September 19, 2019 | 47° F

Zimmerli exhibits 'self-confessed!' comics artist's life work

Photo by Nick Zambrotta |

The Zimmerli Art Museum's current artist collection is exactly what you would assume: an introspective and self reflective display of contemporary comics and sketches by renowned cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Famous for her long running strip "Dykes to Watch Out For", which ran from 1983 to 2008, Bechdel is a self-confessed artist, writer and advocate for women’s rights and the LGBT community. 

The exhibition lived its first life at the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum of Art but has been recently revived in the Zimmerli, a path of chronological pieces from Bechdel’s print publications and graphic novels. On view now through Dec. 30, the collection includes strips from "Dykes to Watch Out For", a series of comics following a group of lesbian friends that is also known for the “Bechdel test” used in film critique. There is a diverse representation of early sketches, short strips and both original and reprinted pages from Bechdel’s graphic novels "Fun Home" and "Are You My Mother?".

Though the Zimmerli displays some precursors of illustration, such as its collection of 19th century French prints, "Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel" is the museum’s first contemporary comic assemblage. Bechdel, third Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont, winner of multiple recognitions, such as the Bill Whitehead Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, is recognized for her impenitent discussion of mental health and gay and women’s rights in her artwork and media.

Aware of her accomplishments, the Zimmerli tries to represent Bechdel as an artist first, giving a three-dimensional understanding of her process with early rough-cut drawings of her graphic novels, scattered diary sketches in ink, large scale self portraits and by highlighting strips in which she reflects on herself as an artist. 

Donna Gustafson, curator of American Art at the Zimmerli, organized the exhibition with the understanding that Bechdel’s work would speak to Rutgers students at this particular part of their life. When discussing the importance of having the exhibit at Rutgers, Gustafson explained that Bechdel’s work “has a certain political point of view I think is appropriate for the times. One of the things the University should do is be as open as possible to as many diverse voices as possible, and she represents a new and exciting voice.”

Much of Bechdel’s artwork is self-reflective and her use of artist as subject allows her comics to be intimate and raw while also relatable and hilarious. Some of her comics on display include stories of her youth, college and the aftermath, with topics such as sex, mental health issues and revelations toward the world.  An avid reader, Bechdel makes many references to writers and thinkers like Virginia Woolf and Donald Winnicott. Bechdel herself came out as lesbian during her undergraduate years, another reason her work speaks volumes on a college campus. “The years that you’re an undergraduate are really the years of getting to know who you are. So it also felt very much like it had a lot of meaning to the University,” Gustafson said. 

Bechdel often illustrates that period of time, making her work relatable and presenting a visual voice for Rutgers students experiencing similar things. For those that are facing different obstacles, Bechdel’s work is groundbreaking for its unapologetic portal to the real world around us. “(Bechdel) introduces subjects to people that maybe have never thought of them before. She introduces them in a personal and nonjudgmental way,” Gustafson said. "Dykes to Watch Out For" was first published in WomaNews June of 1983, putting lesbians into a spotlight within the community that was new for some but digestible and fun in a universal way that makes Bechdel’s work stand out. 

The Zimmerli put importance on also representing Bechdel as an advocate, with a glass display of memorabilia, feminist t-shirts and protest pins and advocacy Bechdel spearheaded or participated in. Many of her pieces relate to her social actions, women magazines and marches. One of the must-read pieces in the exhibit is a prime example of her common self-archival style: a short cartoonist-introduction strip where Bechdel takes us back in time to discover where it all began. 

The collection allows visitors to interact and experience Bechdel in a fresh contemporary way, with reading tables and featured work from other great illustrators in her time, a glass encased stage set from the "Fun Home" musical and a Game of Life inspired board game so students can play the game of life Bechdel style. Bechdel’s work conveys thoughtfulness and honesty. 

Bechdel will be joining Rutgers for "An Evening with Alison Bechdel" on Oct. 10 in Kirkpatrick Chapel. With the exhibit comes many events and talks at Rutgers focused on Bechdel’s work. Self-Confessed makes its mark as an exhibition that is all-consuming and fully welcoming. There is something to swallow in every frame of Bechdel’s strips, whether it be a small laugh or understanding heavy topics from the eyes of Bechdel herself. This is a must-see for any one who relates to Bechdel’s themes, and everyone who does not. 

Chelsea Lebron

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