Tom Wolfe has died aged 88. The white-suited American author will be best remembered for books including “The Bonfire Of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff.”
Few people may know that Wolfe was an accomplished artist in his own right who ruthlessly satirized the worlds of arts and culture — as well as finance — in his stylish prose and drawings.
His pen sketches, collected in “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine” in 1976 and “In Our Time” in 1980, show that he was a fine caricaturist. The books are populated by hilarious characters such as some of his “Radical Chic” brigade of eccentrics — hippies, bohemians, beatniks, losers and rebels without a cause or clue. Each is drawn with great care and pensmanship. The original artworks were later exhibited to acclaim. A particularly outstanding series of cartoons is “The Man Who Peaked Too Soon.” Wolfe’s central character is always too far ahead of his time. He is first a rock and roller, and then a hippy for example, usually three years before the particular movement that takes off. Rather than being praised as a trendsetter he is just ridiculed as a weirdo.
Wolfe delivered lectures himself on fine art at his first alma mater Lee University (he also had a doctorate from Yale). He developed the thoughts in his collection “The Painted Word.” He does not paint a pretty picture. Wolfe is especially rude about Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. He reserves his greatest criticism, though, for fellow art critics, who he says are spineless and talk in a stream of garbage. His later book “From Bauhaus to Our House” returned to the subject to savage some modern architecture.
Wolfe told George Plimpton of the Paris Review in 1991 that while he had always known he was going to be a writer: “the only other thing I ever considered from six on was to become an artist, something my mother had encouraged me to do.”
Wolfe’s experimental style of writing became known as “new journalism” and was given its first outing in essays such as “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” and “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” His Rolling Stone interviews with early astronauts became “The Right Stuff,” later filmed; his large-scale debut novel “The Bonfire Of the Vanities” was also subsequently made into a movie. Most obituaries are looking at his writing. To neglect his influence on art is to miss a key part of his legacy.
Founder Louise Blouin