Thanks For The High Bar, Peter Arno

An Arno anthology from 1930

From 1999 through 2016 I happily threw a good percentage of my days into digging up whatever I could about Peter Arno, who was born 115 years ago this very day. All of that hunting and gathering turned into a book (I will be forever grateful to my agent and publisher for making that happen).

One of the most helpful elements in my research was Arno’s unpublished scattershot memoir, titled I Reached For The Moon. The sixty-some pages of material is mostly disconnected pieces, a very loose attempt at a timeline, and jotted down thoughts about his work, or his parents, or television, or “names” he ran into during his adventures in the city that never sleeps. One passage of strung together thoughts stayed with me during my years writing the book and has continued to stay with me:

“What many don’t realize is that I’m primarily an artist – though I had a natural urge toward the comic from school days on.… I’ve spent hundreds of hours painting in oils and other media.  The black and white [cartoons] are a synthesis of all these efforts…To be a great cartoonist, a man should be first a first-class great artist.  He should be capable of producing a minor masterpiece in any medium.”

I suppose the passage has stuck with me because it neatly sums-up the high bar Arno demanded of himself and hoped for from his colleagues as the New Yorker was taking baby steps in its earliest days. That high bar was no small thing. Think about what people think about when they think of New Yorker cartoons. Think about the well-worn expression, The first thing people turn to in The New Yorker are the cartoons. If that is true (and I believe it has truth to it) Peter Arno deserves a Mack truck full of credit for driving the readership to the magazine and, no less a thing, driving his colleagues to excellence.

Look through any issue of The New Yorker from Arno’s run there during the magazine’s so-called Golden Age and you will see a magazine overjoyed with the cartoons it had to show the readership; cartoons played across the page; cartoons ran full page; cartoons ran in spreads that took up multiple pages; cartoonists provided the majority of cover art. Arno’s art, and Arno’s influence on the art was central to the magazine’s exuberance. He was, in the words of the New Yorker‘s founder, Harold Ross:

“The greatest artist in the world.”

“Our first pathfinder.”

“Our spark plug.”

Happy birthday, Arno — and thanks for the high bar.



Peter Arno’s 115th

Curtis Arnoux Peters, Jr., later known as Peter Arno, was born one hundred and fifteen years ago this month. The Spill will celebrate with an Arno post a week in January.

Twenty-one years later, he began his four decade association with the New Yorker. We cartoonists who arrived in his wake owe him much.

Arno’s approach to his art became a blueprint of sorts for generations of New Yorker artists, defining just how much they brought to their work. The power of his art, the quality of it, led to a collective identity of excellence associated with all New Yorker cartoons. He said of his work:

“I can assure you that my effects are achieved through pain and toil, concentration, elimination, revision, nervous expenditure, great aspiration, and continuous elimination of tasteless detail — seeking for primitive quality. 

Fierce integrity in my work is ‘pursuit of truth’ … I’m far from a poetry-lover, but have been expressing poetry all my life — in rhythms, line, form, balance, good taste, harmony, and balance of black, white and gray.”

From the Afterword of my Arno bio, this snippet describing his well-deserved place at The New Yorker:

For most, if not all of The New Yorker’s golden years, a period stretching from the late 1920s through the 1950s, he was the magazine’s signature artist, as closely identified with the New Yorker as Eustace Tilley, the magazine’s ficticious top-hatted mascot.  At a time when the magazine was publishing work by James Thurber, Charles Addams, Saul Steinberg, Helen Hokinson, Gluyas Williams, Whitney Darrow Jr., Otto Soglow, George Price, and William Steig, it was Arno whom Harold Ross called “the greatest artist in the world.” Of the first seventeen New Yorker Albums of cartoons, fourteen led off with full page Arno drawings, and six of the Albums bore Arno covers (no other New Yorker artist came close). Arno’s drawings usually ran full page. His covers, brilliant as a child’s watercolor and as deceptively simple, made just over a hundred memorable appearances.

Thurber made the covers of Time and of Newsweek;  the country was smitten with Helen Hokinson’s lunch club women — but “America’s prize comic artist,” “the dean of sophisticated cartoonists,” the “top satirist of cosmopolitan life,” the one who “exemplified The New Yorker’s artistic humor for thousands here and abroad” was Arno.

For a whole lot more on Arno, you might take a look at my 2016 effort, Peter Arno: The Mad Mad World Of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist.


New Yorker Caption Contest Friday

 

         This being the end of the traditionally news-less week (for New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists) leading up to the new year, I thought why not dedicate today’s post to the New Yorker‘s Caption Contest. Last time I checked, the contest had reached its 644th offering (with a windmill drawing by Bob Eckstein).  

Background: every time I’ve been involved in a New Yorker event (usually a panel discussion) the contest comes up in the Q&A. The most frequently asked multi-part question is: How does it work? Did the cartoon originally have a caption?  Do you (the cartoonists) get to judge?

Here’s how it works (from the cartoonists perspective).  The cartoons used in the contest are taken out of the weekly batches submitted by the magazine’s cartoonists.  Sometimes the selected cartoon has a caption that is (obviously) stripped from the cartoon.  Sometimes the submitted cartoon has no caption (I sometimes submit captionless cartoons just for the hell of it to see what  caption entrants might come up with. Here’s one example.). The cartoonists have no say in the process of selecting the winning captions. 

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News:

There’s a new celebrity video posted by The New Yorker featuring the actors John C. Reilly  and Will Ferrell trying their hands/minds at captioning a bunch of cartoons:

For the record, the cartoons are (in order of appearance) by P.C. Vey, Kaamran Hafeez, Tom Toro, Tom Cheney, a second by P.C. Vey, and the final two are by Liam Walsh.  I again encourage the folks in charge of these videos to have the celebs identify the cartoonists, or at least identify the cartoonists names in full somewhere on the screen. 

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Here’s a story about a fellow who won a recent contest (the drawing at issue is by yours truly…and ouch, the drawing takes a few hits). From the Wickedlocal.com, “‘It is I, Manbunzal’: Melrose Resident Alan Leo Wins The New Yorker Caption Contest”

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Here’s a Facebook group dedicated to the contest: New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Rejects (and Enthusiasts). Enter all those bolded words in the search box and presto: you have an instant caption contest community.

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Very Old News: everyone interested in the contest probably already has or decided not to have this book that came out in 2008.

 

Not That Kind Of Boxing Day

    It being Boxing Day, I thought it would be fun to post an ancient New Yorker boxing drawing of mine. Then I looked up the meaning(s) of Boxing Day. A major surprise (to me) that “boxing” in this case has nothing to do with fisticuffs.

Well I’m going to post the drawing anyway, despite it having zero connection to this day. I’ve always been fond of it as it reminds me of my late step-father, a first-generation Italian who fought professionally, pre-WWII under the name Al Murphy.  After leaving the boxing trade he opened up a bar in Newark, New Jersey.

The bar was still functioning in the late 1960s when my family entered Al’s scene. A fascinating place for a little kid to visit. One of Al’s bartenders patiently taught me to play pool at the single table at the back of the bar.

I saw my first go-go girl there. She danced on a high small stage covered in tin foil. A revolving multi-colored light pointed at the stage really heightened the experience. 

Here’s Al behind the bar of his Hollywood Gardens. Judging by the decorations, it’s around Halloween (appears as if he’s just served his sharp-looking customer a glass of beer). Al was a barrel-chested Cadillac-driving tough guy with a cauliflower nose who, to quote Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne character in The Bourne Identitity, “knew how to take care of himself.”

As for the cartoon, there’s no doubt I was thinking of Al when I drew the boxers (he was, as I said, barrel-chested). It’s a multi-panel drawing — something you don’t see too often in the New Yorker anymore.  Back when this was published, in the issue of February 3, 1986, multi-panels were common (I think I did five of them). 

And here’s how it appeared in the magazine: