Monday, March 24, 2014

Patrick Oliphant, Master of 'a Dying Art'

An interview with Ann Landi in The Wall Street Journal.

Illustration by Fred Harper

At his opening at the Gerald Peters Gallery in New York on March 20, you can probably expect veteran political cartoonist Pat Oliphant to be up on a ladder, drawing some of his trademark targets on a huge sheet of white paper.

At a similar event last spring at the Peters gallery in Santa Fe, now his home town, Mr. Oliphant spent a few happy hours lampooning the likes of Hillary and Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin. It was vintage Oliphant, with none of the cast spared his savage gift for caricature. But why spend an opening night, traditionally a time for celebration, still hard at work?

"He does that so he doesn't have to talk to anybody," confides his wife, Susan Conway.

The chitchat at openings, adds Mr. Oliphant, "drives me literally right up the wall."

For nearly 60 years, Mr. Oliphant has been skewering politicians, statesmen and other hapless souls in cartoons that have won him virtually every award in his field, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 while he was still in his early 30s—and sometimes condemnation in equal measure.

Pat Oliphant won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 by "deliberately imitating the style of previous winners".

"You're not doing your job if you're not [ticking] people off," he says with the kind of sly, schoolboy smile that has probably been disarming editors all his working life. At 78, Mr. Oliphant has a cherubic face, a full head of curly white hair, baby-blue eyes, and a way of phrasing things in a lilting Australian accent so that they never seem quite as offensive as they might. "Too many people don't know what the [heck] a cartoon is about," he declares—almost sweetly—at one point during a day spent with him and Susan, a former gallery owner who now serves on museum boards in Santa Fe.

A Small Bureaucracy (1983-1985)

And he still draws three cartoons a week for Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes the drawings to hundreds of newspapers world-wide, both online and in print. His working day starts as early as 5 or 6 a.m., when he gets up to read the The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and simultaneously catches news shows on television, like " Morning Joe " and broadcasts from CNN. "He picks out what he thinks is the important story, what he thinks about it, and then how he's going to draw it," explains Susan. Then, in a minuscule studio off a slightly larger work area in a lovingly restored adobe house, he makes precisely one drawing on a small pad, and that becomes the basis for a larger image produced in ink with an old-fashioned nib pen on an 8-by-12-inch board. In many cartoons, usually in one of the lower corners, there appears an impish little character known as Punk, a schematic penguin who casts asides on the main event and who was born early in the artist's career.

About his subject matter, Mr. Oliphant is cheerfully pessimistic. "Politics is very boring," he says. "The people are all the same now. They're all bastards now, but it's what's kept me going for so many years." A few beats later, he adds: " Chris Christie just came up out of nowhere. He was a real gift." (A big drawing of Christie as the outsize Roman emperor Nero, with one arm resting on the George Washington Bridge and the background filled with shady-looking mob types, will be in the show at Gerald Peters.)

Born Patrick Bruce Oliphant in Adelaide, Australia, in 1935, he knew from a young age that he "wanted to get into the newspaper thing." At 19 he was working as a copy boy at a local paper, the News (which, he notes, had just been inherited by the young Rupert Murdoch ). "They paid three pounds a week, so I soon went to the competition, the Advertiser, which paid 12 pounds a week," he recalls. "After I had been at the Advertiser for a while, they noticed I had a certain propensity for drawing, and they made me a cartoonist." He put in 10 years, and then went as far away as he could, which turned out to be a job at the Denver Post. In 1975, he was hired away by the Washington Star, where he worked until that paper folded in 1981. Soon thereafter, he had a big enough reputation to go independent. (He has been internationally syndicated since 1965).

In six decades, Mr. Oliphant has never lacked for ideas, though he cites the Nixon and Carter administrations as perhaps "the golden years." (Nixon "wrote his own stuff," he once told CNN.) A trip to the framer in Santa Fe to look at work for the show in New York reveals a few of his more recent preferred subjects. There's a moody, Old Masterish charcoal drawing, titled "Birds of a Feather," showing Joe McCarthy with a solicitous arm around Ted Cruz ; another of Hillary Clinton as a bosomy feline with a wineglass full of cream next to her cushion; and an ink-and-watercolor sketch of Anthony Weiner, flashing the goods to a mob screaming in horror, titled "Some Minor Distractions."

Angelina Eberly – by Patrick Oliphant

But Mr. Oliphant has a fine-arts side, too, and will show some of his sketches of nudes and oils on canvas, along with sculptures that rival those of the great 19th-century caricaturist Honoré Daumier. He calls the works in bronze a "natural transition from two dimensions to three," and over the years he has taken life-drawing classes. "You get into bad habits otherwise, with just cartoons," he says. "You have to keep yourself fresh that way. For anyone working in the figure, it's a necessary discipline."

In 2012, he took a sabbatical from cartooning for three months as the Roy Lichtenstein Artist in Residence at the American Academy in Rome. "The Rome Prize is for kids. . . . I call them kids, but they were really all in their 40s or so," he says of the scholars and artists in residence there. "I was living my life backwards. I worked all my life, and then I went to college." While in Rome, he made many sketches of the vibrant street life—old people in the market; dogs and working men; the patrone at a restaurant in the Piazza Navona; and a nun lecturing a young woman.

But it is of course the scalding lampoons that have made his name and delighted his fans. When asked, for example, what on earth would lead him to depict Barack Obama as an Easter Island statue, both in a small bronze and a watercolor drawing, he answers: "I found him very enigmatic and stone-faced; you just couldn't penetrate him."

In discussing the future of political cartooning, Mr. Oliphant is thoughtful but not optimistic. "It's a dying art because nobody knows what to do with it anymore. Stirring up the animal was always the fun part, and now you've got timorous publishers and editors who shy away from controversy because it affects the bottom line. And then, of course, there's this great new world of the Internet, but there's no way to make a living at it because newspapers gave it away early."

Asked whether the death threats occasionally brought against newspapers and cartoonists in the past few years might deter visual satire, Mr. Oliphant responds, "Not me." Then he chuckles. "I'm too lovable."

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