Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The 'Profusely Illustrated' Life of Edward Sorel

 From the New York Times.

Toward the end of Edward Sorel’s new memoir, “Profusely Illustrated,” the veteran artist describes first seeing, in these pages, a cover review, written by Woody Allen, of his 2017 book “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary.” 

“To say that it made me ‘very happy’ would be an understatement,” he writes of the glorious moment. To Mr. Sorel, then, apologies in advance: I can only assume that seeing this byline will be pretty anticlimactic — or perhaps his habitual modesty has rubbed off. 

But if there’s one thing I learned from his memoir, it’s that the guy’s a mensch, and one with a solid regard for jobbers on a deadline.

Sorel, 92, has indeed had a profusely illustrated life. 

Over the past six decades, you’ve probably seen his many New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine covers, his political satire in The Nation, his cartoons in New York magazine, his caricatures in Vanity Fair

Perhaps you’re familiar with Ramparts magazine’s bestiaries, which lampooned the political follies of the 1960s, or “Sorel’s Unfamiliar Quotations” in The Atlantic

Maybe one of his many books? And all that’s to say nothing of the thousands of sketches and commissions and album covers and illustrations that animate the margins of a working artist’s career. 

Of course there’s no question your chances of recognizing his distinctively wavy drawing style are a lot better if you’re what he’d call an “Old Lefty.”

Sorel came into the world as Edward Schwartz in 1929. He adored his smart and beautiful Romanian-born mother; meanwhile his father, who’d immigrated from Poland, was “stupid, insensitive, grouchy, meanspirited, faultfinding, and a racist.” 

Their working-class Bronx neighborhood was pretty evenly divided between card-carrying Communists, Communist sympathizers and New Deal Democrats; Aunt Nettie, the self-anointed family intellectual, “felt compelled, when there was a band playing at one of her sisters’ weddings, to use her long scarf to do a solo dance in the manner of Isadora Duncan — another fervent supporter of the Communist regime in Russia.” 

His world was shtetl-tiny but filled with opportunity; provincial but progressive; jaundiced, but optimistic — “a city where being Jewish, far from setting you apart, was a reminder of just how ordinary you were.”

This was a depression-era New York of Third Avenue Els, Friday night chicken soup, Saturday matinees and — lest we get nostalgic — no penicillin. 

When 7-year-old Edward contracted double pneumonia, it meant an at-home oxygen tent and a year’s convalescence, during which time he started drawing on shirt cardboards. 

He attended art classes funded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, before moving to a public arts high school in Harlem and the Cooper Union, both of which emphasized abstraction and modernism with an unrelenting zeal that nearly killed the young man’s enthusiasm for figurative drawing. 

After a few lackluster design jobs in an art world still reeling from Cold War paranoia, Sorel — who had swapped his despised father’s common surname for that of a romantic Stendhal protagonist — co-founded Push Pin Studios with his art school classmates Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast.

In Sorel’s telling, he was the least talented of the three — and certainly the least dedicated undergrad — but despite his self-deprecation, Sorel’s success is a testament as much to his multifaceted skill as to his persistence and luck. 

While he claims he didn’t pull his full weight at Push Pin — and always dreamed of doing political work in the mold of the cartoonist Jules Feiffer — in fact his time peddling the studio’s portfolio serves the reader well; the nuts-and-bolts descriptions of midcentury Madison Avenue are one of the book’s pleasures.

From the time he went freelance, in 1956, Sorel worked more or less steadily — often for financially precarious left-wing publications of the era: The Realist, Monocle, Ramparts. (At a time when, it must be remembered, he could get a Manhattan apartment for $28 a month — albeit with a shared bathroom — and take dates to the all-night chess parlor in Times Square.) 

Increasingly, he was developing a reputation as an irreverent — and sometimes lacerating — satirist of the nation’s sacred cows.

Indeed, in a sense, “Profusely Illustrated” is really an easygoing history of the left at a particular moment, with Sorel moving like a haimish Forrest Gump through print media New York. 

He was at Bill Golden’s gray-flannel-suited PBS and the cool-cat Push Pin. 

When Esquire published Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” it was Sorel’s portrait — also done without the subject’s cooperation — that graced the cover. 

An early contributor to The National Lampoon, Sorel would illustrate the iconic Truman Capote cover for Clay Felker’s New York (Sorel briefly acted as its art director) and be a mainstay of the golden-age Village Voice

Victor Navasky — a colleague since the 1950s — brought him on board at The Nation. Later, he joined Tina Brown’s early-90s New Yorker, and then Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair

Do I even need to say that he did the mural at the Waverly Inn.

In between, of course, he had a life: four children, and two marriages — the second a lasting personal and professional partnership. 

There was a long stint in the country, a return to the still-uncharted TriBeCa, and many, many lifelong friendships. (While the chapter devoted to Sorel’s friends is doubtless a labor of love, I’m not sure how much interest it holds to readers outside of his own circle.) 

The book’s not just a who’s who of liberal luminaries, but of cartoon-world royalty as well. I can pay the author no greater compliment than to say that, through it all, he does not come off as an operator.

As should perhaps be obvious, the memoir is overtly political. 

Indeed, Sorel makes a point of giving a highly opinionated “exposé” of every administration in his lifetime. (A choice he later writes he’s “beginning to regret,” given the research involved.) 

But really, nothing provides so vivid a record of the events he lived through as the cartoons, caricatures and drawings that do, yes, profusely illustrate every chapter. 

He’s not proud of all of them (“awfully heavy-handed,” he writes of a 1970 cartoon of Richard Nixon that got him in hot water; “overworked,” he says of another), but together they concisely convey the passions and pieties of their moment.

Despite the deceptive neatness inherent in any retrospective glance backward, Sorel’s has not been an uncomplicated life. 

There are personal challenges, professional setbacks, regrets, controversy. There’s the loss of his beloved wife, Nancy. By his own account, this is a book about the failures of 13 administrations. And yet, the takeaway’s not a grim one.

In an introductory author’s note, Sorel states his aim: “to save a few of my drawings from the oblivion that awaits all protest art, and almost all magazine illustrations.” 

He does more than this. Warm, affectionate, often angry but never cruel, cynical but not without a certain faith in people, Sorel gives us a life — and a world — in pictures. It made me very happy.

Sadie Stein was the deputy editor of The Paris Review.

Profusely Illustrated
A Memoir by Edward Sorel
Alfred A. Knopf
272 pages 

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