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Saul Steinberg

Saul and I ferst met in the summer of 1955, with Serge Chermayeff and Harry and Elena Levin at Wellfleet where he was visiting for a few days. I had just published my first piece of criticism, a review of his wonderful volume, The Passport—in connection with a recent detailed study of the art of Paul Klee—in Partisan Review, and as a young and callow devotee, I was inexpressibly pleased to discover that he had read and appreciated my remarks; indeed, he invited me to visit his studio in New York(I was at Harvard at the time) that fall, which I did, and kept in closer and closer touch with him over the years thereafter. Although it is startling now to see photographs of him from that time, the nose, the glasses, the expression and the tone of the voice all seem to have lived their independent existence since then.

I had first encountered Saul Steinberg’s work in The New Yorker in my early years of high school — first the war-correspondence documentation that appeared in that magazine even while he was still in the Navy which had sent him to Asia and Europe. These drawings were wonderfully enigmatic in their lack of any easily recognizable repertorial pieties and the original and unprecedented tint of the binoculars through which the Pacific and European theaters—as they were called—were viewed. He told me years later that he had always been grateful to the United States Naval Reserve for the various Grand Tours it treated him to. Then, after the war, his reportorial attention turned from views of what were called the theaters of war to the continuous performances of visual appearance and graphic representation in the theater of American life. Even when young I remember being perplexed when he was referred to as a cartoonist in the company of those we came in those days most to admire (among them Peter Arno, Charles Addams, Otto Soglow, the great George Price.)

Rather, he was a kind of resident alien on the New Yorker’s pages, and his drawings weren’t jokes of the same kind that cartoons were; they provided, instead of captions or punch-lines, momentary glimpses of what the seen, the observed, the recognized, even, had somehow failed to take account of. Only later did I come to see how he had delineated the masks and the gestures to which the designed constructions of modern life—architecture, dress, packaging and other products of industry, pictures and inscriptions—seemed to be doomed. If in Baudelaire’s words, Nature is “a temple whose living columns from time to time release words in confusion” then Saul moved through it “as through forests [or rather, in his case, cities] of symbols that watch him with knowing looks.

It was seeing large-scale pieces of his one Sunday in 1946 in MoMA—where one used to go, on a student free-entry pass, every other Sunday afternoon—that both delighted and further puzzled me. The show was a wonderfully memorable one called Fourteen Americans, curated by Dorothy Miller, and it included work by, among others, Arshile Gorky, Loren MacIver, Irene Rice-Pereira, Robert Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi, Mark Tobey and Theodore Roszak. That it was suggested that Saul, whom I had thought of as a cartoonist, must be thought of as being in the company of other American artists was pleasantly enigmatic. Saul’s problems or national and artistic definition seemed to emerge together. He was a cartoonist, and of great stature as an artist, but certainly not as Daumier was, but probably more in the way William Blake was. They were both visionary intellectual satirists, — Blake urged all to see through, not merely with, the eye( as a trope for vision liberated from merely culturally constructed looking.) Saul made us all see, from another angle, what the relation between that seeing with and seeing through the eye that Blake had delineated could be on any occasion. His art was not that of caricature— by which we usually mean the satiric portrait that plucks egregious idiosyncrasy out of the recognizable. If anything, he was a caricaturist of both willed and unwitting appearances. Saul was always exploring not only conventions of drawing — and indeed, ways of drawing the whole human world, most particularly also including those parts of it which consisted of graphic representation itself. He would draw paintings and drawings and documents and pictures of writing, partly confirming Harold Rosenberg’s often repeated observation about Saul that he was “a writer of pictures:” we may think of his celebrated image of an unbroken line forming a hand drawing itself as a kind of implicit manifesto as well as the visual echo of a logical paradox. But “writer of pictures” also means that he was a graphic artist, whose work was conceived for reproduction and publication. This matter of art on the printed page was always central to him.

Saul Steinberg was born in Romania in 1914. After taking a degree in social science when quite young at the university in Bucharest, he went off to Milan in 1935 to study architecture at the Reggio Poltecnico, from which he received a doctorate in 1940. While studying in Milan, he began doing drawings for a humor magazine called Bertoldo (half the staff, he once told me, ended up as fascists, half eventually as partisans.) The first drawing he sold to The New Yorker, while still abroad in 1941, was of an inverse centaur — equine head and neck on human body ( a meditative version, perhaps, of Magritte’s erotically rearranged reverse mermaid.) Following a brief internment in a camp in Italy, staying on as a Jew in a German-dominated world became impossible. He managed to cross the Atlantic using what he called once a “slightly fake” passport for which he had used his own rubber stamp (as a child he had played with a set of these as his first toy and he kept using them and playing with them throughout his work.) He went first to Portugal and then across the ocean where he was turned away at Ellis Island to await a visa in Santo Domingo, finally landing in New York in 1942. After serving abroad in the United States Naval Reserve from 1943-5 (it had been felt that his graphic skills might be of tactical use,) he returned to New York. He continued to live and work there, and in Amagansett, L.I. During his last five years he spent parts of the winters in Key West.

In 1945 he published his first book of drawings All in Line. The punning of its title linked the urban scene of people waiting in a queue— perhaps with memories of waiting in line for a visa—with purely linear drawing. The sequence of titles of his subsequent books reads itself like the chronicle of a quest for an artistic homeland— the Latin patria was the word Saul would use at various times for homelands lost—Romania and Italy — and those gained — the United States, New York, and indeed, The New Yorker (until, as with Italy, his New Yorker came to an end.) They also catalogue tokens of the life in which—in both senses of the phrase— he found himself: The Art of Living in 1949 with its two senses of an art that deals with and arises from modern urban experience, and the technique of getting on with life itself. The Passport followed in 1954, with, among other things its amazing array of purely visionary documents issued by unknowable nations and institutions, extending the range of his satiric investigation of visual rhetoric generally. The Labyrinth in 1960; The Inspector in 1973 and finally, fifty years after Saul’s own encounter with it, The Discovery of America — in a more visionary sense, in 1992.

Saul’s use of the English language—which he learned to read, he said, in Santo Domingo by going through Huckleberry Finn with a dictionary— was as eloquent as his drawing hand. His conversation usually rhymed with his drawing, and his verbal formulations were more than merely descriptions of images, as when he frequently came to say that he wanted to be invited to dinner with the art-historian Leo Steinberg on one side of him and Saul Bellow on the other. (Saul’s spirit indeed sat between those two writers on art and on living when they both spoke of him at a memorial service last week.) And one day when we were walking along Lexington Avenue he observed that his most recent project had involved trying to become a dog so that he could look more intimately at manhole covers in New York— so many different ones, he observed, not like the standard and universal Roman SPQR. I remember an occasion in the early 1970s when he was showing me some small and for him experimental paintings of the beach at Louse Point, on an inlet in the bay near Amagansett, in which he had represented the people on the beach by tiny rubber-stamps rather than by the brush. He said that of most people starting out as painters, few eventually became artists, whereas he was an artist who was trying to become a painter. Acknowledging that he was indeed an artist implied that he had, after all, come to know and acknowledge the unique territory of his patria.

The work he left with us records his eternal and ever-renewing inventiveness, the kind of originality which makes mere novelty look moldy and shoddy. Looking through his notebooks, or, for example, through the wonderful dozens of drawings he made on the letterhead of the Smithsonian one year when he was artist-in-residence there, one never knows what will happen next. (It’s like what happens when you read through a lot of Emily Dickinson poems in sequence). I will always think of his work in the words of Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, speaking of “an art which in its piedness shares with great creating nature.” That piedness was in Saul a constant shifting of the very grounds of variation and exploration. And that exploration—of what parts of the world keep trying to look like, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding in looking like something else; of how his own pen could continue to surprise itself— puts me in mind once again of something his friend Prudence Crowther reported saying on one of his very last days: sitting balanced on the edge of his bed with knees apart and feet together, he observed “I’m exploring the unknown bottoms of the hexagon,” then adding, “Every exploration needs an imploration.” The matter of exhalation and inhalation aside, he seemed to be saying that everything discovered needs to cry out for something, that it needs, and begs, to depict what has been seen in the course of it.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters