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Pilgrim’s Progress

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 surreality his particular style created. Thurber’s rough notation served to illustrate psychodramas recognizable to contemporary urbanites; Steinberg’s drawings, as they got into men tipping their heads instead of their hats and couples dancing in an implausibly readable zigzag of mutual eclipse, laid claim to a realm where ink generated its own logic. Men’s faces are fingerprints because we are all reduced to gray whorls of virtually interchangeable identity; a woman’s head becomes a vase with a flower in it because that is how she wistfully thinks.

One of the many pleasures of reading The New Yorker in the Fifties was watching Steinberg press on with his purely visual adventures. A straight line served in its undeviating progress as a clothesline, a railroad bridge, a desk edge, and a Venetian horizon. A set of abstract effects in wash, crosshatching, stippled arabesques, broad brushstroke, and crayoned rococo triumphantly conveyed an orchestral variety of sounds. One wonders how far Harold Ross, who died in 1951, would have indulged these experiments on the edge of the representational; the new editor, William Shawn, was a cerebral kindred spirit of Steinberg’s, willing to give space to such donnish caprices as a man tipping his hat to the number 3.14159265, a circular chain of open-mouthed fish labeled “Taxes Ambition Nixon Facts Time Space Noise Truth Chauvinism Taxes,” and a spread of pictographic animations of the names Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Marx, and Freud.

Leafing through the old New Yorker albums, however, one finds relatively few Steinberg cartoons; the dominant tone was set by Arno’s solid and energetic compositions, Addams’s meticulously spooky washes, and, later, Saxon’s elegant charcoals of suburban types. Their art pointed up a humorous idea; Steinberg’s art was the idea, and took him into the galleries and the art magazines. In its own witty key, Steinberg’s ink-and-wash exploration of the nature of representation belonged on the frontier with the Abstract Expressionists, whose broader gestures were similarly calligraphic, and whose huge canvases, like Steinberg’s doodlings on graph paper, led the viewer to reflect upon the surface and materials and, finally, upon the act of creation itself.

After 1960, Steinberg’s principal contributions to The New Yorker were his covers. Though he had made a number of sketchbook excursions into the American hinterland, bringing back squiggly cowboys and the lean horizon-line of the prairie, he seems to have been principally struck by the psychological furniture of America—the abstract objects of the national aspiration, as expressed in its slogans, currency, popular iconography, patriotic parades, and holidays. What a native-born American comes to with childish acceptance, he acquired with an immigrant’s bemusement. On many of his covers American shibboleths and symbols take on a comical animation and promiscuity. Uncle Sam and Uncle Tom shake hands beneath busts of Santa Claus and Sigmund Freud; the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty, George Washington, and the Halloween witch all sit at the Thanksgiving table together, beneath pictures of Niagara Falls and of a red Indian in full feather.

The Discovery of America holds a hilarious color sketch, never to my knowledge developed for publication, of Uncle Sam as matador, about to apply the kill to a large, glowering turkey. On the cover of July 4, 1964, a catlike sphinx labeled Vox Populi is delivering to an attentive Sam (with his identically profiled harem of Lex, Lux, Pax, and Libertas) a rebus in a talk balloon, where a flag, a heart, a snake, a pair of scales, a harp, a handshake, and a cornucopia add up to a mystical distillation of Americana, this side of a horizon bearing a rainbow, a moon with a ladder leaning against it, and the decapitated pyramid that says Annuit Coeptis on our dollar bills. On other covers, purely semantic configurations were reified: Today in the form of a rocket shoots off from a crumbling Yesterday on a dotted projected route of Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Tomorrow; a spindly Nobody stands on the edge of a tall Nowhere thinking of a cloudy Nothing; a rickety “I Have” rests on a rocky “I Am” while a shimmering “I Do” burns in the sky. Few of these dramatizations of language—one can almost say “the American language,” recalling that while waiting in Santo Domingo for his American visa Steinberg worked on his English by deciphering Huckleberry Finn—are included in The Discovery of America.

Perhaps my melancholy arises from the likelihood that Steinberg and The New Yorker have gone their separate ways—that the mutually beneficial relationship between a prospering general magazine and a museum-quality experimental artist needed a cultural climate more spacious and genial than is imaginable in these strident, sectarian, and financially hard-pressed times. Some of the covers that have recently appeared show up in this book dated as long ago as 1985.

The Discovery of America presents a Steinberg, in mostly color plates, far removed from the venturesome yet risible black-and-white performer of previous albums like The Passport. The scribbly ethic of graffiti art has overtaken the virtuoso penman, and his animated iconography has dwindled to a few chimerical grotesques—bird’s heads mounted on high-heeled legs, with no body between, and monkey-faced bellhops. Not even George Grosz’s Weimar war cripples, raddled prostitutes, and fat-headed gluttons had sunk quite so far in the circles of Inferno as have Steinberg’s beaked and blank-eyed stalkers of America’s fractured, car-tormented streets. Grosz’s caricatures at least present, in their physiognomies, a rationale for being what they are, though it be as deplorable as gluttony, lust, or a murderous stiff-necked pride. Steinberg’s newest creatures have the expressionlessness of stuffed animals and look frozen in a hopeless, though smartly costumed, anomie. America’s streets now give back to the artist a terrifying chill, of walking, staring dead.

The art critic Arthur Danto provides a suave and thoughtful introduction. Steinberg has deservedly attracted as introducers the intellectual cream—John Hollander and Italo Calvino, to name two. The textuality of Steinberg’s visual play, his use of words and printer’s devices and the apparatus—ink bottle, pencil, blotter—of inscription well suits sensibilities accustomed to puns, parsing, signifiers, and deconstruction. Hollander’s very thorough appreciation of The Passport quotes no less an art critic than E. H. Gombrich, saying of Steinberg that “there is perhaps no artist alive who knows more about the philosophy of representation.” Dealing with thematic material less philosophically rich than the counterfeited documents and doctored photographs of this earlier assemblage, Danto makes several helpful points about Steinberg’s exploration of America. For one, Steinberg entered not at New York but at Miami, and Miami’s Art Deco made an enduring first impression:

His America is an Art Deco continent, a universe of jukebox architecture with jaunty angles and rainbow color schemes…. The Steinbergian landscape [is], in essence, an Art Deco theme park in which the clouds and the very mud puddles have the cachet of the moderne.

Secondly, Steinberg’s initially jubilant vision of our “dear preposterous civilization”—the drum majorettes, the parades, the Midwestern small towns with their false fronts and poignant excess of space—darkened in the Seventies, when America became “a sort of moral desert, the streets sites of menace and even terror.”

Union Square, where Steinberg had a studio, acted as his window on a Manhattan of monsters—of shrieking crazies, button-nosed Minnies and Mickies toting machine guns, frantically bleating police cars, hookers who are all legs and hairdo, pedestrians scuttling buglike in a merciless world of solidified noise. Aggression and agony spread even to the sky, its sun a lurid Art Deco blazon and its clouds a downreaching clutter of those baroque “French curves” used in architectural drafting.

I noticed that The New Yorker, so often accused of tameness, ran two of the most savage of these urban nightmares as covers, ten years apart—in January of 1971 and of 1981. The second of them, depicting Union Square (“a diminishing and menacing space,” in Danto’s phrasing, “in which statues of the imposing dead…preside over a human crowd that scatters like insects toward the dark holes of subway entrances”) is reproduced, oddly, without the touches of color that the cover bore. Several of the covers, puzzlingly—for instance, a charming fantasia on Florida—appear in slightly different, not noticeably stronger form.

In the decade since 1981, Steinberg’s catastrophic vision of America hasn’t so much changed as thickened and congealed. The verminous pedestrians have become smaller, the outlines coarser; the buildings are more shapeless and the view of the crawling streets sometimes comes from above, in a jumble of perspective. It is the jumble of gridlock rather than that of a scrimmage that will sort itself out. Polychrome paralysis reigns in the later work of this limner whose pen line was once so active, restless, and unrestrictedly inventive. Car headlights drawn as projecting substantial cones add to the jarring congestion of traffic. The striding pedestrians are going nowhere—some of them are flatly embedded in the sidewalk.

Danto says, “There is very little that I can make out of Steinberg on the Reagan years,” but surely the blunt repulsiveness of most of the drawings from the Eighties registers some sort of protest. The artist in his travels seems to have visited those places—Las Vegas, southern California—where a monied ugliness sleeplessly reigned, amid a gaudy coagulation of unnatural trees, impossible clouds, and a many-apertured mock-Spanish architecture. In a startlingly unfantastic drawing from 1988, a black dog stares open-mouthed from a yellow Celica in front of Campus Discount Liquors, and on the next two pages scribbled black dogs populate a crazy parking lot and man an unexplained barricade on what may be the American border. We are going to the dogs?

Well, as the old E. B. White poem had it, “‘I paint what I see,’ said Rivera.” The view of America, from street-level in our cities, is not lovely. Adam Gopnik, in his very thorough and admiring essay introducing the catalog from a Pace Gallery show in 1987, says that Steinberg in the strictness of his social conscience has been led to portray contemporary fascism, “fascism as a peculiarly modern structure of cruelty, a marriage of show-biz glamor with sadism, the marriage of preening sexuality—with its effeminate love of uniforms, and a particular kind of tastelessness—with affectless violence.” Steinberg is quoted as calling it “Mickey Mouse brutality.” The emergence of an appropriately brutal expressionism in Steinberg is perhaps not surprising—the major modern artist to whom he seems to owe most is Klee, and a vision of horror lay close beneath Klee’s skin of pictorial play. But this doesn’t make The Discovery of America less of a downer, as it moves from exuberant drum majorettes leading parades in the Fifties to the savage majorettes of 1987, towering in their barbaric boots and impossible heels as they do tangled battle with bellhops and stray mouse-thugs. It is the Pace catalog that labels these American Valkyries “majorettes.”

More labeling and clearer dating would not have hurt this present collection. Its pictures pass in an order only roughly chronological, in unidentified thematic packets. A long section reproduces some of the enigmatic postcards Steinberg began to do in the late Seventies—the bland main streets of little-visited towns like Henderson, North Carolina, and Colton, California, and the solemnly grand central post office buildings in such cities as Charlotte and Nashville. These deadpan snapshots, and the sketches from the Fifties of courthouses and corner drugstores and sun-creased farmers in bib overalls having a beer among pointy-breasted barmaids, exist at the opposite pole from the merry iconography of his symbol-laden tableaux; they depict the real landscape and architecture laboriously conjured from the land with the ideological blessings of Freedom and Equality, Lex and Lux.

That some sort of gap exists, where grandeur of expectation met a grandeur of emptiness, and wherein a specifically American disappointment transparently broods, goes without saying; but Steinberg’s pictorial comments on America used to have a forgiving wryness, an understanding that placed our local realities in the context of the general human condition. There is little human condition in the last decade’s work, just inhuman conditions. Who wouldn’t be melancholy, to think that this is what the New World has come to?

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