During the Second World War, Saul Steinberg, a Romanian Jew who lived in Italy, took refuge in New York City. Like many brilliant émigrés, he relished his adopted city but maintained, nonetheless, an outsider’s edgy perspective. Nothing surprising there: Modernism 101 is full of outsiders. But Steinberg (1914–1999) was never just another exile from Europe. He did something original with the perspective. He became a droll, scholarly, and not-unkind observer from a place even further away, from another planet perhaps: an explorer-anthropologist from Mars sent to record the outlandish appearance and habits of the New York earthlings. His dispatches describe the wondrous flora and fauna of the region (the flora often resemble the fauna, and the fauna the flora) and delight in its profusion of oddities. Did Martians know that New Yorkers worship a giant female goddess at the entrance to their harbor? Or that the natives like to tie a string to an animal called a dog, which comes in many sizes and shapes, and then parade the creature through the streets?
As charming as this outlook may sound, it does not capture the fullness of Steinberg’s sensibility. More than 25 years have passed since the last important New York show that explored and reconsidered his art. That’s partly because, despite his otherworldly eye, Steinberg now seems strangely familiar. His line is instantly recognizable, his covers for The New Yorker widely celebrated. (His drawing of the New York–centric mind, View of the World From 9th Avenue, which represents the planet beyond Manhattan as a succession of outer boroughs, is iconic.) But Steinberg also has a way of discomfiting curators and art historians. He’s difficult to pigeonhole, he dirtied his hands in the popular press, and he took an unfashionable interest in subject matter. He was even a moralist! And since his work is relatively small in scale, he’s not easy to lionize in a massive retrospective. Yet Steinberg is unquestionably a major figure—not merely an idiosyncratic one—whose work is far richer than many people know. The great virtue of “Saul Steinberg: Illuminations,” at the Morgan Library & Museum, organized by Joel Smith, is that both the show and the excellent, insightful, and scholarly catalogue emphasize how varied—and unfamiliar—Steinberg remains.
“Illuminations” includes more than 100 drawings and other works of art from all periods in Steinberg’s working life. A related and interesting show now at the Museum of the City of New York, “A City on Paper: Saul Steinberg’s New York,” juxtaposes the artist’s depictions of city life with posters and archival material. Steinberg began as an architecture student and, in a way, remained a student of façades all his life. The façade—of a person no less than of a building—was a kind of visual code that the outsider might crack to reveal the secret within. And secrets could be found concealed on every surface; Steinberg even liked to make, or perhaps find is the better word, busy streetscapes among kitchen appliances or rooftop pipes. His buildings are living characters. (A cornice could harbor a complex soul.) Letters, too, had a personal life, apart from their day job creating words. Nothing in Steinberg was inanimate. In that respect, he was a sophisticated primitive or, as he put it, an ex-child. Taxis and airplanes were creatures. A pineapple was “the dragon of fruits.”
In his earlier American work, Steinberg’s analysis of façades was usually playful. He found in America something marvelous, dreamy, innocent, and naïve. Women in fur pelts might appear outlandish, but there was a wonderful, not dangerous, spirit in their jungle hearts. And a cocktail party begged for gentle satire. But Steinberg’s examination of the surface was never static, and his view of America—and of life generally—darkened over time. In the sixties and seventies, a ferocious edge came into Steinberg’s art. The crocodiles became more fearsome, the people more monstrous or sad, the chaotic street less charming. He was responding, of course, to the social upheavals of the period. His Bleecker Street is a fantastical bestiary of Village creatures, at the center of which is a burly policeman with a billy club, mounted on a horse. He looks just like his horse.
Steinberg liked to call himself a writer, which was partly a way to disarm critics and art historians who dismissed “literary” art. But the term also emphasized his aspiration to be more than a draftsman—he would be, additionally, a commentator, a philosopher, a judge. Even a hanging judge: His line could make a noose of the news. At times, Steinberg’s line and imagery developed into a philosophical meditation about identity, notably in those works in which he plays with words or shows an artist drawing himself. He even developed spiritual longings informed, as he aged, by Buddhist thought. In his terse I Do, I Have, I Am, he made a witty spiritual map that, as Smith suggests, conveys that “to Do is exciting but ephemeral; to Have is but a form of poverty; the only bedrock is Being—character.” The picture is not pretentious, pious, or sermonizing. A TV antenna turns “I Have” into a shack, and the “I Do” has a futurist buzz.
An old-world melancholy, rich and deep, suffuses Steinberg’s smile. He understood the shut door, the façade that he could not crack. He sometimes made august diplomas, certificates, and proclamations that glow with fancy signatures and official stamps. They’re unreadable: beautiful gobbledygook. They exclude and close out; their surface is implacable. In Illuminations, Steinberg’s restless line, as it opens up different moods, casting back and forth between the bleak and the lighthearted, teasing out the soul behind the surface, seems to take on the character of modern consciousness itself—the internal conversation of an emblematic figure. The poet Charles Simic ends his fine catalogue introduction by invoking the theater of the absurd: “For many of us, the story of exile ended up being a philosophy of laughter.” Laughter in the shadows. “The news of the world,” Steinberg said toward the end of his life, “makes me think that for many years we’ve been the victims of an immense prank, which has lasted perhaps since the year of my birth, 1914.”