In 1967 a talking stomach was interviewed about its digestion on TV in a commercial spot for Alka-Seltzer, the effervescent cure for indigestion. That a talking organ would change television advertising forever was surprising. Who would have thought such an essentially unattractive muscle could become a TV star, and later an icon of the “Creative Revolution?” Its creator, R.O. Blechman, knew in his gut that it would. The talking stomach was an instant success and viewers were charmed by its understated hilarity, rendered with R. O. Blechman’s famously nervous comic line.
Understated is the best way to describe Blechman’s work. His art foregoes slapstick. His line is genuinely humane. Although many cartoonists have copied the shaky look, no one has ever duplicated the human qualities of his everyman (or every stomach) images. Perhaps the perception of a spiritual humanity has something to do with Blechman’s inventive animation work in which he employs voices that transcend the mere line and move from comic to emotionally multifaceted characterizations. (I always associate Blechman’s figures with Max Von Sydow’s dulcet voice. What other cartoonist can trigger such voices in the head?) Blechman’s ability to invest emotion onto his scratchy homunculi has to do with his painstaking attention to gestured detail. He is a master of the expressive gesture.
Yet contrary to what one might expect of such a minimal line, Blechman’s every last pen stroke is purposely, often excruciatingly composed. He has been known to draw dozens of tiny squiggly noses, for instance, on adhesive-backed paper until the right one materializes; then he meticulously cuts it out with an Xacto knife and pastes it onto the image. The final drawing is pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. And as studied as this process is, the end product is the perfect marriage of comedy and emotion—accomplished through signature gestures.
When Blechman’s art was on its ascent during the late fifties and sixties, he bucked the prevailing style of gag cartoons. With the notable exception of James Thurber’s primitive scrawls and Robert Osborn’s expressionist brush strokes, abstraction was frowned upon. Blechman’s abstract linear economy was innovative, but so were his themes. The 1953 adaptation of The Juggler of Our Lady, which prefigured today’s graphic novels by decades, was not the usual cartoon or comic fare. Likewise, his 1977 No Room at the Inn, a retelling of the nativity myth, was surprisingly warm and spiritual. His drawing is a form of writing and his writing brilliantly complements his drawing.
It is tempting to refer to Blechman’s wit as deadpan, but that designation does not take into account the inherent joy that pervades even the most somber work. His 1966 Christmas Message, broadcast for many years on CBS, is an animated, ecumenical paean to the season that resonates to this day. A lumberjack, standing before a tree, uses his saw as a violin, and plays a Christmas carol. In the tree are birds and therein is the tension between holiday tradition, consumerism, and the human condition. In the hands of more slapstick cartoonists the humor might be there, but not the cathartic power.
Blechman is a “perfectionist.” Witness his first feature film, Igor Stravinsky’s heartbreaking The Soldier’s Tale. The intense energy it cost to make the outcome flawless, drained seemingly indefatigable resources. For him, as an independent producer, to engage in such a mammoth undertaking before the age of CGI, showed not only commitment to his art, but also a devotion to narratives that go deep into his persona. This was no easy task. Adapting this tale of war and its ravages to the screen was difficult enough. To make a story compelling with nervously drawn characters took him years. But from the moment it premiered, viewers were pulled into Blechman’s universe. It was not simply an animated rendition of a classic work, it was a total sensory experience that transcended the existing paradigms of animation and filmmaking. And yet it is a cartoon.
At 82, Blechman projects youthful skepticism and sardonic sarcasm. He is routinely more optimistic—indeed more joyous—than other world-weary cartoonists, with their sarcasm and rueful skepticism. Blechman’s work, no matter how caustic, never feels like resignation to the fates.
He has created his share of graphic icons too. His 1974 New Yorker cover, published during the height of the energy crisis, is a brilliant watercolor of the New York skyline of skyscrapers depicted as old-fashioned windmills, taking New York back to its Dutch roots, while predicting the increasing interest in wind power. His 1979 New Yorker cover, New York at Night, showing the colored lights on New York’s monumental buildings, is as emblematic for the city as was Saul Steinberg’s earlier New York-centric map. It was similarly imitated as in Milan at Night and Paris at Night, and it helped put the New Yorker and New York back on the map, too. And for me, one of his most illuminating illustrations is a 1981 poster that captures New York’s “Museum Mile,” showing a composite running man representing all the street’s attractions. It is New York to a “T.” For Blechman, it was a mixed media carnival. He worked in watercolor, gouache, crayon, colored pencil, and collage.
Routinely trying new approaches, over time Blechman’s characterizations have become less everyman and more individual journeyman. In recent years he has embraced color with more gusto. He also alternates between pen and brush, and includes collage and montage when appropriate. These may seem like incremental advances, but in the life of an artist any shifts in conceptual thinking and technical processes are building blocks. He does his share of building every day and he is no longer the same artist who cuts out dozens of squiggly noses to find a Platonic ideal.
The political cartoonist J.N. Darling once said a cartoon is “a humor-coated capsule by means of which the sober judgments of editorial minds may be surreptitiously gotten down the throats of an apathetic public.” Blechman’s drawings are very potent pills. His deceptively simple graphic approach is wily camouflage for the many social and political satires that comprise his oeuvre. He rarely makes overtly partisan political commentary, preferring instead to be an outsider, if for no other reason than to “support the underdog,” he once said. His goal has always been to subvert the commonplace. In the manner of a court jester, he attacks real absurdity with comic absurdity. He disarms the viewer, and then, like a victorious army, occupies their senses. His shaky line and steady wit has captured the beachhead for now and always.
Co-chair MFA Design / Designer as Author & Entrepreneur
School of Visual Arts, New York