Mort Gerberg retrospective spotlights cartoonist’s witty views of NY life

Cartoonist Mort Gerberg is having his first major museum exhibition at the New-York Historical Society Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

New-York Historical Society exhibit celebrates Gerberg work that’s “extremely relevant today.”

Cartoonist Mort Gerberg is having his first major museum exhibition at the New-York Historical Society
Cartoonist Mort Gerberg is having his first major museum exhibition at the New-York Historical Society Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky

To say Mort Gerberg’s cartoons are timeless is almost an understatement.

The native New Yorker has focused his keen eye and pen on women’s rights, marijuana and even problems with the city’s transit system for more than half a century.

“He did cartoons 30 or 40 years ago and all of a sudden they’re extremely relevant today,” said Marilyn Satin Kushner, curator of the new exhibit “Mort Gerberg Cartoons: A New Yorker’s Perspective” which opens Friday at the New-York Historical Society. “He really plugs into issues.”

The sweeping retrospective includes Gerberg’s witty cartoons for The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post, his reporting and illustrations of the 1969 New York “Miracle” Mets and a legendary 1972 game between the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks, along with his women-centric comic strip Koky. A video display shows Gerbergs work with television stations, where he did live drawing segments on WNBC-TV in New York and created topical “bumpers,” artwork that appeared before and after commercial segments.

Some of Gerberg's cartoons depicting the 1969 New York Mets.
Some of Gerberg’s cartoons depicting the 1969 New York Mets. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Some of his more recent offerings have appeared online and target President Trump.

“So, are you guys getting away for the long Not-My-President’s weekend,” one protester asks another in one cartoon from 2017.

“(Gerberg) spans so many different parts of New York’s history and American history,” Kushner said. “This is a wonderful way to tell that story.”

Gerberg, a spry 87-year-old, lives in Manhattan with his wife, Judith. On Wednesday he watched as his original drawings were carefully installed. He pointed to a 1964 cartoon that shows a hipster couple welcoming the spring blooming of their marijuana plant, still surprised it ran in the staid Saturday Evening Post. One of his old Hebrew school books, featuring his school-aged doodles of superheroes, is also on display.

“My sister told me she remembers I was always drawing,” said Gerberg. “It was simply what I did.”

The sweeping retrospective includes Gerberg's witty cartoons for The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post.
The sweeping retrospective includes Gerberg’s witty cartoons for The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Gerberg’s family moved around Brooklyn and he lived for a time in Fort Hamilton, Bensonhurst and Flatbush. As a student at Lafayette High School, Gerberg longed to write a comic strip for the school paper. The paper already had a cartoon strip by an artist whose talent left Gerberg awe-struck, but he eventually took over after that student graduated.

“It was Maurice Sendak,” Gerberg said. Sendak would go on to have a career as an acclaimed artist of children’s books.

Gerberg studied advertising and worked in that field, in addition to a stint as a reporter, before dedicating himself full-time to drawing and cartooning. His 1983 book “Cartooning: The Art and the Business” is still considered a bible of sorts for the business.

Gerberg said he finds inspiration all over the city, especially while riding the subways.

“A cartoonist is kind of like an oyster,” Gerberg said. “An oyster goes through his world and all these things happen. Every now and then a piece of schmutz, a grain of sand gets under his shell and irritates the oyster. And the reaction of the oyster is a pearl . . . for cartoonists they are pearls of wisdom.”

Lisa L. Colangelo