Saul Steinberg: A Biography
by Deirdre Bair
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 732 pp., $40.00
Saul Steinberg, who died in 1999, was better known for the eighty-nine New Yorker covers that appeared between 1945 and 2004 than for anything else he ever did. The most famous of them was the one that appeared on March 29, 1976, with its comically parochial depiction of what in the mind of a New Yorker the rest of United States looked like beyond the Hudson River all the way to the Pacific Ocean. View of the World from 9th Avenue became a poster sold in every souvenir shop and was freely adapted by chambers of commerce elsewhere to promote their own cities. Time and again, his lawyer had to restrain him from suing someone who ripped off the image and used it on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs.
As far as Steinberg was concerned, there was nothing in it to make anyone feel superior. When asked what he meant, he said that this is how people everywhere see the world beyond their own neighborhood. He also said that he had to disguise certain things into jokes, so he’d be forgiven by those who might think him rude if he told them the truth directly. He was right about that. One comes away from Steinberg’s cartoons both laughing and feeling uneasy.
Over more than sixty years, he kept drawing at a time when many painters had convinced themselves that the kind of art they aspired to had little or nothing to do with drawing. He drew both what he observed around him and to make visible what he was thinking, often combining the two. He drew a small dog at the zoo pulling at the leash in order to bark at the lion in the cage, and in a separate drawing, a man dressed in a business suit carrying a huge heroic portrait of himself down the street.
Among hundreds of other memorable images, there is a cat sipping a martini with a goldfish floating in it, the angel of death dressed in a doorman’s uniform outside a funeral home helping a couple of mourners out of a taxi, a group of visitors to an art gallery absorbed in carefully studying blank canvases hanging on its walls, Uncle Sam as a matador waving an American flag in front of a huge Thanksgiving turkey, a mean-looking little kid with a hammer getting ready to strike at a globe, and Uncle Sam playing a violin and the Statue of Liberty beating a toy drum on a street corner while two ants dance wildly at their feet. None of these cartoons and drawings had captions, or had any need of them, since they could be understood by anyone. The adjective “Steinbergian,” which at one time was readily recognizable, was coined as shorthand to describe just such a fresh and irreverent way of seeing.
Many of the artists who were his contemporaries also had their own “look.” By and large, they achieved …