MARK PODWAL’S EARLIEST MEMORY of making art is of drawing boats with many sails at age four. “I remember drawing a ship on a wall, but that may be a fantasy,” says Podwal, who is both a prominent artist and a clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. Another story is definitely not fictive: An illness kept him from attending the first days of kindergarten, and as a result, his name was left off of the roster. “When my teacher read out the attendance list, as she did every morning, my name was never called,” he says. “I participated in whatever my classmates were instructed to do. But until the day my teacher noticed my drawing of a train, I was invisible to her.” And so it seemed to Podwal—even at age five—that his existence depended on his art.
Podwal, Jerelle Kraus observed in her 2009 book All the Art That’s Fit to Print (and Some that Wasn’t): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page, is “the rare dermatologist who does no cosmetic procedures.” His profession was nearly predetermined. Although he always loved drawing, his parents encouraged him strongly to become a physician, so he never pursued formal art training. His grades at the Queens high school he attended in the 1960s were good enough to place him second in his class of 1,308 students. “In those days where I grew up, if you excelled in school you became a doctor or a lawyer,” he recalls. “You did not become an artist.”
While attending New York University School of Medicine, where he earned his MD in 1970, his passion for drawing resurfaced. “The tumultuous events of the 1960s compelled me to create a series of political drawings that were published as my first book” (The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, which appeared in 1971). The father of a medical school classmate arranged for Podwal to show the drawings to the editors at Praeger Publishers, who “were impressed but were concerned the drawings were much too provocative for them to publish,” he says. Instead, they referred him to Jack Rennert, whose publishing house, Darien, was known for its popular posters. “Jack immediately gave me a contract for The Decline and Fall of the American Empire and whatever my second book would be,” recalls Podwal. Rennert also cold-called Peter Fonda, then famous for his film Easy Rider (1969), and persuaded him to write the introduction.
Rennert later showed Decline to the art director of the then two-year-old New York Times op-ed page, who solicited art from Podwal. His first drawing in the paper, which depicted the Munich massacre at the summer Olympics in 1972, appeared in September of that year [see Plate 1]. In the sobering drawing, a Jewish runner—identified by an Israeli flag emblem on his or her bib—passes not through finish-line tape, but an arch with columns and floral designs, typical of title-pages of Jewish books (as well as Christian ones). Atop the arch’s keystone is the Aramaic inscription, “May God’s name be enlarged and exalted”—the first phrase of the mourner’s prayer. Indeed, the athlete, surely a stand-in for the 1972 Israeli Olympic team, bleeds from a large wound in the bottom right corner of the bib.
In the drawing, which later hung in an exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the Palais du Louvre, the runner is temporarily able to prop her- or himself up by holding the top of the arch, but the inkblot, which one’s mind renders as crimson, though the drawing is black-and-white, seems likely to claim the runner’s life. And the black void behind the runner and the arch also appears to weigh down on the athlete, who shoulders an impossibly heavy load.
Podwal says that the runner’s bib number—28—is random. But it is worth noting that the Hebrew numerological value of the numbers is koach, or strength. What is clearer is that Podwal has appropriated several important religious symbols elsewhere in the work. First, the athlete’s posture and circumscription within the frame of the pillars evokes both Atlas shouldering the burden of the earth, and, more specifically, Samson’s self-sacrifice in toppling the Philistine temple. The logic of the Munich athlete’s role as sacrifice and as bearer of great burdens and expectations is immediately clear.
The symbolism of the arch and its connection to title pages of religious books is more complicated. Is the “sea of the Talmud” the finishing line—the inspiration that keeps the athlete going despite great challenges and injury? Is it a protection, or a target that attracts the eyes of antagonistic sharpshooters? The image doesn’t answer those questions, but Podwal has made an interesting move by labeling the two columns with the Hebrew letters aleph and bet—a contrast to the actual pages of the Talmud, which famously start on page two, because traditionally it has no beginning or end. Although Podwal has included both a first and a second number, the amorphous setting and the faceless athlete suggest timelessness. This is a particular athlete at a particular games in Munich, but also a depiction of the pain and suffering that plague people of faith in all ages.
This wasn’t supposed to be Podwal’s first New York Times drawing, in fact. The art director had selected a piece from his book Decline, which represented the Statue of Liberty with a chest x-ray collaged to her thorax. But then, Podwal relates, the Pentagon Papers broke, and the Times op-ed page was dominated by responses to that news. “Although my Statue of Liberty drawing was never published in the Times, it was acquired by the Library of Congress after it was included in a bicentennial exhibition, The Image of America in Cartoon and Caricature” in 1976, Podwal says. Paul Simon also used the drawing to illustrate his song “American Tune.” (Podwal knew Simon from Queens College, where the two were in the fraternity AEPi. Although Simon had just graduated when Podwal entered as a freshman, Podwal pledged with Paul’s brother Eddie, with whom he remains good friends.)
Podwal would come to draw numerous works for the New York Times on a variety of subjects, but he told the art director that he wanted to illustrate only the political subjects that interested him at the time, Jewish themes, and medical topics. A favorite Times drawing of Podwal’s is Israeli Tank, an image of a nine-barreled tank which evokes a Hanukkah lamp [see Plate 2]. The drawing, which offers a depiction of Zionism that has much more to do with violence and power than olive branches, won a Society of Newspaper Design award.
The Times op-ed page, under its first editor, Harrison Salisbury, aimed to offer readers more than simple illustration. “The task of op-ed’s images is to create an environment which extends and deepens the impact of the word; to provide an ambiance in which the writer may more intensively penetrate his reader’s mind,” Salisbury later wrote.
But over the past ten years, the art of the New York Times op-ed page has become “bland, rarely imaginative or provocative,” according to Podwal. “Essentially, the role of art on the op-ed page, as envisioned when it was founded, has been lost to its editors.” Writing in Columbia Journalism Review in 2004, Jesse Sunenblick and Christopher Lesser agreed. “Thirty years ago, editorial illustration in our mainstream media was provocative and smart, driving the words as often as following them. Today much of it is literal and safe, more decorative than idea-driven,” they wrote. “Created in 1970, the [Times op-ed] page was the first of its kind, a symbiosis of word and image where neither was subservient, where artists were encouraged to portray the essence of a text as opposed to literal interpretations, where their ideas were as essential as a writer’s ideas.”
Frances Jetter, whose art has appeared on the Times op-ed page as well as in the Washington Post, Time, and Village Voice, describes Podwal’s work as having had a “tremendous impact” on the op-ed page. “Mark’s considerable intellect comes through in his illustrations, conveying strong opinions with delicate line. His work has tremendous wit, realized in spare and incisive line work,” she says. “It is clear that Mark is very passionate about the subjects he chooses to draw, and this makes his work especially meaningful to the viewer.”
In medical school at NYU in the late 1960s, Podwal planned to be a surgeon. “It seemed natural, since as an artist I was skilled with my hands,” he says. “But when I began publishing my drawings and wanted to spend more time drawing, I realized that a surgeon’s life would leave very little time for that.” In his fourth year of medical school, Podwal went to ask one of his professors, the eminent immunologist Edward C. Franklin, for a letter of recommendation. “I began by saying, ‘I was one of your students, and you may not remember me,’” Podwal remembers. “His response was that he had been looking for me to autograph one of my anti-war posters.”
Franklin advised Podwal to choose a specialty like dermatology that would afford him time to make art. Dermatology residencies were impossibly competitive to land, but the chairman of the dermatology department was also a fan of Podwal’s drawings, as well as his track record in his senior-year dermatology elective, so he approved Podwal’s application “before I even completed it,” Podwal remembers. “Because dermatology is a visual specialty, I believe my skills as an artist enhance my acuity in diagnosing.”
Podwal now regularly returns to his alma mater to teach a freshman honors seminar called “Word and Image.” Says Matthew Santirocco, senior vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs, Podwal’s students comment on how “wonderfully generous” he is in helping them get internships. “Mark is a true Renaissance person.”
Far more physicians are writers and musicians than visual artists, according to Podwal, who notes as an exception the late Frank Netter, a fellow NYU alumnus who is “among the greatest of the twentieth-century medical illustrators.” Podwal’s book Doctored Drawings (2007) is full of witty drawings which couldn’t be further from traditional medical illustrations. “I was never interested in medical illustration,” he says. “My art is an imaginative escape from medicine.” On Jewish Medical Ethics, for example, shows a microscope whose tube is a Torah scroll. The Bible, one can surmise, is a good tool to prop up the eyepiece of powerful scientific devices.
The microscope surfaces in another drawing, Knowledge, in which two nude figures, undoubtedly Adam and Eve, hold hands beneath a tree. They consider not a fruit hanging from the branches, but a microscope. The tree, after all, is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As Podwal’s drawing rightfully suggests, much good and evil have been done in the name of both science and the Old Testament. And whereas many of his predecessors have used the Garden of Eden as a pretext to show off their skill in rendering every type of flora and fauna, Podwal’s Tree of Knowledge stands in an amorphous space, which signals both great confusion and chaos and infinite promise and potential.
Other works in the book range from the whimsical (in Second Opinion, a stethoscope examines the tubing of another stethoscope) to the playfully absurd (the domed towers of the cathedral in Church of Our Holy Mother are breasts). In a 2007 interview for the Jewish Press, Podwal told me that he was advised to remove eight drawings with Jewish symbolism from the book. Seven of them didn’t seem to relate to medicine, including Auschwitz (a six-pointed star that evokes the Nazi-mandated yellow badges, pierced by a needle threaded with barbed wire). But Podwal insisted on keeping them. “I feel that some of the Jewish images, such as those related to genocide and Auschwitz, can be considered medical subjects. After all, wasn’t it a doctor who often made the selections?”
The artist who had the greatest influence on Podwal was Ben Shahn, who is best known for his political drawings, and who himself often mined religious subjects. Shahn’s six lectures at Harvard University titled The Shape of Content have been on Podwal’s required reading list for his NYU course.
“As an artist who began publishing line drawings which were social commentaries, I easily identified with Shahn,” says Podwal. In fact, some of his early drawings were too derivative of Shahn, he admits. “Often early in their careers, until artists mature by developing their own recognizable styles, their works may look too much like the work of other artists they admire.” He was later influenced by Saul Steinberg as well, whom Podwal counted among his friends. “It was not Steinberg’s iconography that I copied,” he says. “It was Steinberg as the master of visualized thinking that greatly appealed to me.”
Once, when Podwal showed Steinberg (who died in 1999) one of his drawings, Steinberg told him that an artist should always reject the first ten ideas that come to mind, because everyone will think of those. “It was the original ways to think about a subject that influenced my drawings.” Podwal is fond of Paul Klee’s definition of a line as a dot that goes for a walk. “My favorite artists are those who are the most creative in mapping that walk,” he says.
Other influences include David Levine, the famous New York Review of Books caricaturist and landscape painter who died in 2009, and Richard Lindner, a painter who passed in 1978. For some time, Podwal drew caricatures for the New York Times—of Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, and Henry Kissinger, among others—but he says “there are numerous artists who are far better caricaturists than I am. So I rarely draw caricatures anymore.” Podwal once asked Levine, who was an avid tennis player, to inscribe a book for him, and Levine wrote: “To Mark Podwal: Me, I’m a tennis player; You, you’re no doctor. Draw!”
Levine encouraged Podwal’s drawings, and since Podwal was working only in black-and-white until around 1994, Levine repeatedly invited him to attend his watercolor class. “I was too embarrassed to accept the invitation,” Podwal admits. “In 1996, when my first color works were exhibited at Forum Gallery, also David’s gallery, David phoned the next day to say that some of my color works were so ‘brilliant’ that he should come study with me.” Levine didn’t offer compliments easily, so Podwal was honored.
Another significant influence has been his long friendship with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning philosopher, writer, and activist, to whom he was introduced through friends in the late 1970s. At first they only corresponded, but in 1977, when the French released the terrorist Abu Daoud (architect of the Munich massacre), Podwal, moved and disturbed, sat in the NYU cafeteria and drew the Eiffel Tower dreaming of an oil well. The Times ran the drawing, and a few days later, Podwal received a complimentary letter from Wiesel, which gave him the confidence to meet Wiesel in person.
Wiesel told Podwal that their works paralleled each other, and he suggested collaborating. He thought they might do a book about Midrashim (Jewish parables related to the Hebrew Bible) on the life of Isaac, but Podwal thought those would be tough to represent visually, given the lack of architectural elements other than tents and palm trees, and the clothing didn’t interest him much. He countered with the idea of a book about the Golem—the legendary clay being constructed with mystical tools by a sixteenth-century Prague rabbi named Judah Loew. Podwal suggested the idea without knowing much about the extraordinary architecture of Prague, or the story of the Golem. Wiesel offered to write an introduction, but Podwal asked him to write the entire book. The Golem, with Podwal’s art and Wiesel’s words, appeared in 1983. The two later collaborated on another book, Passover Haggadah, and became good friends, with Podwal attending Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in 1986.
Although Podwal doesn’t come from a religious or observant family, he derives continuing inspiration from his heritage, he says. He describes himself as a “non-observant Orthodox Jew.” He explains, “I like things done the Orthodox way, as long as someone else does it for me.”
At his bar mitzvah, he remembers conducting the Musaf service on Saturday morning at an Orthodox synagogue, and he continued to attend services for a few years afterwards. Today, he fasts each year on Yom Kippur and recites the mourner’s Kaddish for his parents on their yahrtzeits (anniversaries of their passing). “I much prefer the Orthodox synagogue services without any English even though I often don’t understand what is being said,” he says.
Podwal’s uncle David Applebaum was said to have artistic talent. “I’d like to think that I am his legacy,” says Podwal. Podwal has a color drawing of a house made by his uncle, but doesn’t know much about him other than that he was refused a visa to enter the United States during the Holocaust. “My uncle was diagnosed as having trachoma, an eye disease, which he did not have. Based on that erroneous diagnosis, he was refused entry and would later die in Treblinka in a typhus epidemic.”
Throughout his career, Podwal has often been told that his work delves too deeply into religious subjects. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art first purchased his art for its collection, the late William Lieberman, then chairman of the department of twentieth-century art, told him, “Mark, you’ve got to get out of this Jewish rut,” Podwal says. “Although he was Jewish, he felt I was limiting my audience.” Despite Lieberman’s criticism, Podwal’s work has appeared three times on the homepage of the Met’s website as its “Artwork of the Day.”
In 2010, the Met showcased Podwal’s 1995 painting Menorah, a work on paper in gouache and colored pencil [see Plate 7]. Menorah, which depicts the seven-branched candelabrum from the Tabernacle and the Temple, follows the design described in Exodus 37, with its “bowls and flowers.” Podwal’s candelabrum suggests floral patterns, too, but more important are its palette decisions. Where most depictions of the Menorah tend to emphasize its gold and to rely heavily on warm colors to suggest its light, Podwal’s Menorah is white, set against a deep blue background. Where other candelabra illuminate, Podwal’s conveys a cooler, more somber aura, perhaps alluding to its later exile and appearance on the first-century Arch of Titus, where it is shown among the spoils being taken from Jerusalem by the Romans. (Another more playful image of Podwal’s depicts a nine-branched Hanukkah lamp made out of dreidel tops of a variety of shapes in brighter colors, all set against a comparatively cheerful light blue background.)
A significant portion of Podwal’s Jewish works, which like the candelabra have both tragic and joyful elements, are related to Prague, a city that has become a sort of spiritual home to him. Podwal first visited Prague in November 1996, hoping to see the gallery space at the Jewish Museum where he would exhibit the following September, and to meet the museum’s curator and director. On the trip, he visited the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Altneuschul, which he had drawn in his illustrations for Elie Wiesel’s book The Golem, but never seen in person [see Plate 4]. “That visit of only five days inspired many new paintings and drawings of Prague’s Jewish Quarter,” Podwal says. “For me, Prague is a time capsule. I love drawing and painting its Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture, which stands side by side…. Prague’s history, legends, and architectural landscape are, for me, a deep well of inspiration.”
In the years following, Podwal has returned to the city many times. Wiesel joined him in 1997 for the opening of his exhibit at the Jewish Museum, and the two went to services at the sixteenth-century High Synagogue together. The Altneuschul has become especially significant to Podwal. Completed in 1270, the “Old-New Synagogue” is Europe’s oldest active synagogue, and one of the city’s first Gothic buildings.
Podwal was recently invited to design new textiles for use in services there, including a Torah ark cover, three Torah mantles, and covers for the Torah reading and cantor’s desks. When he discusses this project, Podwal cites the legend that God showed Moses the Book of Adam and told him that at the first moment of creation he had prepared one fundamental task for each person. “As a physician, I believe in science. As an artist I believe in legends,” Podwal says. “I would very much like to believe that my task, listed in the Book of Adam, was to design the textiles for the Old-New Synagogue in Prague.”
Today, when Podwal attends services at the Altneuschul, where he has his own assigned seat and where his textiles adorn the ark, it continues to be a moving experience “no matter how many times I’ve prayed there,” he says. “The day after Yom Kippur, a Prague friend emailed, ‘Your white High Holidays curtain shone like an angel. It really belongs.’”
The curtain, like many of Podwal’s Jewish works, reflects a great deal of careful study [see Plate 3]. At the bottom is the Hebrew text from Psalm 130, “From the depths, I call you.” Richard McBee, writing in the Jewish Press, observed that “Podwal’s designs are brimming with symbols that anchor them in the very fabric of the Prague Jewish community,” and that the Psalms text is rendered “in the Hebrew font used in the famous 1526 Prague Haggadah” (a text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder).
Above the text, Podwal’s design includes two Hebrew letters, an abbreviation for “Holy unto God,” which was inscribed on the high priest’s turban and which refers to the Torah scrolls contained within the ark. Finally, Podwal’s design also includes a reference to the banner contained in the synagogue. McBee calls Podwal’s textiles “effectively a love song to his adopted city, Prague,” and the song is a particularly Jewish one, which in its blend of so many symbols gives a visual form to the methods of the many commentators who for centuries have grappled with the same texts and images.
The Metropolitan Museum would reproduce two of Podwal’s Prague paintings as prints for its 2005 exhibit Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, and the museum used a drawing of the streets of Prague’s ghetto as the indentations on the palm of a hamsa (a palm-shaped amulet associated with protection against evil) as a template for a brooch, a metal bookmark, and gold pendant. The Met also produced an earthenware Passover Seder plate of Podwal’s design. Unlike most Seder plates, it is square, with a single square well for all of the elements of the meal (shank bone, parsley, charoset, egg, bitter herbs, etc.).
Playing with the shape of the Seder plate isn’t unprecedented by any means, but it is a risky move. The illustration centers on an Egyptian pyramid—a staple image of the Exodus story—made of matzo. The matzo pyramid comprises two of the six points of a Star of David, the other four of which include the Jerusalem skyline with the Tower of David and the Dome of the Rock, pomegranates (fixtures in the Old Testament), the frogs from the second Egyptian plague, and a goat—an animal that is both the star and victim of the Passover song “Had Gadya.” When Podwal first shared a prototype of the plate with museum staff, he recalls, someone happened to have a box of matzo lying around. The box fit perfectly and serendipitously in the plate’s square well.
When asked about the works that he is most proud of, Podwal points to religiously inspired pieces. He recently showed forty-two new drawings and paintings in an exhibit at the Terezin Ghetto Museum in the Czech Republic. The works, he says, are a disturbing reminder of Europe’s “extensive history of Jew-hatred,” which laid the groundwork for the Holocaust. In keeping with the notion of Jews as “People of the Book,” each of the pieces in the series resembles a book page, and the archival pages are folded in the middle to further underscore that codex form.
One work in the series, which focuses on the Jewish persecution in Egypt in the time of the book of Exodus, notes that Pharaoh’s name in Hebrew can be read as “Peh rah,” or “evil mouth” [see Plate 5]. The drawing is accompanied by a verse from Psalm 10: “His mouth is full of curses, deception, and oppression; beneath his tongue is degradation and mischief.” In Podwal’s drawing, Pharaoh’s mouth is replaced by a serpent, evoking not only the snake into which Moses turned his walking staff, but also the tempter from Eden.
Another of the drawings depicts a knight in medieval armor riding a horse and carrying a shield with a red cross on a white ground [see Plate 6]. The crusader’s horse rears up in front of a golden sun; its back legs trample a Torah scroll while its eyes look upward toward Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. Podwal appends a very telling text, from Psalm 94:21: “They conspire against righteous souls, and they do evil to innocent blood.” The latter appears around an upright sword that pierces Jerusalem’s Old City.
More recently, Podwal, who enjoys opera, has produced a series of posters for the Metropolitan Opera. In junior high school, Podwal took symphonic band and learned to play the clarinet “just adequately.” But that early exposure to classical music made him a lifelong fan. For Così Fan Tutte, he painted a boat with sails made of sheet music behind the four principal actors. For Verdi’s Nabucco, an opera about Nebuchadnezzar (the Babylonian king who presided over the destruction of the Temple), he painted an Assyrian lamassu (a winged, human-headed lion) and fallen temple objects, including pomegranates, the high priest’s breastplate, and a candelabrum [see Plate 8]. His latest poster is for Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “At times, people have told me they are surprised I’m doing Mozart opera posters, because they thought I only do Jewish themes,” he says. “My frivolous response is that Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, was born a Jew.”
“It has both been proved and disproved that listening to Mozart makes one smarter while the music is playing,” Podwal says. “Long before that claim, Maurice Sendak was often listening to Mozart as he worked.” He has recently begun researching a series on Mozart in Prague. “It was in Prague that Mozart was appreciated most,” he says. “Whereas Mozart was buried in Vienna with a small number of mourners, in Prague four thousand attended a Mass in his honor with 120 musicians performing without pay. Bells across the city rang for half an hour.” Looking forward, Podwal says he would love to design the stage scenery for an opera like Nabucco.
“I am not interested in creating works that are the most fashionable art movement of the moment. My art, for the most part, tells stories. What I’d like to think is innovative about my art is that I offer a new way to think about something,” Podwal says. People have occasionally told him that his works have shaped the ways that they picture a certain subject. “It will be my image that comes to mind,” he says. “That is quite a legacy.”
Franz Kafka once described writing as a form of prayer, and that definition has resonated with Podwal. “For me, drawing is a form of prayer. Drawing and painting are how I express my Jewishness. I never took an art lesson, and I’m totally self-taught. I believe I’ve been blessed. And somehow a path that was not leading to my becoming an artist led me to where I was not planning on going.”
His favorite Yiddish proverb remains: if you want to give God a good laugh, tell him your plans.