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The legendary cartoonist Al Hirschfeld once wrote that “the greatest influence in nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, in my opinion, has been the art of caricature.” However, he noted that “Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso, Gaugin, Klee, Miró and a host of other top-flight caricaturists are never referred to as caricaturists because caricature as an art form has come to mean something that is not quite acceptable as Art art.”

With a few exceptions, most caricature and editorial cartooning in this country is pretty shabby stuff, out for cheap yuks like the juvenile jokes going around about Viagra, or based on observations even less insightful than the “conventional wisdom” we’ve come to expect from Sunday morning talk-show oracles. Consider the cartoons in Newsweek, which a while back featured a drawing of Sen. Edward Kennedy talking about crushing a beer can against his head—this is the best of the best of American political humor?

Like the rare statesman in the House, syndicated political cartoonist Pat Oliphant stands mighty among the mob of mediocre talents he must, regrettably, call colleagues. In 1966, only two years after the 31-year-old Aussie moved to the States and started wielding his pen for the Denver Post, he won his first (and only, which is a joke) Pulitzer Prize. His compositions are exquisite, and, 32 years later, his pen is still as sharp as ever, as a visit to “Oliphant’s Anthem: Pat Oliphant at the Library of Congress” affirms.

Oliphant’s art is always beautiful: He can use black inks to convey power or darkness like few others in his field. And the way he conveys three-dimensionality and texture is convincing enough to make you think his Ross Perot is about to pop out of the page and give you a bite. Even his pencil sketches—which he’s allowed to be included in the exhibit, offering us a glimpse of ideas that never made their way to the quill—are more powerful than much of the dreck his rivals wipe on Zipatone and fax to the major dailies.

His adroitness with a brush is rivaled only by the razor-sharpness of his pen and depth of his black-comedy ink. Few are as skilled at touching both nerve and funny bone, as Oliphant does in the cartoon captioned “Now, tell the jury what you did with the knife, Mrs. Bobbitt”—male jurors cringing, their female counterparts glowing with wicked smiles.

The Library’s show also displays a few of Oliphant’s excursions into three-dimensional caricature, including sculptures of Tip O’Neill, Clark Clifford, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which achieve in bronze exactly what the best of his caricatures do in black and white: capture of the subject’s essence through physiognomy. Of all Oliphant’s works in other media—including oils, charcoal, monotype, and water color—the most amusing is his mixed-media sculpture A Small Bureaucracy, in which a building’s offices are re-created with painted wood and the faces of 60-odd bureaucrats plainly express the tedium, the caste system, and the futility of government at the rank-and-file level. (For those interested in Oliphant’s achievements beyond his pen, the Susan Conway Gallery in Georgetown features more: 18 sculptures and 15 monotypes, as well as 28 recent cartoons.)

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Oliphant’s long-reigning championship, however, has exacted its costs from the artist. Maybe it’s because his competition is generally so pitiful, but clearly Oliphant has stolen a few odd years to rest on his laurels. His willingness—even eagerness—to exploit stereotypes in his work (Irish hoods with plaid caps, a Salvadoran military thug with a large gut and bad moustache, a gay soldier applying lipstick) can be seen as refreshing, however, at a time when many cartoonists are cowed into drawing people of all races as if they descended from one standard Ken-doll prototype. (In an interview, Oliphant once responded to accusations of ethnic stereotyping by saying, “I draw [Alan] Greenspan as I see him. I mean, it’s a set of features. He has a rather large nose….I draw Al Sharpton—how am I supposed to draw him? Looking like Superman?”)

Sometimes he is plainly facile, as seen in a collection of 16 cartoons featuring his usual bit player, the penguin Punk, conversing with Socks, the White House cat. While Punk remains terse and witty, as always, Socks preaches obvious points: that the ’96 election is a choice between the lesser of two evils, that Clinton responding to a question about his preferred style of underwear was unpresidential. The effect is as if Socks were just the sounding board of some grumpy old faintly well-read middlebrow uncle—someone whose insight we know to be far beneath that of the cartoonist. While Oliphant’s laziest phoned-in cartoons—like a majority of the “Socks” collection—still outperform the finest works from various hacks attached to major newspapers, they’re unworthy in context.

Longtime admirers of Oliphant may get impatient with the show’s narrative weakness. Unlike previous exhibits of Oliphant’s work—like “Oliphant: the New World Order in Drawing and Sculpture 1983-1993,” which was displayed at the Embassy of Austria in 1994—this exhibit has no theme. Only seven of the more than 60 cartoons predate the Reagan presidency, so anyone interested in Oliphant’s growth, or just curious about his work for the Denver Post or the Washington Star, will be out of luck. Piece by piece, the show does a decent job of whetting the palate, but curatorially it’s fairly uninspired.

The National Portrait Gallery’s “Celebrity Caricature in America” offers a superior show, though visitors may have a tougher time relating to the celebrities being caricatured, because all of them date back to the first half of this century. Any show featuring the minimalist squiggles of Al Hirschfeld is worth at least a brief look, but the Portrait Gallery exhibition brings much more to the table than works of famous geniuses.

Many of the most interesting pieces in the show are by now-obscure greats such Paolo Garretto and Miguel Covarrubias. Though both are probably unknown to today’s magazine perusers, their work rivals those of Steve Brodner and David Cowles, which grace the pages of today’s Entertainment Weekly. Garretto reduced his subjects to airbrushed geometrical figures, somehow capturing them more accurately the fewer details he used. Covarrubias’ regular feature in Vanity Fair would contrast two celebrities in the same work—the dark Sigmund Freud and the airily bright Jean Harlow, for instance—intensifying the harsh exaggerations of each.

But because the Portrait Gallery curators carefully selected these samples from across the era, you can see how these artists—as well as other giants of the day, such as Will Cotton, Al Frueh, and Ralph Barton—evolved and found their sea legs. A 1925 Eugene O’Neill by Covarrubias, for example, is a nondescript portrait in black and white; a 1931 gouache of Herbert Hoover by the same artist is an amazing teetering fireplug with a face. The show also categorizes many of the works by era, enabling the viewer to watch the art form develop in the early part of the century, quickly and suddenly, and reach its apex in the 1930s.

The Portrait Gallery show includes fun flourishes from other worlds of caricature that might otherwise fall into the background. A re-created booth from the famed Manhattan restaurant Sardi’s features framed portraits of Broadway stars of yesteryear. Another corner of the collection shows how differently separate caricaturists dealt with ubercelebs such as Mae West, Babe Ruth, and Teddy Roosevelt. The best feature, a small theater, rotates six cartoons from Disney and Warner Bros. that feature animated stars such as Gable, Bogie, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy. (The randy, savvy ones by Warner Bros. outsmart Disney’s cutesy characters every time.) You can see the caricatures come to life, woven with mannerisms and superb impressions of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart; it’s amazing that, even though our culture has become ever more fixated on celebrities, animated caricatures like these haven’t become a huge industry today.

If you’re taken with the Portrait Gallery show, it’s worth a visit across the hall to see “Faces of Time: 75 Years of Time Magazine Cover Portraits,” which displays what more “serious” artists have been able to accomplish through collage, photographs, and sculpture. (Of particular note is Gerald Scarfe’s 1967 sculpture of the Beatles, which far surpasses anything he’s done in his chosen medium, pen and ink.)

Not surprisingly, the caricatures in the Time show from Edward Sorel, David Levine, and Jack Davis—not to mention the Hirschfeld Jay Leno—fit in perfectly alongside paintings by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ernest Hamlin Baker, and Robert Vickrey, affirming that, even though caricature and cartooning are usually regarded as the redheaded stepchildren of the arts family, art designed to amuse is worthy of appreciation.CP