himself "dancing on my own grave" is deliberately childlike, complete with inverted letters, but it doesn't deserve a spot on the refrigerator. Marlon Brando creates a big red composition that's trying to be both impressionistic and surreal, but comes off as simply effortful. The accompanying text (where Schulson's kids offer a blend of context and their own interpretations) is comically earnest: "The overall red tone underscores the sense of illusion that Marlon Brando creates, intentionally or not."

Doodle by photographer Richard Avedon in <em>Scrawl</em>.
/ Rizzoli
Doodle by photographer Richard Avedon in Scrawl.

Still, a Brando fan will doubtless find his drawing intriguing — as is the case with many of these doodles. Some might even say these little works only acquire their auras through their creators' fame. Sure, it would be hard to think up interesting interpretations for some of them if there weren't great names attached. But once you start pondering these pictures, they start to seem like far more than mere artifacts of notable psyches. They're invitations to put your aesthetic intelligence to work. Having paged through Scrawl, you'll start seeing artistry everywhere. How fun is that?

Doodle by entertainer Josephine Baker in <em>Scrawl</em>.
/ Rizzoli
Doodle by entertainer Josephine Baker in Scrawl.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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