There are legions of once-popular artists sidelined by time and fashion. On May 6 at the Society of Illustrators in New York, caricaturists Drew Friedman and Stephen Kroninger will present “12 Legendary Caricaturists You’ve, (probably), Never Heard Of.” Even I only knew about six. I asked Friedman to provide a preview and discuss why these greats and near-greats are unknown today.
Tell me a bit more about the event.
Stephen Kroninger and I will be showing and discussing the work of 12 celebrity caricaturists at the Society of Illustrators, some highly acclaimed in their day for their “Charged portraits,” now for the most part forgotten. Several of our selections (John Johns, Alan Jedla, Lou Hirshman) were not really very well-known, even when their work was being published. In some instances their careers were brief, and in the case of Johns, his work was only published in the main Pittsburgh newspaper (on a weekly basis). But their expressive, distorted and in many cases delightfully rude caricature work deserves to be discovered by new audiences.
Why have these artists been so under-represented (save for Berman, Freuh, Levy)?
A number of reasons. Bad timing, bad luck, etc. Also, many of the caricature history books and art showings tend to veer towards the more obvious choices. I can talk specifically about the six artists I’ll be showcasing at our lecture:
Sam Berman: Was indeed famous and celebrated in his day. Beginning his career in the late 1930s, he created iconic sculpted caricature covers for Esquire featuring their new mascot “Esky” (created by Berman) for an entire year. He created the sculpted caricatures of the leading actors (Fredric March, Carole Lombard, etc.) for the opening titles of the 1937 classic screwball comedy Nothing Sacred, did huge amounts of work for all the top magazines and newspapers of the day, including for Mark Hellinger’s popular column, created close to 60 amazing full-color portraits for the 1947 booklet The NBC Parade of Stars, drew children’s books, and arguably his most famous creation, the opening caricature of Jackie Gleason rising over Brooklyn for “The Honeymooners,” although he was never credited on the show for drawing that image, nor in any books. He then inexplicably went into map-making and faded quietly into obscurity.
George Wachsteter: Like Sam Berman, a celebrated caricaturist in his day, his work appearing on the covers of The New York Times, in every major magazine, as well as work created for NBC TV, etc. Several unfortunate things happened to him that damaged his status: By the late ’50s and into the ’60s, the majority of his work was created for The New York Journal American, including a weekly cartoon cover for their TV supplement. The Journal America, like several other New York newspapers, ceased publication in 1966, and Berman found himself with little work. More damaging though was that he had begun to lose his eyesight at that point and was soon declared legally blind. Unlike his contemporary and friend Al Hirschfeld, who would create new high-profile work for decades (till he was almost 100), Wachsteter’s career was halted while he was still a relatively young man.
Abel Ianiro: Was the most celebrated caricaturist in Argentina in the 1950s. When Argentina introduced their version of TV Guide, Canal TV, Ianiro was hired as their main cover artist, creating beautiful, colorful painted caricatures, inspired by Al Hirshfeld’s full-color TV Guide covers. He drew distorted versions of local Argentinian TV stars as well as American TV stars on a weekly basis. Ianiro suddenly died in 1960 at age 40 and his work has rarely been reprinted.
Alan Jedla: Had a brief career. As a regular artist for Esquire in the late 1940s, he created wonderful celebrity caricatures on a monthly basis—then for some unknown reason, disappeared from their pages and was not heard from again (in print).
John Johns: Lived, taught and created work in Pittsburgh for several decades, only branching out once to create a single two-page spread for MAD in the early ’70s. He was a classic example of a big fish in a small pond. He’s regarded as the second-most famous artist born in Pittsburgh, the first being Andy Warhol.
Bill Utterbach: Worked out of Chicago and created terrific and lively colorful caricature work for several decades, almost exclusively for Playboy (for their annual music polls, “That was the year that was,” etc.), where he was a staff artist. He also did wonderful B&W caricatures of contemporary singers and comedians (I’ll be highlighting that work) for the Playboy club magazine VIP, which was only sent to Playboy club members. So basically, if you weren’t a Playboy reader at the time, or a member of their clubs, you would really not be familiar with his work, then or now.
What was unique about caricature three or four generations ago?
New styles were being developed and invented, artists were inspiring each other. Al Hirschfeld reigned as the greatest caricaturist of the 20th century, inspiring so many others, some who imitated him and others who used his work as a jumping-off point. To me, David Levine was so damned good, his work was so astoundingly pointed and often savage, he must have been touched touched by a higher force (I feel the same way about Robert Crumb). Those guys, and others including Ed Sorel, Bob Grossman and even Mort Drucker, created their most memorable caricature work not as a career choice, but out of need—they were natural-born satirists. It flowed out of them organically.
Are there any left unsung?
Yes, there are others, in fact a fairly long list, but Stephen Kroninger and I have chosen our personal favorites who we feel are the cream of the crop—skilled artists who are rarely if ever mentioned in books about the history of caricature, including the recent Infinite Jest. We chose 12, but we just discovered a 13th, and we decided we couldn’t ignore him for this presentation. It’ll be a surprise addition to our talk on May 6.
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