"One of the disadvantages of being a cartoonist is that there is nothing to explain," said . He was talking to the small group assembled last week at the opening of his first one-man museum show, "Edward Sorel: Unauthorized Portraits," at the National Portrait Gallery.
But he did want to clarify one point. "I think cartooning is a great art, and I have no desire to paint," he announced, seeming to preempt a question he may be tired of answering. "I am one of those profoundly shallow people who believe that being amusing is the highest form of art."
Sorel, 70, trusts the mightiness of pen and ink to convey messages about politics, history and celebrity. In a 1966 cover drawing for Esquire magazine, five hands with matches and lighters compete to ignite Frank Sinatra's cigarette while the singer's blue eyes ignore the offerings, peering instead at something intangible in the distance.
In another image, he fashions Donald Trump as Icarus, his wings raining money as he falls from the sky, helpless to stop his tumble from financial grace. A slew of politicians suffer at Sorel's hands in "Political Descent '96," in which he depicts them as a variety of low life forms.
Throughout his career, Sorel says, he has received only a handful of irate phone calls or letters from lampooned subjects. "The calls that break your heart are the ones that come from the politician you have just savaged asking for the original art," he said. "That's when you know you are useless."
In the show hangs a controversial work from 1967 that never found a home in any publication. "Pass the Lord and Praise the Ammunition" spoofs a World War I poster, with Cardinal Francis Spellman, who supported the escalation of the Vietnam War, carrying a bayonet and wearing a determined expression.
Sorel had the image printed up as posters, but they came off the press the day the cardinal died. The posters wound up "in the East River, for the most part," Sorel said.
Born in the Bronx in 1929 to factory-worker parents, Sorel started drawing with crayons on white cardboard from his father's shirt boxes. He attended the High School of Music and Art and Cooper Union, but says he really learned to draw from his colleagues at Push Pin Studios, which he founded in the 1950s with two friends, now well-known artists, Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser.
After two years, Sorel started his own freelance career and developed his unusual style of working mostly in pen and ink. A mistake means starting over; the Frank Sinatra portrait in the show resulted from an editor calling for a redo, which Sorel produced overnight to meet a deadline. "My drawings have a lot of nervous energy for the simple reason I'm nervous," he said.
A self-confessed anti-authoritarian, Sorel started his career creating political drawings for such leftist publications as Monocle and Ramparts, which paid poorly but offered artistic freedom. He branched out to the more mainstream press, children's books, newspaper editorial cartoons and a few advertisements.
Only recently did he break into the elite cartooning world of the New Yorker, scoring the first cover of then-editor Tina Brown's reign in 1992. On a wall in his downtown New York loft hangs one of his favorite cartoons for that magazine. An upper-crust dad confronts his bohemian son in an opulent living room. The caption reads, "On the other hand, the unexamined life doesn't seem to produce much income."
Income does not worry Sorel so much anymore. He says he mostly has the luxury of cooking up his own ideas and then selling them to publications. One of his main idea sources is the New York Public Library's picture collection, where racks of images, including turkeys and New York at night, tempt his imagination.
Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, like Pierre Auguste Cot's "The Storm" (Sorel's version of the Adam and Eve-like lovers features Woody Allen and Mia Farrow), are fair game as well.
For now, he has mostly closed the door on political drawing. "The politicians change, but the hypocrisy doesn't. You get tired of it after a while," he said with a shrug.
Even after all these years of practice, Sorel says drawing is still a challenge for him. Each day he sits by a window in a tiny, disorganized front room of his apartment and leaps at the chance of any interruption. "I work for three minutes and eat for five," said the slim artist. His wife, researcher Nancy Caldwell Sorel, writes in a back room. "We don't have any stories to tell each other at the dinner table," he quipped.
In a stretch for the artist, they collaborated on a series for the Atlantic Monthly called "First Encounters," which explored the first meetings of famous individuals. Somewhat more detailed and serious than his cartoons or caricatures, a few examples found their way into the "Portraits" show, including "Igor Stravinsky and W.H. Auden" and "Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill."
But most of the images in the show hang for the viewer's amusement. The artist is not above making fun of himself, either. "Edward Sorel and the Presidents," a picture of Sorel being sketched nude by the likes of a grinning Gerald Ford, a smirking Richard Nixon and a gleeful George Bush, gives a moment of sweet revenge to some of the powerful people the artist has chewed up with his pen.
"My problem is that I'm honest to a fault, and that is really how I look without clothes," Sorel said at the show's opening. Every eye in the room darted from Sorel to the sketch pads on the wall to looking around for Nancy Sorel, who had deftly left the room. She probably knew this line was coming.
"Edward Sorel: Unauthorized Portraits," at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. Through Jan. 2. 202-357-2700.
CAPTION: His way: Edward Sorel laid bare before political figures he has skewered, above; his take on Frank Sinatra with hangers-on, left; and Woody Allen and Mia Farrow banished from Eden.