Grossman was inspired to pursue comics and caricature art after discovering Mad Magazine in the 1950s. In an interview with The Tennessean, Grossman admitted that the EC Comics humor magazine had appeared to him “like a nearly divine revelation.” Grossman would later go on to befriend the magazine’s creator and founding editor Harvey Kurtzman, and would utilize the techniques that he learned from Kurtzman to help create his own unique style of caricature art.
In one early attempt at Mad-style parody, Grossman created a comic strip featuring the African American superhero Captain Melanin (a character who would predate “the first black superhero” Black Panther, by about five years). But Grossman’s rise to national prominence would come later with his iconic illustrations of celebrities like Jerry Garcia, Crosby Stills and Nash and Bob Dylan (all three for Rolling Stone) and his scathing political caricatures of everyone from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump.
It was the Presidency that occupied most of Grossman’s time, particularly the New York magazine strip “Zoonooz,” which featured characters like Richard M. Nightcrawler, Gerald Duck, and a Mickey Mouse-esque movie star called Ronald Rodent. The strip came to an end when Rupert Murdoch took over the magazine, but Grossman eventually resumed his work on the Oval Office in The Nation with Cap’n Bushya, a squirrel hero based on George Herbert Walker Bush, and with the coming of the Clintons, came “The Klintstones.” Grossman also regularly parodied Obama with O-Man, which he acknowledged brought his career full circle with Captain Melanin. The Atlantic showcased 0-Man in 2012, as part of a whole retrospective on his Presidential satire.
In 2005, Grossman courted controversy with his depiction of “Babe Lincoln,” a caricature of Abraham Lincoln wearing women’s lingerie. Inspired by a book which claimed that President Lincoln was secretly homosexual (C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln), the cartoon drew criticism and charges of homophobia from the gay community. Grossman responded to the controversy in typically sardonic fashion, noting that “in the impoverished mental landscape of a cartoonist, this is what passes for true inspiration.”
Grossman is perhaps best known for him cartoonish airbrush art, which he would frequently employ in magazine art as well as in movie posters (most notably in the iconic image for the 1980 Zucker Brothers comedy Airplane!) Former Times art director Steven Heller praised Grossman’s use of airbrush and other fine art techniques in a comic setting. According to Heller, Grossman “kind of redefined the genre of caricature by introducing the airbrush as a tool. He gave it a kind of sculptural, but at the same time, comic form. He gave it shades and gradients that the others didn’t do. And at the same time he also captured likenesses with brilliant precision and great wit.”
Robert Grossman passed away on March 15 (reportedly from congenital heart disease). He is survived by his sons Alex and Michael Grossman Rimbaud; his daughters Leila Suzanna Grossman and Anna Jane Grossman Pedicone; five grandchildren, his two brothers, James and David, and his partner of nearly 25 years, Elaine Louie.