‘People come into focus’ — New Yorker sophistication crafted at Chicago landmark
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Tom Bachtell could work at home.
“I could,” he agrees. “But I’d hate it. I’d feel so alone.”
So despite his boss being 800 miles away in New York City, to do his job Bachtell leaves his home in Lincoln Square and travels to the South Loop, to his studio on the 14th floor of the Monadnock Building.
“I love going into the 7-11,” he said. “I love seeing all the crazy people there. It’s sort of a latter-day-form vaudeville.”
Bachtell has a singular profession. He is an artist for The New Yorker. For 30 years, he has drawn the elegant caricatures that grace the magazine.
I met him through his late partner, Andrew Patner, immediately inviting myself to his studio. After about five years of pestering, he agreed. We talked about his growing up in Ohio, coming here, becoming a couple with Patner, the Sun-Times music critic and beloved WFMT host who died in 2015.
“I thought about the world we came from in Cleveland, what we made of it, and then coming to Chicago and gradually becoming a part of the world here,” Bachtell said, as soft classical music burbled in the background. “And how fortuitous it was I met Andrew, and how we were doing similar things. Andrew integrated me into Chicago and taught me how to love Chicago. When I met Andrew, I fell in love with him like that.”
He snapped his fingers.
“He was an engaged person, constantly trying to engage with the world. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
I pointed out that outsiders have a way of coming to Chicago and finding fascination.
“We’re observers, we’re commentators, we’re artists,” he said, and if you’re wondering whether I liked him lumping us together — daily Midwestern hack journalism with sophisticated Gotham magazine artwork — you betcha. “We bridge a lot of worlds. We’re observers of all this stuff. We process it. You write about it, I draw about it. I even connect it with working in this building. This building is a wonderful, vital place. I love the fact that all different kinds of people are there. I love coming downtown.”
The words “Monadnock Building” might not conjure up an image the way “Wrigley Field” does. The 1891, 16-story structure, its north half designed by Burnham and Root, is the tallest load-bearing brick building ever built — hence those marvelous thick walls on the first floor. A gorgeous urban space, with its little diner and elegant haberdashery, Optimo Hats. Don’t take my word. Go there, 53 W. Jackson.
Bachtell came to Chicago in 1983 and worked for Montgomery Ward, then began freelancing. I wondered how he made the leap to The New Yorker. Years of vigorous striving and rejection? No. The best way to grasp just how good Tom Bachtell is, is this: The New Yorker came to him.
“I first saw his work on the cover of a Washington magazine,” said Chris Curry, The New Yorker’s illustration editor. “It was a portrait of Tom Wolfe.”
She was struck by his fluid brushwork.
“I reached out to him to start to illustrate for us in 1989,” said Curry. “His work is like a visual haiku. His brushwork is elegant and the likeness of subjects is terrific. He has evolved as an artist through the years we have worked together to make this look effortless. It takes a great many versions of drawings to achieve the goal of likeness and to represent various concepts.”
Does it ever. He has no art training, is completely self-taught, and though the result is clean, the process is messy. He draws and redraws, cutting apart pictures, pasting them together, reconfiguring, photocopying the result.
“I stumbled into caricature,” said Bachtell. “It never occurred to me that I could do it. It actually frightened me. My idea of caricature was people who drew at carnivals. But I was asked to do it, so I had to give it a try.”
As he did, he realized he has “this great love of observing qualities in people, the way they carry themselves or their features and how it all goes together. People come into focus. It was very unscientific and took a long time to do.”
Curry called Bachtell “an integral and beloved part of The New Yorker for many years.” He’s also a presence on the Chicago art scene.
Last month, Bachtell had a show at Tony Fitzpatrick’s gallery (a more organized man would have gotten this column into print in time for you to attend the show; alas, I am not that man). I asked the noted artist why he wanted to display a magazine illustrator’s work.
“He continues the long fine tradition of magazine artists in The New Yorker, starting with James Thurber and Saul Steinberg and Peter Arno, right on up through Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti,” said Fitzpatrick. “What I love about his rendering is this restless spirit of improvisation in what he does. He never draws the same subject twice. At many points in this show, he has the same subject drawn a few times, and always finds a different way to make a caricature.”
People tend to divide fine art, like Fitzpatrick’s, from graphic art, like Bachtell’s. Fitzpatrick waves off the distinction.
“I have a great love for caricature and cartooning,” he said. “You scratch any figurative artist and I guarantee you, you find a failed cartoonist.”
Many a writer, too.