BARRY BLITT collects Trump heads. Not as photographic trophies of his successful satiric bull’s-eyes, akin to how the president’s own grown sons show off what they’ve bagged in the wild. No, Blitt, as an illustrator, finds something creatively inspiring about culling pics of the prez from every angle.
“I’m a slavish adherent to reference photos,” Blitt, the frequent New Yorker magazine cover artist, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “I’ll collect pictures of him, and it seems like every one is revelatory.”
The lowered brow. The pugnacious underbite. The wispy sweep of a hair strand or the bewitching back of the head. Each photographed feature can help enliven the artist’s latest caricatured take. “There’s always something interesting,” Blitt says of Trump as tableaux. “I’m sort of attacking him fresh each time, visually.”
That approach has reaped comedic rewards. Blitt’s lively gift with turning Washington figures into character studies has helped him become the New Yorker’s preeminent political cover artist — an editorial whiz in deadline watercolor. From fist-dapping Obamas (“The Politics of Fear”) to Trump as beauty-pageant contestant (“Miss Congeniality”), Blitt’s hot-button spoofs often go viral. They synthesize the headlines into a wry visual that can prove irresistible in the split-second metabolism of social media — yet prove even more aesthetically enriching when you enlarge and study his remarkably textured art.
Now those deft illustrations get the collected showcase they deserve in “Blitt” (Riverhead Books), a beautiful hardcover retrospective published this week of the artist’s New Yorker work over the past quarter-century. Blitt will appear Sunday evening at Politics and Prose bookstore to share stories behind the art. (That includes his rejected art, including a flaccid Eiffel Tower and Madonna’s baby-shower gifts.)
Blitt, 59, himself is an interesting character study, a self-described oft-humbled neurotic (a sly “diary scrap” in the book makes note throughout the day that he’s “still alive”) who grew up in Canada drawing hockey players, Dorothy Hamill and Popeye.
Blitt aimed to build a humorless portfolio of “serious” art, but he was unable to out-render his genetics. His father was an irredeemable joker, and his father’s father was a “kosher josher” from the old country, and so Blitt was born “a smart aleck,” he writes. “A wisenheimer. A jokester, punster and fool.” Not long after he got out of art school in Toronto, “art directors were interested only in the funny pictures.”
Now, it’s those funny pictures that mark him for excellence.
“When I call Barry asking for cover ideas, I’m hoping for two things: One is that he’ll send one of his wickedly funny ideas, and two, that it’s something we can actually publish,” says Françoise Mouly, his art editor at the New Yorker. “It’s not always the case, but still, thanks to him, I often get my greatest reward — making [editor] David Remnick explode with laughter.”
Blitt didn’t set out to be politically funny, but he adapted to the comedic ecosystem. When he was also drawing for clients such as Entertainment Weekly in the ’90s, as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke, “politics became pop culture,” he says.
By the time Bush the Younger took office, Blitt was spreading his political wings. One of his most memorable New Yorker covers from that administration (the national-award-winning “Deluged”) — and one that holds up as a particular favorite of his — depicts the Oval Office becoming swamped by the rising metaphoric waters of Hurricane Katrina response.
Several years later, Blitt was blindsided by the response to another Oval Office cover: This time, Barack and Michelle Obama were ironically cast as radical, fist-bumping figures in revolutionary garb. By that Sunday night, before the July 2008 magazine had even landed on the newsstand, he was getting calls and emails from people wondering just whom he was really skewering. “I knew,” he says, “it was going to be a rocky week. There was so much at stake.”
Sometimes, the week’s trial is not one of message but rather immediacy. The night of the Brexit vote, Blitt ultimately had little time to turn around finished art.
“The Brexit cover had to happen in an hour and a half — that was particularly hairy,” he says of the July 2016 magazine art. “I had two sketches. One was the ‘silly walk,’ and one was the king and queen with bags over their heads.”
The New Yorker editors chose the former concept, which went viral. “The idea was unconscious,” Blitt says of the Monty Python-inspired cover. “Though I do have a ‘silly walk’ wristwatch hanging up in my house.”
Another cover that sparked a strong response: In October 2011, he drew Apple founder Steve Jobs at the Pearly Gates. Some critics hated the easy reliance on the afterlife trope; others said Jobs was Buddhist. Yet Apple leaders liked the art so much, they acquired the original by offering Blitt a swiftly arranged Apple Store shopping spree of sorts near his rural Connecticut home.
And more recently, ever since Trump announced his candidacy, Blitt has had a political field day at the drafting board, drawing a small palm reading of the then-candidate (March 2016), for instance, or this year rendering Trump throwing a monkey wrench into political machinery that nods to Charlie Chaplin’s classic “Modern Times.”
“He has lifted all boats,” Blitt says of Trump as common comedic fodder. “He gets the outrage going.”
Yet Blitt feels compelled to clarify one point: He insists, despite his editorial wit, that he is no deep Washington thinker.
“My comprehension of politics was and remains superficial,” he writes. “And while I still don’t feel like I really know anything about politics, I’m comforted by the apparent fact that nobody else seems to, either.”
Spoken by the born wisenheimer.