Barry Blitt’s home is on the corner of a country road in Roxybury, Conn. Perched on a hill, the white, Victorian-style house is where Blitt inks his cleaver, incisive, humorous cartoons and illustrations for The New Yorker. Blitt began working for the magazine in 1992 and since then, his work has appeared on upward of 100 covers. He is perhaps best known for his political cartoons and in the era of the Trump administration — which is ripe for a ribbing — Blitt’s work has been second to none.
“I think he’s a great political cartoonist of our time but that’s not all he is,” said David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker. “He sees things that you and I don’t see….He’s a genius.”
On a given day, Blitt, who often sports a Panama hat, is in his studio, which looks out on his backyard. There he works on multiple drawings for The New Yorker and other glossies. WWD caught up with the modest, self-deprecating cartoonist in Roxbury to talk about his process; his new book, “Blitt,” published by Riverhead Books, and the challenges of depicting Trump.
WWD: Has your process changed over the years?
Barry Blitt: Process? No. It’s always been fear-based.
WWD: How do you come up with your ideas?
B.B.: Sometimes the call will go out, “Trump is going to run for president,” and a lot of artists will get an e-mail saying, “This would be a great time to submit sketches,” whether it’s some event or a holiday or whatever. Everyone will send sketches in. Other times, something will occur to me, or other artists, and you just send stuff on your own.
WWD: Are you a quick artist?
B.B.: Yeah. I am. I’ll send a very rudimentary sketch to get the idea across. I think that’s what they prefer.…It will start in a sketchbook and if I like something, I will redraw it a little bit more clearly. If I get a go-ahead then [from the editor], I’ll go to the final art.
WWD: Has your characterization of Trump evolved over the years?
B.B.: What happens with [Barack] Obama and Bill Clinton and George Bush is you sort of learn to draw them from memory. Certain things stick in your head, like his hair. Trump is a cartoon already, so he’s easy.
WWD: Does his “cartoonish” nature make it harder on some level?
B.B.: Not visually, but because he behaves so outrageously and ridiculously, it becomes hard to parody. It’s already a cartoon situation so it has become ridiculous.
WWD: Have you ever gone too far in your work?
B.B.: I don’t really know what makes someone want to be a cartoonist, but part of it is trying to get in trouble. You’re looking where the line is and seeing how much you can step over it, and I mean, I do that in my personal life, too. I try to anger and piss people off a little bit to try to see what I can get away with. I got in trouble with more than one [cartoon] — but there’s one particular situation with Obama fist-bumping [his wife Michelle]…it was controversial for a few days and it stopped.
It started off — I had them both dressed in Middle Eastern garb, as sort of faux terrorists because that’s what everybody was saying about them. There was supposedly a video that never materialized of her saying “kill whitey or something.” All of it was bulls–t. There was lots being said when he was running and it seemed funny to just draw it all, to show how ridiculous it was. It landed with a thud. Initially, I had her drawn like that [Middle Eastern] but it was suggested by the editor to draw an Angela Davis-like character, a militant Black Panther, or whatever that is. It evolved a little bit.
One version I had a bunch of right-wing commentators looking through the window, but that sort of gave the joke away….But [my New Yorker editor] Françoise [Mouly] encourages me not to self-edit. We’ve had situations where I was too timid about stuff. I’ll send some ideas and she’ll say, “This could have gone further.” Initially, it did go further, but I wasn’t going to send it. She said, “Please send everything. Let us decide if it goes too far.”
WWD: So how many sketches do you send for one pitch?
B.B.: As long there is time, I’ll just keep sending stuff. I don’t even know if it’s worth anything. It doesn’t hurt to just keep pushing it and keep making myself laugh. Ideally, I’m just trying to make myself laugh and then I’d like to make Françoise laugh and I’d like to make David [Remnick] laugh.
WWD: What subjects are you most interested in outside of politics?
B.B.: I’m not a political person at all. I like jazz music a lot. I wish people would get me to draw jazz music more. I don’t get a lot of that. I like hockey. I’m Canadian so I’ve got to like hockey.
WWD: Have you ever drawn fashion cartoons?
B.B.: I did some drawings for Barneys [New York] years ago. These were straight-up drawings of clothing for Barneys ads. I used to illustrate for a company called Harry Rosen up in Canada, a men’s clothier, and they used to have a magazine called Harry’s, and I would do back pages for them. It sort of made fun of men’s fashion, but it was mainly puns.
WWD: Do your New Yorker cartoons ever fall within that Seinfeld scope of being too obscure to be funny?
B.B.: I’m sure many of mine have. I’ve sent in ideas that I don’t get. It just seems funny to me, I just have no idea why.
WWD: Do they get published?
B.B.: Not a lot.
WWD: There are more illustrations now in magazines today than a few years ago. What are your views on that change?
B.B.: I think it’s harder for illustrators now, much harder. Illustrations have had its heyday. There was a time in the Eighties, I think. But the magazine business is dying. It’s a hard time for publishing. It does seem that everyone is much more opinionated now. I think there’s probably more room for making opinionated illustrations. There was a time when Time magazine and Newsweek would have a realistic painted cover. A friend of mine used to do a lot of those paintings and he was told by the art director at one point, we are switching to photography. It seems that if someone saw a painting on a cover, it took a while to do, it must be old news. Photography became more immediate.
WWD: It’s sick. The New Yorker is a unique property and even if it feels those woes, on some level, it is still buzzy and appears to be thriving. Are you getting more work from them?
B.B.: Yes, they come to me about every week.
WWD: What’s it like to draw the Trump administration?
B.B.: They are all caricatures to start with. I’ve never seen anything like it. They all look like what they are. It seems to be like made-for-TV, reality TV. It’s live-action animated TV. I used to feel like you’re putting a New Yorker cover into the world and this will show them…but it just seems like with Trump, nothing makes a difference. It just seems like things have gotten so polarized, you really feel like you’re preaching to the choir. I never thought I was making a difference politically, but you at least felt like you were putting ideas out there that meant something.
WWD: The news cycle is so fast. How often are you tossing out your cartoon and pivoting to another topic?
B.B.: I do a lot of pivoting. There was one cover I did of Trump, after he won Iowa, it seemed like it was over for him at the beginning of the primary process. He was feeling the first raindrop and his hair was soaking wet and it looked like it was over for him. I was given the go-ahead on it right away. I drew it and he won the next primary and his momentum picked up again, and suddenly, the cover didn’t make any sense. And then, after the Democratic National Convention, eight months later, it seemed like he was finished, Hillary seemed to be gaining strength, so the cover ran then. So it seemed like you can come up with an idea and it can be rendered useless two days later and then all of a sudden it’s relevant again.
WWD: What have been some of the covers you are most proud of?
B.B.: There was one for Hurricane Katrina where I had George Bush, [Dick] Cheney and [Donald] Rumsfeld — his inner circle — and they were sitting in the Oval Office up to their nipples in dirty water. That came together at the very last minute. I had [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, the Iranian guy, after he came to New York and said there were no homosexuals in Iran. It was right around the time when that congressman [Larry Craig] was doing that thing with his foot [in the bathroom stall]. So I combined the two, and I had Ahmadinejad sitting on the toilet, and there was a foot coming in the stall, and he’s looking at the foot. Those two stick out.