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The DART Interview: Steve Brodner

By Peggy Roalf   Tuesday October 8, 2019

School of Visual Arts will honor prolific illustrator and faculty member Steve Brodner with the 31st annual Masters Series Award and Exhibition in 2019. “The Masters Series: Steve Brodner” will be a comprehensive retrospective of his celebrated career and include never-before-seen political art and illustration work set along a timeline covering the past five decades. “Brodner’s pen acts as a weapon to challenge the status quo and create awareness of injustices that affect our society and the world at large. Since graduating from Cooper Union in New York City in 1976, Brodner has embedded himself within the canon and tradition of American Graphic commentators, while also seeking to expand the boundaries of the form,” states the press release.

It must also be stated that Steve was the first artist I interviewed for DART: Design Arts Daily, back in 2009, in the original print version. So today, I celebrate again the gifts this artist has offered thinkers and doers who care about society.

PR: You are a self-described “news junkie”. Can you tell the readers how this came about?

SB: Not really sure how this happened to me. Growing up in Brooklyn I was always surrounded by media. And coming of age in the 1960's I became highly sensitized to the relationship between my reality and the broader reality as seen in the news. There were many newspapers then and I enjoyed two or three of them each Sunday, when my parents would bring them home. The New York Journal-American would have the comics in large format. I would spread these across the floor and lie across them and read. Hirschfeld would be given a vast space in the Drama section very often in the New York Times. Then the Kennedy assassination happened. That's when TV news became a very big thing for me. Saw Oswald's murder live. And then of course everything else cascading in the 1960s. So by the end of the decade I was doing a regular cartoon, if only for myself.

 

PR: What is there in your personal makeup that drives you to find out the worst about some of the most reprehensible characters at large today? You are, in fact, a really nice guy, who is kind and generous to his students. Where do you find the intellectual venom that must be a part of the job description: of digging deep to interpret their character in linework that is physically transformative and, at the least, quite damning? 

SB: Wow. I like to think that I'm a nice guy. But who really knows? In any case, I believe that there is optimism and hopefulness just below the surface of every grotesque caricature. It is all about defending what is valuable against forces arrayed against it. To fight against the big guy when he's beating up the little guy is an expression of love for the little guy.

PR: Have you ever changed your way of teasing out character definition through linework after meeting a public figure? 

SB: There's always a deeper understanding of the face. But it never changes my handling of the ideas being pushed out. For example, I covered the Oliver North campaign in Virginia for the New Yorker. I thought he was a fun person to be with. We had a delightful dinner together. But I never lost track of the basic fact that he is an authentic American fascist. 

PR: Given the fact that you have closely studied the features of some incredibly corrupt individuals in politics, the corporate world, and media, do you think that phrenology [the study of the cranium as an indicator of character and intelligence] deserves another chance? 

SB:  What a fantastic question. We could go on for hours on this one. It's my observation that some people are ready-made caricatures of themselves. Like Trump or Newt Gingrich or [Rudolph] Giuliani. But these are old men. And it reminds me of Abraham Lincoln's comment about how people, after a certain age, should be careful of their face. He was noticing that after a time what is underneath has a tendency to come to the surface. I suspect that is true. This is why it's harder to draw younger people. Their faces are less lived in. And then there are faces of very goodlooking older people who are thoroughly evil. Ronald Reagan is a perfect example of that. I saw him up close. I had never seen such a Technicolor face in my life. He clearly was a movie star. And a horrifying president. So in the final analysis this is an art that is about infusing pictures with ideas. And the ideas are the only things that matter. And that's a challenge to achieve in a picture.

PR: What political figure has the most interesting face you’ve ever drawn? 

SB: I would say once again Ronald Reagan. He started off as a handsome movie star. And then as he aged he was given a serious facelift somewhere in Hollywood, sometime between the 1976 and 1980 campaigns. So the challenge was how to draw this seemingly jolly grandpa, now, as the diabolical lizard he really was. I found it a fascinating project the whole time. And finally my career blossomed just as the Iran-Contra scandal hit. By then I had made an extensive study of that face. 

PR: What is there about those features that made you keep looking? 

SB: The great paradox. Things being the opposite of how they looked. And how to get that down on paper. And having seen him up close and person and understanding the impact it had on people.

PR: Who is your favorite historical figure, and what has that person done to earn your admiration?

SB: It's between Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lincoln was born into a hardscrabble life, rose by virtue of his intellect, blended with moral bearing and political acumen to become the savior of millions and also the fabric of the country. Roosevelt was a man born into wealth and privilege and, who, by virtue of great suffering and disappointment, wound up taking the cause of the poor into the halls of power and saving millions of lives and the democracy as well.

PR: When a political figure with what could be described as bland features comes along (here I’m thinking of Hillary Clinton) what do you look for in order to compensate for a kind of ordinariness?

SB: Again it's all about ideas. You ask yourself what is this person trying to do? What is the program here? Caricature is the project of drawing the inner life and bringing it to the surface. 

PR: Sometimes a “thought bubble” phrase makes what would otherwise be a rather descriptive portrait into something truly menacing (here I’m thinking of the Bin Laden drawing for The New Yorker). Can you tell readers what prompted you to use this device in your work? 

SB: Using text in an illustration is an indicator that it is becoming more of a political cartoon. Cartoons are supposed to stand on their own. When you use text you are arranging for that. You no longer need an accompanying story or headline. For a good part of my career I have been a cartoonist. I think that is a very high calling. Some of my favorite artists are cartoonists, who do beautiful art that stand alone thanks to a solid idea, made clear by text. And they do it every day!

PR: Have you studied animals by drawing from life or from reference? I’ve found that some of your transmogirfications of people into animal avatars [Putin, for example] also to be quite menacing.

SB: Everything in illustration is achieved by combining the observed and the imagined. They must be used in equal parts. Your strange and weird idea will be communicated most effectively when used in super clear visual language. So, if you're drawing Trump, really look at Trump. If you're drawing a baboon, really look at a baboon. If you are blending them together to create a trump baboon, you are, essentially, collaging these pieces. But each element must serve both ends. There must be the imaginative and observational working at all times.

PR: Who has been the least interesting president since the mid-‘70s, when you sharpened your pencil into an offensive weapon? How did you maintain your interest in the political life of the country under that less-than-astonishing leadership? Did you find unusual workarounds to compensate for an unavoidable tedium? 

SB:  We have been in such tempestuous times that even the most ineffectual president, and I'm thinking now of George W. Bush, becomes highly consequential. I got to spend some time with him. An extremely unimpressive individual. But he was thrust deep into tumultuous historical whirlwinds, made much worse by virtue of his poor qualifications. And therefore became one of the most significant presidents in history! 

PR: I’ve noticed that sometimes your drawing of a public figure must have given you a side-splitting moment of laughter. For example, what was there about Sara Palin (for The New Yorker) that made your marker flow?

SB:  That piece was for a review of her new TV show that featured her family happily exploring the wilds of Alaska. “The Sound of Music” immediately came to mind. So I dressed them all up in lederhosen and set them against the Alps. The savage irony was already baked in. All I had to do was put a gentle finger on it. It's great fun when you can do that.

PR: Do you ever feel the need for a break from the sordid mess of the political arena? What sort of assignments do you pitch when you want to switch gears?

SB: As people can see in the show [at SVA Chelsea Gallery] there is quite a bit of historical work. I'd like to research unknown bits of history, for example, the signers of the Declaration of Independence who sacrificed the most in the war. That piece ran on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. I am currently working on the history of climate change denial for Harper's. I research these, write them up, pitch them, draw them, and then hope that the great editorial forces at the publication will jump in with more information for me. That always seems to happen, luckily.

PR: How would you spend your time on the day when the Internet and all news media inevitably crash? 

SB: Well, as I tell my students, there's always something to draw! 

Celebrate The Masters Series: Steve Brodner at the artist’s reception Thursday, October 10, from 6 to 8 pm. SVA Chelsea Gallery, 601 West 26th Street, 15th Floor, NY, NY Info More

 

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