The Daily Heller: A Cartoonist Remembered?

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One of my fondest memories about being art director of The New York Times Book Review was the almost-daily delivery of surprising art books or monographs by, or about, unknown artists. Some were superb specimens of bookmaking, others were extremely clever, many were rather arcane and were often tossed into the "Discard Room." That's where I would spend hours rummaging in search of the quirky masterpiece that for some reason or another was deemed unsuitable for coverage.

If I found one such gem but could not interest an editor in supporting my attempt to have it reviewed, I would save it from complete oblivion (or donation to the Strand Bookstore) by taking ownership. Of these, a few ended up on my shelves; often they were totally forgotten and rarely, if ever, seen again—yet years later nonetheless I find some worthy of another look.

The book showcased here is one of those. 92-year-old Los Angeles-based ersatz cartoonist, professional printmaker and artist Walter Askin's Another Art Book to Cross Off Your List (Nose Press, 1984) is a profoundly witty, delightfully accessible satire that "commemorates exactly 8,971 years of weird notions about artists," reads a short preamble. "It is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Mrs. G.H. Gilbert, who made famous the phrase 'and they all (blush, blush) had terrible bladders' and also to the Reverend Moe Harvey's sponge-bath in St. Johns, Newfoundland, over which he draped the head, arms and tentacles of the giant squid to be scientifically examined. Together, they form that perfect marriage of science and art so fugitive and elusive in our time." (What that literally means doesn't matter, as you'll see.)

For more on Askin in his own words, listen to or read this exceptional Archives of American Art 1992 oral history. And enjoy the excerpts below from "Ten Emerging, Born Again, Artists," "No Nanook-Artist of the Frozen North," "Ozark Arts" and "Some Second-Rate Saints."

Askin's visual essays and stories, a cross between Edward Gorey, William Steig, Robert Osborn, James Thurber and pinch of Max Ernst, fit squarely into a mama/dada tradition of artist as artist/satirist. I regret that I did not fight hard enough with Philistine editors to have this book mentioned, blurbed or reviewed in the Book Review when it first came over or under the transom. To Mr. Askin, I beg forgiveness.