Saul Steinberg: Illuminations at The Morgan Library

Saul Steinberg, Bleecker Street (1971), graphite, colored pencil and watercolor on paper, 29-3/8″ x 22-3/8″; courtesy Adam Baumgold Gallery

Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) was the quintessential New Yorker or, perhaps, the New Yorker we aspire to be: Witty, worldly, clear-eyed, biting and always attuned to the diversity of urban life. Reveling in the city’s unceasing spectacle, he was forever fascinated by its often extreme juxtapositions of contrasting classes and cultures. He was sophisticated and intellectual, but unpretentious and never snobby. The New Yorker made him a regular for a reason: Steinberg was the city’s happiest emissary.

Most would recognize his best-known image, which is currently among the works on view at the Morgan Library’s Saul Steinberg: Illuminations: the world as seen from a vantage point on the Upper West Side. Manhattan is the center of everything; the rest of the U.S. is an adjacent patch of greenery. Russia, China and Japan are mere islands in the distance. Steinberg mocks the city’s self-regarding parochialism, yet the picture isn’t malicious–it’s a sardonic valentine. A similar strain of love bolsters his oeuvre.

Born in Romania, Steinberg grew up in Bucharest and lived with relatives who were sign painters, watchmakers and dealers in books and stationery–specialized trades that left a decisive imprint. He first gained notoriety as a cartoonist while studying architecture in Milan. His illustrations for Bertoldo, an Italian humor magazine, feature underhanded (and popular) digs at Mussolini. Tiptoeing around obvious caricature and outright condemnation, Steinberg’s cagey dexterity was impressive not least for courting political reprisal.

The establishment of race laws in 1938 barred Steinberg from working as an architect. (He took bitter pride in being officially tagged a member of the “Hebrew Race.”) His cartoons were subsequently published sans signature. He was no stranger to anti-Semitism; he’d experienced plenty while living in “fucking” Romania, an adjective he reserved for his native land.

When Italy mandated the expulsion of Jews, Steinberg dodged the police, hid in friends’ apartments and, amazingly, continued his duties as a cartoonist. A bureaucratic snafu landed him in a prison at Abruzzi where “you could see the sea, but you weren’t allowed to go to it.” An application for a visa was eventually approved, and Steinberg made his way to America.

He relished the open spaces and wide-ranging culture of his new home. Like his friend Richard Lindner, another refugee from Europe and a woefully underrated painter, Steinberg derived great energy from pop culture. Coupled with a distrust of officialdom and the high-flown, he was an artist who, in his own urbane way, was down with the people.

His drawings are dotted with brashly abbreviated archetypes–Uncle Sam, bow-legged cowboys, a Mickey Mouse-like grotesque, long-legged fashionistas and frazzled punks wandering among bargain stores on Bleecker Street. Under Steinberg’s sharp focus, these characters out of our commercial culture became heartening, if ironic, emblems expressing an immigrant’s gratitude.

Undeniably modern, Steinberg was not strictly a modernist, though his adroit reconfigurations of stylistic and pictorial conventions place him chronologically and temperamentally. He toyed with illusion and made words and numbers an integral component of a visual universe. Yet Steinberg remains odd man out. His quizzical achievement is isolated from standard art-historical narratives, not least because it so readily refutes categorization.

The Morgan Library, then, makes just the right venue for Steinberg. The artist’s keenly perceptive but difficult-to-classify whimsies fit perfectly alongside all the manuscripts, books, drawings, musical scores and letters that make up the bulk of the library’s collection. They encapsulate everything unique about making marks on paper–directness, intimacy and line, especially line, in its dizzying varieties.

In a brilliant, if inadvertent, stroke, the exhibition is close by an array of ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals. Their abbreviated pictographs and meticulous artisanship seem to reach sympathetically across the centuries to Steinberg’s work. This would, one feels, have pleased the artist to no end.

Steinberg’s preferred moniker was “a writer who draws.” Another self-generated label, “museum-artist,” was definitely not right. “Cartoonist” doesn’t cut it either: Curator Joel Smith writes that “neither the comics and cartoon world… [think] of him as entirely their own.” The writer Roger Angell described Steinberg as a “world class noticer.” Beautifully dead-on, but where does that leave him exactly?

“Criss-crossing deftly,” the Morgan tells us, “…between high and low culture.” This kind of comment is manna to those intent on doing away with hierarchical distinctions for ideological reasons: High, low–who cares? Let’s call it a wash for the greater good. Alexis de Tocqueville saw that misguided trend rolling down the pike two hundred years ago.

Steinberg depended on distinctions. His art is unimaginable without hierarchies; his comedy thrived on friction generated from traversing high and low, celebrating both and thwarting expectations about the resulting collision.

In the end, Steinberg is as singular and inimitable as Joseph Cornell–he’s off to the side doing his own thing. Forget history and its hunger for categories. Pleasure abounds at the Morgan. It’s good to welcome Saul Steinberg home.

(c) 2008 Mario Naves

Previously unpublished.

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