By Marilyn Cooper
Readers may not immediately recognize Mark Podwal’s name, but many will be familiar with his black and white drawings for The New York Times Op-Ed page and his Jewish-themed illustrations for books by authors such as Elie Wiesel and Francine Prose. A lush new book, Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art, offers a comprehensive—and gorgeous—retrospective of Podwal’s work.
Podwal is a dermatologist and a faculty member at the New York University School of Medicine and received no formal art training. Motivated by the turbulent 1960s, he began to draw political cartoons while a student at the NYU School of Medicine. His work came to the attention of the art director of the then relatively new New York Times Op-Ed page, who commissioned drawings from Podwal for the newspaper. Through this work, Podwal rose to greater public recognition and gradually branched out to books, larger scale art works, and animated films and documentaries. His work is displayed in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Israel Museum, as well as in other museums around the world.
Podwal’s black and white drawings remain his forte and are the most striking images in the book. Unlike his watercolors, which are pretty but overly derivative of Chagall, these pieces display an aesthetic that is distinctly Podwal’s own. Author Cynthia Ozick captures this quality perfectly in her preface to the book when she writes, “As a poet’s voice is unique, so is the idiom of the Podwal line.” Podwal employs incisive and often intricate line work to create stark images that reveal vivid emotions and tell complicated stories. Although the drawings’ topics are serious ones, his work shows enormous wit and frequently has charming whimsical touches. From “Munich Massacre” (1972), which depicts a wounded Israeli runner crossing an arch resembling the title page of the Talmud, to “Israeli Tank,” in which a nine-barreled army tank morphs into a Chanukiah, each image conveys a nuanced social commentary.
Podwal’s drawings show the influence of two great Jewish graphic artists, Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) and Ben Shahn (1898-1969). Like Podwal, they were idea-driven artists who innovatively broke down the barrier between popular mass media and fine art. Shahn spoke of his political drawings as being “the art of social consciousness” and, similar to Podwal, often portrayed religious topics. Shahn strove to create art that would further social justice and draw attention to marginalized and struggling members of society. Steinberg, who was renowned for his drawings and covers for The New Yorker, shared this didactic approach to art. Steinberg defined drawing as “a way of reasoning on paper” and used his art to visually expose the foibles of contemporary social and political systems.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel was also a major influence on Podwal. The two were close friends and collaborated on several projects. Podwal dedicated Reimagined to Wiesel and speaks movingly of his efforts to get a copy of the book to his friend shortly before his death in July. Those who take the time to experience the work of both Wiesel and Podwal may find their response to Podwal’s work reminiscent of how they felt after reading Wiesel’s Night. Like Wiesel’s words, Podwal’s art transcends mere images on paper to serve as a witness to the Jewish historical experience.