The Ink Spill Interview: Edward Koren
The Ink Spill Interview: Edward Koren
Of the nearly 700 artists who have contributed cartoons to The New Yorker in its 97 years, Edward Koren is among the half-dozen who have contributed 60 years or more. 60 years of cartoons and covers! That is a massive amount of commitment, resilience, artistry, and yes, a certain kind of genius. Artists do not survive multiple decades at The New Yorker without stories to tell in their work, and without work that successfully tells their stories. Ed Koren is, quite simply, a master of the art form. And beyond that, he is one of The New Yorker‘s cartoon gods.
Here’s Emma Allen, The New Yorker‘s cartoon editor, raising a toast to Ed on this special occasion:
“When I first met Ed Koren I somewhat expected him to be a large hairy creature with a pronounced beak, like the inhabitants of his robust, instantly identifiable, delightful cartoon world. Instead, he was rosy-cheeked, sparkly-eyed, endlessly witty, and exhaustingly vimful (is that a word?), which perhaps does more to explain his fabulous line—his lush drawings emanate energy and humor, before you even get to the joke. I would live in this fictional Korenland if I could, but spending time getting to know the real Ed has been even more of a boon.”
My first Ed encounter was on the front lawn of Edward Sorel’s home in upstate New York. I was just three years into my New Yorker stint; Ed Koren was fast closing in on his second decade. To me, he was already up there onThe New Yorker‘s Mt. Rushmore. Was I starstruck? Of course I was (I still am). We’ve remained in touch all the years since, catching up by phone, or at New Yorker events.
Some years back, New Yorker
cartoonist, Liza Donnelly
and I had dinner with Ed up in Vermont — the state he’s called home since the late 1970s. Ed, a fire fighter for more than a quarter century with the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department, drove up to the restaurant in a car with a fireman’s light attached
. I don’t know how many phone calls to Ed have begun with him cautioning that he might have to leave our conversation and go out on an emergency call.
Ed’s first drawing in the magazine, shown here, appeared 60 years ago, in the issue of May 26, 1962. He’d been submitting for five years before his first sale to the magazine, and it would take nearly another five before sporadic appearances in 1964 and 1965 turned into the opposite of sporadic — he became a regular. “From that point,” he says, “I became airborne — continuing in the air until this very moment.”
During a phone conversation with Ed a few months ago (he enjoys conversing, or what he calls “schmoozing” — in person or via the phone, instead of chatting via email), I brought up his impending 60th New Yorker anniversary and told him I was going to make a pretty big deal of it on this website. After I asked him if he’d say a few words for the occasion, we realized it would be the perfect time to do the interview we’d been bantering about for years. Sometimes things seem to work out just right.
The following lightly edited interview, conducted in two lengthy sessions, and a few less lengthy sessions, began with a phone call to Ed on a very cold late March afternoon. Ed picked up the phone as he was stoking the fire in his wood stove. He managed to walk about in his studio, working on things, while speaking with me. At one point he began hammering something. At 86 years old, he was putting me to shame as I sat in a chair, just talking and listening.
Michael Maslin: Ed! Finally! [stuff happened, as it often does with any prior arrangements, that delayed our original scheduled date for speaking].
EK: Yes, well, the pressure’s on you. It’s your show. The timeline is gnawing away.
MM: Oh, well, no thanks for that image. It’s your show really — the spotlight’s on you. So, here you are in your 60th year contributing to the magazine. Incredible! I looked up a lot of stuff about you in preparation for this talk, and one of the things I found was that you are #6 on the all-time longevity list of New Yorker cartoonist contributors.
EK: You mean I’m not first? [EK & MM laugh]
MM: Sorry, no. Steig’s in first place with 73 years.
EK: That’s impressive. So 73 years. Wow.
You bypassed your buddy [Saul] Steinberg, who contributed for 58 years. You’re in rarified air up there in the 60 year category, Ed. [the others: Chon Day
, 67 years; Al Ross
, 65 years; George Price, 62 years, and Mischa Richter
, 61 years].
EK: Well that’s nice to hear, not that I’m competitive. [more laughter] 60 years feels like 60 minutes. It’s all kind of sweet, and unexpected, and unbidden.
MM: It just happens right? You’re going along and suddenly you’re #6 on the all-time list.
EK: We should have a hall of fame, like at Cooperstown. Where would it be?
MM: Well we could have it here…put it upstairs in our spare room.
EK: The Rhinebeck Hall Of Fame…the Hall OF Fame in Rhinebeck.
MM: That would be fun. The first thing I thought to ask you when I was researching — I didn’t see it addressed out there anywhere — was: is there a story to how your “beasts” came about. Do you call them beasts?
EK: I don’t know what to call them. They’re alter egos I guess. “Beasts” is shorthand because they look beastly. Like Sendak’s [characters], they’re living in my brain. They’re kind of all me.
: Was there a development to them, or were you just going along, and one day you thought: Oh, this is something I’m going to be using a lot
. I watched a video of you drawing. I’d never seen you draw before. Your hand just kept going — so different than the way I draw. I’ll draw a line, and then another line, and they often connect end-to-end. But you layer.
EK: I think I’ve always been sensitive to disarray, to disorganization. Animals with elaborate fur have always intrigued me. It probably comes, somewhat, from my fascination with animals, mammals, and creatures of all sorts. Their exteriors are so varied, so interesting, and so chaotic, and so unplanned. They’re also more interesting for me to draw because I have a nervous predilection in my hand — I just keep moving along.
One thing I didn’t know about you until recently is that Sam Cobean [a New Yorker
cartoonist from 1944-1951] was of interest to you when you were very young. Your second drawing in the magazine was captionless. It’s a prisoner who is thinking of the goddess of justice. I thought, wow, that to me seems like it has some Sam Cobean influence.
EK: I think it must have, because I really loved his work. I have to think about why did I like the work so much. I think it was the compression of it. That it was wordless. It was so economical — it told a story so beautifully, and with the eyes. His eyes were so expressive. The sexuality of it, the playfulness — it was kind of not of its time: it was and it wasn’t.
MM: I don’t think it would fly now.
No it wouldn’t at all. There’s one that comes to mind
. It’s a movie set, and it’s all flats. The scene is from the back of the flats. There’s an actress in the doorway of this room, and she’s dressed only with an apron, and her back is naked. So brilliant. That stuck with me for a long time. Yeah, he really did influence me in a deep way — that structural thinking.
…he said that Thurber
, and Cobean were models for you, for figures and facial expressions.
EK: Yes, and in fact I think most of the greats I looked at, grew up on, and absorbed deeply, all had great facial expressions, and emotion, and reaction — it was all part of it. You couldn’t draw a cartoon without including that, and the body, which was somewhat harder, and everything else. The fluid humanity you’d try to capture in a Daumier-ish sort of way.
MM: When I began drawing, I was drawing faces a lot — this was in high school — and I said to myself at some point, you really have to learn to draw bodies. You can’t really exist with just doing faces. You have to branch out. Robbins also said that your line was “the visual equivalent of weaving.”
EK: Did he really? That’s wonderful. It’s sort of like what we were talking about earlier: the endless gesture. The hair, the elaboration.
MM: When you’re doing that [weaving] you’re just feeling it, right?
EK: Yeah, it’s just drawing. It’s my delight in drawing per se. It’s just fun.
: I have two quotes to run by you about your work — I’m sure you’re familiar with them. I’ve heard that when R.O. Blechman
looked at your work he said, “All those lines.”
EK: Whoever told me about that, she said he shuddered as he said, “All those lines!” and shrank back. [laughter from both EK & MM]
MM: Here’s the other quote for you. In Calvin Trillin’s intro for your first book, he quoted another cartoonist as saying that your drawings “…resembled the barbershop floor just before sweeping up time.” You okay with that?
EK: Oh sure. It’s true. I didn’t bother to sweep them up. I kept them. [laughter from both]
MM: You’ve done very well with those sweepings.
EK: I wove them into something else.
Here’s a thought for you. I know you like George Price’s work a lot…
:…I’m curious what you think about an age-old thing cartoonists talk about: the cartoonist who works off of other’s ideas, like Hokinson, and Price [both pictured], vs. the folks, like you and me, who spend our days with words. Do you have thoughts on that? Or do you say, y’know, whatever works?
EK: I used to think it was dreadful that (coming up with the ideas) was not part of their world; it shouldn’t be just drawing, it should be their world view, thinking about life. And then I realized, that’s being way too judgmental. Their voices are in their hand, in their vision. Conceptually, all they need is someone to liberate that. Because when you think about ideas, per se, some of them come from what is said, what is observed; but they, particularly Hokinson and Price, were observers. I remember hearing of George Price coming to New York and walking from the George Washington Bridge all the way downtown to the Battery, taking notes, drawing, and watching, and looking. That in its own way is equivalent to taking things in and using them — I think it works; he [Price] was very much part of the process.
MM: I can’t speak for you, but I know for me, when I came in, in the 70s, it was this big thing that no way would you use anyone else’s ideas.
EK: Yeah, I felt that too. And that’s why I was so censorious when I was younger and thought, Oh, that’s terrible — using gagmen. But I think in terms of other cartoonists…who else was using writers?…
MM: Well, Charles Addams for one…Syd Hoff…
EK: Yeah, Addams, and others. Well sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it was a contortion like fitting a stovepipe into a hole that doesn’t fit. Other times you’d never know.
MM: Lee Lorenz [The New Yorker‘s Art Editor from 1973 to 1994, and Cartoon Editor from 1994-1997. pictured] said once that, for the older cartoonists, it was a way to extend their careers. And I thought that was great. I’d rather see these cartoonists in the magazine, even if they were using someone else’s ideas. I’d rather see their work than not see their work.
EK: When you’re doing a drawing, even if it’s your idea, it morphs constantly while you’re doing it. I’m discovering that right now, with a finish I’m working on. It started one way as an idea, and then, as I worked on it, as it developed, it became an entirely different idea — it had to. I was dissatisfied with the way I initially conceived it. I ended up erasing the damn thing and started over. I started a whole new composition, structure, organization of it. It worked so much better.
It’s like a partnership with the idea giver — the gag person. It’s just not taking the idea and reproducing it rotely. There’s so much creativity involved in giving it form. So hence I’m perfectly happy, no matter who’s drawing it, whether it’s Price or Chon Day, or Decker…or Hokinson. I mean, look at her world.
MM: I started thinking about it this way when I was researching [Peter] Arno. After a while he couldn’t keep up with the demand. [Harold] Ross [The New Yorker‘s founder, and its Editor from 1925-1951] wanted him in the magazine as much as possible and he [Arno] just couldn’t do it [without help]. I started thinking of Frank Sinatra, believe it or not. Sinatra wrote, or co-wrote, one song in his entire career, but look what he did for music, interpreting people’s lyrics.
EK: It’s a great analogy. His interpretations made every one of those songs unique.
MM: Can you talk about Lee Lorenz a little. He was your editor for twenty-four years — how well did you get to know him?
EK: Lee was terrifically supportive. He was a friend. He was Lee — sometimes a little distant, but a thoughtful editor who knew his craft, particularly so with that early generation; he was open to absurdity. We had a sort of old school friendship.
MM: You and I talked about this not long ago: about your having an office at The New Yorker. Not too many cartoonists had that experience. What was it like for you to work there — were you comfortable working there — you weren’t distracted at all?
: Oh yeah I was, but I could work. I sometimes worked there at night. You could go in at any time. Not like with the high security these days. It was pretty free and easy. It was wonderful. It was very sociable. It was a lot of fun mixing it up with the wandering group of writers there. Mostly writers. Frank [Modell]
was occasionally there. Warren Mille
r had an office — he’d wander about…and Everett Opie
had some kind of perch. I don’t think it was official. It was kind of a great community.
[At this point Ed begins to hammer something]
EK: Hang on. I’m just adjusting this stove. It’s burning like crazy. Cold up here, and windy!
MM: I remember running into Frank [Modell] when he had been asked to move out.
I have some things that Addams
gave Frank when Addams moved out: a light box, and a drawing board, some talismans. Frank said he didn’t want to hold on to them — “These were Charlie’s”
— and I said, “I’ll take them.”
I think of them as these sacred objects which Charlie Addams actually touched
. [laughter from both MM & EK]
I know what you mean. When Anne Hall
[Lee Lorenz’s assistant] left the 25 West 43rd St offices, she gave Liza and I two of those classic wooden “In” and “Out” trays from the old art department as well as this funny little device that was used to moisten stickers. It’s great. We cherish them.
MM: Did being at the office help you to get know Geraghty? [James Geraghty, The New Yorker’s art editor from 1939-1973]
A little bit. I got to know him, I got to know Bob Bingham
, a great editor — one of the great editors. I got to know many writers. There was a schmoozing society out in the hallway. People would wander out of their offices, taking a break. You’d start talking, and all of a sudden you’d get fired up with an idea that came along out of nowhere. It was a family.
: …there’s a big one now at the Peabody Essex Museum
. It’s not of my work solely, and it’s not cartoon work particularly, but it is cartoons, and it is satire. It’s very much part and parcel of what I’ve been doing for 60 years: a mix of tragedy and comedy. And this is more tragic than comedic, but they’re intricately intertwined, so it’s not out of character by a long shot. In fact it’s in character — my character. It’s easy to dismiss it as “uptown stuff” but in fact it’s very much integral to who I am.
MM: So true, it’s you. Unless you’re two different people.
EK: [Laughs] Not really. No, Unfortunately I’m predictably myself.
MM: Here’s another question for you that sort of dovetails nicely with the Price – Hokinson discussion. You and I have talked plenty about cartoon worlds over the years. Which ones do you particularly think about? Do you ever get cartoon books down from your shelves and look through?
EK: Oh yeah — all the time. And not just New Yorker cartoons, but the satirists, the early caricaturists and beyond through the centuries. The greek poet, Giorgos Seferis, said: “Don’t ask me who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of all the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.” [ EK laughs] So it’s all influence… all the people who have influenced me, who’ve made a dent on my consciousness, through their voice, and their hand, and their vision.
There were a number of cartoonists who were perfectly good decent practitioners, a whole level of cartoonists who didn’t have that distinctive voice, that distinctive aspect of taking on life, and changing it to their peculiar and particular view. The more peculiar, the more interesting to me, and the more influential.
MM: We have a lot of bound volumes of The New Yorker here. I look through at least one a day. I just pick one out at random — it could be from the 1930s, or 1940s, 1970s, or whatever. I’ll sit with them, stopping at particular cartoons, and studying them. I feel like they’re recharging my battery.
MM: He [Gluyas Williams] doesn’t get as much attention as he should.
EK: No, right. There are many many many who don’t. I’ll just grab one (of their books) off the shelf because I know I’m missing some of the great ones who’ve been inspirations to me.
[At this point Ed begins looking through a cartoon collection and talks about several New Yorker artists…]
Here —R. Taylor
. Those incredible eyes. Really elaborate interiors. You look at a Whitney Darrow
. I just turned to this classic of a field trip of young children at the Met. And there’s a Manet, and the teacher says, “Well, it was sort of like a cook out.” I’m looking at the elaborate way he drew it and set the scene. Structurally, in time, in every way.
MM: The energy he had — the energy is unbelievable.
EK: When you say energy, you mean…
MM: The drawing itself. The way he drew. Looking at his strokes — they’re just beautiful. And commanding — he’s fully in command. He’s not shy about how he’s drawing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
: Exactly. The way he orchestrates the whites of the faces and figures. The black and white and greys are so nuanced. So beautiful. He was quite amazing. I just came across a Cobean like that
. Kind of a satire of surrealist drawings: Yves Tanguy
, Dali, Magritte. There’s a car — a convertible — winding through the desert, with these icons of surrealist paintings on the side of the road. It’s so beautifully orchestrated, the color and composition. These are the masters I’ve referred to. These are the ones I’ve really paid attention to. They were masters of organization.
Even Richard Decker
. I just stumbled across one of his drawings. There’s a museum scene, a gallery. It’s very interestingly composed, with a perspective, a complexity; he really could draw.
MM: We got hold of a Richard Taylor “rough” drawing last year — a pencil sketch. It’s very interesting to seem him looser, not the finished look we’re used to. It could’ve been published.
EK: So many rough drawings could be, and should be. When I’m doing finishes I think how am I going to keep the energy of this rough drawing alive, because so much of it is easily lost from the restructuring. That’s another topic: how to keep the drawing alive and immediate.
MM: That’s why I don’t do finishes. They [The New Yorker] always get my roughs.
EK: Do they? Oh my god. That’s great.
MM: Well I make the rough look like a finish. I used to try to recreate the rough and I would get so frustrated trying to recreate that moment.
EK: How many drawings, finished roughs, do you submit a week?
MM: It varies. I have a stack of finished drawings by my desk — work never submitted. When it’s time to send in work, and I’m dissatisfied with the most recent work, I’ll look through that pile.
EK: Do you rework drawings?
MM: No, I never do. I know a lot of people do that but I didn’t want to rely on that — I just want to move forward.
EK: Well, I confess I do. Sometimes I’m just empty — I don’t know what to do, so I’ll go back through my rejected roughs. Sometimes I rethink them, or have a new idea, or a new caption, or a new focus, or a quick change of emphasis, and by god, it works. I entirely rework it; I take the visual aspect of it and get inspired to go a different direction somehow, or I have something I’ve overheard or jotted down that just fits perfectly.
MM: It makes sense to do that. We’re doing all these drawings, and just because they’re rejected doesn’t mean they’re unsuccessful. I have a ton of drawings that were rejected that I love, and it’s heartbreaking, but that’s the life we live.
: I interviewed David Sipress
recently, and — I believe this is what he said — proportionately, more of his work that has sold was resubmitted work. [ I checked with David Sipress on the proportion of his resubmitted work: he told me that about a third of his bought work was resubs. He also told me that he does, at times, simply resend the work but he will occasionally rework both caption and/or the drawing itself — MM]
EK: I understand that, and this is true of me. But I resubmit it differently — it’s not the same. Unless I’m so convinced that’s it’s really really good I’ll resubmit it [as it originally was captioned/drawn]. Even if it’s been two years, it’s equally as viable now as it was then. Sometimes it’s accepted. Sometimes, not always. I’ve gotten very accepting about that — I never was before. Part of the delights and benefits of being the aging cartoonist.
MM: Here’s question for you about Steinberg’s obit in The New York Times [May 13, 1999]. It’s always bothered me that they called him an “Epic Doodler.” Did that bother you?
EK: Not in the least! Quite the opposite. I think doodling is precisely the process we go through. Either by doodling with hand, alone, doodling with hand and brain, doodling with your brain by just playing around with language and words. It’s tentative; everything’s tentative in the process of constructing what we construct. I doodle a lot. Some of the things in that show [“Down To The Bone”] were started by doodling. Just doodling; doodling on stone, doodling on paper — it was all over the place. It’s like [Paul] Klee’s notion of Orion as a dot that went for a walk. Doodling is a dot that leads to more dots to more ideas, that gel at some point. You never know where it’s going to go. That’s a process of drawing in general, not just cartooning, per se. It’s being a draftsman, and a thinker, and a poet, and a short story writer — it’s all part of that.
It’s kind of what John McPhee writes about in his remarkable book, Draft No.4
— the process he goes through — it’s exactly doodling, in a funny way. He talks about putting down everything that comes to mind — it’s a form of doodling. It’s like what [Calvin] Trillin
said about reporting: he vomited out everything in his brain, everything taken in goes out on paper. I’m very much a doodler, and would never take umbrage at Steinberg being called that, because a lot of his drawing developed out of nothing, and turned into something remarkable.
: Are you in the Jack Ziegler
[A New Yorker
cartoonist from 1974 -2017] school of not editing yourself when you submit work? Jack told me he’d send them [The New Yorker
] just about everything done in a week. I’m the opposite. I severely edit what I send. That’s why I have all these extra drawings. Are you in one of those schools?
EK: I’m in your school. Not everything is worth what you think it is. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. We are not great judges of our work, but we are. I edit what I think is more useful than not.
MM: Isn’t it funny how you can do a drawing one day, and think it’s the best drawing you’ve done this year, and then it comes time to send it in — this happens to me all the time — and I’m looking at it before I scan it, and I think, This doesn’t work at all. It’s terrible.
EK: I have the exact same reaction to things I’ve done, where I’ve been close to submitting [something] and said, Eeeeh, it’s okay, but it’s not really what I want to say. And so I put it to the side.
…at this point we begin to discuss rejection (cartoon rejection)...
MM: I just love being at home, working on these things [drawings] — the frustration of rejection is just part of it.
EK: I do have to say that age has taken the sting away [the sting of rejection] as I realize the frailty of the human judgment, and soul and eye and mind.
MM: You have this incredible body of work which you are sitting on top of, this fabulous body of work, which may make it [rejection] easier. When you’re starting out and you’re rejected for months and months and months, you might wonder what kind of life this is you’re getting into.
EK: [Until recently] I never made a chronology of what my career was like, and how bumpy it was right at the beginning.
MM: That must’ve been interesting for you to sell a few at first and then have some years go by.
EK: Yeah, and that was partially my decision, my other interests took over as well. There were many different roads coinciding at a crossroad; they all came together at some point in my working career. They were all disparate, not all done at the same time. While printmaking, I never cartooned much. It was a strange kind of roadmap to go back and look at.
MM: My memory, without consulting my notes, is that it was about four years from your first cartoon to when you really started to be in there [The New Yorker] a lot, like 1965, 1966. That’s rough — that’s a long time.
EK: It was like setting a fire to your stove. There was real ignition there at some point, after the flame had gone out. I never knew quite knew why, but I was pleased. [laughter from both EK and MM]
MM: Looking through all of your books, I noticed a number of recurring images, but I want to mention one in particular: you do a lot of vistas…
EK: I’m a landscapist at heart. I’m out in the woods and fields almost everyday.
MM: The one of the fellow who’s chainsawed all the trees around him…he’s saying, um, “Happy now?”… or something like that.
EK: “Happy?” — that’s it. Speaking of being environmentally aware, even back then.
: …That made an impression on me when I first saw it in that big white New Yorker
album [The New Yorker Album Of Drawings 1925-1975
]. Oh, and here’s a non-vista one, but I wanted to mention it because you said in The Capricious Line video
, that this is the one drawing of yours you would rescue if there was a fire in your house.
EK: I bet I know which one that is. The mice?
EK: I don’t really have a favorite drawing, but if I did, that would be the one.
MM: I think I subconsciously stole, not the drawing, but the shape of the mice in the auditorium. It was recently in The New Yorker. It’s a couple looking at the stars. I think your mice drawing inspired the shape of the stars. The caption is, “The stars are really organized tonight.” Well I think the organization came from looking at your mice.
EK: Oh really — I’m delighted, pleased.
MM: You know how that happens right? Has that happened to you when you realize you know you’ve been influenced by a drawing?
Oh absolutely. Always — all the time. Something I’ve done reminds me of a [George] Price
I’ve seen, or an [Peter] Arno
in particular, which were so distinctive in their compositions, and situations.
MM: I actually think I’m drawing a lot more like you in these last few weeks because I’ve been looking at so much of your work [laughter from EK and MM]…
MM: No no no — it’s funny… I did one this morning, and I thought, this has an Ed Koren feel to it. That happens sometimes.
EK: It does happen. Well, I immerse myself sometimes in Arno, or Gluyas Williams. Sometimes I think of Gluyas Williams when I’m doing really strong black and white. It’s inevitable.
MM: I’ll always own up to it because my drawings are a sum of all these things I’ve seen.
EK: We would be ingenuous if we said our work is actually original, that we’ve drawn without some sense of history. And if you are illiterate about it, what is the result.
MM: You have to know your past. Well, just a few more questions, and then I’ll let you go — I’ve had you for a long while.
You’re so kind. [both EK and MM laugh] When you were talking to Richard Gehr
you said, “You want some feedback.”
We differ on this: I’ve never wanted feedback, but I’m curious as to why you
would want feedback. I read about your Atlier 17
years, and — correct me if I’m wrong — someone would sometimes talk to you, like a conference, as you were going along working on a piece.
EK: No, not really. I think it was just generally talking about work, not asking for guidance, or advice, or am I going in the right direction. I would keep that guarded to myself. It was about having a community of artists talking, as we are talking now. That kind of feedback.
There are artists around here, where I live, and we get together occasionally and talk about what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it, the process, and many of the things we’re talking about right now. How, why, where –the mysteries of what we do, and why we do it, and what we’re trying to achieve, what are our goals; and are there goals that you can really articulate. And once you have these goals, how do you know you’ve achieved them. Have you heard laughter, at any time, from your work, recently. Lots of big crazy ideas that you never get to talk to anybody about, except when you get together. That’s the feedback.
MM: Ah… so we’re on the very same page then.
MM: I will say it is fun to hear people laugh.
EK: How often does that happen?
EK: There’s a story of Gluyas Williams, when he was an editorial cartoonist for a Philadelphia paper, exulting after hearing of a man carried off a train by emergency workers because of a cardiac event — or some kind of health problem. This was way back in the ’30s or ’40s. The upshot was that the man had been reading, let’s say the Inquirer, and when he came across Williams’s cartoon he got so apoplectic, he had this medical event, and had to be carried away. When Williams found out about it he said, “Well I can’t help but say I’m pleased. There was at least a reaction to my work.” [much laughter].
The isolation in which we work is so profound, the reactions to our work is so opaque to us it’s lovely now and then to hear a laugh, or a cry, or a gasp of pain in your chest. Any reaction is nice to have.
MM: Well we do have our friends on paper that keep us company, don’t we. You have your beasts, or alter egos…
EK: But they’re not giving feedback [laughter].
MM: Let’s talk about New Yorker covers — your New Yorker covers. I’ve tried to get a count, and have come up with at least 30. Do you have the exact number?
EK: No, I’d have to look through my archives and look it up…at least 30. Not many more, but hovering around 30.
MM: I’ve tried covers for 45 years, and have been successful twice, but both of those never ran. [laughter from EK & MM]…
EK: I may have one or two like that as well.
MM: I thought you might, and that’s why I wasn’t positive about your 30. I know that when I’m thinking about doing covers it’s a different mindset than when I’m working on cartoons. Is that the case with you?
EK: Yeah, I think, now that you mention it, it’s simply because there’s no caption, and it’s all visual. You have to tell a story, whatever story it is, simply by visual means. It goes back to history painting, and writing. It’s not that different than cartooning — that frozen moment is still key to the whole thing.
It’s similar to cartoons without captions, which kind of do the same thing. But the addition of color, and the ambition, is greater with a cover than it is with a cartoon in the sense of having a whole visual cosmos that you’re working with.
But the elements are not all that different when you think about them: expression, body language, positioning, and just the way the body moves around the surface of the image. So what makes it a cover? Is the moment more momentous?
I was just thinking of the Arno cartoon of the man in the shower. That’s a cartoon that could’ve been a cover. It was a book cover, but it was also a cartoon.
MM: It could’ve easily been a cover. I wonder if they [The New Yorker‘s editors at the time] had a problem with the nudity. [the cartoon was published in The New Yorker August 28, 1943]
EK: I don’t know, but it’s really very fluid, and on a visual basis.
MM: When I was on a mission to sell a cover, I set aside time everyday — cover time — to just focus on doing that. Do you do something like that, or do the cover ideas just come along?
EK: They just show up. Y’know, I’d think, that would make a good cover, so I’d try it. And once started down that path, some other ideas started to percolate. Because it is a different mindset, and you’re also aware it’s pretty important, more important than a cartoon in the body of the magazine — or at least as important [laughter from both].
MM: I’m going to model myself after you and try not to have a “cover time,” and just let them come.
EK: Just let them show up.
MM: Here’re a bunch of quotes for you — some by you, some by others. Back in 1965 a New York Times reviewer reviewing Steinberg’s The New World wrote, “Steinberg’s line was organized talk.
MM: Is that what we all do, or is that just a Steinbergian thing?
I think it’s particularly him. He thought of himself more as a conversationist in line. Interesting your asking me about this because just the other day someone sent me a book on Steinberg and his literary interests, called Saul Steinberg’s Literary Journeys
.[by Jessica R. Feldman, University of Virginia Press, 2021]
MM: I don’t know that book — never heard of it.
EK: It’s a new tome, looks to be more academic than anything else. I’m very partial to the way he thought about drawing and line and so on, because he thinks about drawing as a conversation.
[Ed reads from the book]: He [Steinberg] said, “Drawing is like writing, or, you do it instead of writing. Drawing is actually a necessity to explain something. In a writer’s drawing, a line is a line; like a writer’s word is seen letter by letter, and then it is translated. I draw to explain things to myself.”
So that’s kind of the way I think about my own work.
[Ed reads another passage]: Steinberg was asked along with 100 other artists “which specific works of art or artists of the past 75 years have you admired or been influenced by, and Steinberg carefully wrote out his reply: “The artist is an educator of artists of the future, of artists who are able to understand, and in the process of understanding, perform unexpected, the best evolutions.”
: That’s great. That’s what I’m all about — learning from everybody. I’m learning from you this very minute. Here’s another quote — it’s from Adam Begley’s John Updike biography
. Begley quotes the Russian writer Turgenyev: “The life that surrounds him provides him with the contents of his work. It’s concentrated reflection.”
I thought of you when I read that…
EK: In truth you’re right — it’s spot on.
MM: I know you’ve said your work is autobiographical.
EK: Profoundly. Do you feel yours is too?
MM: I don’t know. Well I suppose it must be in a way because I’m just sitting here in the woods, with the notorious blank piece of paper in front of me everyday and this stuff is coming out. I don’t beckon it. I just sit here and something tells me to draw, say, a rhinoceros playing volleyball or something. It’s not really telling anyone anything about me, except that I think of weird stuff. It’s not quite the reflection you have. Am I right in that?
EK: I can’t tell you because we’re all bouncing off ourselves, especially given the personal signature of what you and I do.
MM: Here’re two quotes from you, from very different times, that fit in here. One’s from 1983, and the other much later, 2010. but I feel they’re related:
You said you “develop cartoons by instinct,” and in the other you asked: “How do you seize the moment.” Cartoonists have some kind of instinct to recognize at that very moment that we should grab something.
EK: And to structure them so that the timing is just right. The caption for one thing, or setting up a situation. For instance, an idea came to me the other day, and I thought that could be funny, but I have to figure out how to do it. How to really make it funny, and not mundane. What physical moment should it be put in? And how the caption should work: frontwards, backwards? The most important surprise line in front, the back, the middle? On and on and on and on — the decisions. But once you get a start, it’s kind of easier to try and figure it out that way, kind of knowing where you want to go, but you’re not quite sure how. And so working these out is exactly what you’re talking about. It’s all very personal — what you think is the most effective way of conveying what you want to convey.
MM: Do you actively start thinking how to solve this puzzle? My way is not to do that, but to clear my mind, and hope the right thing shows up.
EK: There’s a little bit of both. Sometimes I’m unclear, until it sits on the semi-done [pile] for a day or two, and then I think: no no, it can’t be that way, it has to be done this way.
MM: “Semi-done”…I like that.
EK: In flux, transition, in development, under construction, semi-cooked. I do look at some every once in a while and think, not baked enough — especially some of the rejected drawings.
MM: Shifting a bit here: I’m always interested in generations of cartoonists. Even though you began in the early 1960s, it seems to me you’re more aligned with the 1970s crowd than the 1950s crowd. Your monsters, your beasts — whatever you want to call them — they were awfully different for The New Yorker in 1962. Do you feel you fit in a particular generation? Do you feel closer to the 50s crowd, or 60s crowd, or 70s crowd?
EK: You know what, I think I feel connected to all of them. They all influenced me in one way or another. I never thought of myself as a generational artist. It’s hard to believe I belonged to any generation, if indeed I belonged to any of them.
MM: I guess what I was getting at is that the mid-to-late 70s crowd is generally thought of as the beginning of a new era, with Jack Ziegler and company. What I’m suggesting is that the bar be moved earlier for the beginning of the modern world of New Yorker cartoons. And that it begins with you.
EK: I’m honored that you would think that [laughter]. I’ve never considered it.
MM: Well, it occurred to me as I looked through your early work.
EK: I think it’s a fascinating idea. I never ever thought about what generational cohort I joined. I admired all of them [all previous generations] and took something from everyone I admired, for sure. You know, it’s funny how unaware one can be of what you do, and/or, super aware. It’s a netherworld of what you’ve accomplished, and what you done, whether you’ve made an impact, or not. It’s something I almost don’t want to think about [laughs].
MM: I’ll think about it for you, okay?
EK: Okay, do that [more laughter]. It can be paralyzing to think about what your legacy is, where your influences are, where you’ve come from; when you put it all together you just don’t want to know all that stuff. You just want to go ahead and do what you do. Sit down everyday and go to work.
MM: I think I have two personalities: the cartoonist personality, and then the personality that wants to examine all of us who do this, and have done this.
EK: I agree. Artists are endlessly fascinating. Art and artists and process and the mystery you can’t really unravel because it is that. It arrives unbidden, unannounced, and if you’re lucky, it works. If not, you go into psycho-therapy, as a profession.
MM: Isn’t it funny that one of the biggest questions we’re asked — I’m sure you’ve been asked this: where do you get your ideas?
EK: Oh god — that question! I think Charles Addams [pictured] wrote about people asking him all the time about his ideas, and he had different responses. [here Ed imitates Charles Addams speaking]: Madam, they don’t just show up! They’re the product of hard work, and erasing, and starting and stopping.
MM: What could be the answer to that question if it comes up in casual conversation? What are they looking for? What answer will satisfy?
EK: It’s a matter of how you want to answer. Do you want to be kind, generous, understanding, or dismissive. [Ed again imitates Addams]: They just show up, Madam! Every morning there’s a thunk at my doorstep, and it’s a packet of ideas. That’s how it works!
MM: Here’s a kind of sappy question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. I think about this a lot. I’m wondering what The New Yorker means to you. I know what it means to me, and there are times I remind myself of what it means…
EK: It’s like a member of the family. I mean, I feel like a member of a family. The old uncle. They like me, they like my stories. I’m very good at Seders, things like that. [laughter] So it’s a family affair really, for me. It’s a dynamic family relationship I feel. It’s my identity, in a way. In the earlier days at the magazine, when I started, it really was a family. Writers and artists all knew each other, all hung out. There were offices for both writers and artists. There was a lot of socializing, a lot of parties. It was a hugely social interconnected family life.
MM: I’ve kept you for awhile, and so I’d like to end with one more quote from you. It’s from the Capricious Line video. You said, “I’m still mystified by how it all works.” I bet that’s still true. I think it’s difficult for a lot of people to understand that we don’t know how it works — we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not like we’re at work on an assembly line, and at the end of every day we’ve produced a bunch of Ford Econolines.
EK: Oh yeah. I’m still mystified. In our conversation we’ve sort of circled around that…like, how does this happen, where do the ideas come from. I’m mystified, still! And delighted by the mystification.
Ed Koren on a few New Yorker Colleagues
During our conversations, Ed mentioned a number of cartoonist colleagues. Many pre-dated him at the magazine, and a number who arrived after him. Here’s some of that conversation:
MM: What’d you make of Charlie Barsotti, his work?
EK: I didn’t really know him. His work is jolly, and funny, and quirky, and very much his own. And simple, really simple. But to the point, he had an energy in his line that comes through and through, and kind of made him almost luminescent in his drawings.
MM: He really hit his style.
EK: And wonderfully so. Very stylized, but wonderfully so…and consistently so.
MM: You probably feel pretty good about George Booth.
EK: There’s a voice. Unique. A unique voice, and a unique hand, and vision. A world we’ll never know. I mean he really is authentic; his autobiography, his entire world — it’s all in there. And affectionately so. He’s a master. An absolute master.
MM: I think I’ve told you this before, but when I made my big push to get into the magazine, George Booth, and you, were to me the Crown Princes of The New Yorker.
MM: Oh sure. You two guys represented to me, the Now. It was so exciting to see your work. I’ll throw Steinberg in there too, but since he was much older than you guys, he represented something else.
EK: Steinberg was much more a link between the world of contemporary painting, and sculpture, and fine arts, cartooning, and draftsmanship. He was more of the world of Daumier, and the great satirists of an earlier era. He was deeply rooted in that tradition.
MM: He has been called, “the philosopher of cartooning.”
EK: Yes, yes. It’s true. I think that’s true…and [he represents] what humor and satire accomplish, and can accomplish, and did accomplish in terms of being a visual medium.
MM: For me, he sometimes cast a shadow. There were times I’d see one of his covers and I’d feel like, why go on. The work was so great.
EK: I felt pretty overwhelmed by his talent, and his mind, and his genius. Well, not overwhelmed so much as really really respectful as the master — the master of masters in our profession, in our craft, in our thinking.
MM: Did you ever see him draw?
EK: No, never did. Never saw him put pen to paper. I wish I had.
— My thanks to Emma Allen, The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor.
— My thanks also to Gil Roth for his terrific photograph of Ed Koren that leads off the interview. Gil’s 2016 Virtual memories Show interview with Ed can be heard here.
A Select Edward Koren Bibliography
Edward Koren. Do You Want to Talk About It? Pantheon, 1976.
Edward Koren. Are You Happy? And Other Questions Lovers Ask. Pantheon, 1978.
“Well, There’s Your Problem”: Cartoons by Edward Koren. Pantheon, 1980.
The Penguin Edward Koren. Penguin, 1982
Edward Koren. Art Journal 43.4 (1983). “The Issue of Caricature” includes an interview by Judith Wechsler, “Speaking of the Desperate Things: A Conversation with Edward Koren” (Also in the issue, a four page piece on Steinberg, “The Wit of Saul Steinberg” by E.H. Gombrich)
Edward Koren. Caution: Small Ensembles: Cartoons by Edward Koren. Pantheon, 1983.
Edward Koren. What About Me?: Cartoons from The New Yorker. Pantheon, 1989.
Quality Time: Parenting, Progeny, and Pets. Villard, 1995.
The Capricious Line. Columbia University, 2010 (from the publisher: “This book explores the full range of the art he has produced during the past five decades: original drawings for cartoons and illustrated books as well as prints and posters.”)
In The Wild. Ampress, 2018
Drawings appearing throughout the interview:
Edward Koren: Writer wearing Shakespeare sweatshirt. The New Yorker, May 26, 1962.
Edward Koren: Class picture…Me. The New Yorker, December 13, 1976.
Edward Koren: Man in prison imagining goddess of justice. The New Yorker, April 25, 1964.
Sam Cobean: Woman standing in doorway at home. The New Yorker, October 19, 1946.
Richard Taylor: captionless. Man at desk/birds. The New Yorker, November 8, 1941.
Whitney Darrow, Jr.: “Well, it was sort of like a cook-out.” The New Yorker, May 4, 1957.
Sam Cobean: “I knew we should’ve kept on Route 66 out of Flagstaff.” The New Yorker, September 13, 1947.
Edward Koren: “Happy?” The New Yorker, August 15, 1973.
Edward Koren: “Your father and I wanted to explain why we’ve decided to live apart.”The New Yorker, February 6, 1995.
Michael Maslin: “Wow, the stars are really organized tonight.” The New Yorker, March 7, 2022.
Edward Koren New Yorker Miscellany:
Here are Ed’s first 10 New Yorker appearances. Beginning in the Fall of 1965 he became “airborne” at the magazine. Well over a thousand drawings followed.
His first New Yorker cover: August 28, 1971.
He made his inaugural appearance in the magazine’s cartoon collection series of “Albums” with The New Yorker 1955-1955 Album. Ed and Robert Weber were the class of ’62 newbies in the collection. B. Kliban (a Spill One Clubber) was the class of 1963; Donald Reilly and Henry Martin were class of 1964. His work has, of course, appeared in every New Yorker album ever since.
John S Cuneo says:
Well this interview was simply delightful, including the pause while Ed hammered away at his stove. What a brilliant, enthusiastic and and generous soul. And such a warm and priceless conversation between friends.