Robert Weber 1924 – 2016: An Ink Spill Appreciation

The great cartoonist Robert Weber, a major contributor to the New Yorker for 43 years, has passed away at age 92.  Mr. Weber began his New Yorker career in 1962 and went on to contribute nearly 1500 cartoons and 11 covers. The cartoonist Jack Ziegler, a New Yorker colleague, had this to say about Mr. Weber: “One of the all-time New Yorker greats.  Gorgeous drawings.  Beautiful settings.  Elegant. ” In a telephone interview, another New Yorker colleague, George Booth, said this about Mr. Weber: “He was an outstanding artist and a keen cartoonist.  He was top of the pile.”

   

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Born April 22, 1924, in Los Angeles, Mr. Weber was perhaps one of the most unassuming cartoonists  in a sea of unassuming cartoonists at the magazine.  Although he is solidly in the top tier of most published New Yorker cartoonists, with his work in  numerous New Yorker anthologies, he never published a collection of his own work. He told Lee Lorenz (who succeeded James Geraghty,  Mr. Weber’s first Art editor at The New Yorker)  that he “wasn’t interested” in having a collection. His low profile belied the work he delivered to the magazine: assured drawings, sometimes on a grand scale, usually, but not always focused on Manhattanites and  suburban dwellers  as far north as  Westport, Connecticut. His style was bold and exceptionally focused. Yet he managed to convey an irresistible fluency.   Weber’s people stood tall (or especially squat if they were children). His captions — his writing — in true New Yorker cartoon fashion, always delivered the unexpected punch, never disappointing.

He seemed to arrive graphically fully formed at The New Yorker (his first drawing appears below). His drawings featured well-defined characters imbedded within an exuberantly sketched environment, whether it was a parking garage or the Manhattan skyline. Like fellow New Yorker artists  Charles Saxon and Peter Arno, he handled the full page with ease.  In a letter to me in 2000, discussing Arno, he wrote: “I don’t think I ever consciously tried to emulate him, although I’ve learned  a lot from his superb sense of composition and drama. He had a marvelous ability to simplify. He never permitted anything extraneous, and he developed a powerful style unlike anyone else.”  Of course, he could have been talking about himself.

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Besides Jack Ziegler and George Booth, Edward Koren, Liza Donnelly, Peter Steiner, Mort Gerberg, David Sipress , Felipe Galindo and Dana Fradon weighed in on Mr. Weber. Jack Ziegler’s first New Yorker cartoon appeared in 1974, George Booth’s in 1969, Edward Koren’s in 1962, Liza Donnelly’s in 1982,  Peter Steiner’s in 1979, Mort Gerberg’s in 1965, David Sipress’s in 1998, Felipe Galindo’s in 2002, and  Dana Fradon’s in 1948. 

Edward Koren
I did know Bob in the 70’s and 80’s–but never well. I saw him fleetingly during those days ,when Geraghty was the ringmaster for his “talent”, (as we humble laborers in the arts are referred to now,)  and presided over the  fabled Tuesday and Wednesday lunches. Like many New Yorker artists then who lived in an isolated diaspora (as, increasingly,now), those lunches provided the week’s social capital. And Bob would train in from Connecticut to show his work and then proceed , with the rest of the crew to the Blue Ribbon or the Lobster for drinks and grub and talk.–and then the train.I remember him as  sweet, shy and a wryly funny guy. Generous and amiable and, to me, appreciative and encouraging. Qualities in his work, too, as manifested in the lead drawing in the New Yorker Album, 1975-1985. It is  one of his hallmark masterworks, a commanding, full page drawing of New York’s towers , executed in Bob’s masterful  signature style– , nervous charcoal accretions of marks subtly toned and colored in black and white . The  point of view he chooses– from out in the river looking at the waterfront as if he were in a low riding boat–gives the skyscrapers an overwhelming presence in the drawing. And into this stage set, he draws, on an exaggerated , foreshortened pier, a  tiny couple and their bicycles, sharply accented by a white space he’s carved out of the grey buildings. They have taken a pause in their ride, and  she is lounging on the pier, while he is sitting on its edge, turning to her–the body language saying what he is articulating:” The thing I like about New York, Claudia, is you.”
A quiet, deeply understood , sweetly funny masterpiece—Bob  himself.
Liza Donnelly
When talking about New Yorker cartoons, and I am asked whose work I love, I always mention Bob Weber’s work. His cartoons personally speak to me in a way that is hard to describe. But I can point to the following: his line work is masterful. Weber drew in charcoal, and any artist knows how difficult that is. He once told me that he began with a blank sheet of paper and drew from the left side to the right to complete the drawing without it getting smudged. In other words, he had the image in his head and just proceeded to put it on paper.  Weber’s people are lovable in how they look and often what they say. In one drawing, he has a gorgeous drawing of NYC filling the page, skyscrapers and all;  in the foreground are two tiny figures, a man and a woman sitting on the edge of the dock. The man says, “The thing I like about New York, Claudia, is you.” Another one I love is a living room scene: man and child are about to play ball and we see a sad little dog in the corner. The woman says to the man,  “Sweetheart, could you maybe include the dog?”
Weber’s captions were always perfectly crafted to work in concert with his beautiful drawings. His cartoons are not always sweet, but they have a gentle tone to them that I liked, and they were true to Weber’s voice. Bob Weber was not unlike his drawings: tall, thin and classy; when I would run into him, he didn’t use many words, and he seemed to chose his words carefully. He was always kind to me when we would meet at parties and in The New Yorker office waiting to see the editor. If I complimented his work, he would almost dismiss it with a thank you and lowered head, as if to say I was being silly.  I will miss his quiet presence and his wonderful cartoons.
Peter Steiner
Robert Weber was, to my mind, one of the New Yorker‘s greatest artists, which (again to my mind) means they showed both exquisite draftsmanship and marvelous humor.  His gorgeous, lush drawings made you smile even before you read the caption which made you smile all over again.  His art was to combine insight into our foibles with generosity and genuine affection.  His cartoons always left me amazed.  Once at a New Yorker Christmas party I went up to him to tell him just that.  He was a shy and modest man, and  seemed mostly embarrassed by my naked admiration.  I always regretted embarrassing him.  Still, if I could, I’d do it again.
Mort Gerberg
I always thought that Bob Weber’s drawings, besides being among the most sensitive and artful among the thousands that appeared in The New Yorker, were also truly unique.
Bob drew directly, with ulta-soft, difficult-to-find Swiss charcoal sticks that were extremely responsive to his delicate touch.  He usually worked on smooth ledger paper, producing fuzzy strokes that could smudge effortlessly, to form lush, flat grays.
In fact, the soft charcoal smeared so easily that Bob would often draw his characters and backgrounds from top to bottom, starting on the left and then drawing vertical areas, moving right across the sheet, completing the picture in one sweep, to avoid re-touching any part of it.
Then he’d spray the drawing with fixative, to give it permanence. He wore a surgical mask when he sprayed and would go outside or open a window, to avoid inhaling fixative fumes.
I never knew anyone else who drew that way. And, the drawings gave his cartoons an air of innocence that made them quietly hilarious.
Also, somehow it seemed that Bob’s drawing style reflected his personality.  Soft-spoken, sensitive, generous.
I met him for the first time (he was wearing his wearing his surgical mask) at an advertising agency, where he was subletting workspace for his freelance advertising illustrations, and I was just starting to think seriously about cartooning.  I was awed. He was approachable and happy to share advice about this quirky profession, and always, in the years following, easy to talk to, and helpful in so many ways, both personal and professional.
And I still feel especially grateful and honored for his contributions to my collection, “Last Laughs.” It contains eight Weber cartoons.  Unique, classic art.  Unique, classic person.
David Sipress
I was saddened to hear that one of my cartoon heroes, Bob Weber, had died recently, at the age of ninety-two. Bob’s gorgeous, unfettered, sublimely assured drawings graced the pages of The New Yorker for more than forty years. Bob’s great talent was his ability to create convincing, knowable, complex, fully formed characters in his cartoons, and to do it with a few deft strokes of his charcoal pencil.( To read more of David’s piece link here on newyorker.com)
 Felipe Galindo
I had the honor of meeting Bob Weber at the Cartoon Lounge at the The New Yorker offices in Times Square. Very tall, quiet and an affable person. We spoke about traveling to the other side of the world (me to Bali, Thailand & Cambodia and his wife to the same places plus Myanmar). When one day I showed him my cartoons, he said: “Oh, your work might not be suitable for this magazine, you are too nice, too kind!” I took it as a compliment and as a warning as well! I consider him a fine artist who liked to draw cartoons. His style was sketchy yet elegant, balanced and bold and representative of a particular era, a classic. I also shared lunch with him and other cartoonists at Pergola’s, our regular joint to vent. I was also amazed at his resilience to continue working, despite having wrist and hand problems. He would show up quite often.
I was surprised that he stopped going to the office after one of his cartoons was criticized in the letters section for making fun of of a Polish name, the letter coming from the Polish ambassador. I think that cartoon was the last he ever published in the magazine. A casualty of the PC era? Perhaps. Or perhaps he couldn’t care less. In any case, Bob Weber knew he was already a legend.
Dana Fradon
Although I shared a New York apartment with the Webers for a couple of years — I had it on weekdays and he and his wife had it on weekends — we never really became close friends. My only thoughts about him are that I greatly admired his work. He was an exceptionally good artist and ‘idea’ man. I envied his ability to create his ideas while expending, perhaps, one-tenth the time and energy I had to spend on mine. I own several of his originals and I treasure them.
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   (photo of Robert Weber, taken on an Amtrak train heading to Washington, D.C., mid 1980s.  Courtesy of Liza Donnelly)
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More Weber (I’ll continue to add Bob Weber obits, tributes, etc. as they come in): link here to the New York Times obit; here for a newyorker.com post, and here for a ComicsDC  post.

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