With drooping eyes and swirling lines, the sketches in a new book of Kurt Vonnegut’s artwork offer fans of Indy’s most famous novelist a new window into his strange and beautiful imagination. Kurt Vonnegut Drawings, which hits stands May 13, mostly contains the works themselves. But in a revealing introduction by Vonnegut’s daughter Nanette, we’re told how much the late author enjoyed visual art throughout his life—which is more than he could say for the process of writing. “The making of pictures is to writing what laughing gas is to Asian influenza,” Vonnegut says in one of the many quotes sprinkled throughout the text.
“Had my father been granted two lifetimes, I have no doubt he would have mastered some aspect of the visual arts,” Nanette explains in her essay. Vonnegut saw doodling as therapy, and a way “people worked out their neuroses through art.”
The second essay is by Peter Reed, a professor of English and friend of Vonnegut, who does his best to explain the often desultory and free-flowing drawings. “Faces may be the most frequent subject in Vonnegut’s art,” Reed writes in what is surely the book’s biggest understatement. Leaf through it, and you’ll notice that nearly every drawing is of a face in some way.
Many images in the book are self-portraits—some drawn with a single line wrapping around the page, others in which random voids are filled with marker strokes of different colors. It’s as if Vonnegut is trying to see just how far he can obscure the human face and still recognize it. In a colorful sketch late in the book, a face is shown with all of its features—nose, eyes, mouth—suspended by strings. We’re left to wonder, as Vonnegut might have himself, “Who or what is at the end of those strings?”
Some of the drawings have a polished look and appear ready to be framed and sold. Others look inchoate, as if Vonnegut threw on some sanguine scribbles, stamped them with his elaborate signature, and called it a day. So the collection is a mixed bag. It certainly isn’t an astounding visual feat. But for those who have been moved by Slaughterhouse-Five or Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut Drawings gives a new glimpse into his stream of consciousness, foist upon a canvas.