• Email
  • Print

On Saul Steinberg (1914–1999)

The New York Times obituary quoted a fellow cartoonist as saying, “Steinberg was not a warm man. He was chilly and Olympian with a somewhat hauteur tone [sic],” but in my slight acquaintance with him he consistently appeared gracious and kind. Our acquaintance was slight but long: in 1945 I wrote him from my small town in Pennsylvania asking that he send me, for no reason except that I wanted it, the original of a drawing I had seen in The New Yorker, of one man tipping his hat and another tipping back his hat with his head still in it. At this time I was an avariciously hopeful would-be cartoonist of twelve or thirteen and Steinberg a thirty-one-year-old Romanian Jew whose long American sojourn had begun but four years before. Perhaps he thought that his new citizenship entailed responding to importunities from unknown American adolescents. He sent me not the original but a duplicate he had considerately made, with his unhesitant pen, and inscribed it, in impeccable New World fashion, “To John Updike with best wishes.” Nearly fifty years later, when I turned sixty, he sent me a pencil drawing of a rabbit on a fragmentary table drawing a Steinbergian scroll, with the inscription “John Up 60! Love from Saul ST.”

He would not, perhaps, like having these small personal generosities broadcast in this telling; his sensibility was fertile but fastidious, expressed in the haute-bourgeois polish of his tailoring and the soft but distinct phrasing of his speech, as if he were translating, with a barely perceptible hesitation, out of an arcane, possibly wordless inner language. He spoke not exactly with an accent but with an un-American tendency toward epigrammatic precision. He made little of his Romanian origins; “pure Dada,” he called his native land. Yet if one thinks of the Romanians, all exiles, that have figured prominently in the culture of the twentieth century—Brancusi, Ionesco, Tristan Tzara, the aphorist E.M. Cioran—one glimpses a shared economy, a willingness to invent visionary forms and to seek a comprehensive simplicity. Ambitions so innocently sweeping might have less easily arisen among natives of a less marginal European country, with enough gravity of tradition to hold creative spirits in place.

Steinberg studied and made his artistic beginnings in that lightest-hearted of major nations, Italy, receiving in 1940 a doctoral degree in an architecture he never practiced but whose linear basis and laden notation infused his innovations in cartooning. His father was a printer and bookbinder who became a manufacturer of cardboard boxes, preparing the way for his son’s mature romance with paper, with alphabets, with trademarks and documents and maps and fingerprints and rubber stamps and all such variegated fauna of the two-dimensional, man-created world. Hilton Kramer, one of the many art critics provoked to wit by Steinberg’s own, wrote, “There is a kind of primitivism in all this, an animism, for everything in Steinberg—even the most inanimate object or abstract thought—is teeming with aspiration, ambition and portents. “The power to generate images was never merely a means to an end for Steinberg; imagery was, itself, a matter for celebration. Those deadpan postcard-shaped images he produced in the Seventies of middling American post offices and banks and motels and Main Streets carried his joy in the joke of image to a delicate extreme—like those sometimes three-dimensional table tops and desk tops he rendered in the same period, rectilinear homage to what simply is, things here and there and the ominous blankness of the table or the prairie pressing through in the spaces between.

Like Nabokov and Milos Forman, to name just two other affectionate adult immigrants, Steinberg saw America afresh, with details to which natives had grown blind or numb. American parades, American cowboys, American mountains of Art Deco, New York taxis in their screaming, bulbous decor, the quaint gingerbread pomp of suburban mansions and railroad stations—these visual events were mixed, not so paradoxically, with the emblems of the intended Utopia, the Latinate slogans involving Lex and Lux and Pax and Tax and Vox Populi, the Statue of Liberty enjoying her deadpan marriage with Uncle Sam, the practical partnership of S. Freud and S. Claus.

When, from the window of his studio on Union Square, Steinberg saw the great American city descending into a Walpurgisnacht of whoredom and homelessness and what he called “Mickey Mouse brutality,” he sought for the visual vocabulary to render it and came up with roachlike pedestrians scrabbling along amid giant congealed automobiles, and implacable Amazons whose high-heeled boots ended at their necks, and tall Mickey Mouses blandly toting machine guns. Steinberg’s fine doodling pen line—a handwriting of the mind, a punning seismograph—turned to relatively coarse and indefinite pencil and crayon, deployed in clashing, scrawled mimesis of a perceived ugliness; his art became ever more a gallery art, aimed at collectors and couched in a private symbology. The New Yorker of this time, liberally race-blind to the point that blacks had not appeared in its cartoons for decades, could not have found it easy to accommodate a vision so macabre and grim, so culturally diverse and unwinsomely grotesque, but in fact it did salvage a few covers from Steinberg’s Boschian visions.

He and William Shawn shared some points of sensibility—laconic, quietly erudite men with a taste for the quizzically existential. If the pièce de résistance of an issue of Harold Ross’s magazine was a lusty Arno cartoon, that of one of Shawn’s was a Steinberg spread, often some delicious example of synesthesia such as the sounds of different musical instruments seen as clouds and swirls of abstraction or a page of “Country Noises” heard as typographical borders and ornaments. A reader could study it lovingly, as the joke unfolded its several levels. Steinberg came to English late (while waiting to be admitted to this country in Santo Domingo, he read Huckleberry Finn for practice) and its basic vocabulary kept a primal kinesis for him: one New Yorker cover shows “Today” blasting off from a crumbling “Yesterday” on a route plotted “Breakfast Lunch Dinner Tomorrow.” On another, “I HAVE” hangs like dirty wash on the terra firma of “I AM” while the O in “I DO” shines above like the sun. On others, an army of “WE ARE”s being led by “I SHALL” carries the banner “ARE WE?”; the M and W of “HOW” and “MYTH” are the mouths of fish about to eat up “WHY?” and “TRUTH”; and the letter E wistfully dreams of “É.”

Within the magazine, until Steinberg’s ambitions overflowed the spot cartoon, one encountered people with zigzag faces who seemed to be both coming and going, and a man shooting an apple off his own head, and a woman with a vase for a head, with the flower of a thought in it. A businessman talks a torrent of scribbled words inside a speech balloon shaped grandly “NO.” Speech balloons, those indispensable aerial platters in comic strips, show up sideways in the mouths of alligators, and tucked under people’s arms like baguettes, and mimicking a street map of Paris or (a competing vacation in a luncheon chat) the island of Sardinia. And so abundantly on. Such an inventory dulls, perhaps, the surprise with which one encountered a Steinberg, in pages where—the half-blind scrawls of Thurber aside—the cartoons, whether by Arno or Whitney Darrow or Garrett Price, showed a solid representational technique. One did not open The New Yorker then prepared to find a nude photograph or a headline-making exposé; a spiky Steinberg fancy was as exciting an ornament as one might encounter on those good gray lawns of well-weeded prose.

As the Abstract Expressionists forced us to know that we were looking at paint, Steinberg compelled us to realize we were looking at ink. His drawings turned a corner in mental space and left the looker disoriented; in his ceaseless effort to explore the spaces of transformation, Steinberg resorted to three dimensions, painting imaginary women seated on the edge of real bathtubs, and men sedately folding themselves into cardboard boxes. He worked in wood, creating unopenable books with inviting titles—equivalents of his elegantly penned documents that cannot be read. He drew on photographs of junk-store furniture, of crumpled paper, and of New York rooftops. He drew awninged front entrances on sheets of graph paper, turning them into skyscrapers. To call these inventions “visual puns” is to make them sound slighter than they are; they are wormholes between different universes that are simultaneously contiguous and parsecs apart. He created for himself a unique niche between high art and commercial cartooning—a niche in which he, perhaps, was not always comfortable. The Times quoted him as saying, “The art world doesn’t quite know where to place me.”

But in his restlessness he resisted being placed. The huge and legal-headache-making celebrity of his image of the world as seen looking west from Ninth Avenue—the typical New Yorker’s dismissively foreshortened perspective, The New Yorker‘s cover for March 29, 1976—may mark a moment after which his work became less ingratiating and more restless. A great deal of his later oeuvre is scattered in gallery catalogs. One would be happy, now, for a retrospective album that would reach back, if possible, to the cartoons he published as a student in Milan, and the propaganda drawings he did for the OSS as an American soldier, to be dropped behind enemy lines to encourage anti-German resistance. Something subversive remained in his art, undermining the intuitive connection between what we see and what we know, calling into question, like a good metaphysician, the bases of our experience. He was a comedian of epistemology, whose problematics engaged him; Descartes’s formula “Cogito, ergo sum” more than once recurred among his verbal reifications. His cartoons, even the apparently simplest Möbius strip of a doodle, occur in a realm of thought where style is substance and double takes are the least we owe the artist. “Drawing is a way of reasoning on paper,” he said. Steinberg never, even in his most extended illegible flourish, seemed other than reasonable, nor did we ever doubt that his was, somehow, a representation of the world we live in.

  • Email
  • Print