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Istvan Banyai, 73, in Dec. 2022 (Hungarian-born illustator for The New Yorker & Playboy)

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Nov 27, 2023, 2:26:35 PM11/27/23

By Alex Williams
Published Feb. 18, 2023Updated Feb. 21, 2023

By 2013, the celebrated Hungarian-born illustrator Istvan Banyai had achieved a place of prominence and influence in his profession. Blending a gimlet-eyed satirical sense with fantastical whimsy, Mr. Banyai had produced frame-worthy covers for The New Yorker, along with eye-catching work for New York magazine, The Atlantic and other publications.

His ambitiously conceptual children’s book, “Zoom,” had earned rave reviews. And that year, Mr. Banyai’s work was the subject of a solo retrospective at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

But if he was savoring his rise, Mr. Banyai, ever arid and ironic, rarely let it show. “Really,” he said in a video interview promoting the exhibition, “I feel like I’m an outsider. I’m really an oddball guy who managed to, like a jackal, eat whatever the pigs leave behind.”

Mr. Banyai died on Dec. 15 in a hospital in West Harrison, N.Y. He was 73. His wife, Kati Banyai, said his death, which was not widely reported at the time, was caused by lung cancer.

The influential editors who long sought out Mr. Banyai’s services did not share his self-deprecating assessment.

“Istvan’s pictures were masterful and precise but also trippy and sexy, a great hybrid,” the author Kurt Andersen, a former editor in chief of New York magazine, wrote in an email. “They looked more like animation cels — distinctly European animation, filtered through the late 1960s — than sketchy cartoons.”

In 1995, Mr. Andersen hired Mr. Banyai to produce a weekly illustration riffing on the news of the week for New York’s topical front-of-the-book section, Gotham. The work, while playful, was also tart.

A typically satirical illustration, from the height of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, showed the fallen former football star coming to terms with his epic fall by scanning magazine cover images that show him devolving from gridiron hero to inmate.

“Istvan Banyai is mad,” Steven Heller, a longtime art director for The New York Times who commissioned work from Mr. Banyai for the Book Review, wrote in an essay tied to the museum retrospective: “Not angry nor despondent, but mad in the transcendent sense. He is perpetually in a state of creative lunacy that only a gifted artist can achieve — if lucky.”...

(book covers)
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