Cartoonist and political satirist Edward Sorel's iconic drawings have appeared on the covers of prominent magazines for decades, but you may not be able to pick him out in a crowd. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On One profile.
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Edward Sorel's work has graced the covers of some of our most prominent magazines. Millions have seen the art, if not the artist.
"When I sign my credit card bill at the restaurant, the waiter never says ‘are you Edward Sorel the artist?’ Never happens," says Sorel.
The waiter may not know Sorel, but his peers certainly do. In 2011, they honored him as part of the School of Visual Arts Masters Series. He was the first artist honored in the series to be chosen by his contemporaries.
The exhibit featured all types of artwork, including covers for The New Yorker, The Nation, Esquire, Time and many others. There was also a corresponding documentary produced by Sorel's son Leo. •
In the Harlem apartment he shares with his wife Nancy, you can usually find Sorel working on his latest project.
On the day NY1 visited, it was a series about writers.
"Various authors who published, and as a result of publishing something, either landed in jail or died, and I called it ‘Publish and Perish,’" says Sorel.
Sorel says he was an introspective, sheltered kid.
A bout with pneumonia kept him home for a year and spawned a love of drawing.
"If you’re not good at sports and you’re not into people that much, all you want to do is draw pictures. It's the same with musicians. You’d rather be at home alone playing piano than doing just about anything else, and I’d rather be doing pictures than anything else," says Sorel.
It is work done in solitude, but Sorel says the work is affected by all that goes on outside the studio.
"When my first marriage went down the drain, the pictures were the worst pictures I ever did. Hard to do funny pictures when your life is going down the tube," says Sorel.
He likes to work in a style he calls "spontaneous direct drawing."
To Sorel, tracing is cheating.
"If you don’t trace, it's art. If you trace, it’s illustration," says Sorel. "For me, working direct is fine art, and tracing is commercial art. That's the difference."
He's long enjoyed satirizing organized religion, even if it isn't a big money maker.
"You can't sell the stuff, magazines won't take it. There is no money in being anti-clerical," says Sorel.
Politicians are frequent subjects, though he says one time he refused.
"They wanted me to do a cover about how the press was treating Nixon unfairly. I said that's too much. I’ll sell out, but there are limits," says Sorel.
Humor is a constant, like the comments Moses really heard while crossing the Red Sea: "Some miracle. If I don't get pneumonia from all of this, that will be a miracle."
Sorel also created one of the New Yorker’s first post-9/11 covers.
He drew people going about their daily lives in the foreground with a picture of a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center in the background.
"I’m not sure that my style is good for tragedy," says Sorel. "I do funny stuff because I think I’m good at it. I don’t think I’m good at serious stuff." •
Edward Sorel grew up as Edward Schwartz in the Bronx, but he’s not exactly nostalgic for the place.
"It was a place to get out of," says Sorel, "and it's amazing how many people got ambition just to get out of the Bronx."
Sorel says his parents approved of him becoming an artist.
"My father had no business I could go into. He wasn’t a doctor. He was essentially a guy who slept on the sofa all day. There wasn’t much money in that. My mother worked in the millinery factory. I mean, how much worse could I do?” says Sorel.
Sorel attended the High School of Music and Art and then Cooper Union, but he says his love of drawing was considered old fashioned. At the time, abstraction was in vogue.
"I had no interest in abstraction or design. I wanted to make pictures," says Sorel. "Abstraction and modern art is what people who can't draw love."
In 1954, Sorel and some of his Cooper Union classmates started Pushpin Studios.
Sorel says Milton Glaser and Seymour Kwast saved him by bringing him back to drawing.
Later on there were children's books and album covers, but in the mid-sixties, he was struggling.
Sorel credits art director George Lois for reviving his career by offering him the cover of Esquire for Gay Talese's famed 1966 article, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."
"What saved my life was the only thing I could do was draw. What saved my life was my incompetence at everything else," says Sorel. "So I just kept drawing and drawing until finally I got good at it."
Sorel also credits his second marriage—to his wife Nancy of almost 50 years—for improving his work.
He describes the 1980s, when the couple collaborated on a series for Atlantic Magazine called "First Encounters" as "the happiest period."
"Being happy makes good pictures. I believe in being happy. It's not easy for me, either," says Sorel.
It is work that has brought a lot of happiness to his admirers for many years.
Sorel says he's no celebrity, but he has the recognition of his peers.
“I would love to be rich and famous. Who wouldn't?” says Sorel. “But I'm quite happy with the respect of my peers and quite happy with the way my life turned out, actually."