"There was a lot of yelling," says Edward Sorel of his childhood in the 1930s. "I was born in the Bronx — to factory-worker parents. We were Jews, and Fascism seemed to be everywhere. Half my family were Communists; the other half wished we could all get together without arguing politics." So, you might think Sorel took after the opinionated half. He's passionately antiauthoritarian, usually leftist. But he's no party-line man — he pokes at pomposity wherever he sees it.
He drew Maya Angelou and Billie Holiday (below) for First Encounters, a book he collaborated on with his wife, Nancy, a writer and historian. His illustrations complement her accounts of first meetings between notables from the past several centuries.
Over six decades, Sorel has published thousands of caricatures. He's done several books, and many of his drawings have become magazine covers, including 35 for the New Yorker. Sometimes his subjects call him: "The ones that break your heart are politicians wanting to buy the original art," he quips. "That's when you know you're worthless."
A new exhibition, "Edward Sorel: Unauthorized Portraits," is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through January 2. Sorel works "direct," explains curator Wendy Wick Reaves. "That means no tracing or erasing, and little preliminary sketching. With this sudden-death approach, Sorel's figures often emerge from a dense, wiry tangle of overlapping pen strokes that crackle with energy." Sorel says this is "an extremely eccentric thing to do in pen and ink." One blunder means starting over on a new sheet.
During the '60s he realized that having to work fast, under tight deadlines, improved his style by making it more intuitive — "I was beginning to understand what Degas meant by 'premeditated spontaneity.'" But even after all these years, drawing is intense work for Sorel. "I welcome any interruption while I'm doing it. My drawings have a lot of nervous energy—for the simple reason that I'm nervous."
Looking back, Sorel is glad he learned early on that if you use humor, you don't have to yell. Besides, he's had to help raise four kids by selling his art to magazines. "Unadulterated rage," he observes, "does not go well with four-color advertisements for Cadillac cars."