Lee Lorenz, a New Yorker cartoonist who oversaw the magazine’s art direction and drawings for nearly 25 years, and whose own work — with distinctive ink-wash brushstrokes and flowing lines — poked fun at domestic life, skewered arrogant fat cats and offered wry commentary from politics to pop culture, died Dec. 8 at his home in Norwalk, Conn. He was 90.
His daughter, Martha, confirmed the death. No cause was given.
Mr. Lorenz joined the New Yorker in 1958 as part of a stable of artists, including Bob Weber, James Stevenson and others, who helped give the magazine’s cartoons a more irreverent and culturally attuned identity amid shifting reader tastes and demands in the 1960s and ’70s.
Mr. Lorenz’s legacy, however, was larger than his astounding body of work of more than 1,800 cartoons and dozens of covers in the New Yorker until 2015. As art director from 1973 to 1993 and then cartoon editor until 1997, he discovered and mentored a generation of cartoonists, including Roz Chast, Liza Donnelly, Jack Ziegler and Bob Mankoff — who succeeded Mr. Lorenz as cartoon editor.
“When people asked me what I looked for in a New Yorker cartoonist, I always said, ‘I want a distinctive point of view,’” Mr. Lorenz told the Comics Journal in 2011. “Not just gags, in other words. Most artists only did gags and didn’t quite understand what a point of view was. But all the best artists have a personality.”
Mr. Lorenz’s work could be both timely and timeless. He found rich fodder in essential human flaws and yearnings — greed and power, the balancing act of marriage, the tyranny of vanity and fads — and gave it a modern context with a few words in a caption or a flick of his pen.
In 1992, he drew a man saying his bedside prayers: “And may we continue to be worthy of consuming a disproportionate share of the planet’s resources.” In a 2010 panel, a man dumps a briefcase of cash on the desk of an older politician, whose office has a portrait resembling President Ronald Reagan. “What the hell, Senator,” the caption says, “let’s cut to the chase.”
Climate change was handled without a word: Showing just a melting snowman inside a snow globe. The search for meaning was rendered by a grocer selling “fresh insights” in “The Marketplace of Ideas.” The customer asks: “Just how fresh are these insights?”
Mr. Lorenz took particular relish in digging into the ups and downs of home life and relationships. Hundreds of his cartoons showed couples at a crossroads — often somewhere in middle age — with the man usually the one behaving badly.
In one cartoon, a husband, lugging his suitcases and golf clubs, turns to his wife: “Well, now that the kids have grown up and left, I guess I’ll be shoving off, too.”
Mankoff described Mr. Lorenz as a “jazz cartoonist” — a dual reference to Mr. Lorenz’s longtime musical sideline playing cornet with his Creole Cookin’ Jazz Band, and how he crafted his drawings. Mr. Lorenz did not first make a pencil sketch or other under drawings. He would start with an ink wash or pen and build the images in one go.
“He was improvising, like he was playing jazz,” Mankoff said in an interview. “He was riffing. He knew what to add. But also — and this can be more important — he also knew what to leave out to capture the viewer’s eye and make his point.”
Mankoff said he watched Mr. Lorenz create a cartoon in 1993 that has brought a knowing nod to millions of cat owners. Mr. Lorenz first made passes with his brush. Then he did a few swipes with his pen to capture a frowning cat looking at a bowl of food just plopped down by an equally grumpy man. “The phrase you’re groping for is ‘Thank you,’” says the man.
“He nailed it with just three or four strokes,” said Mankoff. “Perfect. So many cartoonists fuss and fuss. Lee never did that. He just got it right.”
Lee Sharp Lorenz was born Oct. 17, 1932, in Hackensack, N.J., but moved frequently around the country because of his father’s job organized U.S.O. shows. Mr. Lorenz immersed himself in comic books, fascinated by different drawing techniques and compositions.
His mother’s subscription to the New Yorker introduced him to the intentionally pared-down cartooning styles of James Thurber and Saul Steinberg.
Mr. Lorenz studied at Carnegie Tech (now part of Carnegie Mellon University) and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, whose professors included the primitivist painter Philip Guston. After his fine arts degree in 1954, Mr. Lorenz tried to make a name as an abstract painter — also looking to make some extra money with his first jazz group, Eli’s Chosen Six.
“That’s what I pursued when I got out of art school, but I still needed to make a living,” he told the Comics Journal. “That’s how I got into cartooning.”
Mr. Lorenz sold his first cartoon to Collier’s in 1956 and branched out to magazines including Playboy and “all the Playboy imitators,” he said. He went on contract with the New Yorker two years later. Mr. Lorenz became art editor in 1973 after the retirement of James Geraghty, who had been in the post since 1939.
Mr. Lorenz effectively put to rest the fading system of two-person cartoonist teams, a gag writer and artist. He sought out new talent capable of doing both, as he and most others did at the time. “To me,” he told Women’s Wear Daily in 1986, “a cartoonist draws and writes. It’s a special art form that calls for a dovetailing of the artistic and the verbal.”
He brought more than 50 new cartoonists into the New Yorker fold. In 1978, he came across delightfully offbeat sketches by Chast, then an aspiring illustrator developing her signature mix of visual comedy: clunky drawings and often anxiety-riven observations. Mr. Lorenz picked perhaps the most head-scratching Chast image for her first New Yorker cartoon: A collection of nonsensical “Little Things” with made-up names such as a “chent” and “hackeb.”
“They were so radically different from anything else we were getting,” he said. “She kind of invented a whole new genre.”
Mr. Lorenz’s long tenure at the New Yorker included its sale to Samuel I. Newhouse Jr.’s Advance Publications in 1985 that led to the dismissal of the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, who had been one of Mr. Lorenz’s main supporters. But Mr. Lorenz survived the shake-ups under the new chief, Robert A. Gottlieb, and its next editor, Tina Brown.
“Lee Lorenz’s inky brushstroke was distinctive, his jokes extremely funny,” said New Yorker editor David Remnick in a statement. “As an editor, he was both discerning and kind, and he brought in an astonishing array of new talent to The New Yorker — the kinds of artists who created their own visual worlds that fill our pages today.”
Mr. Lorenz was married and divorced three times. Besides his daughter, he is survived by a son from his first marriage; a daughter from his second marriage; two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Mr. Lorenz’s Creole Cookin’ Jazz Band played weekly at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts until the pandemic temporarily halted shows. His cartoons were complied into several anthologies and he also illustrated for children’s books, including Richard J. Margolis’s “The Upside-Down King” (1971) and David Updike’s “Seven Times Eight,” (1990) and other books such as Bruce Feirstein’s satirical “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche: A Guidebook to All that Is Truly Masculine” in 1982.
In January 2015, Mr. Lorenz’s last New Yorker cartoon appeared. It showed “Save the Lemmings” activists using a net to catch the critters as they ran off a cliff.