Frank Modell Celebrated

ModellCartoonists mostly live solitary work lives. When they’ve finished a drawing, sit back and take a look at it, the feedback usually comes from within; then there’s the occasional  laugh from their spouse, friend, room mate or visitor. In the reverse, it’s also usually a solitary experience for someone looking at a cartoon in a magazine.  More often than not, the reaction is internal, and yes, sometimes a laugh, out loud.

It is always slightly jarring — at least for me — to sit in a crowd and hear the collective roar of laughter at cartoons projected on a screen. Such was the experience last night at an evening dedicated to celebrating the life and work of the great New Yorker cartoonist Frank Modell, who passed away in May at age 98.

The event was held a few doors east of  the 44th Street entrance to The New Yorker‘s former longtime address at 25 West 43rd Street (the building’s main lobby stretches from 43rd to 44th).  A plaque attached to the magazine’s one-time residence bears Frank’s name alongside a number of other heavy hitters: Harold Ross, E.B. White, James Thurber, Helen Hokinson, Peter Arno, Charles Addams, Katharine White and James Stevenson to name but a few.  Mr. Stevenson, Frank’s best friend, was in attendance last night, as were a number of other New Yorker colleagues, including Warren Miller, Mort Gerberg, Edward Sorel, Arnold Roth, Liza Donnelly, Charles “Chip” McGrath, Roger Angell,  Anne Hall Elser, Thomas Vinciguerra  and Linda Davis.

Remarks from Frank’s close friends, Flicker Hammond, Edgar Lansbury, Tom Meehan, and the long-time New Yorker writer, Kennedy Fraser were preceded by the presentation of a wonderful array of Frank’s work. Watching the drawings come up on the screen, with each caption read by Nancy Franklin (the New Yorker‘s former television critic), the laughter moved from the front of the room to the rear — a true wave of laughter.  Each drawing was a reminder of Frank’s ability to reach us with elegant drawings (it was noted that Frank’s long-time colleague and editor Lee Lorenz had said that Frank’s drawings “popped off the page”) topped off by a disarmingly precise caption:  nothing elaborate, nothing obtuse — just plain funny. Funny, and evergreen; that magic ingredient  that for many many years was the hallmark of New Yorker cartoons.

As each cartoon was presented I was also reminded of the friendliness of Frank’s work — work as friendly as the man himself. The people he drew were people we knew, or know, or are. His animals, whether mythical or not, are animals we feel an attachment to, whether it’s the unicorn riding a unicycle or a dog sleeping on a stuffed chair.  One of the drawings shown, “Boy, am I glad to see you.” was greeted with exceptionally riotous laughter.  I couldn’t help but think of Frank himself at that moment.  Boy, Frank, were we glad to see you.

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Gil Roth’s Virtual Memories Ink Spill Podcast

gil-roth-in-our-kitchen-sept-2016From the Department of Self-Promotion:

Gil Roth (shown standing in our kitchen last week) has an awful lot of cartoonists on his podcast,Virtual Memories. He visited recently to tape two more (with Liza Donnelly and myself).  The interview with Ms. Donnelly will show up a few Tuesdays from now, but in the meantime you can hear Gil grill me here.

Fifty Years Ago this week in The New Yorker…the Cartoons & Cartoonists

From time-to-time Ink Spill looks way way back at The New Yorker’s cartoon universe. Today, we’ll drop in on the issue dated fifty years ago, July 30, 1966 and take a brief look around at the cartoons and cartoonists within. In 1966, William Shawn was in his 14th year as editor of The New Yorker; the Art Editor, James Geraghty, was in his 27th year (back then the Art Editor was responsible for all aspects of the magazine’s art: the spot drawings, the covers and the cartoons).

 

Reilly 1st cover 

 

 

The cover — a beauty — was by Donald Reilly. It was the first of Mr. Reilly’s sixteen covers for the magazine (his last, Feb 10, 1992). Though sixteen covers is impressive, even more impressive are the thousand-plus cartoons he contributed during his time at the magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s his Ink Spill “A-Z” entry:

DR A-Z


 

The Table of Contents back then looked like this (readers were left on their own to identify the cartoonists and the contributors to the Talk of The Town):

TOC Aug 1, '66

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cartoonists in the issue: Whitney Darrow, Jr., William Steig, Saul Steinberg, Joseph Mirachi, James Stevenson, Donald Reilly, Charles Saxon, Frank Modell, Alan Dunn, Robert Day, Warren Miller, Stan Hunt, and Mischa Richter

 

A deep, albeit all-male, bench of talent.  This New Yorker Cartoonists Hall of Fame line-up doesn’t even include a number of the other regular contributors of the time including Peter Arno, Charles Addams, Syd Hoff, Dana Fradon, Al Ross, Barney Tobey, Robert Weber, Edward Koren, Lee Lorenz, and many more (the work of the great George Price, that master of the quirky split-line is represented in a ¾ page drawing for Iberia Airlines).

 

The newest addition to The New Yorker’s stable in this issue was Warren Miller, whose first cartoon appeared in the magazine in 1959. The most senior cartoonist was the aforementioned Mr. Dunn. His work first appeared in The New Yorker in 1926.

 

Of particular note is the six page spread “Come to Britain” by Charles Saxon. We don’t see spreads like this in the magazine anymore – at least on the somewhat regular basis they once appeared. Generally speaking – or even specifically speaking — cartoon spreads are history (A Roz Chast spread in 2014 comes to mind, but it was a bird of a different feather as it was an excerpt from her forthcoming book and not a spread created for the magazine).

 

What to make of The New Yorker’s cartoon culture fifty years ago: the magazine was seven to eight years away from the end of Geraghty’s long run as art editor (Lee Lorenz was his successor). Although the Geraghty era is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of New Yorker cartooning – it’s tough to argue it wasn’t –I believe the Golden Age extended beyond Geraghty and into Lorenz’s years as well. Geraghty presided over an amazing collection of cartoon worlds: a mix of veterans, and stellar new additions like Edward Koren, who began contributing in 1962, Henry Martin who began in 1964, and William Hamilton, whose first drawing was published in 1965.

 

When I think of this era of the magazine I’m reminded of something William Shawn wrote for Brendan Gill’s Here at The New Yorker. In the piece, which was headed “Shawn on Ross” [Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder and first editor]:

 

“It was certainly not the least of Ross’s talents that he was able to see talent in writers and artists before it was plainly visible to everyone. Also, he understood that talent developed more slowly in some than others, and he was willing to wait. He gradually learned that the primary function of the magazine’s editor, including him, was to create a structure and an atmosphere – a little world apart from the world – within the writers and artists could fulfill themselves.”

 

Creating that “structure and atmosphere” was, I believe, the secret sauce of The New Yorker. It gave us, the readers, the opportunity to enjoy the worlds these artists found their way into.    

 

The New Yorker 1955- 1965 Album is an excellent cartoon collection gathering work by all these artists (it’s available for a song on ABEbooks.com).

 NYer Album 55-65back cover Album

 

 

 

George Booth: An Ink Spill Appreciation

Screen+Shot+2016-06-30+at+12.21.02+AMAttempted Bloggery has been focusing on George Booth this past week (including a close look at the drawing shown here), and why not? Mr. Booth turned 90 the other day; what better time to sing his praises and talk about what he brought to the New Yorker when his work first  appeared in the magazine in 1969. Mr. Booth’s style was a brand new creature, unlike anything the magazine had published before.

Booth arrived at the tail end of a decade that saw the introduction of a tidal wave of new artists appearing in The New Yorker: J.B. Handelsman in 1961, Charles Barsotti in 1962, Edward Koren in 1962, Robert Weber in 1962, Henry Martin in 1964, Donald Reilly in 1964, Edward Frascino in 1965, Mort Gerberg in 1965, Peter Porges in 1965, Ronald Searle in 1966, Dean Vietor in 1967, Rowland B. Wilson in 1961, Vahan Shirvanian in 1968,  Sam Gross in 1969 and George Booth in 1969.

Looking at the dates of entry, one can see how carefully James Geraghty (the magazine’s Art Editor at the time; he was hired by Harold Ross as Art Editor in 1939) had  infused the magazine with new blood. These fifteen arrivals  were scattered  over the course of a decade, fitting easily into (and not displacing) the existing pool of talent. In the best tradition of the magazine’s art department, they all brought something of lasting value to the magazine.  Indeed, every one of them had long careers.

Mr. Booth was and is no exception. His use of reappearing characters is somewhat akin to  Helen Hokinson’s so-called “lunch ladies” and Syd Hoff’s Bronx families of the the 1930s as well as George Price’s eclectic characters appearing in his drawings all through his long career. Booth, however, revisits specific characters in his work, people we’ve come to know and in situations we’ve grown to love:  the man in the claw-foot bath tub, for instance, or the garage mechanics in their oily splotched coveralls, or Mawmaw, a character based on his mother.  Henry Martin once said to me that certain cartoonists “draw funny” (trust me, it’s a highly complimentary remark).  Booth draws funny.  Before you reach the caption, the drawing itself has already begun working on you the way the very thought  of Charlie Chaplin works on you. No one draws like Booth.  As a beginning cartoonist I found his graphic mastery intimidating.  But it was also, of course, highly educational.  Look at the way he’s drawn the ceiling and the ceiling fan in the drawing accompanying this piece; the inclusion of the floor boards found behind cafe counters; the characters in wash in the background.  Each one of those customers has a story.  The two cooks in the foreground (Laurel & Hardy types) are perfect, most especially the smaller fellow. This is a scene out of life filtered through Booth’s comic genes.  These elements of style are what Booth does best. Lee Lorenz (who succeeded James Geraghty as Art Editor in 1974) once said that the best cartoonists are the ones who bring their own world into their work. In all of his work for the magazine in all these years Booth has stayed true to his world. He is, by definition, one of the best.

 

More Booth:

Here’s a George Booth interview  conducted by Richard Gehr in 2013

and David Owen’s  Profile of Mr. Booth in The New Yorker in 1998

All of Mr. Booth’s cartoon collections can easily be found on AbeBooks.com

A selection of both Booth’s drawings and covers (and even a few products adorned with his drawings) can be found on The New Yorker‘s Cartoon Bank site.

 

Evergreens

nowsociety-williamhamiltonphoto-238x300modellKovarsky-photo1-175x300

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The past three months we’ve lost three giants in the New Yorker Cartoonists constellation: William Hamilton in April, Frank Modell in May and Anatol Kovarsky in June. Together they contributed just over 2,600 pieces (including covers) to the magazine, but of course it is immeasurable what they really gave in hours, days, months, and years of laying down magic on the cliché blank of piece of paper. I’ve often said that being a cartoonist is obviously not the kind of hard work you see being done by men and women building roads and bridges; cartoonists have their own wearying yet propulsive set of challenges; the thrill of finding just that right interaction of drawing and words to say exactly what you want to say. And along with that thrill is the weekly rejection of much of the work you do. We cartoonists get to live this unusual life of drawing what we want to draw and thinking what we want to think, but all along the way, week after week, we are also reminded that much of what we do is turned down, rejected. No matter — it’s part of the deal, my friend and colleague Jack Ziegler once said, we made with the devil.

 

The cartoonists we’ve lost this early part of the year were given the gift of lives mostly devoted to humor. Two of the three men, Modell and Kovarsky, published work during the editorship of Harold Ross, the man responsible for inventing The New Yorker. Hamilton arrived in 1965, just a few years shy of (Ross’s successor) William Shawn’s midway point as editor. All three artists worked under the magazine’s first Art Editor, James Geraghty and later under Geraghty’s successor, Lee Lorenz. (Kovarsky and Modell also worked under Rea Irvin, the magazine’s legendary Art Supervisor). Combined, they spent well over a hundred years contributing their work to The New Yorker.

 

Each of them let us participate in their worlds as played out in ink lines on the pages of the magazine. Hamilton, with his scrappy lines and unabashed use of black space, was a master of dissecting the look, the language, the culture of the wealthy; Kovarsky used his graceful disciplined line to put a sympathetic spotlight on the absurdities of modern living (and oftimes ancient living); Modell placed a giant banana peel underfoot of life’s everyday banalities. His drawings were as friendly as the man himself.

 

The best cartoonists – and these three were among the best — have an unstoppable gift: not-a-one of them boxed up their creativity once their time at The New Yorker, for whatever reason or reasons, had come to a close. As noted on this site yesterday, Kovarsky, at 97 years old, was still drawing just days before he passed away. Hamilton, taken too soon, was still very much at work before he died.  And Modell was painting and drawing well into his upper 90s.

 

Go out of your way to find collections of work by any of these men, or simply look their work up online. I guarantee you’ll discover evergreens: work that is as fresh today as when it was created; work that will live on as long as there are cartoons. And while you’re laughing as you absorb their humorous worlds, give a thought to these three very fine fellows spending all those years with pens and pencils in hand toiling happily away.

 

[photos: from top left reading clockwise: William Hamilton, Frank Modell, and Anatol Kovarsky]

New Yorker Artist Anatol Kovarsky Has Died At Age 97

The sad news arrived here this morning that the great New Yorker artist Anatol Kovarsky died this week.  He was 97.  In his honor I’m re-posting the piece, in now slightly edited form,  about Mr. Kovarsky that I wrote three years ago this month. The above photo, by Liza Donnelly, was taken at Mr. Kovarsky’s upper west side apartment, June, 2013. To see the entire piece, with art and photographs link here.

 

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At 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in late June, my wife and I, wearing our cartoonist historian hats, were welcomed into an apartment in a pre-war building along Manhattan’s west side. We made our way through a short hallway to a foyer lined with paintings. There were paintings on the walls, and paintings lined up several feet deep along the floor. Paintings paintings everywhere. All of them by the New Yorker cartoonist/artist, Anatol Kovarsky.

Kovarsky’s wife, the actress Lucille Patton, married to the artist since 1954, greeted us, and a few moments later, Kovarsky himself appeared from a back room. He held the latest issue of The New Yorker, and was eager to talk about an illustration that caught his eye. “This was done with a [computer] program?” he asked pointing to the piece.

When Kovarsky began his publishing career at The New Yorker he was 28 years old; he is now 94. His New Yorker work, which began with a cartoon in the issue of March 1, 1947 (cartoon above), ended with a great flourish of covers in 1969. After 1969, Kovarsky turned to painting full time. New Yorker readers no longer saw his work in the magazine and on its covers, but his work continued and continues on to this day.

For me, it was a rather surreal moment shaking Kovarsky’s hand. I had long ago placed him in my thinking — and rightly so– in the late Harold Ross, early William Shawn era of the magazine’s history, what some have referred to as “the Golden Age” of the magazine’s cartoons. In 2013, if you count the number of New Yorker Golden Age cartoonists who are still with us — those who began contributing to the magazine during the editorship of Harold Ross — you will count no further than four: Frank Modell, Dana Fradon, James Stevenson, and Anatol Kovarsky [Note: Frank Modell passed away exactly one week ago today, May 27, 2016]. Meeting these artists is meeting New Yorker history. In the past two months I’ve had occasion to speak to three of these men, and all three exhibit the playfulness of spirit I’ve encountered in most every cartoonist I’ve ever met, no matter their age.

For someone who contributed hundreds of cartoons to The New Yorker it may seem odd that only one collection, Kovarsky’s World, was published (by Knopf, in 1956). Kovarsky’s Kabinett der Kuriositaten, published in Germany in 1962, seems to be a paperback reprint of Kovarsky’s World.

 

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I had always wondered why there was no follow-up collection – a book that would have included some of his scores of covers for the magazine. When I posed that to Kovarsky, he shrugged, and said, “there were some other books” – one in particular he seemed proud of is an unpublished illustrated guide to English spelling. His work found its way into books as illustrations ( Cycles in Your Life, and a book of limericks, There Was a Young Lady Named Alice). Kovarsky’s work also made it to the Great White Way; he designed and drew the sets for the Broadway play, “The Owl and the Pussycat.”

I said to him that I couldn’t help but notice, looking through his New Yorker work, that the majority of drawings were uncaptioned – to my way of thinking, the most difficult kind of cartoon to do (there have been scant few masters of the form: Otto Soglow, Sam Cobean, Steinberg, Anthony Taber, Nurit Karlin, and more recently, John O’Brien). Kovarsky said, pointing to this newer work of his — a book-in-the-works of drawings accompanied by humorous rhymes — that this latest effort “made up for” the lack of words in his earlier work. He opened the manuscript and read several of the rhymes, then his finger ran over one of the drawings, as if he was redrawing it.

His daughter, Gina, a college professor who teaches Russian literature and culture, showed us some of her father’s recent work: drawings on newspapers, on ads, on stock market charts.

Lucille said, “Anatol will draw on anything” as she handed us two large round cardboard platters that had come from a catered event: each were painted over by Kovarsky. A design incorporating an elephant on one, three nudes on the other. Later she showed us two small cardboard saucers or dessert plates, also transformed by Kovarsky into works of art.

I had done my homework on Kovarsky before meeting him, looking through his entire New Yorker ouvre, and reading an extended biography from a conference volume about American cultural figures from the Russian empire. Born in Moscow in 1919 to Jewish parents, he drew at a very young age, entertaining his classmates (behavior much in common with many cartoonists) – he drew his first political cartoon at age 9. After the Russian revolution, his family settled in Warsaw.Kovarsky studied briefly in Vienna (his father wanted him to be an economist), but then, according to his daughter, “he found a drawing master and shifted his attention exclusively to art.” Kovarsky went on to Paris where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts for three years. The war was on in Europe and in 1941 Kovarsky was able to make his way to Casablanca, where he boarded the last passenger liner leaving Morocco for the United States.   He was eager “to see,” he told me, “what the rest of the world looked like.” He arrived in America just as it entered the war. Kovarsky told me of the circuitous route he took from the South up through the Midwest and finally to New York City.

He enlisted in the Army, serving as a cartographer and translator; he also began contributing cartoons to Yank and the Stars and Stripes. He returned to Europe as a soldier, at first based in London, and then landing at Normandy. He arrived in Paris the day after it was liberated from the Nazis, and was eventually reunited with his family, who amazingly had survived.

Back in America following the war, he turned to the world of magazine cartoons but never away from painting. Lucille told us that the large studio Kovarsky once used in lower Manhattan, was divided in two: one part for doing drawings, the other for paintings.  Lucille said, “he would switch from one to the other.” (photo below: Anatol Kovarsky and Lucille Patton, in the late 1950s or early 1960s)

Kovarskys passport

I asked Kovarsky if he was led to cartoons by the work of other cartoonists, and he replied, “No, they (the cartoons) just came out of me.” While it’s not exactly clear how Kovarsky was introduced to The New Yorker, Gina Kovarsky believes it was “very likely” that the enthusiasm and encouragement of the author, Herbert French, led her father to submit work to the magazine. Kovarsky had contributed illustrations for French’s 1946 book, My Yankee Paris.

The New Yorker immediately fell in love with his work; Kovarsky’s drawings averaged at least two appearances a month (sometimes his work appeared every week of the month). His work often centered on the art world: artists in their studios, with their models and without, museum art; foreign culture was also a theme of great interest, specifically the Middle East. Little of post-war American life escaped Kovarsky’s imagination.

After a decade of contributing drawings to The New Yorker, his covers began to appear. Kovarsky has said he never did more than six a year, and seeing them it is not difficult to understand why. Many of his covers, like the paintings that surrounded us in the Kovarsky’s apartment, were energetic displays of brilliant color and action.

Before our visit, Kovarsky’s daughter wrote to me of her father’s interests:

His eye has been attuned to beauty not only in pageantry and performance, but also at the bar and grill, the beaches of Coney Island, the boxing ring, and the supermarket.   (Indeed, his appreciation for city life was such that when I was a little girl and we would be going on walks, he would periodically draw my attention to the colorful and interesting patterns created by garbage strewn about on the streets, or by dilapidated storefronts with their torn-off signs).

What he was doing was what all great cartoonists do: he was taking it all in, no matter what “it” was (Kovarsky continues to take it all in to this very day).

We were shown a brilliant unpublished cover sketch obviously intended for The New Yorker (it included the famous “strap” that runs along the left edge of every New Yorker cover). It was a snapshot from Kovarsky’s eye, perhaps a combination of snapshots, with what appeared to be a throng of pedestrians on a major Manhattan avenue and  above them a collage of bright signage. An elevated train roared past above the signage and then,  the quiet grey backdrop of the city sky. We were also shown another New Yorker cover submission with the strap section showing a commuter reading his newspaper; the cover field itself is a series of images one would see from a train or elevated subway. It could easily be a contemporary New Yorker cover.

Gina Kovarsky has been spending her summer off from teaching cataloging her father’s work. She has accomplished much, but there is plenty left to do. She showed us three rooms filled – and I do mean filled — with her father’s work. Going through his drawings she found a number of folders labeled “Nyet” (Kovarsky is fluent in Russian, Polish, French, and English – indeed, when we first arrived Gina and her father spoke to each other in Russian before switching to English). It’s a puzzle now as to whether the “Nyet” folders contain drawings rejected by The New Yorker, or whether Kovarsky pre-rejected them as not suitable for the editors.

Sitting next to Kovarsky on a living room sofa, surveying the living room walls lined with his paintings, the hallway beyond, with paintings stored in racks, I said to Kovarsky, “You have done so much work” to which he replied, “I am told,” he said, “that there are 600 paintings here. I would like to do more.”

Kovarsky-Commuters-224x300

 

Kovarsky contributed nearly 300 drawings & almost 50 covers to The New Yorker.  All of his work (drawings & covers) can be found in The Complete New Yorker, or to see just his drawings:  The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker.   Another option:  any library with a collection of bound New Yorkers.  The New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank has a few examples of Kovarsky’s work for the magazine. To the left: an unpublished Kovarsky New Yorker cover idea.