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Igor Kopelnitsky
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Igor Kopelnitsky
(1946 - 2019)

The cartoonist and illustrator Igor Kopelnitsky first published a drawing with the syndicated illustration service Inx in 1990 and for the next 23 years contributed an extraordinary run of deft and brilliant images. I first met him when Polish master Janusz Kapusta brought him to an Inx meeting and we got a chance to enjoy his signature wit in a stunning portfolio he'd assembled in his years in Ukraine. He and his family, including wife Klavdia and children Raimonda and Simon, had fled that nation's repressive Communist regime in the wake of the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster and came seeking the fabled American Dream.

This immigrant's view, tinged with hopefulness, suffused Igor's work which was as dark and complex at its core as one would expect from that part of Eastern Europe. The 20th-Century of fascism and communism tended to bend an artistic soul, particularly a Jewish one, and that damaged spirit often found refuge in an exquisite sense of the absurd and pitch black humor. That's the charred earth from which his cartoons sprang, but his innate decency and child-like sense of play remained intact and elevated his work. There was a glimmer of sunshine even at midnight.

Here's a page from Igor's contribution to Poland's 1988 Satyrikon Cartoon Contest which featured his early pen and ink style and his unmistakably mordant sensibility.

The original work he published in the United States was largely in this mode, but through the course of his first decade here he began a process of paring back his technique and boiling down his concepts to their essence. But I still love the moody shading and the more elaborate compositions of these pieces.

He worked extensively for the more sophisticated publications –– his stuff was brainy –– particularly the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times and Newsday. Jerelle Kraus chiefly employed him at the Times and I was lucky enough to hire him when I was filling in at that position. I remember arguing with editors, those masters of the literal, over certain sketches because Igor's approach was often oblique and his goal was always to create a new take on subjects that were well-worn.

I remember his pride when he showed Jack Sherman, Newsday's Art Director, and me his scrapbooks chock-full of one wildly clever idea after another, and how he rated his own favorites in terms of their uniqueness. Scrapbooks rather than sketchbooks –– eventually, he was working in a mysterious copy and collage technique finalized in the computer that entailed less direct drawing –– there weren't really 'originals'. This was when we visited him after he first fell ill in 2013, and he began finding it harder to work. Here's a stretch of his amazing output for Inx art directed by Peter Kuper and myself.

And here's a selection of purer Kopelnitsky where he was untethered by a text or socio-political topic. These were images he shared with me as we discussed a possible book project.

I don't think Igor would have been offended if I said he could have stepped out of a cartoon. With his compact stature, thick glasses and impish smile, he seemed ready-made for animation, a lovable character with a magical quality. He was a gentle man with a singular vision. I remember him saying at one of our group celebrations, 'I am Inx' or, perhaps, 'Inx is me.' Either way, and even imperfectly rendered, that would be true. He embodied the impulse to create visual imagery with the heft of philosophy and the concision of poetry.

His body ultimately betrayed him, but regardless of his limitations, I hope and believe his imagination was unassailable until the end, that marvelous universe he shared with us all. Please seek out his work and read his daughter's diaristic account of her family's transit to these shores.

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Igor Trips

Here are the remembrances of some colleagues:

We connected easily. Maybe it was the Russian roots. I was fresh in New York. He was even fresher. I was impressed by the quality of his thinking and by the strength of his ideas. He was a truth-teller through illustration. A philosopher through art. I loved all of that. I believe that this kind of illustration was the best expression of who he was. Doing his work was very important for him, as a matter of life and death, as it is for many of us who contributed to Inx. For me, this is the heart of a person, and the heart, I know, remains connected.

–– Giora Carmi

Like many of you, I had the honor of meeting Igor in person through our Inx gatherings, but I’ve seen his work previously in catalogs of international cartoon competitions where I had participated as well. His style was part of that familiar Eastern Europe look, with fine skills and excellent visual metaphors. He later switched to a more minimalistic style, almost the opposite of what he previously did, but still with strong philosophical content. I wonder if that decision had to do with starting a new life in this country and leaving the other one in the past. In any case, it was very effective and original.

As fellow immigrants, we used to talk about how to make it in this baffling new society and also learning the language and its fun idioms. I recall he laughed when I told him once “Tell your people to call my people” instead of “call me”, and from then on that was our goodbye phrase. He used to call me and we would chat about the illustration world and, on one occasion, about his travels among my fellow Mexicans in the Maya Riviera. I was sorry to hear he was ill and now I am very sad that he is gone. He leaves us an extraordinary visual legacy and a great contribution to the illustration field.

–– Felipe Galindo Feggo

Sweet fellow. Drawings so neat and clean and clearly communicating.

–– Tom Hachtman

I remember walking back on a beautiful spring day from an Inx meeting at United Feature. We might have been walking back to your studio in Union Square. Igor told us about the harrowing story of his family’s journey from Ukraine. His wife and daughter were with us.

–– Randy Jones

I knew Igor from his first entrance into the Inx orbit. He was gentle and kind and held anyone who made opinion known through images in high regard, perhaps due to his background working under a repressive government. He told me once about a state censor who had remarked on which way a flag was blowing and the political implications, to which Igor pointed out that the flag was blowing in the preferred way as it was seen from the point of view of the figure in the picture. It ran, but he had cold sweats due to the inquiry.

Inventive and minimal, his work provided essential depiction of and graphical insight into the topics his art addressed. Genius really.

–– Thomas Kerr

I met Igor back in the 1990 when we first began working together at Inx. He was always a joy to engage with, presenting brilliant conceptual visions for every subject he tackled. I can't help but smile remembering a message he left on my telephone answering machine that opened with: "Hello...I am Igor Kopelnitsky..." in his beloved Eastern-European accent. This became an endearing call and response between me and my wife for years.

I feel fortunate to have been exposed to his magnificent artistry over the decades and hope he is greeted with a pen ink and paper in the afterlife. Good-bye friend.

–– Peter Kuper

I loved his simple black and white wordless cartoons, simple in the very best sense in that they spoke so eloquently.

–– Matthew Martin

Let me note the utter delight I felt when the fax(!!) machine would spew out a dozen pages of the charmingly enigmatic ideas Igor would send for an assignment. Occasionally there were images that didn’t succumb to even intense reverse engineering. I never did figure out what some of his ideas were about but they were affecting nonetheless on some non-verbal level. 

Igor was funny, deep, gentle and it was a privilege to work with him. 

–– Jack Sherman

All images copyright Igor Kopelnitsky and Now What Media.

–– Martin Kozlowski