The art of Saul Steinberg.
November 26, 2012
Was Saul Steinberg an artist? Deirdre Bair raises the question, which has vexed other writers, in “Saul Steinberg” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a luxuriant and unsettling biography of “the man who did that poster”—“View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” a hilariously foreshortened vista, across the Hudson River, of the United States. The image, which premièred on the cover of the March 29, 1976, issue of The New Yorker, is the most famous of the thousands of dashingly styled, brain-challenging drawings that he published in the magazine and elsewhere in a career that ended only with his death, in 1999, at the age of eighty-four. Timelessly tantalizing, “View of the World” is surely art. It is also a cartoon. Steinberg was an artist if cartooning is an art—which it is, and so he was. He was just so original and virtuosic that a different term can feel called for. Bair speaks for that feeling. She repeatedly cites Steinberg’s self-description as “a writer who draws,” and she quotes his claim, made to an interviewer in 1973, that he belonged “in the family of Stendhal and Joyce.” There’s a ring of truth there, but also a quaver of the frustrated ambition that is a leitmotif in Bair’s account of a laureate of urbane smarts in mid-to-late-twentieth-century America—a country that, for all his kidding of its hubbub and razzmatazz, he explored and thoroughly knew, and enjoyed.
Steinberg and his wife, Hedda Sterne, an Abstract Expressionist artist, in 1951. His unmistakable style mixed the graphic precision of an architect with the leaping fantasy of a poet.Photograph by Arnold Newman / Getty
Steinberg was born in 1914 in the small town of Râmnicu-Sărat, in eastern Romania, to parents of Russian Jewish extraction. His father, Moritz, was a slight and timid man, a printer and bookbinder who was forced by finances to become a manufacturer of cardboard boxes. By contrast, Bair writes, Steinberg’s bulky, self-dramatizing mother, Rosa, had “the appearance of a dreadnought in full sail,” ferociously dominating her husband, her son, and her daughter, Lica, who was a year older than Steinberg and, while they were growing up, his soul mate.
Rosa was the first of four women who played leading roles in his life. The second was a secretive married woman whom Bair describes as the “brittle, fast-talking” Ada Ongari, née Cassola. Steinberg met her in 1936, in Milan, where he had gone to study architecture after a year of philosophy and literature at the University of Bucharest. He never fully knew the details of Ada’s life, but he continued to see her whenever his travels allowed, and to send her money, until she died, in 1997.
Then came the painter Hedda Sterne, like Steinberg a Romanian Jew, whom he married in New York, in 1944, and who remained his wife and chief confidante after their gradual breakup, in the late fifties; by pre-agreement, she held his hands as he died. Bair’s writing slows and deepens when the sinuously intelligent Sterne is onstage. The only woman among the preëminent Abstract Expressionists in a historic photograph that appeared in Life in 1951, Sterne is an artist little remembered now, owing to her shyly independent, often changing style and, perhaps, to the toll of the sacrificial devotion that Steinberg required of her tenure as, in her words, a “long-suffering, uninterruptedly betrayed wife with a few honeymoons thrown in.” For years before her death, in 2011, at the age of a hundred, she wrote and decorated a diary on the floor of her East Seventy-first Street apartment, and was pleased to have it effaced underfoot.
Finally, Steinberg maintained—or endured—what Sterne called a “thirty-five-years’ war” with the mercurial Sigrid Spaeth, a German erstwhile graphic designer, whom he met at a party, in 1960. Known as Gigi, she was twenty-two years his junior. Their sexual chemistry was explosive; that she was German, and he a once-persecuted Jew, seems to have fascinated them both. But not much was Teutonic about Spaeth, who was a kind of proto-hippie. (Steinberg made it an expensive project “to get her out of granny dresses and keep her in couture and jewelry in the style of Marilyn Monroe.”) They fought, often in public, over his efforts to control her. The blowups fuelled no end of gossip. In 1996, she committed suicide by leaping from the roof of a building in which he had rented an apartment for her, on Riverside Drive.
Compared with these vivid females, most of the important males in Steinberg’s story register wanly as individuals. The dearest to him, late in life, was a cat named Papoose, a companionable cavalier that “could chase everything from birds to foxes,” Bair writes. Papoose had originally been Spaeth’s pet, and he is buried near where her ashes are interred, in the woods by Steinberg’s getaway house in Southampton.
Steinberg’s dishevelled amours, including countless trifling affairs, symptomized rather than soothed his chronic sense of displacement and isolation. Bair’s detailing of them runs parallel to her account of the development of his steely art. As a boy in a provincial fragment of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire—whose grandiose architecture, military pomp, and gaudy bureaucratic documents became staples of his iconography—he read and drew prodigiously. He also fantasized, Bair pungently reports, that “all his neighbors were parents of dying girls, begging him to fuck them, as that was the only way they could be cured.” He was a good student, but was permanently embittered by the anti-Semitism he encountered at a secondary school that he recalled as an “inferno of screams, slaps, toilets!” Only the French teacher showed him kindness, he said. He entered the Regio Politecnico, in Milan, in 1932, where he became well known for the satirical drawings that he contributed to two of that worldly city’s humor magazines. “I only discovered my talent when my first drawing was published,” he said. “It took me ten minutes to do, but when it appeared in the paper, I looked at it for hours and was mesmerized.” Except for some drawings published anonymously, those associations ended in 1938, when a new law forbade Jews to work in Italy.
Upon his graduation, in 1940, Steinberg was classed as a stateless person, subject to arrest. He lived on the run for a while, and then, having heard that fugitives who surrendered got better treatment, he turned himself in. He was imprisoned for a month in a concentration camp (of the Italian type, Bair notes, which “interned but did not exterminate”) at Tortoreto, in east-central Italy. Conditions were crude and food was scarce, but Steinberg was able to draw, and, perhaps with a thought to his possible future, he pored over books in English that other prisoners had brought with them. He thrilled to the passage from “Huckleberry Finn” in which Tom Sawyer feigns courtesy by lifting his hat “like it was the lid of a box that had butterflies asleep in it”—which Bair quotes Steinberg misremembering as a cartoon-worthy “box of sleepy butterflies.”
Steinberg had uncles in New York and Denver, and they knew influential people, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., a newspaper-publishing great-great grandson of the commodore. They obtained a visa to Portugal for Steinberg. (En route to Rome, he switched trains to Milan, to spend a day with Ada.) He sailed from Lisbon, reaching Ellis Island on July 1, 1941, but his stay was brief; the annual quota for Romanian immigrants was full. So he passed a year in the Dominican Republic, sweltering, contracting malaria, and pining for Ada—who had fallen into bed with his lifelong best friend, the writer and architect Aldo Buzzi, as Buzzi promptly confessed in a contrite but wounding letter. Meanwhile, Steinberg drew nonstop, to meet a growing demand for his work from American publications. His artistic manner was already unmistakable, conjoining the graphic precision of an architect with the leaping fantasy of a poet. Burlesques of pretentious architecture and décor were specialties, as were figures in haunted or jocular landscapes, often with numbers, letters, and geometric forms that wittily illustrated abstract ideas. Changing styles between or even within pictures, he channelled modern art without espousing any particular type. His cosmopolitan panache came right on time for an America that yearned to cast off provincialism and to assert cultural world leadership.
Steinberg’s first contribution to The New Yorker—a cartoon—appeared in the issue of October 25, 1941. (“Is very flattery for me,” he wrote to relatives, in a nascent English that he eventually refined, in part by forbidding Sterne to speak to him in any other language.) His by now numerous supporters got him out of the Dominican Republic and brought him to Miami, and then, by Greyhound bus, to Manhattan, in June, 1942. An early impression of the city, which he summarized in three words, proved indelible: “diners, girls, cars.” He wrote that he loved “the great American aroma in summer—a combination of Cuban tropical and drugstore, chewing gum spearmint, Soap, the new and rare smell of air conditioning, healthy and clean sweat.” He made a whirlwind tour of the country, with letters of introduction from The New Yorker’s editor, Harold Ross, and returned bemused by the ubiquitous—and, to him, slightly nightmarish—visage of Mickey Mouse. Sterne became aware of him through mutual friends in New York’s burgeoning émigré community. She recalled that she “invited him to lunch and he stayed six weeks.” She resisted his marriage proposals for eighteen months, because, Bair writes, “she knew a womanizer when she saw one,” but he had “such charisma that she was almost able to persuade herself that it didn’t matter.”
A draft board declared Steinberg both physically and psychologically unfit for combat, but, through his social connections, he managed to become both an American citizen and a Navy ensign, assigned to Bill Donovan’s spy agency, on the same day, February 19, 1943. (From a sailor whom Sterne stopped in the street, he learned how and when to salute.) Some military mastermind posted Steinberg, so versed in European languages and cultures, to inland China, where, at a ragtag base, he produced propaganda and, at the private behest of higher-ups, “dirty pictures.” One wet, gray day, he witnessed an execution of common criminals by a Chinese firing squad. The condemned were allowed umbrellas. He remembered this, he later said, whenever it rained. Scores of his reportorial drawings from China, and from subsequent service in North Africa and Italy, graced The New Yorker at a time when most of the magazine’s subscribers were in the armed forces. When the European war ended, Steinberg visited his family in Bucharest, for a reunion that was blighted by the hectoring Rosa and the listless Moritz. (From then on, Steinberg supported them financially—his usual expedient in relationships whose emotional tugs imperilled his self-absorption. He helped the family settle in Nice and, later, in Paris, contriving to keep an ocean between them and him. But, after his mother died, in 1961, he revived his fond relations with Lica.)
He returned to New York late in 1944 and immediately married Sterne. At this point in Bair’s book, a continual torrent of famous names commences, as Steinberg befriended hosts of notables in many fields and “became a sought-after dinner guest who dined out almost every night for the rest of his life.” Vladimir Nabokov called Steinberg his favorite artist. S. J. Perelman “always made Saul weep with laughter,” Sterne said. Saul Bellow was a drinking buddy. Roland Barthes was a critical champion, deeming Steinberg an “inexhaustible” master of rhetorical tropes. At different times, Steinberg knew Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning (who gave him the circa-1938 drawing “Self-Portrait with Imaginary Brother”), Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston, and he revelled in the company of the grandly garrulous art critic Harold Rosenberg. A visit to Picasso in the South of France, in 1958, resulted in a collaborative “exquisite corpse” drawing. (Steinberg asserted, according to Bair, that he and Picasso were the two greatest artists of the twentieth century.) He was collegial with his fellow New Yorker cartoonists Peter Arno and, especially, Charles Addams—who helped him buy his first car, a Packard convertible with red leather seats—but a competitive rancor alienated him from William Steig.
Slim and graceful, Steinberg was a classical dandy both in life—he wore bespoke suits and deerstalker hats—and in art, scheming to affect others at a calculated distance. His English retained a Dracula-tinged accent that made his slightest remark sound oracular. He didn’t listen a lot. At parties, he could be nonplussed and grumpy when his audience proved inadequately enraptured. He found meaning for his life only in work, and maintaining his morale for it dictated his conduct. Sex, alcohol, and compulsive travel, whether on the Queen Mary to Europe or by car along the back roads of America, were reliable tonics. Money—which it seems he didn’t so much want as needed to need, as a goad to his production—poured in from commissions that included a long-running contract with Hallmark Cards. He made millions of dollars.
VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER
Through it all, Steinberg complained of feeling loveless and alone, subject to bolting awake “at 3:30 full of terrors, regrets—the usual suffering,” he said. Not that he ever considered changing his ways, beyond quitting smoking and taking up such diversions as bicycling, yoga, watching baseball, playing the violin, stamp collecting, becoming fluent in German, and relearning Yiddish. He knew how his behavior estranged him from others, but he seemed to accept the backdrafts of guilt and shame as normal weather in the impregnable mental zone from which his art flowed. He scorned his generation’s craze for psychoanalysis, at least until, in his last years, a catastrophic depression, magnified by Spaeth’s suicide, drove him to try prescribed antidepressants and amphetamines, hospitalization, and electroshock (which helped dramatically for a while), as well as psychiatric counselling. But he never ceased attributing his anguish to the fate of having been born a Jew in Romania, the “fucking patria who murdered millions, who never accepted me.”
Bair makes little effort to describe Steinberg’s art. This is understandable, given the multitude and the quicksilver elusiveness of his inventions. Ideas that are impressive on paper can sound banal when paraphrased, turning back into the clichés that inspired him—moribund truths, often in an existentialist mode, that he would jump-start to crackling life. But I had to remind myself, while trudging through Bair’s catalogue of Steinberg’s sorrows and follies, that the abounding joys of his art are the biography’s reason for being. T. S. Eliot’s dissociation between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates” is an abyss in Steinberg’s case.
No sort of trouble could discourage his pen, although he incurred stinging art-world condescension when he had gallery shows of such work as, starting in the seventies, assemblages and sculptures of fanciful drawing tables. The critic John Russell’s largely positive but slighting review of Steinberg’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum, in 1978, devastated him. Russell tweaked him as someone who had known “nothing but admiration, affection, and cash on the nail”—a fair enough comment from the perspective of a precariously self-employed artist, but a malicious one from a critic. A starchy bias against commercial illustration persists in art circles even today, despite the fact that, in the hands of a Steinberg, it can command an immediacy and a pith that often elude the more prestigious mediums. His several thematically arranged books of collected drawings, from “All in Line” (1945) to “The Discovery of America” (1992), were better received, but routinely disappointed his hopes for their impact.
I think that Steinberg’s keynote as an artist is cold charm. His art floods the mind with intellectual recognitions but forbids emotional rapport. On the cover of Bair’s book, he is seen wearing a paper mask he made; it’s a mild caricature of himself. Circular jokes became him, as in his many drawings of hands or figures drawing themselves. His glorious penmanship suggests a passion for communication in words that are mostly gibberish—memorably so in a New Yorker cartoon of a boss addressing an underling with teeming verbiage in a speech balloon that forms the word “No.” He made object-like travesties of people and subject-like actors of numbers, say, or pineapples. Roland Barthes brilliantly took the census of his world with the title of an essay he wrote about him in 1983: “Everybody Except You.” Steinberg came closest to candid self-portrayal in later drawings, where he assumed the persona of a cat, in the family of the sainted Papoose.
Awhole chapter in Bair’s book is properly devoted to “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” whose fantastic success bedevilled its creator. Beyond busy, shabby West Side streets, nine named, vaguely distributed locales—New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles—and the odd mountain do for what’s memorable in a tidily rectangular nation, which ends at a notional Pacific Ocean. In the far distance, uniform humps suffice for Japan, China, and Russia. There’s no Europe—a zone behind the eyes, and perhaps shaping the mind, of an East Coastal gaze. Or so the picture may be interpreted, if you see in it, as I always have, an encompassing joke on Manhattan insularity. But Bair discovers a drop of vinegar in its conception. Steinberg said that he had had in mind the benightedness of working-class “crummy people” (his words) in seedy western midtown. He was a crypto-snob. His spirited embrace of American “diners, girls, cars” was subtly patronizing—which hardly offended Americans who, hellbent on sophistication, prided themselves on transcending their demotic roots. “View of the World” became, and remains, a touchstone of national ambivalence somewhat like Grant Wood’s double-edged icon of Midwestern rectitude, “American Gothic.”
Steinberg’s image was almost instantaneously everywhere. He couldn’t pass the window of a gift or souvenir shop without seeing it imitated, parodied, or outright cribbed. He was furious, and his lawyer had to restrain him from suing in every instance, be it just a T-shirt or a coffee mug. He did see one case through, winning a big judgment against Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., for a rankly plagiarizing poster used to promote the 1984 movie “Moscow on the Hudson.” The studio’s lawyers blundered by contending that the ad simply represented the same buildings that Steinberg had drawn. But he convinced the court that those buildings, though derived from observation, were largely fashioned by his imagination. Resemblance to reality was one kind of artifice among the many in his art.
Surprisingly, Steinberg’s work does not feel dated. Its semiotic savvy—which Barthes identified as less a quality of writing than a contagion of reading—checks most of the boxes on any academic list of postmodernist predilections. What seems remote about it now is the character of its target audience: people just learning the ropes of cool irony, a standard principle of American culture since the Pop-art sixties. Steinberg’s heroically detached intelligence belongs to an era defined by heroes who not only inspired but practically demanded emulation. He played a role that, by the luck that constitutes genius, both came to him naturally and satisfied the cravings of his time. This explains a spooky effect in Bair’s book: a sort of lunar gravity, invisibly lifting the tides of a deliquescent life. Any old narcissist can be afflicted, and afflict others, with a conviction of being godlike. But sometimes it’s as if the gods agreed. ♦
Published in the print edition of the December 3, 2012, issue.
Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic. His latest book is “Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018.”