Having my work shown at Columbia is a special kind of homecoming. Columbia has been the rootstock of all I’ve done since graduating and moving on, and this exhibition is like bringing all my family and friends on paper back to show them where they came from – a trip to the old country for the next generation. The Wallach Art Gallery, where they have taken up residence, was previously the art history library – a space where I was introduced to the visual marvels and delights of the past. In a roundabout way, what I absorbed then – and since – is contained in one way or another in the works in residence on the Wallach’s walls. My student days at Columbia were akin to the opening of an endlessly fruitful and exciting treasure chest – and my predilection to perceive visually, as well as verbally, was given much richness and embellishment by what I was discovering in the present exhibition space.
The other crucial room for me, in John Jay Hall, was home to the Jester office, the college humor magazine. I submitted some cartoons to the magazine soon into my freshman year and was jubilant to have them accepted – and to see them on pages that would be seen by scores of people. It was an immense thrill then, and a delight that has never entirely diminished. I contributed to the magazine during all my undergraduate years, learning more and more about drawing as I persevered. Jester was akin to an informal laboratory course, where I could put some of my newly acquired passions to use – where the study of Northern Renaissance painting could slip into a drawing of an architectural confection, or some reference to a humanities reading could be snuck into a caption. Drawing cartoons was where I could combine, on paper, all that my undergraduate mind was sucking up, and gleefully, carelessly put to a curiously unique one – and one that was, miraculously, appreciated around the campus.
One thing more Columbia bestowed on me during those years was a love of words and keenness to hear them in all their nuance, and richness. I learned to couple this love with what I was seeing, and used that in my early Jester work. It was a kind of internship for what was to become a lifelong passion and commitment. I am frequently asked which comes first in forming an idea for a cartoon, the words or the image. Peter Arno answered it for us all: “Unlike the chicken and the egg, there’s only one answer: the idea comes first.” In response to this eternal question, Arno said, “The last thing the do is just come [to me]. My ideas are produced with blood, sweat and brain-wracking toil.” Charles Addams also spoke for his colleagues: “Doodling is one method of getting ideas. You sit there with a blank piece of paper and make doodles and one thing relates to each other in a strange sort of way and then you get the idea.” My days at Columbia should be added as the reason my ideas are at all worthwhile, and take the shape they do.
My friend Calvin Trillin once referred to my somewhat unknown non-cartoon work as my “Fine Art or Uptown Stuff,” this at a time when the majority of New York galleries were clustered around 57th Street and farther uptown. In the introduction to an early collection of my cartoons, published in 1976, he took up the question of how my published work differed from my other work by saying that “the magazine drawings often leave some doubt as to which animal [he had in mind] while the uptown stuff makes it difficult to tell whether what he had in mind was, in fact, an animal.”
What I had in mind was this: I always thought that my comic work was fundamentally serious, and what might be called “serious work” had its basis in my generally comic disposition. The “Uptown Stuff,” however, reflect my interests in a wide range of subjects not confined to cartoons, a format that requires tightly defined storytelling – a lightning-fast one-act play that takes place in a frozen moment in time, with a specific goal: laughter.
The “Uptown Stuff” is less constrained by time and space and more freewheeling. It is more my mind following the pen rather than the pen trailing my mind. The subjects are more or less the same, following all the interests, curiosities, obsessions, passions, and other stray thought that tend to invade my brain at all hours. Saul Steinberg once said that, “drawing is a way of reasoning on paper.” I would add meandering around the woods of reason, not quite knowing when you start out where you are going to end up. My kinship the great Steinberg has been present in my mind ever since I started drawing; his mentorship and achievements have always been an inspiration and model. Harold Rosenberg described him as “a writer of pictures, an architect of speech and sounds, a draughtsman of philosophical reflections.” He was an artist whose path I wanted to follow.
In my cartoon drawings, I like getting things right. In drawings of stuff – objects, machines, structures, garb, all the things of the physical world – I try to get the details as correct as I can without dealing a death blow to a lively hand and dashing pen. I’ve taken as example the great New Yorker artist George Price, and his accurate as well as stylistically expressive and goofy rendering of loony objects, chaotic interiors, and architectural oddities. Of a wonderfully comic drawing of a plumber working in a flooded basement, Price maintained that no working plumber would find any problem with the fittings. (As both an engineer and, later, a dentist, my father prided himself on his craftsmanship and attention to detail, and appreciated how the physical world was constructed and held together. These admirations he passed on to me.)
What captures my attention is all the human theater around me. I can never quite believe my luck in stumbling upon riveting minidramas taking place within earshot (and eyeshot), a comedy of manners that seems inexhaustible. And to be always undercover makes my practice of deep noticing more delicious. I can take in all the details as long as I appear inattentive – false moustache and dark glasses in place. All kinds of wonderful moments of comedy happen right under my nose. My low expectations are never disappointed, or, as Lily Tomlin has observed, “No matter how cynical I get, I can never keep up.”