Artist opens door to his childhood home in a museum

Inviting the museum visitor down hallways and through rooms of rendered memories and memorials, a show at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles uses a design based on the artist’s Jewish childhood home to offer up a retrospective of his extended family of characters, related artworks and family memorabilia.

With photos and family videos intermixed with his art, Gary Baseman’s show invites the visitor to enter and respond to the inner world of a Jewish family.

The title, “The Door Is Always Open,” is taken from a remark his Yiddish-speaking father made while explaining his attitude about hospitality: “Gary, the door is always open.”

Just how open? The night of the show’s opening, Baseman dedicated and helped affix a mezuzah based on the one that hung at his parents’ home in the Fairfax District as he welcomed a crowded museum of fans and family to the exhibit.

The retrospective, which runs through Aug. 18, is the first major solo show at an American Jewish museum for the Los Angeles artist, illustrator, animator and toy designer. Baseman, creator of the Emmy-winning Disney cartoon series “Teacher’s Pet,” about a dog who dresses up as a boy, and the artistic designer of the board game “Cranium,” also has given lectures and workshops at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Israel.

Gary Baseman with a mezuzah he designed

For the show, Baseman used the real dining room set owned by his late parents.

“I wanted people to feel comfortable and develop a rapport with the artwork and a feel for the alien or distant,” Baseman, who also designed the slipcovers and wallpapers, said in an interview from his studio. “I wanted people to feel enchanted with my world.”

Unlike the usual museum environment, Baseman pointed out that people do come in and sit on the furniture.

Seated in the “dining room” at his mother’s table, including china and silverware set for a Jewish holiday meal, is the fez-wearing life-size Toby, Baseman’s all-seeing character, who has a huge eye painted on his middle. Toby has been described as “Your shadow. Your mirror. Your best friend in the whole wide world.”

Toby is “the keeper of your secrets,” said Baseman.

Posing amid a setting evocative of the Fairfax District where Baseman had his bar mitzvah and his mother worked in the famous Canter’s Deli, the grinning Toby prepares the visitor for a house tour of glimpsed memories.

There is a living room, where Baseman remembers drawing as a child — he has added cushions with his characters on them to the chairs. A study is filled with elements of pop culture that inspired him, and a den where his TV show is playing on a vintage set. On display in the backyard is Baseman’s childhood take on a Superman costume, with the Hebrew letter “Shin” replacing the “S.”

On display in the bedroom are darker works, where Baseman’s fantasies merge with established Jewish folklore. A tale with which Baseman recently became familiar, the golem — the story of a man made of clay who protects the Jews of Prague — bridges the gap between the two mythologies.

The golem, who came alive when the word “Emet” (truth) was written on his forehead and died when the letter alef was erased, leaving “Met” (death), is referenced in Baseman’s work “Beverly (In Memoriam).”

According to Aaron Rosen, author of the show’s catalog, the work that shows a little girl wearing a homemade ghost costume with the word “Met” on her forehead memorializes “the children who perished during the Holocaust.” The other figure in the piece, Beverly, Baseman’s favorite cousin who met an untimely death, has the word “Emet” on the front of her cap.


The character Toby is seated at the Jewish holidaytable in Gary Baseman’s show at the Skirball. photos-edmon j. rodman

“Truth is a big theme for me,” said Baseman, who wants visitors, especially the younger adults who make up the base of his fans, to relate to his parents’ experience in the Holocaust. During World War II, his father, who escaped from a camp into the woods, became a partisan and fought against the Nazis.


“My parents protected me from that burden,” said Baseman, who has traveled to Poland and Ukraine on a Fulbright fellowship to recapture his parents’ history.

But once his parents were gone, how did the door stay open?

“Once their physical home was no more, the creative door is always open,” Baseman said.

The artist, whose work skirts a line between fine art and art toys, also has created covers for the New Yorker and illustrations for Time.

His smiling but oddly menacing characters, who look as if they might commit acts of mayhem and worse while no one is looking, are available online and in gallery shops in hipster neighborhoods around the country.

Baseman is also on a mission “to make being Jewish cool,” and one of his creations, “Gefilte,” a multiheaded green and finny character, is pictured on the aprons docents wear as they give museum visitors the tour.

“Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open,” through Aug. 18 at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles.

Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on Contact him at [email protected].