• Steven Heller

Facial Recognition

Drew Friedman says he is always attempting to capture the inner soul of his drawing subjects, or what might be lurking just beneath the surface. Chosen People is his latest collection of visages. He’ll be talking about it at The Strand in New York City on Nov 15. He is also the subject of a forthcoming documentary by filmmaker Kevin Dougherty, with the working title “Vermeer of the Borscht Belt” (stay tuned). I recently asked Friedman to tell me about Chosen People and why they are indeed chosen.

What gives you pleasure in drawing so many detailed portraits? Faces can be deceptive. So many celebrities, and especially politicians, flash those contemptuous, smiling-too-much expressions to cover up their nefarious deeds. Many comedians make broadly distorted expressions when they’re being photographed or are performing, but they’re generally sad people, desperately looking for love and acceptance through their humor. If I can somehow capture that desperation or the true person behind the mask then I’m satisfied.

Can you define what you look for in a face that makes this painstaking activity worth doing? I’ve always been obsessed with people’s faces. I have a weird knack for remembering a face, even if it’s someone I briefly met once 30 years ago; they stay with me, especially interesting faces, which is why I love drawing old Jewish comedians. The faces I find most interesting to draw are older faces. Their lifetimes, happiness and sadness are captured in their lines, creases, wrinkles and … liver spots. Drawing younger faces can be boring to me, but finally I suppose, more of a challenge. I try not to always deliver the expected, which is why my new book features a few younger and somewhat attractive faces, at least to my thinking, like Sarah Silverman and Jeff Ross and Houston Deli-Man Ziggy Gruber.

In this book, you’ve combined a lot of different characters. Is there a personal connection with each one? I think so. It helps if I’m passionate about someone, either in a positive or negative way. Also people I’ve met or are friends. When I appeared on Marc Maron’s podcast three years ago, the first thing I did when I returned home was to create a portrait of him. The result is in the book. My new book features portraits who are for the most part chosen people—that is, people I’ve chosen to draw. About half the portraits in the book were assignments, many for the cover of Jared Kushner’s late NY Observer, but I tend to try to only accept assignments these days if the subject is someone I know I’d enjoy drawing, someone worth my time. So the portraits of Woody Allen, Oliver Stone, Barbra Streisand, Rudolph Giuliani, Hillary Clinton and many others included in the book were assignments, while the portraits of, for example, Groucho, Redd Foxx, Richard Deacon, Howlin’ Wolf, Frank Zappa, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Joe Franklin, Elaine May, Terry Southern, my dad, Bruce Jay Friedman, and three portraits of Stooge Shemp Howard, are people I’ve greatly admired, my personal chosen people.

Steve Bannon just had a horrifying face that I felt I had to capture on paper. The image of him in the book I titled Creature of the Right is an example of someone I’m passionate about in a more negative way. And the cover subject, blues legend Muddy Waters … after I came up with the title of the book I decided it was important not to have a Jewish subject on the cover. I didn’t want to give the impression that all the subjects in this book were Jewish, the chosen people. The Muddy image is a personal favorite so he fit the bill, and as far as I know, [he’s] not Jewish.

I call the images photorealistic. I suppose that’s accurate, but there is another quality. Verisimilitude is not the entire story. What is your story? Well, the back cover says “Drew Friedman’s hyper-realistic portraits”—I think I came up with the “hyper-realistic” for that, but I’m not sure that’s even correct. I’ve always had a difficult time explaining to people I meet what I actually do. I’ve been labeled a cartoonist, comics-artist, caricaturist, illustrator, portrait-artist … I guess they all apply. When I meet someone who seems to be interested in knowing about my work, I just say, “well, Google Image me, and figure it out for yourself.” The comics critic Robert Clough recently wrote that I’m a “restless artist,” which I tend to agree with. I’ve experimented with various drawing styles, then I’ve moved on to something else. Years ago when I was first getting published I fell into rendering in a stipple style. But I finally felt I took it as far as I could, mainly in the pages of SPY, before becoming bored and frustrated with it, and I phased it out in favor of painting with watercolor. And I still go back and forth between drawing comics and illustration, which I suppose means I’m still trying to avoid being labeled, so I remain restless.

I know that people wish they could draw like you do. The precision, the feeling, etc. Who do you wish you could draw like? Thanks. God, I have such a long list of artists and caricaturists I really admire. The ones I most admire are the artists that continually make me wonder, how the HELL did they do that!? Al Hirschfeld, Mort Drucker, Will Elder, Bob Grossman, Chris Ware, Philip Burke, are a couple of examples that come to mind. But I think when all is said and done I remain totally dumbstruck by Robert Crumb. The guy must be touched by some higher force. The moment I first saw his work when I was about 8, I knew my life would be forever altered. Up until then I thought that MAD magazine was as subversive as things could get. His work threw me for a loop. Still does.

What’s next on the drawing table? A few things are in the air. It’s possible I’ll do a third and final volume to my Heroes of the Comics books. I have a list of potential subjects that are not included in the first two volumes. Also a collection of all three of my Old Jewish Comedians books is in the works, along with new images of subjects not included in the first three volumes, among them Stubby Kaye, Will Jordan, and Willie Howard. I flirted with the idea of doing a Heroes of Underground Comix book but I decided that there just weren’t enough major talents in that world to fill out an entire book. Instead I include several underground cartoonists who I admire in the new book, among them S. Clay Wilson, Jay Lynch, George Kuchar, Rory Hayes and four portraits of R. Crumb.

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