Saul Steinberg may eventually be remembered as one of the most ingenious philosophers of the 20th century. Or was he a sociologist? In any event, the astonishing thing is that he managed to achieve this armed primarily with pen and ink—not by writing, but by making drawings, typically without any sort of explanatory caption.
His most famous drawing, which appeared on the cover of his most frequent collaborator, the New Yorker, was View of the World from Ninth Avenue, which elegantly and economically encapsulated the contradictory breadth and myopia of the cosmopolitan Manhattanite, who can see with sweeping vision all the way to Japan but who recognizes only the details as far as the east bank of the Hudson River.
The original drawing for this New Yorker cover appears (along with an enormous treasure trove of drawings, collages, and sculptural assemblages) in a sweeping, must-see retrospective exhibition of Steinberg’s work now on view at Vassar College. The show is the first museum exhibition focused on Steinberg’s work since 1978, a show that, as curator Joel Smith points out, “reflected the priorities of a living artist who wanted to be sure [he was seen as] a focused, museum-worthy artist.” Now, almost 30 years later, it’s not necessary to push the hard sell of Steinberg as a fine artist, despite his career as a magazine cartoonist. In the intervening years, the gulf between fine art and mass media has largely been obliterated by contemporary postmodern practice, from photographic appropriationists like Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger, to Francesco Vezzoli’s recent faux movie trailers (for things like a remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula, which was a big hit at the 2005 Venice Biennale).
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Steinberg today is to recognize the many ways in which he invested his dense, witty, amazingly layered work with a depth and quality of thought that seems to clearly anticipate many of the theory-driven critical “interventions” that have become Chelsea’s stock-in-trade since roughly 1978. An unwitting Octoberist avant le lettre, Steinberg’s cartoons—like the self-portrait of the artist wielding a pen from whose nib trails a line that, Escher-like, eventually forms the image of the artist himself—broach the much-vaunted “crisis of representation.”
Esteemed art critic Harold Rosenberg once declared that, “In linking art to the modern consciousness, no artist is more relevant than Steinberg. That he remains an art-world outsider is a problem that critical thinking in art must compel itself to confront.” But it was exactly this perpetual outsider status that enabled him to so definitively capture the realities and the contradictions of mid-20th-century life.
Born in Romania in 1914, in the same month as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he studied architecture in Milan, while cartooning for several Italian publications, which, of course, set the pattern for his future career. He received his architecture degree in 1940, which bore, because of the increasingly anti-Semitic Fascist regime, a special notation of his “razza Ebraica” (Hebrew race). He was destined never to work as an architect, but this training provided him with ample knowledge of the mysteries of perspective, and a firm command of the pen-and-ink line that permeated his drawings ever after.
Once in New York (and working regularly for the New Yorker), Steinberg quickly became a part of the artistic/intellectual scene, socializing with writers, artists, and other intellectuals during the heady days after World War II, when New York was in the process of stealing the title as the world’s cultural capital from Paris. Yet he did not limit himself, or his outlook, to this crowd. Friendly with all, exclusive to none, he recognized and managed to include multiple points of entry into his work, expanding his audience through his magazine and newspaper work, which was precisely what made him so effective.
One work in the Vassar show, Untitled (Art Viewers), from 1949, thematizes this point well. Three figures are shown contemplating “art,” represented by a flying, torch-bearing female figure. Mr. High-brow (bearing a large H on his back like an athletics letter) reaches upward, ready to embrace the woman in all her pretentious, allegorical glory. Overdressed Mrs. Middle-brow, bearing a strong resemblance to the ridiculous Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers’ films, has her own vision in a graphic thought bubble, transforming the woman into a fanciful chandelier hanging from the ceiling, her torch providing more literal illumination. Last but not least, Mr. Low-brow looks up from his comic book to see her swooping to earth as a masked super-heroine. As curator Joel Smith put it in his lecture at the opening of the exhibition, “Steinberg was not a card-carrying member of any of these ‘brows,’” but rather took advantage of his perpetual outsider status to affectionately skewer them all.
Steinberg’s knowledge of art and art history, as found throughout his work, was encyclopedic, yet never intimidating. One work in the show, Nine Postcards (1969), involved assembling a grid of nine color postcards from across the US, each bearing a fairly pedestrian landscape. His only addition to the scenes was a carefully placed rubber stamp imprint, reproducing the two central figures and the wheelbarrow from Jean-Francois Millet’s old warhorse of a 19th-century painting, The Angelus. The rubber-stamp figures are located so that they seem proportionate to the landscapes, sentimentalized French peasants transplanted to the wide open spaces of an equally banal American landscape. Whether you recognize the source of the rubber stamp or not, Steinberg makes a humorous point—but if you are in on the joke with him, it’s enough to make you laugh out loud.
It’s this sort of perspective that is the most valuable lesson to come from this show—understanding that humility does not necessarily cancel out intelligence, Steinberg demonstrates how much more effective (and indeed, at times, how much more radical) it can be to broaden the audience for art, rather than finding endless ways to alienate people from it.
“Saul Steinberg: Illuminations” will be on view through February 24 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie. (845) 437-5632;