Steinberg at the New Yorker
52 East 57 Street
February 11 – March 5, 2005
J. Alfred Prufrock can keep his coffee spoons. I have measured out my life in Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker covers. His first drawing appeared in 1941, before I was born. A survey of his work for the magazine is a timeline of my own existence, marked along the way with rites of passage that correspond to his dates of publication. Over 50 original drawings for the magazine and its cover are on view at PaceWildenstein, opening tomorrow. It is a delicious exhibiiton, a rare opportunity to see the covers in their original state and in various renditions.
Born in Romania, Saul Steinberg (1914 -1999) studied philosophy and literature in Bucharest, enrolling to study architecture in Milan in 1933. He drew the whole time, paying bills by submitting cartoons to the satirical bi-weekly, Bertoldo. Italy’s anti-Semitic race laws of 1938 rendered nil his architectural diploma (issued to “Saul Steinberg, of the Hebrew race”). His residency papers ran afoul of oficialdom in 1940 and he was interned briefly in a prison camp in the Abruzzi, forcing him to flee. He was waiting for a visa to come to the United States when he made his first submission to The New Yorker. Contributions continued for nearly 60 years producing 90 covers and and over 1,200 drawings that made his name and the magazine’s almost synonomous.
Categories fall by the wayside in discussing Steinberg. He has been described variously as an illustrator-draftsman, a cartoonist or a modernist without a portfolio. All three fit; none is quite exact. Sui generis, he invented gnomic vignettes that navigate the prosperity of post-war America and its pitfalls with terse, punning economy. Steinberg’s gift for pointed compression is the hallmark of good cartooning; it is equally a quality of fine art which seeks the core of any chosen set of intelligible relations.
The immediacy of actual drawings is necessarily diminished in reproduction. The grace of his line and its inflections- blithe and distinctive-is even more strongly felt in the originals. That line stretched and contorted to express the unspeakabe, sometimes bending to convey sadness or curling back on itself to suggest confusion, deep thought or the creative process itself. No one could take a line out for a walk quite like Saul Steinberg.
“The Line,” on view for the first time, is a trademark Steinbergian transmogrification from the 1950s: one unbroken changeling line that reinvents itself-from a pen mark to a clothesline, to railroad tracks and more-as it travels across and around the page. After 30 feet of wandering, it returns to its origin in the artist’s madcap pen. A 1961 cover depicts an opera house, its orchestra pit filled with his characteristic false handwriting that evokes a full symphony, the physical gestures of the musicians and, at the same time, the cleffs and bars of a composer’s musical notation.
Steinberg brought an enchanted eye to the vagaries of the High Art scale and his place on it: “People who see a drawing in the New Yorker will think automatically that it is funny because it is a cartoon. If they see it in a museum, they think it’s artistic; and if they find it in a fortune cookie it’s a prediction.” It is that same sly candor that marks his drawings, making his hand an instrument for wry cultural examination. Steinberg considered drawing “a way of reasoning on paper” and his adopted country gave him much to reason about: the masks of modernity, the bafflements of communication, American can-do vitality and vulgarity together with misgivings about where these would take us in the 21st century.
Steinberg was a dual citizen: not only of the United States but of The New Yorker as well. His loyalty to the magazine was rooted in the help it gave him getting into the country in war time. Even after his reputation was established by museum shows, gallery exhibitions and an international following, he continued to publish in The New Yorker, insisting it would be his “patria” forever.
The flavor of his drawings, the tongue-in-cheek generosity of them, is always apparent even when their meaning is not. “What do you make of this?” was a sure-fire conversation starter-as well as a signal of one’s own taste- for half a century among those who shared The New Yorker’s aspirations and aesthetic. Steinberg himself did not mind being thought undecipherable at times. He did not like being grasped too easily. Better to be misunderstood than to be obvious.
The exhibition coincides with publication of “Steinberg at the New Yorker ” (Abrams), a collaboration between The New Yorker and the Saul Steinberg Foundation. Amply illustrated, the book opens with an intimate anecdotal introduction by friend and colleague Ian Frazier. Joel Smith’s text, drawing on unpublished material in Steinberg’s papers, is informative and insightful. It is a tribute to an American original, the post war visual culture he helped create and the magazine that conspired with him.