Saul Steinberg’s most famous image is “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” one of his 642 drawings for The New Yorker. You probably know it. It shows a detailed westward-looking perspective of the city and the Hudson, and beyond that a skinny little brown strip marked “Jersey,” and beyond that an empty expanse with a handful of American cities plopped in it, and beyond that the Pacific Ocean (roughly the same width as the Hudson) and finally a trio of undifferentiated little lumps labeled China, Japan, and Russia. It’s a delightful poke at NYC provincialism.
That poster isn’t in the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Along the Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg,” a look at 54 of Steinberg’s works from the 1940s to the 1980s (on view through October), but it’s a perfect example of his aesthetic–funny, fond, but smart as a whip and sharp as a blade. The art critic Harold Rosenberg called Steinberg “a writer of pictures, an architect of speech and sounds, a draftsman of philosophical reflections.” This exhibit proves how right Rosenberg was.
Much of Steinberg’s aesthetic was influenced by being a Romanian Jew and then a refugee. Born in 1914, he watched his native country’s anti-Semitism come to full flower, then fled to study architecture in Milan. There he watched fascism overtake a once culturally rich, art-loving, Aperol-sipping, cosmopolitan city. Upon his graduation in 1940, he became a stateless person. As the noose tightened around European Jewry, Steinberg spent a short time in an Italian concentration camp called Tortoreto, then managed to get a visa to Lisbon. (He noted that his passport was “slightly fake,” doctored with a rubber stamp he’d carved himself.) He got to Ellis Island in July of 1941, but that year’s quota for Romanian immigrants had already been filled. He wound up living in the Dominican Republic for a year before being permitted to come to America. He was drafted and served in China (where he witnessed bombings of civilians firsthand–some chilly, bloodless drawings of them are in the show) and in North Africa and Italy (where he worked on anti-Nazi propaganda cartoons). Upon returning to the States, his career success was meteoric: He was one of “Fourteen Americans” included in the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective in 1946, and he managed to straddle the worlds of fine art, cartooning, magazine illustration and Hallmark for his entire life—his greeting cards made him a millionaire without compromising his fine-art status.
It’s probably fair to say that Steinberg loved and sneered at America in equal measure. He drew his adoptive country as beautiful and rich and spiky and colorful, but also as sheltered, self-absorbed, Disney- and junk-food obsessed.
The Art Institute’s show opens with a collection of masks drawn on paper bags—hidden identities were one of Steinberg’s obsessions. The masks are funny and scary at the same time. Some of the other memorable pieces include a pen-and-ink drawing of two ornately dressed women in a physical catfight; both wear ornate hats and high heels, their bodies an angry, tangled, mad scribble, their clawed hands scrabbling for each other’s faces. It’s amusing and a tiny bit terrifying. Another image shows a line of self-satisfied-looking women in fur coats on a city street, looking like serene puffballs. Each coat has a different scratched ink texture. The women feel like a familiar genre of mid-century Jewish matron—striving country club ladies trying too hard, looking too flashy. Another drawing portrays 1954 roller derby players as crosses between sexy fembots and fullbacks: Clouds of curly hair, long lithe limbs, broad shoulders, helmets, armor, high-heeled skates and forbidding expressions.
Much of Steinberg’s work deals with faceless bureaucracy, officiousness, the trappings of control. Some illustrations are made almost entirely of rubber stamps–cross-hatched or wavy lines deployed in pattern after pattern that look like drawings but were actually stamps carved by Steinberg himself, mixed with real passport stamps, approval stamps, inspection stamps. Steinberg used them to depict industrialized, inhumane landscapes and red tape, often incorporating bits of ledger sheets and newspapers as well. His characters’ thought balloons are often full of senseless pontificating and nonsense. (One that’s purely funny rather than funny-ominous shows an anxiously smiling man staring at a Braque painting in a museum—the man is rendered in black ink, the painting is in graphite colors—while a huge thought bubble shows the guy’s helpless free-associating as he attempts to focus on and understand the painting: “”Braque, bric-a-brac, break, bark, poodle, Simone…” and on and on and on in a giant blurt of desperate non-art-related thoughts.) Steinberg, who called himself “a writer who draws,” called the act of doodling “the brooding of the hand.” He was a brooder and often a jerk in real life, too—compulsively unfaithful to his wife, prone to hitting on the teenage daughters of his friends, jealous of his art contemporaries, fearful and angry. His personal history as a rootless, hated Jew suspicious yet fond of his wealthy adoptive land fueled his personal venom as well as his art: His work “Car” (not in the show because it’s photography, not drawing), depicts a challah on shiny American wheels. As a metaphor for the artist himself, it’s perfect.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.