The funny cartoons ("drawings," as The New Yorker calls them) of Edward Koren are full of animaloids that dear ladies sometimes call cute and adorable.
In fact, of course, they combine the gentleness of the barbed sea urchin with the delicacy of an old yak in the rutting season.
Usually, as Koren observed yesterday while preparing himself spiritually to face an audience in the Smithsonian Institution's lecture series at the Hirshhorn, they wear a smile both vapid and desperate.
Indeed, the gap between what is said and what is clearly true lies at the heart of the humor, which is commonly sardonic.
Koren himself can afford to be a sweet man since his vicious jabs are largely spent in the cartoons.
He missed a plane yesterday by 30 seconds in New York, falling into a snit from which he recovered in time to show a smiling, somewhat nervous countenance in the capital later on.
He dressed in the New York manner of beat-up corduroy pants and a dark blue shirt and this costume, combined with his black hair and relatively bushy mustache and long arms, suggests an impatience with conventional elegance.
He has a cult, you know, and his worshipers believe he is a major philosopher or, at the least, a peerless recorder of the Angst-ridden, sharp, perceptive, darkly glimmering American psyche.
He draws your Hotel Moderne (an anachronism) or your lovingly tended suburban lawn (the mail box chained to an immovable foundation, against theft).
The things people say. "My little bugaboo," is an endearing greeting to a certified bugaboo, in one of his drawings, complete with antennae and six legs.
Some of the things people say figuratively can apply all too literally and this unfortunate truth is never wasted on Koren:
"Loved the show," cries a woman leaving a gallery showing of an artist's work. (Which is full of knives, hypodermics, daggers, two hanged persons, etc.)
The way people travel (Koren, by the way, jogs or runs in Manhattan, and since he stays south of 110th Street he finds this is as quick as any other means of transportation) and the way people try to establish contact in social settings ("You look disgustingly healthy," to a fellow clearly disgusting and never mind the health) never fail to engage Koren's attention.
There is a style of seeming compassion that hardly masks an open indifference or contempt or actual joy at another's pain. Koren is good at capturing it, and has drawn terrible funny things about smile-face (two dots and a crescent grin on a disk) good wishes. This business of "sharing" and "rapping" and other common easily spoken talismans of concern delight him, and he goes to some pains to show how little caring lies beneath the words. Perhaps his greatest:
"Do you want to talk about it?" is said by a grown-up, maybe a mother, to a little tot who has just dropped and ruined his ice cream cone on a public pavement.
Even a progressive ought to be able to see that what the kid wants is another unspoiled ice cream cone or, failing that, a good hug, or a shared indignation. Anything but an invitation to talk while in the first torrent of tears.
But none of the perceptions or gag lines would be funny without Koren's drawing of creatures. He once had an art teacher who said, "You learn to draw one whit better and you've lost it all."
"People ask more than anything else where I get my ideas," he said.
"Where else could you get them except at Idea Central inside your poor head," he was helped along.
"Right," he said. "You could say I subscribe to Dementia. It comes every day."
But mind you, the bristles and fangs, the coarse fur and glinty eyes did not flower overnight.
The formative influences of his early years, he suspects, were two volumes. "Little Toot" and "Hercules," about a steam locomotive and a fire engine.
He was an only child, rather solitary and much given to reading until he turned into a teen-ager and took to riding all over Westchester County on a bicycle with his buddies, and the Lord only knows what was formative then.
"From a tad I guess I liked to draw. I depended a lot on what people said, and they sometimes said of some drawing that it was terrific. I began designing football programs and things for the high school magazine."
And yet, he was not altogether fulfilled, since there was not much demand at the square, straight Horace Mann School for weird animals or sunflowers with guns.
He grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., "in the foothills of the Bronx," which is where the essayist, E. B. White, also grew up earlier, as Koren is fond of pointing out.
His father was a dentist and his family generally tried to give him the good wholesome life, shielded from terrible influences like art. (Which, as we know, leads to absinthe and irregular hours and an early grave.)
"I do not think my mother knew who Toulouse-Lautrec was," he said. And yet, such is the ginger of youth, he soon enough discovered the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Gallery in New York and one more promising lad was lost to the 19th Hole forever, and it is conceivable he does not possess a single pair of polished cordovans or Chipp cords.
"Your drawings remind one of Proust," it was suggested, but no rise was forthcoming. He's a Mark Twain man, himself.
"Proust deals with the gulf between polite convention and reality. Between the pretensions to nobility and the true emptiness."
"Well," he said, "then I can see why you ask if I like Proust. I look at good happy middle-class life and wonder."
He said he cannot talk well (an apparent lie, not to split hairs, since he rattles along in a fully engaging way, touching down at Manet, the things people have told him (or that he has overheard). Such as:
"Once a woman said, 'I just love being alive. It's fun.'"
These gems fall into the dark unfathom'd caves of the artist's musings and emerge sparkling and two-edged in a composition of highly unlovable animals.
He is quite different from, say, George Booth, whose cats and dogs (commonly asleep on their feet) bespeak the most profound observations of animals in inaction.
Koren is not a conspicuous animal lover. In one of his most revealing drawings he shows a semi-normal looking human surrounded by a vast semi-circle of admiring fans -- animals with improbable teeth, grimaces, horns, hides and shapeless paws. They are asking the humanoid, "Where do you get your ideas?" Any fool can see he gets them from the ones asking the question, who merely think they are ordinary and normal.
"Once I did a somewhat withering cartoon about a couple named Garber, a name I just hit on at random, showing they had survived many ups and downs -- and they looked fairly beat up at the last. Garbers all over the country wrote me to say, "That's us, all right. Can we buy the original?'"
"People have a compulsion to confess," he was reminded. "Also, they have superb senses of humor and love a bit of wry."
With some cartoonists you say, "There but for the grace, go I," while others make you say, "There goes Grace, all right."
Koren makes all too many of us say:
"How the hell did that guy get inside?"