Critics’ Picks

Saul Steinberg, Calligraphy IV, 1964, pencil on paper, 18.5 x 25".

Saul Steinberg, Calligraphy IV, 1964, pencil on paper, 18.5 x 25".


Saul Steinberg

Galerie Maeght
42, rue du Bac
September 30–December 4, 2021

Illustrator Saul Steinberg (1914–1999) believed his work to be self-evident, “something intellectual that must be perceived in a fraction of an instant.” (“The sort of people who need explanation deserve a mystery,” he quipped.) A Romanian-born refugee turned world traveler, Steinberg nimbly distilled personal feelings of cultural displacement into parodic vignettes. His ability to marvel at trifles was unparalleled, yet the seemingly innocuous, “legible” demeanor of his drawings belies their subversive bent, underpinned by a skepticism of any status quo. Believing that the public record was untrustworthy and therefore open to alteration, Steinberg artfully doctored everything from envelopes to diplomas to desk supplies (he himself was known for telling spurious anecdotes). What could feel more fitting in an era dominated by “fake news”?

Galerie Maeght first exhibited Steinberg in 1953 and continued to show new work by him for the next few decades. This exhibition, featuring drawings made between 1953 and 1977, highlights various Steinbergian pillars. The act of creation is self-referentially played up in Calligraphy IV, 1964, an ink-on-paper drawing in which a disembodied facial profile and pen-equipped hand manifest a sheet of paper from within its very confines. In the 1966 collage Paravionnerie II, blue-and-red Air Mail trim unspools into a set of frantic squiggles: correspondence turned unruly, if not hopeless. Steinberg’s mistrust of official documentation crystallizes in Machine Militaire, 1970, in which a cruel-looking uniformed man—all hard, angular lines, a totem of procedural rigidity—is freckled with bureaucratic stamps. Steinberg’s 1970 watercolor postcards, a series of mild, interchangeable horizons, counter the famously reproportioned geography that would be celebrated on a New Yorker cover. That witty collapsed mapping, which riffed on regional tunnel vision, here deflates into a sense of territorial anonymity.