Edward Sorel’s clever and unforgiving satire is the product of a lifetime spent observing and criticising the unpleasant reality of the American Dream. His experiences of recent history from the Great Depression to Al-Qaeda, and his disdain for the greasy politics in between, have lent his cartoons a formidable bite that those his junior rarely match.
It was boyhood art classes at the Whitney Institute that first convinced Sorel to work with images, leading him to enrol at the Cooper Union School of Art on leaving high school. But his remarkable career was also forged at the time of the rapid expansion of entertainment in the 1930s and 40s. He was swept up in the proliferation of gangster movies, musicals, comics, cartoons, jazz and other art forms that spread across America at the time. These influences were strong; to this day even the depiction of his most biting political satire is heavily influenced by popular culture. His first professional success came in the early 1950s when he joined the political magazine Monocle as a part-time art director in return for free studio space.
Typically he was paid virtually nothing, but admits that, had he not been thrown into this hotbed of opinion and satire, he would not be where he is today. Coming from a politically active body of students at Cooper Union, it was here that he was first able to put his politics into print. His other important success was the founding of Push Pin Studios in 1954 with Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser (famous for designing the ‘I ♥ NY’ logo). This collaboration went on to influence a generation of graphic designers.
Sorel insists that this early success was purely accidental, and that he was simply interested in avoiding the constraints of full-time employment. This statement is typical of his almost chronic modesty, but makes clear that his aim from the very beginning was to be a successful freelancer. Tellingly the logic behind this aim was not, as one might imagine, to remain an independent voice, but instead to remain an independent spirit. He is proud of his commercial success, and freely admits that his work is inevitably tinged with the politics of each individual publication. He is not entirely happy about this, but it underlines his down-to-earth approach – he has always had to make a living out of drawing. It also goes part of the way to explaining his enduring relationship with the American media.
Equally essential to Sorel’s success with both the press and the public is the spirited line that lends his work a casual, spontaneous look whilst fuelling the humour behind the image. This is both entirely deliberate – he wants his pictures to look effortless – and painstakingly achieved through the skills of traditional draughtsmanship. His drawings are anything but sketches, often worked up over many different stages. His dedication to draughtsmanship is very much in tune with his appreciation for the past masters of his art; he cites Gustave Doré and Honoré Daumier as major influences, sometimes even recasting their more famous compositions with modern characters. However, much of this technical skill has been self-taught. His artistic education fell at a time when schools were revelling in the abstract aesthetic and drawing was low down their list of priorities; he still insists that he has much to learn about drawing.
Finally, and most importantly, Sorel’s success lies in the gleeful, merciless way he approaches caricature and satire. This was perfectly suited to the new-found confidence of magazines and newspapers that occurred in the 1960s and, with fellow left-wing cartoonists David Levine and Jules Feiffer, he formed part of a triumvirate of character assassins for hire. Always fiercely moral, and never one to take a cheap shot, he has set out to prick with his pen inflated egos from the worlds of politics, acting, literature, music and religion. His aim is ‘to bring down the Gods’. It was not always this way; his early drawings were mostly pretty, decorative illustrations for magazines, but it was his passionate anger about the Vietnam War that forced an evolution in both his line and content. He honed these satirical skills during a long association with the left-wing weekly magazine, The Nation, for which he drew a weekly strip, normally showing Nixon, Ford or Reagan embroiled in their own complex scheming. He holds a special affection for The Nation because it is the only publication that has allowed him to attack organised religion openly in his cartoons.
Sorel’s work has featured in a vast number of publications, but most regularly in The Nation, The Atlantic, Fortune, Harper’s, Penthouse, and Esquire and, since the early 1990s, The New Yorker, for which he has since drawn over 40 covers. The first was commissioned by Tina Brown on 5 October 1992, featuring a punk being driven through Central Park on a horse drawn carriage, and this marked the beginning of Ed Sorel’s long relationship with the magazine that, in his words, ‘saved my career’. Whether or not this is entirely true, it is a relationship that has produced much remarkable work and brought Sorel’s drawings to an even wider audience.
Sorel has published numerous books, often collaborating with his wife, Nancy Caldwell Sorel, as writer. Notable examples are Word People (1970), First Encounters (1998) and collections of his own cartoons such as Unauthorised Portraits (1997). Literary Lives (2006), was a break from politics in which he exposed, with a good deal of humour, the worst qualities of some of the great names in literature and music.
In 1998, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC held an acclaimed exhibition of his caricatures, and he has been the recipient of several awards including the Best in Illustration Award from the National Cartoonists Society, the Augustus St Gaudens Medal for Professional Achievement from The Cooper Union, the George Polk Award for Satiric Drawing, the Hamilton King Award from The Society of Illustrators, the Page One Award from the Newspaper Guild, the ‘Karikaturpreis der Deutschen Anwaltschaft’ from the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover, Germany, and in 2001 the Art Directors Club of New York elected him to their Hall of Fame.
In 2006, Graydon Carter, the New York editor of Vanity Fair, commissioned Sorel to draw a huge mural across the walls of his new, ultra fashionable restaurant, The Waverley Inn in Manhattan. The work features portraits from across the artistic spectrum, from Wilde to Warhol, and confirms Sorel’s status as one of the great twentieth-century caricaturists.
In 2011, Ed received a Master Series Award from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, New York City, and an accompanying retrospective exhibition at the Visual Arts Gallery. The award and exhibition honour great visual communicators of the time, and previous laureates include Saul Bass, Seymour Chwast, Heinz Edelmann, Jules Feiffer and Milton Glaser.
In early 2014, Ed Sorel was entered into the New York City Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame.
In 2012, Ed began work writing Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, a book about a sex scandal surrounding the American actress in 1936. The book was published by Norton in 2016, and is now a Best Seller on Amazon. Woody Allen reviewed it for The New York Times, and stated that not only does Ed 'write a terrific book', chronicling the affair with 'pace and humor', but he also 'illustrates it with his wonderful caricature drawings'. The full review can be read at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/22/books/review/woody-allen-edward-sorel-mary-astors-purple-diary.html?_r=0
The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, of Boston University, recently acquired Ed's archive of original artwork, cartoons, correspondence, awards, books and photographs. During 2018, it is celebrating this acquisition with the exhibition, 'Portrait of an Artist: The Life and Work of Edward Sorel'.