Could there be a more enviable illustration job than illustrating the monthly “Sex” column for Esquire? Maybe no. Especially if you’re the type of artist who fills sketchbooks with drawings of people in the act of what is politely called in flagrante delicto. Except that the people in John Cuneo’s sketches are not polite. They’re doing things to themselves and each other that can’t be described on the pages of this magazine. And they aren’t very attractive people either. The men look like a cross between Alan Greenspan and Woody Allen, and the women, let’s just say they won’t be competing on America’s Next Top Model.
These characters—rendered in pen-and-ink, tinted with watercolor washes—have been cavorting on the pages of Cuneo’s sketchbooks for decades. He draws, as he puts it, “constantly, compulsively.” And that compulsion finds its perfect commercial outlet illustrating such columns as “What to Think About to Postpone Orgasm,” “Is Al Green Music an Aphrodisiac?” and “The Ideal Insertion Technique,” all of which have received Society of Illustrators’ medals.
But man does not live by sex alone. The editors and art directors of Esquire and other major publications—from The Atlantic Monthly, The American Prospect, The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal to Entertainment Weekly, GQ and PlanSponsor—realize this and commission Cuneo to add humor, socio-political commentary and celebrity caricatures to their pages. They all know with whom they’re dealing, however. Jason Treat, art director of The Atlantic Monthly, which describes itself as “a consistent leader in the publication of intelligent ideas,” says, “You always know that John is going to go far beyond your comfort zone. You call him to discuss the concept and spend the next twenty minutes on the phone with the nicest, most humble guy you can imagine. Then a few days later you get a sketch of a dominatrix with a giant dildo. But because it’s The Atlantic, there’s no way we can publish a drawing of a dildo unless it once belonged to the poet Elizabeth Bishop. So we pull it back a bit, but the drawing still retains its edge. John pushes our boundaries and we’re a better magazine for it. And he does so with humor and a really elegant style.”
That elegant style was nurtured by early exposure to John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland illustrations, meliorated by diligent adolescent attention to the comic art in Mad magazine and polished by careful study of great satirical artists including Alan E. Cober, Eugene Mihaesco and Ed Sorel. Today, there’s a coterie of fifty-ish-plus funny-men—Barry Blitt, Tim Bower, Steve Brodner, Joe Ciardiello, John Cuneo, Victor Juhász—each with his own interpretation of the style. And if their work has its similarities, it’s because editors (and readers) of highbrow and even lowbrow publications appreciate masterful, witty line art, especially when it elucidates articles about politics and culture, society and sex. And there are similarities because these guys are friends and seem to be in almost constant communication. They feed off each other, learn from each other and laugh at the same jokes...jokes that are often told at the bar at Society of Illustrators awards events and at icon conferences, where illustrators get together to learn how to improve their techniques and careers.
Cuneo was born in Westfield, New Jersey, where his father was in the nursery business, plants and landscaping. “Other dads went to the train station with briefcases,” Cuneo recalls. “My dad drove a pickup truck and worked with his hands.” With his two younger brothers, he helped out in the family business and sold produce at a stand in the front yard. But he was always drawing. “My mom brags I was drawing in my high chair,” he concedes, uncomfortable with even the idea of bragging. “Well, if you do anything long enough, you get good at it.”
But childhood wasn’t all toil in the Jersey farmlands. Early on, Cuneo had a mentor, local art teacher Adelaide Johnson. “She hosted a kind of suburban salon—tea, cookies and still-lifes—and would encourage me to draw imitations of Mort Drucker cartoons of Spiro Agnew. At about the same time, I got hold of a copy of Wind in the Willows illustrated by E.H. Shepard, a ‘How to Cartoon’ book, and a collection of Jules Feiffer cartoons. I was so inspired, I thought, this is the end game.” From then on, Cuneo wanted to see his work in a magazine or a book, not on a wall. There was never a decision about commercial vs. fine art. In 1977, after high school, the family moved to Florida, and in Cuneo’s words, “scraped together enough money to send me to Colorado Institute of Art for six months.” There, he quickly learned ad-agency skills: paste-ups with wax, making storyboards, rendering typefaces. He had a mentor there, too. “Bill Kastan, a local illustrator, took me under his wing, gave me a drawing table in his studio, and helped me get together a portfolio,” Cuneo recalls. He soon had freelance work: ads for Frontier Airlines and Coors beer. “I was the line guy. I was all about cross-hatching with op-ed aspirations, but I was still naïve."
In Denver, he met his wife, Jan Larson, an instructor of public speaking and communications, and the couple moved to San Francisco in 1988. “I had a major artistic crisis there,” he admits. “I was still doing ad work for magazines and newspapers, but the drawings didn’t feel authentic and I didn’t have a tearsheet that I was proud of. I thought my work looked cold and mechanical, and I was insecure about my lack of formal art education. I worked hard to draw my way out of the crisis, to shed some of the cross-hatching, clichés and stylistic affectations I had adopted over the years. Over time my work became looser, a little funnier and more personal.”
After nine years on the West Coast, the couple moved again, this time after viewing online listings of real estate in Woodstock, New York. There, within the wide circle of the community of illustrators who serve publishers and art directors in New York City—and worldwide—Cuneo got his education: informal, but from some of the best in the business. “Once you watch Steve Brodner do a caricature on a napkin, it demystifies the whole process,” he says. And a process it is. In a busy week, Cuneo will complete two spots, two quarter-page illustrations and a full-page or spread—all scanned and e-mailed to clients around the world. “I earn my living a quarter-page at a time,” he sighs. Always worrying that business will dry up, he completes about 225 pieces a year, each looking freshly dashed off, but the result of a meticulous process of research, composition, self-criticism, re-dos, inking and painting. And then there are the personal dirty pictures he keeps doing. “It’s just puerile, stupid fun,” he says. “It’s funny to draw naked, middle-aged men and wanton women.” Funny enough for a whole book of them, called nEuROTIC, published in 2006.
I visited Cuneo one late-winter day at his comfortably rustic house, which, like much Woodstock property, has a folk-rock pedigree. It formerly was the rehearsal space/crash pad of Albert Grossman, legendary manager of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and others. “George Harrison slept here,” I was told about the room where the Cuneos’ son Jack, fifteen, now sleeps. In another sky-lit upstairs room, Cuneo works amidst piles of completed drawings, stacks of sketchbooks and shelves of art books. His drawing table is cluttered with watercolor sets and and his tools of choice: waterproof Rollerballs, Micron pens and Rapidographs.
As he works to meet a deadline (Tiger Woods’s golf clubs in a flaccid state to illustrate “What Really Goes on in Sex Rehab” for Esquire), I thumb through drawings. Yes, there are naked men examining each other’s penises under a microscope. But there is lots of work that humors my less-carnal instincts: an intellectual primate making fun of one of its own for National Geographic; a caricature of comic Sarah Silverman for L.A. magazine; and lots of literary, sports and political commentary. Cuneo has drawn Obama a few dozen times and George W. Bush many more. “He was in office a lot longer. Ouch,” he comments. Political figures long-deceased that have been skewered by Cuneo’s pen include George Washington and Napoleon dividing up the world, Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria.
Naturally, I have many questions. But instead of telling me much about himself, he suggests I contact his compatriots—the above-mentioned coterie of illustrators and others—to find out what they have to say about him. I did, the next day, and got answers so quickly one would think I was giving away unclaimed money from a national treasury. Jack Unruh called me back immediately, from Texas. He was laughing so hard he could hardly talk. “John has the most beautiful, bizarre, uncensored mind,” he said. “Just look at his sketchbooks.”
Ed Sorel wrote, “John and I are curious about the tricks each other uses to keep our drawings looking spontaneous even though they require an enormous amount of planning and a degree of tracing. Our problem is the same: Keep it looking light and free no matter how many times you do it over. Our subject matter is very different. John is obsessed with drawing about sex and I never venture there. As someone once observed, there isn’t any sexual position that doesn’t look ridiculous when viewed coldly, so John will probably never run out of material.”
“John deludes himself that he’s been influenced by others, but his work is informed solely from within,” added Tim Bower. “If he ever learned anything from me, he wouldn’t still be drawing with a Rapidograph, which to me is like painting with a screwdriver. I’m still mystified by his ability to make such expressive, nuanced, alive drawings with such a dead instrument.”
Steve Brodner commented, “John has figured out how to free elements in composition without losing their mass and weight. To anybody who hasn’t tried this, the achievement may not be immediately clear: to play with bodies, make them do your bidding while keeping true to their volume and anatomy. His work is not about the joke alone. It’s about the joke that is happening to those people. He makes us enter their world. It’s an alien world, one that repels and delights. He’s in a class with the great artists of any age. I tell him that and he makes a face.”
And then there are the clients. Mary Parsons, art director, The American Prospect explained, “John walks a fine line between self-deprecation and base degradation. His sketchbooks are full of cringe-inducing situations, inappropriate nudity and mordant, painful humor. If it weren’t for the Esquire sex-advice column, I don’t think there would be a commercial outlet for this type of work. But years of drawing in his sketchbooks have paid off, as John has developed an original and lush style of ink and watercolor rendering. His portraits can be sensitive, masterful, rueful and amusing, full of peculiar power and tentative, fragile beauty and humanity. He’s also a master of the hilarious faxed note. I have a slew of his illustrated faxes, and regret that fax technology is fading away. JPGs and e-mail don’t deliver the same punch.”
Martin Colyer, art director, Readers Digest UK, comments, “John is worried about the death of print and work slowing down, thinking that he doesn’t have much in the way of alternative job skills. He says things like, ‘By the end of the tourist season, I’ll likely be reduced to cranking out five-dollar caricatures on the village green.’ In my opinion, he will never need alternative job skills.”
That seems to be a universal opinion. ca