Mort Gerberg Cartoons: A New Yorker’s Perspective
New York Historical Society February 15-May 5
Accompanying the opening cluster of images in this exhibit, Mort Gerberg is quoted saying that a lot of his early work was unremarkable, but that the “main thing is, I kept drawing.” That aspect of Gerberg’s philosophy is amply conveyed through the work of decades on display in this narrow hallway on the second floor of the New York Historical Society. It seems to be my fate this season, to visit exhibitions of cartoonists’ work in second floor hallways. So be it! I welcome the hallway exhibit era! This time, it was an exhibit of Mort Gerberg’s work in the second floor hallway of the New York Historical Society.
Gerberg, probably most well known for his decades of cartoons for the New Yorker, has had a long and successful career exploring a variety of forms, including serialized newspaper strips, video, and journalistic illustration as well as the iconic italics-captioned one panel cartoons for the New Yorker. While it does not offer much depth in exploring any particular aspect of Gerberg’s career, the exhibit is successful in showing the breadth of Gerberg’s work over the years, with several groupings of New Yorker cartoons on different topics from different eras as well as many other kinds of work Gerberg has done, lining the hall.
Gerberg’s work is immediately recognizable, with rounded, expressive figures interacting and emoting. He is a master of side-eye. Some wordless jokes employ color and sequence to convey a sense of soft slapstick, such as a beautiful colored sunset available on demand or a group of witches rising from traffic cones in the street, but for the most part, his work on display here, including the documenting sketches in the glass-fronted cases labeled “reportage,” is in black and white. For me, especially his black and white work triggers the nostalgia of flipping through my parents’ copies of the New Yorker as a kid, looking for the cartoons. Now that I am a grown-up who has lived in New York City for decades, they’re even funnier.
I found the New Yorker cartoons to be the most enjoyable part of the exhibit, since while they were ostensibly grouped by topic, their humor carries through without context. That is, the original on the wall of a museum is just as funny as the printed copy in the magazine. Particularly, a grouping of politics-themed cartoons at the end of the hallway was the most rhetorically powerful in conveying the way Gerberg’s humor has aged well, and is still current, with cartoons about Nixon mere feet from cartoons about Trump.
While I enjoyed the cartoons in this exhibit, the exhibit overall did not seem particularly focused. It didn’t home in on one subject treated by Gerberg extensively, nor offer a chronological look at the evolution of his style, nor illuminate anything about his decision-making or artistic process. Rather, the selections are displayed on the wall the way cartoons appear on the pages of the New Yorker: only connected tangentially to the things around them, each possible to appreciate individually with or without context.
The New York Historical Society is a fun place to visit. It is very accessible, and while it is significantly smaller than neighboring museums like the American Museum of Natural History right across the street from it, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art right across the park, it has a surprisingly wide range of exhibits. The Mort Gerberg exhibit hallway is probably too small and unfocused to warrant a visit all on its own, but it makes a great addition to a visit that also includes the diverse exhibits in the rest of the galleries of the museum—like a piece of the famed range of experience and humanity that makes New York City itself so unique.