Off the Wall
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For all of his obvious success and occasional smugness, Baseman can at times be shockingly dismissive of his own work. He scoffs that half of what he creates is "dog feces." In spite of his status as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from UCLA, he has a tendency to demean his own intelligence ("It’s the cosmic joke that I don’t know anything," he says) and can be self-conscious around well-educated people. After finishing UCLA, he was so fearful of pursuing a career in art that he took an internship in the Fairness and Political Broadcasting Branch of the Federal Communications Commission, later signing on with an ad agency. (He quit after his boss scolded him for sketching on company time.) Married for 11 years to Mel Williges, an illustrator whom he met at a Manhattan gallery opening, Baseman still remains unconvinced that he can get the girl.
"I’ve never known an artist with more confidence in the value of his own work, but I’ve never met an artist who hates himself as much as Gary Baseman," says his close friend Barry Smolin, a high school teacher and radio host.
If Baseman’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, his work is instantly recognizable. He draws in a bold, 1930s-’40s cartoon style with vivid colors. His characters have light-bulb-shaped heads, pickle noses and elongated, staring eyes. They look playful and mischievous but exist in sinister and surreal environments that are full of skulls, disemboweled organs and creepy looking cerebral-cortex matter that floats like clouds. The architect of all this weirdness, writes The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, "has the magical ability to look into the minds of cute little cartoon animals and masterfully paint their feverish, unsettled dreams."
One of Baseman’s best-known characters is "Dumb Luck," a goofily grinning rabbit who proudly holds his lucky rabbit’s foot in an outstretched hand. It takes the viewer a moment to look past the grin and the proffered charm to notice that the happy hare is sporting a peg leg. "Basically, my whole philosophy is dumb luck," Baseman explains. "Be careful what your dreams are because anything that wonderful has its costs along with its rewards."