For the next four decades, Tony Auth drew Philadelphia for us. If you think that’s easy, you don’t understand the art of the cartoon. David Leopold, the curator of the WHYY exhibit—it was originally mounted in 2012 at Doylestown’s Michener Art Museum—does, now that he’s gone through 10,000 of Auth’s cartoons with the artist at his side. “I mostly deal with 20th-century American art,” explains Leopold, who lives in Bucks County and has helmed exhibits in New York City, Los Angeles and Europe, among other places. “There’s a lot of ambiguity in it, a lot of give. But Tony’s work—if you don’t understand it in 10 seconds, I’ve picked the wrong piece. How do you do a show where there’s no ambiguity?”
In the end, Leopold based the exhibit (which will run at WHYY through November 8th, with a companion exhibit of Philadelphia-centric cartoons at the Philadelphia History Museum from October 11th through January) on what had been the artist’s home for so many years: the newspaper. He had Auth hand-letter, in his distinctive block print, categories the cartoons naturally fell into: Vietnam, Nixon, Economics, Civil Rights, Faith, Guns … Beneath these “headlines” were Auth’s takes on each subject across the decades. “You don’t read a newspaper straight through,” Leopold says. “You might look at the first page, then go to sports, or art. People can interact with the exhibit the way they do a newspaper, according to their interests.”
The key to cartooning, like so much of life, is to make it look easy. Auth learned from his early mentor, Conrad, that the labor behind his art should never show—however much work that took. At the Inquirer, Auth was notorious for bypassing his editors, turning instead for critiques of sketches to reporters, photographers, columnists. It’s a process he’s continued at WHYY.
“We have a young newsroom,” says Satullo. “Most of the people there are maybe half Tony’s age. It’s wonderful to see the joy they have in working together.” Whereas plenty of older journalists are cowed or angered by their field’s radical technological mutations (hello, Stu Bykofsky!), Auth, as Satullo puts it, “surfs on top of that change and yells ‘Cowabunga!’” It’s an image Auth really should draw.