From the archives: Paul Conrad’s work with bronze caricatures

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A song pops into Paul Conrad’s head, but he’s damned if he can remember what it’s called. His wife, Kay, doesn’t remember either, so Conrad unfolds himself from a kitchen chair and heads down to the baby grand piano on the main floor of his Rancho Palos Verdes split-level. Maybe, he thinks, playing the song will jar the title loose.

Near the top step Conrad bends stiffly -- at age 81, most motion involves stiffness somewhere -- and with a grunt he snatches up from the floor a foot-high bronze caricature of Richard M. Nixon, arms flung to the heavens and fingers forming the classic “V” for victory. “Richard,” Conrad mutters as though to an old friend, “you aren’t getting any lighter, I’ll tell you that.”

Conrad and Nixon go back a long way, a relationship that has done a lot more for Conrad, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, than for Nixon, who resigned the presidency in 1974 over the Watergate scandal -- a climax brought about by the political firestorm fanned in no small measure by Conrad’s exacting cartoons (Conrad was the Los Angeles Times’ staff editorial cartoonist from 1964 to ’93, and his syndicated cartoons have continued to appear since then).

So a Nixon statue “seemed like the thing to do” when Conrad began converting some of his two-dimensional visions into three dimensions in the late 1970s, creating an intriguing body of limited-edition bronzes.

For a man who carved his reputation with the sharp knife of satire, many of Conrad’s statues have a gentle, at times wistful feel, “expressing warmth, intimacy, humor, humanity and compassion in three dimensions,” said Harry Katz of Del Mar, the former head curator for the Library of Congress’ Division of Prints and Photographs.

That contrasts with Conrad’s cartoons, which Katz compared to the caricatures of Honore Daumier, the 19th century French illustrator who once served six months in prison for mocking his king, and made a personal mission of satirizing the bourgeoisie long before H.L. Mencken renamed it the “booboisie.”

“Paul Conrad is one of the best editorial artists America has ever produced,” Katz said, placing him in a canon of Midwest-raised cartoonists that includes two-time Pulitzer-winner Ding Darling and three-time winner Herbert “Herblock” Block. “In fact, Ding gave him his start by telling him he was no good. Conrad responded with three Pulitzer Prizes and a brilliant career characterized by uncompromising, fiery independence. He never shied from an opinion or an issue; his drawings wed sharp, literate captions with a strong linear style. You can always recognize a Conrad cartoon.”

Conrad’s conversation is as sharp-edged as his art. There’s not a lot of gray in his worldview, but there are a lot of adjectives, the kind that usually leave ellipses in newspaper quotes. He hails from the far side of a generational divide when a newsman’s whiskey lunch was followed a few hours later by happy hour, and sometimes with no break between. It is the realm of the professional iconoclast.

“Paul Conrad has always been able to exhibit the grandest example of consistently A-grade, Blue Ribbon, USDA-prime Righteous Anger that I can ever remember seeing in a cartoonist’s work in the 50-plus years that I have been doing this sort of thing,” said fellow Pulitzer-winner Pat Oliphant, who with Conrad stands as the deans of American editorial cartooning. “He seems to be near boiling point at all times.”

As with most of his drawings, Conrad’s statues make his point through imagery, with minimal text. He sculpted Reagan as a reverse Robin Hood, stealing from the poor to give to the rich; the Clintons as two faces on the same head; and Martin Luther King Jr. as a slave breaking his own chains. Conrad’s favorite: John F. Kennedy forged from the eternal flame above his Arlington National Cemetery grave. Abe Lincoln is the only subject pulled from before Conrad began his cartooning career, and is portrayed in a solemn, elongated full-figure pose, reminiscent of surrealist Alberto Giacometti. “That was the only way to do him,” Conrad says.

Conrad has made a bronze of the current president too, portraying him as a pair of worn boots topped by a cowboy hat, a visual paraphrase of Gertrude Stein’s famous line about Oakland, that there’s no there there. But Conrad’s not done yet with “W.” Another image is lurking in his mind, a bronze he hopes to start soon, which would make Bush the only figure to be the focus of two Conrad sculptures.

“The next one I’m going to do, I’m going to do Bush naked, standing there and wearing a crown,” Conrad says, eyes glistening behind large, black-rimmed glasses. “The emperor has no clothes.”

If there is a cartoonist’s potion for eternal energy, it’s outrage, and for a staunch liberal like Conrad the current administration is a personal fountain of youth. From Conrad’s side of the political spectrum, the country is teetering between tragedy and travesty, engaged in a war few understand or support led by an administration that he believes has condoned torture abroad, rolled back civil liberties at home and overseen legal moves against journalists who use confidential sources.

For Conrad, who was investigated by the Internal Revenue Service in 1973 after Nixon aides added him to the famous “enemies list,” the Bush administration offers a sense of deja vu on steroids: Nixon might have bugged his own office, but Bush has bugged the whole country using wiretaps without seeking court approval. “They make Nixon look like a nice guy,” Conrad says, lighting his ever-present pipe. “I refuse to leave as long as he’s in power. That evil SOB -- he doesn’t even understand the first 10 amendments. He hasn’t the faintest idea. Either that or he is a ... egomaniac, I don’t know.”

Conrad still draws four cartoons a week, distributed nationally through Tribune Media Services (owned by The Times’ corporate parent), and regularly elicits irate responses from conservative readers who pepper Conrad with angry denunciations through his website, “Kay reads them then throws them away,” Conrad says. “They’re mostly con.... I don’t pay any attention to them, to tell you the truth.”

He pays more attention to his colleagues behind the pens. He admires Oliphant and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Tony Auth. Former Times cartoonist Michael Ramirez -- a conservative -- predictably is on his “don’t like” list, though Conrad grants that he’s “a tremendous artist, no question about that.” And Conrad has warmed up to the Washington Post’s Tom Toles, whose sparse drawing style he initially didn’t like. “He reads, that’s the best thing about him,” Conrad says.

Reading fills the reservoir from which the cartoons are tapped, Conrad believes, and cartoonists who don’t follow current events closely and critically create flat art.

“Cartoons got so they didn’t say anything, because the guys don’t read,” Conrad says, blaming the artists for the dwindling number of full-time cartooning jobs. “They were doing jokes. Balloon [talking to] balloon.”

Conrad grew up in Iowa and, after serving in World War II, earned a bachelor’s degree in art at the University of Iowa in 1950 before going to work for the Denver Post, where he quickly established himself as a top editorial cartoonist. He won his first Pulitzer in 1964 for his work at the Post, but by the time it was awarded the late Otis Chandler had already lured him away to The Times, where he won Pulitzers in 1971 and 1984.

Beginning with Harry Truman, Conrad’s cartooning career has covered 11 of the nation’s 43 presidents, and paid witness to the landmark issues and debates of the modern era, from McCarthyism and the civil rights struggle to Watergate and the scandals of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, as well as wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.

“As long as it’s fun,” Conrad says, “why not keep it up? ... This has been a marvelous way to go through life.”

It’s only a few days after the funeral for former Times publisher Chandler, and the cartoonist has been spending a lot of time reminiscing. He recalls meeting Nixon for the first and only time, a “little pipsqueak” who was then Eisenhower’s vice president. He talks about publishers he has known and worked for, old editors, presidents he has met, a career of political rock-throwing.

But you can’t spend all your time drawing. Conrad has played the piano since childhood. He used to read music but stopped years ago, preferring now to play by ear and feel, sometimes established tunes, other times tinkering with melodies in his head. And it’s bothering him on this chilly, cloudy morning that he can’t for the life of him remember the name of that damn song.

Conrad places the Nixon statue back on its pedestal and sits down at the keyboard. He picks out a few single notes to loosen his fingers, then moves into a melancholy jazz chord progression, the timing off at first as he struggles to recall the way the piece goes, then sliding into a polished groove before ending a couple of minutes later. “Good. I remember that,” Conrad says, and lumbers back up the steps to his chair, chatting with his wife for a moment over the lyrics, still at a loss to name that tune.

“ ‘Memories’!” Kay Conrad blurts out. “I think that’s the name of it.”

“I think,” Conrad chimes in quickly, delighted with a mutual discovery, “you’re right.”