Sphinx

Saul Steinberg

text by Harold Rosenberg
Alfred A. Knopf, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 256, 247 illustrations pp., $10.95 (paper)

Saul Steinberg April 14 - July 9, 1978

an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

The major retrospective exhibition of Saul Steinberg’s work at the Whitney Museum which opened in April chronicles a unique artistic development. The volume under review here has been “published in conjunction with” the show, but it is by no means merely an illustrated catalogue of the exhibition, or merely the most recent of the artist’s books of published work, or even an occasion for Harold Rosenberg’s wise and pointed essay. It includes and transcends these.

Its front cover reproduces the “Album” containing Steinberg’s famous mock-passport of 1953 and some later additions—drawn group photograph, a much revised ms. with canceled verse and prose in different inks, stamped with a collector’s seal—from 1968. The back cover is the brown paper bag “Hostess Mask.” Depending upon how speculative your temperament, either one can serve to invite you inside.

Steinberg’s uniqueness is as celebrated as the artist himself. A comic and satiric draftsman who evolved into a visionary one, he has no simple prototypes: it is as if he started out in a land not uncongenial to Rowlandson, then moved to both the deeper social and aesthetic concerns of Hogarth. By now, one must invoke Blake as well. In older English, “the pen” and “the pencil” (meaning the paintbrush) were synecdoches for literature and art. For Steinberg, they became each other, and his pictures are a kind of literature in the language of picturing. He has likened his own art to that of the novelist, but his accomplishment is more like that of a philosophical aphorist—G.C. Lichtenberg (teacher of science, interpreter of Hogarth), for instance, whose characterization of a small town as a place where the faces of all the people rhyme is like an early Steinberg drawing. A later drawing might be like another of Lichtenberg’s remarks, to the effect that “a donkey is a horse translated into Dutch,” sitting there, awaiting interpretation. We gradually realize that (a) this is funny only in German or English, because written Dutch seems like those languages but distorted from the viewpoint of either one, and that (b) realizing (a) makes the remark even funnier; by commenting on its own axioms, it calls our own visual and verbal parochialism into question. (Why isn’t a horse a distorted donkey, for example?)

Steinberg’s drawings have always dealt with the language of inscription and, indeed, even the history of art itself becomes reinterpreted as part of the vast sketchbook that human culture scrawls everywhere, and that even nature—“creeping up” on art (as Whistler once put it)—continues to do as well. His art has always embraced written language, as well as substituting for it; but he also literally writes with extraordinary power, using some of the same tropes and fables that he does in drawing:

The view from the car is false, menacing; one is seated too low, as if in a living-room chair watching TV in the middle of a highway. From the bus, one …

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