If you passed Eric Drooker, 58, on the streets of Berkeley, you wouldn’t guess from his slight build and unassuming manner that he’s a giant in certain circles. Among other things, Drooker is a regular cover artist for The New Yorker, he collaborated with the late poet Allen Ginsberg, and he won the American Book Award for his 1992 work Flood! A Novel in Pictures.
To a certain extent Drooker exists on a different plane: if you walk right by he will likely fail to notice you, no matter how many conversations you’ve had before.
After you manage to make yourself known to him, you may hear next a rapid-fire rant about gentrification, class differences, and the heartlessness of real-estate developers and landlords — issues that have roiled him since his childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
As he discusses those topics, Drooker, who lives in Berkeley, sounds perfectly rational, giving no indication that he tends to produce disturbing images that seem to have leaked out from the unconscious or, more specifically, from a nightmare.
One might think that an artist who produces such unearthly images would struggle to find an audience. On the contrary, Drooker has managed to support himself through art since age 21, including by making album covers for bands such as Rage Against the Machine. People offer him so much commercial work that he accepts only topics to which he feels a connection. He always finds publishers for his graphic novels, and his books always sell out.
In a New York Times review of Drooker’s graphic novel Blood Song, novelist Nick Hornby praised the “startlingly beautiful” book as “a mythopoeic account of a young woman’s flight from a ruined Eden to the corrupt and terrifying urban world.”
Indeed, Drooker’s images have a mythological vibe, and, ever since Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols filled him with inspiration, Drooker has sought to imbue his work with “the language of symbols.” For instance, a subway in his work represents the unconscious of the masses.
To engage people’s emotions, which he characterizes as irrational and unconscious, he strips away words, figuring that, as he told The Comics Journal, he is using “an ancient form of communication that will resonate on a pre-verbal level.” With wordlessness, he also hopes to achieve universality and transcend language barriers, making a more powerful statement.
Cutting out the words is no loss in his mind, as he resents the way our civilization overvalues words to the exclusion of other powerful means of communicating, including music, dance, and pictures.
As illustrated in the image above, X-Ray Crowd, Drooker says he uses an “X-ray motif” (one influenced by Mexican and German art) to suggest vulnerability and impermanence. As he told The Comics Journal, “We walk around for a few short years, experience the pleasures of the flesh, and soon . . . we’re bones.” He added, “It’s the artist’s job — or poet’s job — to penetrate the outer layers, to reach an inner truth.”
All that philosophizing might sound rather lofty, but Drooker’s concerns are solidly down to earth. Born in 1958, he grew up near the Bowery in a neighborhood that he describes as a racial, ethnic, and linguistic melting pot. Drooker felt close to the working-class people around him and believes he was shaped by the famous radicals who lived there during or even before his time, including anarchist Emma Goldman, Beat writer Jack Kerouac and other Beatniks, and free jazz musicians.
Drooker’s parents didn’t own their own home and lived in cramped quarters on the seventh floor of an apartment building. His mother taught in public schools (and was a painter and musician on the side), and his father worked as a computer programmer. Drooker describes it as a union household. His maternal grandparents also influenced him greatly. The children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, they became socialists in the 1930s and introduced him to art in museums and in books.
Although he attended Cooper Union, where he majored in sculpture, he says, “I identify closely with the working class,” not with the “ruling class.”
He feels great empathy for victims of eviction, many of whom became homeless before his eyes in the 1980s. Whereas there had been no homelessness during his childhood, save for the occasional person suffering from mental illness or a so-called Bowery bum, Reagan’s first term ushered in the “specter” of homeless people lining the sidewalks, as well as armies of homeless men, mostly people of color, who had been freshly evicted from newly deregulated tenements or thrown out of mental hospitals. As Drooker told Comics Journal, “I’d literally climb over people to enter my apartment each night.”
Drooker points out that the word “homeless” entered the American vocabulary at that time. And though some might think that the term improved upon labels such as “shopping bag lady” or “bum,” he finds the new nomenclature harmful because it has normalized the situation.
To remind us that it’s not normal, he includes images of the homeless in his city art. A person with a briefcase contrasts with someone sitting on the street. “I want people to feel the injustice,” says Drooker. “I think it’s important that it be in your face. You want to be able to see the people who have been evicted. You want to be able to see them every day so that you don’t get lulled into an illusion that everything is okay.”
In a 1995 piece about Drooker’s art, Allen Ginsberg wrote: “Drooker illustrated the city’s infrastructural stress, housing decay, homelessness, garbage-hunger and bitter suffering of marginalized families, Blacks and youth, with such vivid detail that the authoritarian reality horror of our contemporary dog-eat-dog Malthusian technoeconomic class-war became immediately visible.”
Ginsberg, who died in 1997, was a neighbor of Drooker’s in the East Village and collected his street posters for years before suggesting that they collaborate on projects. Drooker ended up illustrating dozens of Ginsberg’s poems, including “Howl.”
Ginsberg wrote the second half of “Howl” while living on Milvia Street in Berkeley from 1955 to 1956. Drooker himself had moved to Berkeley by the time he oversaw the animation for the 2010 film version of that poem, and that coincidence seemed to bring things full circle.
Political passions have inflamed Drooker all his life. At age 11, he created his first political poster, mocking Richard Nixon, who was still president. Drooker spent his 20s pasting up political posters around the neighborhood and peddling his zines about police brutality and “landlord terrorism.” On several occasions, the police confiscated his anti-establishment art and arrested him.
It’s a huge leap from those beginnings to where he is now; all the art from Flood! hangs in the Library of Congress, and more Drooker works hang in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art (both in Manhattan).
Nevertheless, he insists that his work is meant to be printed, not hung on a gallery wall: “I always felt alienated from the gallery scene, which seemed really snooty. I like the democratic aspect of work that’s mass-produced. Whether on a street poster or a magazine cover, most of the work I do is being seen by thousands or millions of people.”
Although his conversation repeatedly returns to the class divide, as when he says, “It’s the most polarized it’s been in our lifetime. Scholars compare this to the age of the robber barons,” he maintains that it’s a mistake to examine his art only through the lens of class consciousness. Drooker says, “If I have a political agenda, it’s always evolving.”
After 40 years in Manhattan, Drooker found it prohibitively expensive and relocated to the Bay Area. He was bicoastal for a few years starting in the late 1990s, shifting between San Francisco and Manhattan.
“It was silly, of course, to think I could escape from these socioeconomic forces,” he comments. San Francisco struck Drooker as too expensive (and too “white Christian”). By contrast, Berkeley appealed to him because “that’s more where the intelligentsia live.” He finally “dropped the anchor” in Berkeley in 2001, right before 9/11.
He thinks Berkeley is one of the few places in the United States where he can feel comfortable living because of its political climate, though he says Berkeley seems less progressive and less diverse than it once was, particularly as it gentrifies.
He critiques the current building boom downtown, saying that all the new luxury housing will turn Berkeley into a bedroom community of affluent people working in the tech industry. “It’s a mistake for any city to drive its culture out, to drive the artists out,” he says.
Concerned that he too might be priced out of the area, he comments, “Once again I find myself a marginal character. Not too many bohemian artists can afford to live the Bay Area in the 21st century. It’s catching up with me.”
Nevertheless, Berkeley still speaks to him, partly because he finds Bay culture more “sex-positive” than the rest of the country. Drooker, who draws women’s nude portraits, observes, “People here tend to be more relaxed with their bodies than in New York or the rest of the U.S.” He likes that the Bay Area is “more experimental.”
Drooker longs to maintain a connection to New York, so he enjoys working for the New Yorker. He has created more than 30 covers for the publication. The Dec. 14, 2015 cover, shown above — a comment on gun control — garnered considerable attention, showing a couple shopping at a superstore. Having found milk and hand grenades, they’re picking out a bevy of semi-automatic rifles. When Drooker first submitted the artwork, in 2012, the New Yorker rejected the piece. Then, after the San Bernardino shootings on Dec. 2, 2015, the magazine ran the cover immediately. By then, mass shootings had become the norm.
Drooker has never been to a Walmart and when he painted this work, he had no idea that some of them actually have a large gun department. “It’s very difficult to be a satirist today when the wildest things you imagine are coming true,” he says.
Drooker will be appearing at an event next year. “Eric Drooker on the Art of Political Activism“, Wednesday, March 29, noon-1 p.m. at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. To see more of Eric Drooker’s work, visit the artist’s website.
Berkeley artist captures mood of Wall Street protesters (10.10.11)
Would you like a digest of the day’s Berkeley news sent to your inbox? Subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.