The Eye of the Storm
January 22, 2013 | by Rex Weiner
Alan Shenker, an artist known among the underground cartoonists of the late sixties as Yossarian, died last week, in New York, at the age of sixty-seven. Born in Levittown, he was a downtown habitué and his work was published in the East Village Other, among many other publications of the era.
A kind of ruthless patricide was implicit in Yossarian’s cover art for the February 1972 issue of the New York ACE. He was close to “the Arab,” as the East Village Other’s editor, Yaakov Kohn, was known, and now Yossarian was one of the defectors from the already tottering EVO to the new paper which I’d cofounded with Robert “Honest Bob” Singer. With this cover he’d created especially for us, Yossarian was declaring his allegiance to the ACE, betraying EVO, to which he’d contributed many cover illustrations, and its paternal leader. EVO’s logo was the all-seeing eye, and for our cover Yossarian had placed an eyeball on a chopping block split by a butcher knife, as if to say, “EVO … You’re DEAD!”
I stared at the image while the artist shifted shyly and uncomfortably from one foot to the other. Alan Shenker was proud of his work, proud to be among a crowd that included R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, and other underground cartoonist stars, and proud of his Catch-22 nom de guerre. But Yossarian was also Alan Shenker, a nice Jewish boy, and, like all Jews, he was conflicted. How could a nice Jewish boy come up with the outrageous stuff depicted in his masterful pen-and-ink scenarios? Even so, though his butcher knife had a painfully personal target, Yossarian was adding a finely-honed edge to the ACE and every publication daring enough to print his work.
That edge became literal in Yossarian’s self-published zine, The Razor’s Edge, in which the nice Jewish boy exercised, and exorcized, his fetish for the smoothly shaved curvature of the female cranium. Even just a light trim of a woman’s tresses made him happy, as writer Deanne Stillman recalls: “I remember when he cut my hair—for the love of God!”
But I recall staring at Yossarian’s artwork, facing a press deadline, and trying very hard at the age of twenty-two to think like a smart publisher. Never mind the insult to the Arab, which was making Yossarian nervous. I was having doubts that a bloody eyeball chopped in half by a meat cleaver was the right image to win newsstand sales. But I liked Yossarian. He was a wonderful artist and a sweet guy and here he was supporting our nascent venture, giving us his artwork without hope of payment. My doubts were finally swept aside by our editor, Honest Bob, who pronounced it “Brilliant!” and jabbered on about Dadaism, Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou, yadda, yadda. Yossarian was reassured. I just figured what the hell, so we went to press, and Yossarian became the ACE’s ace artist-in-residence.
Yossarian’s New York ACE cover now hangs framed on my wall and I don’t think I’m prouder of anything I’ve ever done. The Arab is long gone, may Yaakov rest in peace, and who cares how many copies of ACE #2 we sold. As Dada daddy Man Ray said: “I have always preferred inspiration to information.” Yossarian’s work taught me that lesson.