The Discovery of America
by Saul Steinberg
Knopf, 208 pp., $50.00
Published to coincide with Columbus’s rather sour quincentenary, The Discovery of America, a handsomely produced album of over two hundred works by Saul Steinberg, made a rather melancholy impression upon this peruser, the causes of which I will try to discover. Any selection, even one made, as in this case, by the artist himself, raises the jealous specter of the excluded. The theme, though it reaches back to Steinberg’s arrival in this country in 1941, has tended to exclude some of the very best types of his art—the mock-document, the cleverly imitated old photograph, the desk top, the collage, the self-conjuring creatures of a wandering ink line, the comic reifications of words and grammar. This is determinedly an art book, heavy on the sinister art brut of the last ten years, and I missed Steinberg the cartoonist—the exquisitely individual entertainer, the juggler of American icons on New Yorker covers.
The book’s horizontal format imposes a certain monotony of proportion on the works; the famous 1976 view of the world westward from Ninth Avenue, Steinberg’s most posterized and plagiarized cover, seems flatter and less poetic without the white sky introduced to back up the magazine’s logo. On the opposite page, we find a less celebrated, more complex view eastward, from the artist’s drawing board in the fore-ground to the East River, the towns of Long Island, the sentimentally remembered centers of his Europe, and even the cities of China he can name.
Of course Steinberg is, like Nabokov and Louis B. Mayer, a considerable discoverer of the United States. Born in Bucharest in 1914, he studied architecture in Milan and, upon getting his degree in 1940, fled to the New World, arriving, like Columbus himself, at Santo Domingo. He had begun to sell cartoons as a student in Italy and quite soon began to appear in The New Yorker. His early cartoons, their protagonists staring at the world with the hollow oval eyes of Harold Gray’s Orphan Annie, seemed crude but not as Thurber’s were crude; this artist could clearly see, though he chose to simplify. Some of his wartime comic art, showing sailors getting tattoos or Goering plugging in his electric display of military decorations, could have been drawn by most anybody, from a gag-writer’s prescription. But the ensembles of drawings from India and China, where the new citizen Steinberg’s enlistment as a naval ensign had taken him, had more than cartoon weight—a reportorial earnestness that did not blink at poverty (the Indians all had sad drooping eyes, and the Chinese chair-bearers had hypertrophied calf muscles) and a cunning naiveté, a modernist boldness of self-declaring technique, in the linear, perspective-careless style.
By the late Forties, Steinberg’s demure printed signature was signing captionless conceits—a Justitia wearing not a blindfold but sunglasses, a man shooting an apple off of his own head—that only he could have conceived, and that were viable only at the level of …