Linda Herrick

Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

Saul Steinberg: 'I want to be a dog's eyebrow'

New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg's 'magic' life and work is celebrated in a retrospective at Artspace. Linda Herrick reports.

Saul Steinberg's art decorated The New Yorker magazine over 50 years. Photo / Natalie Slade
Saul Steinberg's art decorated The New Yorker magazine over 50 years. Photo / Natalie Slade

When New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg's ex-wife, artist Hedda Sterne, was asked to assess their 17-year marriage in a New York Review of Books interview, she said, "Saul would have liked to have a harem. He knew how to add, not subtract."

But Steinberg knew how to do both. An exhibition of 100 New Yorker magazines at Artspace gives us rare up-close access to his 50-year career of drawings which add and reduce, go back, forth and sideways, enchant, puzzle and disturb. As a bonus, the selection of Steinberg's drawings - alongside terrific ones in the magazines by colleagues also in the New Yorker stable - are flanked by fine, witty examples of long-form writing, with essays by the likes of J.D. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov.

The collection at Artspace, starting with an October 12 1946 magazine and ending with a November 2000 tribute issue to Steinberg, who died in 1999 at age 84, shares the genius of a prolific artist widely known in the United States and beyond, and not just for his New Yorker work.

He was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of Modern Art; this survey was curated by Robert Snowden and Scott Ponik of Yale Union in Portland.

The Saul Steinberg Foundation keeps his legacy alive, stating that his "art, equally at home on magazine pages and gallery walls, cannot be confined to a single category of movement. He was a modernist without portfolio, constantly crossing boundaries into uncharted visual territory."

One of his 1976 New Yorker covers is internationally renowned: a map of New York where the edge of Manhattan takes up more than half the page before crossing the Hudson River and fading to a minute United States and Pacific, with Russia, Japan and China a mere strip on the horizon. It's Steinberg's take on we-are-the-world Manhattanites. However, View of the World from 9th Avenue is not in the Artspace exhibition; director Caterina Riva says the curators wanted to select images that are "less well-known".

Although he moved in the innermost circles of the New Yorker crowd - writers, artists, movie folk - Steinberg had an outsider's perspective. Born in Romania in 1914, a country he later described as "pure Dada" - he studied at the University of Bucharest, then moved to Italy to avoid the encroaching anti-Semitism of his homeland. He studied architecture (and drew a lot) in Milan, then had to flee again when Mussolini's Fascist government brought in anti-Semitic legislation. He spent a year in Santo Domingo waiting for his American visa, meanwhile sending his cartoons to various magazines. The New Yorker sponsored his citizenship in 1942, and his new career began.

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, in a tribute to Steinberg in the November 2000 issue, notes that Steinberg liked being on the margins of art, comfortable to be shown in museums, but not in galleries or collections: "All those drawings, whimpering at night, unhappy in adopted houses," said the artist.

"Although he had a reputation as an ironist ... he was upset by the notion that his work was sly, or even subtle," writes Gopnik. "He was an artist for whom the word 'sincere' was the highest tribute you could pay to another artist ... He made pictures from life, passed through the prism of his mind ... he recorded the great change that came over New York between 1950 and 1975. He saw a culture of inhibition become a culture of sensation, a city of black-and-white deadpan become a city of deathly colour."

The Artspace show includes covers and drawings that reflect Steinberg's drawings began to get stranger as he advanced through the decades.

Steinberg's fascination with what Gopnik calls "American deadpan": Santa Claus, Buffalo Bill, the Thanksgiving turkey, the post office, Uncle Sam, Uncle Tom, the dollar bill. Steinberg believed "the weirdest thing about America was its normalcy, the sense people had that life was meant to work out".

But as he advanced through the decades, his drawings started to get stranger, with street scenes showing muggers as Mickey Mouse, prostitutes as pure legs advancing upon his neighbourhood. Tanks rumbled along the streets and fighter planes roared above the skyscrapers during the Vietnam war era.

Ian Frazier, writing in a 2005 essay Steinberg at the New Yorker, was a friend of the artist from 1977 until his death in 1999. He recalls that Steinberg, who often included cats and dogs in his drawings, once said he'd be reincarnated as a dog's eyebrow after he died. Now Frazier can't look at a dog's quizzical face without thinking of his friend, a man he describes as "a magic person, who could enchant ordinary life in an instant".

In a lesson to us all, he loved his work but couldn't stand drudgery. Frazier says Steinberg believed in "working at the peak of his interest and concentration and inspiration, for perhaps only a couple of hours in the afternoon."

Hedda Sterne echoes, "Saul would never work more than a half-hour to three-quarters of an hour. When it wasn't total play and amusement, he stopped."

Frazier also notes Steinberg had an "olympian attitude" towards rejection: he simply put rejected drawings in another envelope and mailed them back, again and again, until they were published.

Exhibition
What: Steinberg, Saul. The New Yorker. New York, 1945-2000
Where and when: Artspace, 300 Karangahape Rd, to October 6
Info: The Saul Steinberg Foundation

- NZ Herald

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