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. Some of the pieces will be on display as part of the "Messages" exhibition at the Artists' Studio Gallery in Rolling Hills Estates for six weeks, beginning Monday afternoon. The show also includes works by plein-air impressionist Donald Crocker and environmentally focused paintings by Laura Hines-Jurgens.
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."