Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Wit of Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg  |  photo by Inge Morath, 1958

Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) is not easy to categorize within the world of art. His work resides somewhere between cartoons and art galleries, and somewhere between the written word and the picture. In fact, Steinberg considered himself a writer who happened to draw. He enjoyed the visual pun, and he made his line work pass through many dimensions.

Saul Steinberg  |  detail, The Line, 1959

The drawing above is a detail of a much longer and more elegant drawing. With apologies to Steinberg, I've shortened it for the sake of this blog format.

Saul Steinberg  |  The Rabbit, 1959

Saul Steinberg, the son of a book binder, was born in Râmnicu Sărat, Romania. He went to the University of Bucharest, where he studied philosophy for a year. He then moved to Italy to study architecture in Milan, and graduated from the Politecnico di Milano in 1940. Because of anti-Semitic laws, Steinberg fled Italy before World War II. His departure from Italy was difficult; first he went to Portugal and was deported back to Italy. Next he traveled to the Dominican Republic, and then finally to the United States.

It's interesting to note that Steinberg was able to leave Italy in part because he forged a part of his passport. The visual language of passports, proclamations, and bureaucracy in general — along with the texture of elegantly indecipherable calligraphy — remained a major element of his art.

Saul Steinberg  |  detail, ALBUM, 1953

Saul Steinberg  |  Prosperity, 1959

For many years, Steinberg contributed to the New Yorker magazine. His love of the visual pun was coupled with an interest in American mythology and symbolism. Above, Unemployment is skewered by Semantics, and Inflation is skewered by Statistics.

Saul Steinberg  |  Ship of State, 1959
My blogging friend Rosemary's comment, below, induced me to add one more of Steinberg's allegories, Ship of State. Click to enlarge.

Saul Steinberg  |  View of the World from 9th Avenue, 1975

Saul Steinberg's most popular and enduring drawing is the New Yorker's view of the world, an idea that has been copied many times.

Saul Steinberg  |  Nuthatch Still Life, 1974

Saul Steinberg  |  Louse Point, 1969
Late in life, Steinberg began working with oils on paper, painting great vistas over which he rubber-stamped animals, figures and structures.

Saul Steinberg  |  The Tree, 1970

All these images come from Saul Steinberg, an Alfred A Knopf publication that was issued in conjunction with a 1978 retrospective exhibition, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Saul Steinberg
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18 comments:

  1. Thanks for this tribute to Saul Steinberg. Although his drawing style virtually symbolizes the New Yorker, I had never taken a closer look at his work. I especially liked the humor and insight of the Line drawing, and intend to look up the entire work my next trip back.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. One word I didn't include in my posting is "irony," and that's a big part of Steinberg's appeal. Another aspect of his work that I'm drawn to is the way poked fun at monumental iconagraphy, like stages of life, ladders to success and inventories. I sense he was an organized man who poked fun at the way we catagorize things.

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    1. You are most welcome. Thanks for visiting!

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  3. The national portrait gallery here in DC had a great show of his work 2 years ago I think it was? I wonder if I can get my hands on a copy of the brochure for you -it was excellent.

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    1. Thanks, Stefan — that would be greatly appreciated, as is your thought. Steinberg's work has always inspired me.

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  4. I'm just impressed you can make a caret with your keyboard!

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    1. Hi, Theresa - You might be able to make carets and umlauts, too. On your browser menu, go to "Edit" and scroll down to "Special Characters." When you find the character within the grid, double-click on it. Ain't technology grand!

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  5. Thanks for the introduction to Steinberg.
    I was interested in the “Pursuit of Happiness” - the snake and crocodile biting each others tails. In the popular, at the time, medieval guide to real and mythical beasts - The Bestiary - a snake like creature with tail of one in mouth of other was said to represent new life since the snake is reborn by shedding its skin each year. The snake also represented healing through the virtues of its venom.
    Likewise the skewered peacock. In Greco-Roman mythology the Peacock identified with Hera (Juno) who created the peacock from Argus whose 100 eyes in the tail feathers symbolise the vault of heaven the “eyes” of the stars who watch all life unfolding.
    I think the detail in his work makes for interesting reading.

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    1. Hello, Rosemary,

      Thanks for a great comment. Saul Steinberg was steeped in philosophy, history and mythology, and I'm sure he would have appreciated your insights, as his work resonates at different levels.

      Because of your comment, I'm going to add one more of his allegories, the Ship of State. In it, Republicans and Democrats are shown as ball players, Science and Fiction fly together, and Freedom is symolized by a Native American, while Law is a cowboy.

      On another note, the alligator and snake element calls to mind a now-famous photograph from the Everglades, where an alligator and python both fought each other to the death!

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  6. I've had the book for years, Mark. Steinberg, for me, has always been an enigmatic artist. I say that because a lot of the time I didn't quite 'get' what he was doing, but somehow, I liked it anyway.

    It's that unforgettably sharp line of his drawings.

    I simply ADORE that photo of him with the paper bag over his head. While I love the complexity of his New Yorker 'rest of the world' cover, I do love the last drawing you feature in today's post, Mark.

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    1. Yvette's comment about Saul Steinber's New Yorker cover comes at a time when the New Yorker is celebrating its anniversary with a contest of covers by readers. See the clever winning designs at Yvette's site:

      http://yvettecandraw.blogspot.com/2012/02/happy-anniversary-to-new-yorker.html

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  7. Mark, thanks so much for your kind words and approval of my painted kitchen! I am so happy I made the choices I did! I love this post as I can remember being much younger and even when I didn't quite get what the message was, I was always drawn to the composition, color and whimsy in the drawings. I LOVE the paper bag photo!

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    1. I enjoyed looking at all those painted floors, Ann, and your choice was the perfect synthesis!

      Judging by the background of that Syeinberg photo, he must have posed that way often.

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  8. I'm a big fan of Steinberg and it's great to see him in his studio, with that mask. Thanks

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    1. Hi, Alan -

      There's a playfulness in all of Steinberg's work that extends to his studio, and I've always imagined that he would have been fun to know.

      There's a story in my book on Steinberg that I enjoyed. It seems that there was another Saul Steinberg in New York City, and the artist always wondered about him. One day Steinberg called up the other man and asked, "Are you the real Saul Steinberg?"

      The poor fellow said, "No."

      And Steinberg said, "Are you sure?"

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  9. Thanks, enjoyed reading. I like the fact that he crushes bounderies between cartoon and art, perhaps even making an artoon. (yes, a stupid word).

    I find his work is very inspiring.

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    1. Thanks for visiting, John. I enjoyed viewing your own interesting site. Your projects remind me of Andy Goldsworthy's vision ...

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