The Arty Semite

Ben Katchor and Hand-Drying in America

By Eddy Portnoy

In today’s installment of the Visiting Scribe, Eddy Portnoy sat down with Ben Katchor to discuss his newest book, “Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories,” which will be published by Pantheon Books on March 5. Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


The artist Ben Katchor is a master of a visual urban milieu that echoes post-war New York City, but really isn’t that at all. Populated by stocky characters who tramp about and explore an oddly familiar, yet completely invented universe, Katchor’s picture-stories (as he likes to call them) are stirring forays into the urban absurd. Awarded with Guggenheims and MacArthurs, among other prizes, Katchor creates a kind of visual poetry comprised of everyday artifacts and activities. His ability to bring everyday objects and activities to the forefront of his visual narratives lends his work an imaginative, absurdist quality fired by light switches, peepholes, wheelchair ramps, coat check rooms and invented occupations, like spittoon pump engineers and rhumba line organizers. Katchor sees what we don’t in pedestrian objects and events and crafts short, comic narratives out of them. His books, which include “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” “The Jew of New York,” and “The Cardboard Valise,” are part of his continually expanding oeuvre, which has come to include operas based on a number of his stories.

His most recent publication, “Hand-Drying in America,” is a compilation of full-color, one-page picture stories that appeared in the urban design and architecture magazine, Metropolis. Like most of his work, they take place in an invented Katchoresque urban world. I sat down with Ben recently to have a meandering discussion about it.

Eddy Portnoy: Your stories are full of unusual names of people and places. Are any of them real?

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