A Appreciation of Koren

Calvin Trillin

I knew Ed Koren before his pen broke. I only wish I could remember precisely how he drew then. Imagine knowing El Greco before his astigmatism and not being able to remember whether his paintings in those days were filled with cuddly little fat people! Did Koren, before his weapon began missing like a Pontiac in need of new spark plugs, produce what the trade calls a “clean line”? (I realize that serious art historians might find it inappropriate that I compare Koren to El Greco – knowing, as they do, that Koren has never done a saint. On the other hand, even serious art historians must be looking forward to his first attempt.) I not only have difficulty remembering precisely how Koren drew in those days, I have difficulty remembering precisely how he looked. I know he didn’t have a moustache then, but I find it hard to say whether the lack of facial hair made him look more or less shaggy. His personal appearance may seem to be a trivial matter (how many art historians, after all, dwell on the fact that El Greco was himself a cuddly little fat person?), but, as it happens, the question I am asked about Koren almost more than any other is whether he looks like the people in his drawings-“shaggy” being the adjective most used to describe them, although “hairy” is also mentioned regularly. The question asked even more often than that by people curious about Koren is whether he could draw a regular non-shaggy person or a regular non-hairy animal if he really tried. I always tell them that, as far as I know, he is trying as hard as he can.

There are people, of course, who believe that the condition of Koren’s pen is not the secret of his success, just as there are people who believe that El Greco could see perfectly well except for the small print in the phone book. I have heard rumor, still unverified, that an envious graduate student at Brown University – where Koren, presumably against his better instinct, taught Art for several years – stole Koren’s pen after class one day, rushed to a drawing board in anticipation of producing a leering animal or a shaggy intellectual, and was able to turn out only a totally representational and extremely pedestrian portrait of the late John Foster Dulles. I realize that no less an authority than Hilton Kramer, the art critic of the New York Times, has implied in public print that Koren draws the way he draws on purpose. In a review of The New Yorker Album of Drawings, Kramer wrote, “Out of the unkempt hair styles and ragamuffin of the sixties, Mr. Koren has distilled a marvelously ironic comedy of manners….” On the other hand, another artist identified with The New Yorker has been heard to say that his usual response to seeing a Koren drawing is to start itching all over – presumably an effect Koren would not produce intentionally, considering his reputation for thoughtfulness toward colleagues. Still another artist whose work appears in The New Yorker once described Koren’s drawings as resembling “the barbershop floor just before sweeping-up time.” He said that rather approvingly, though, as if it were normal for a sophisticated habitué of uptown art galleries to stand before some highly acclaimed new painting and comment to his companion, “It does have a marvelous barbershop-floor quality to it.”

“With Mr. Koren’s cartoons, we are already laughing at the drawing before we even get to the captions,” Kramer pointed out, and, as it happens, Koren’s captions have been growing shorter as his line grows more hirsute. When the word got around that Koren himself was about to display some pictures on the wall of a posh uptown gallery, there must have been people who assumed that he had merely found a way to market drawings for which he could think of no caption at all. Not so. Koren’s magazine work differs from what I believe scholars would classify as his Fine Art or Uptown Stuff in that the magazine drawings often leave some doubt as to which animal Koren had in mind, while the Uptown Stuff makes it difficult to tell whether what he had in mind was, in fact, an animal. The attempts by visitors to identify some of Koren’s thing-like creatures we have hanging in the hallway of our house have been so varied that they call the mind the inspired Woody Allen description of watching a mime who was “either blowing glass or tattooing the student body of Northwestern University.”

Koren’s Uptown Stuff can also be distinguished from his magazine work in that it is manifestly for sale. Up to now, Koren has refused to sell the originals of his magazine drawings, leaving me no alternative except to maneuver myself into a position to receive them as gifts. As must have become clear by now, I am a great admirer of Koren’s work, and I believe shameless acquisitiveness to be the sincerest form of flattery. Over the years, I have devoted almost as much energy to schemes for prying drawings from Koren as he has devoted to drawing them. I have suggested cartoon ideas to him on the assumption that the cartoon will be turned down by The New Yorker – an assumption based on my having compiled a lifetime cartoon turn-down record of one hundred percent – and that giving me the rejected drawing will strike Koren as the only decent thing to do under the circumstances. Once, while Koren was sitting with our family awaiting breakfast at a motel coffee shop in New Mexico, I encouraged my daughter Abigail, then three, to create a display of impatience so nerve-wracking that Koren had no recourse except to entertain her by drawing animals; the results, snatched up by me at the end of the meal while Koren was dealing with the check, turned out to be not only fine examples of Koren beasts but a testimony to the paper-preservation qualities of Holiday Inn placemats. Abigail is normally a charming rather than nerve-wracking little girl, and, like her younger sister, has proved useful in snuggling up to Koren and asking whether he happens to know how to draw a hippopotamus. He does, unless that was meant to be an antelope.