Category Archives: Animation


When the contemporary Spanish artist Juan Muñoz died suddenly of an aneurysm at the age of forty-eight in 2001, he left us with his last completed work that was surely his most ambitious art installation ever, entitled Double Bind. It was described a meeting of Magritte and Dante and Piranesi and Fritz Lang, described in words of astonishment, touting critical success. Erected at the Tate Modern less than three months prior to his death, the ephemeral installation contained two industrial working elevators, a series of shafts that guided our eye visually upward to an ersatz second floor, which cut horizontally in half the enormous expanse of the museum’s Turbine Hall. Peering up into the shafts you could see enigmatic gray-colored men motionlessly walking, populating the narrow cutaway corridors.

But ten years earlier while Muñoz—considered ‘the most significant of the new generation of artists to come out of post-Franco Spain’—was in the midst of his meteoric rise to art world super-stardom with his human figures that evoked theatrical tension and themes of alienation, figures of dwarves and punch bag clowns, et al., in sandblasted fiberglass resin or bronze, he took a quick turn and created a very different sort of installation. Waiting for Jerry was as simple and whimsically empathetic as Double Bind was complex and oppressive. The installation was ‘built as a gift’ for his young daughter Lucia, with whom he had spent hours watching the cartoon “Tom and Jerry”; Lucia had unconditionally taken the side of the mouse.

A small dark room save for Jerry’s hole that was carved out of the baseboard molding and illuminated from the other side, Waiting for Jerry put the viewers ostensibly inside Jerry’s hideaway as Tom and Jerry battled it out just beyond the artificial glow of the mouse’s doorway; the soundtrack of one of the “Tom and Jerry” shows could be heard, the raucous screeching of the endless chase between the cat and the mouse. Any second Jerry would make his appearance, the viewers just had to wait. Muñoz said in an interview, discussing his two decades of work right before his Tate Modern debut, “The thing with Jerry is that when things get really really bad, he can run away from reality. And I remember sitting there thinking: I want to be like Jerry, you know! I want a place to hide!”[1]

Muñoz often spoke of his “desire to just get back to the studio and draw. Just to draw, and empty his head with a bottle of very good wine. And to astonish, always to astonish.”[2]


[1] Tim Adams, “Breaking the mould,” The [UK] Observer, June 2, 2001.

[2] Adrian Searle, “Juan Muñoz,” The Guardian, August 30, 2001.

Additional sources: Roberta Smith, “Visions That Flaunt Cartoon Pedigrees,” New York Times, March 2, 2007; Juan Muñoz, “Juan Muñoz,” in Comic Abstraction: Image Breaking, Image Making by Roxana Marcoci, Museum of Modern Art, 2007;  Interview with Paul Schimmel in Juan Muñoz by Neal Benezra and Olga M. Viso, 2001; Marian Goodman Gallery.

(Image: Waiting for Jerry by Juan Muñoz, wall, light, audio soundtrack, dimensions variable, first shown at Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, 1991, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

An Origin Story

There’s an elephant in the room masquerading as a mouse. A mouse who has taken on the world: an ambassador of mass culture, an all too easy symbol for the menace of the Corporation, for cultural imperialism. Heady stuff for a mouse who happened to have been conceived in an act of desperation.

Every morning, twenty-one-year-old Walt Disney would walk into his Kansas City Laugh-O-gram Studio, which he had opened that year in 1922, and start to work. He would sketch ideas for single-reel cartoons and live action films, and direct his staff of talented friends, including Ub Iwerks, later to be considered as “the greatest animator of his time.”

And every morning, in the trash basket, he would find a tiny field mouse. He decided to keep three of them in a cage on his desk; he considered them pets. He had been a farm boy after all. And as he struggled to keep his studio afloat, he often ate very little—his brother Roy remembered, Disney was ‘skinny as a rail’—but would always find an extra morsel for the mice, feeding them with his fingers. He would train one of the mice to run back and forth. He would draw another mouse in different poses while he sat still on his drawing board, giving a member of his staff a fright. “I’ll never forget the scream [she] gave,” Disney said.

After Laugh-O-gram went belly-up, barely into its second year; after Disney moved to Hollywood and founded with Roy in 1923 the Disney Brothers Studio, hiring many of his pals from Laugh-O-gram; and after the film distributor, for whom he had been creating a cartoon series, betrayed him, stealing both his animators (who had become resentful of their old friend’s new-found imperiousness) and his profitable cartoon character, a rabbit named Oswald, Disney knew he needed a new venture as well as a new character. He knew he needed to turn one out fast. So as soon as he and his wife Lillian boarded the train to return to California from New York and that disastrous March meeting in 1928 during which Disney learned he had no rights to Oswald, he began tossing around ideas about cats and kittens, “this and that,” and Lillian, according to Lillian later, interrupted and said, “Well, a mouse is awful cute.”

But as with so much in America, the myths in particular can be bigger—especially when it comes to Disney. And Mrs. Disney had told a tale. To the contrary it wasn’t until Disney was back in L.A. that anything was determined. He and Roy and Ub Iwerks—one of the three animators who had remained loyal—got together daily and frantically leafed through magazines, looking for the perfect star. The men finally found inspiration in the mouse of the early cartoonist Clifton Meeks; they admired the small rodent’s big round ears. Disney tried to draw Mickey but made him long and scrawny, not good it seems for animation; he handed him over to Iwerks who ‘redesigned’ him. It was Iwerks who gave Mickey his figure, which he described, “pear-shaped, ball on top, couple of thin legs.”[1] He put The Mouse in motion.

Lillian would also go on to say the stories of Disney and the mice in Kansas City were “apocryphal.” But consider this: Disney had actually been using mice in his films since 1925; he gave them cameo appearances in his comedies. He had them pose with him for a publicity poster, and he had a lifelong passion for Aesop’s mice. And this: in 1923 moving from Kansas City to Los Angeles, Disney carried with him one of the mice. En route he stopped and freed him. Disney wrote, “When I looked back he was still sitting there in the field watching me with a sad, disappointed look in his eyes.”

Mickey Mouse was born on the 18th of November, 1928.


[1] Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, 2006.

Sources: Michael Barrier, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, 2007; Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original, 1994;

(Image: Sketch (detail) Mickey Mouse, circa 1928; The Walt Disney Family Museum.)