PRINT Summer 1978

Saul Steinberg’s “Written” Pictures

For D.L. G.

SAUL STEINBERG’S WORK HAS remained for a long time on the periphery of the world of art, although just inside its frontier. His is the kind of work that artists would know about and admire, but that would be thought too idiosyncratic to have much pertinence as art. Then, too, the literary people would know about it, but they would tend to treat it as a species of narration in which literary irony is a principal technique, in which the “image” only incidentally takes real visual form, and in which line streams out of the pen hardly differently from a flow of words.

Steinberg really is, in one sense, an illustrator rather than a plastic artist pure-and-simple. Not merely so, however, since his “illustrations” are not subordinate to a “text,” even his own. Besides, in a post-Cubistic way, his drawings confidently subsume words as objective motifs into pure drawn art. Steinberg is, consequently, done a disservice by being reduced to the level of personal literary “appreciation,” where one text bestows admiration on another, and where all content is dissolved into fragile delicacies of prose. No, the drawings are themselves more like visual appreciations, already commenting on visual thoughts, visually.

Take, for example, Steinberg’s Graph Paper Building, 1950. There, in the midst of a city block of modest brick houses-over-shops—all drawn with rather emphatic “charm”—a big International-Style slab, consisting of an actual piece of graph paper, interjects itself. The drawing, even to the extent that it is funny all over again in the context of recent criticism of International-Style modernism in architecture, shows a primarily visual wit, even though it can still appeal to those average literary viewers whose visual sophistication, hardly above head-shop level, finds Arbus or Chryssa or Escher a great artist. Consider, for instance, that the graph paper is used by Steinberg precisely as, in other drawings, he turns to musicians’ score paper. That is an analogy of look and attitude that does not depend on reducing the equation verbally to Madame de Staël’s famous quip about architecture being “frozen music”—not even should that idea betray a literary impulse. Or consider the overt visual criticism here of the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill style of 1950, as well as the more general suspicion of simple-minded neo-neo-classical geometry that Steinberg had to absorb as an architectural student in Italy in the 1930s. The ultimate significance of this collage construction is, in fact, in its criticism of a whole academic-modern tradition in architecture that goes back ultimately to J. N. L. Durand’s introduction of graph paper into the design curriculum of the Ecole Polytechique, around 1800, in order to speed up the design process. It is unnecessary to know such a verbal-historical fact in order to appreciate Steinberg’s visual point, yet, importantly, this is a detail that rewards exceptional sophistication in the spectator with exceptional sophistication in the art (that must be the best type of popularization).

Despite the many fashionable recent efforts to digest art into semiology—efforts which comprise a distinct return to 19th-century Mother Philology as the positivist science underlying all arts and letters—it is possible to maintain that even though Steinberg’s works depend so much on techniques of irony, their ironies are purely visual. They are the works of a cartoonist, although a cartoonist on the highest possible level. If Wittgenstein said that a whole philosophy could be written in the form of a joke book, why can’t a whole art be made in cartoons? Appropriately, when words do enter his drawings, they take their places so politely as active visual forms that we hardly have to think of them as borrowed Cubist letter motifs, on the one hand, or as literary intrusions, on the other. The semiologists write about art as though we would be better off if each of us approached the world in the manner of the blind Milton dictating to his daughter, even though Milton’s most fervent desire was to behold pure Light. Steinberg’s “written” drawings may look, to the semiologists, like their beloved “texts,” but they look even more like the world of visual observation and imagination—which does not look like a text.

Klee’s name must be mentioned in connection with Steinberg, to remind history of the immense popularity and influence of his Pedagogical Sketchbook, especially after it was translated by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy and published in New York in 1953. Only then was Klee’s concept of “Taking a Walk with a Line” made so widely accessible that Beats and other—very literary—devotees of the first paperback book-shops could be touched by it. It is, in fact, one of the great esthetic clichés of that period (Harold Rosenberg is very good on the cliché theme in his essay “Saul Steinberg,” in the book for the present Whitney Museum exhibition). Of course, Steinberg was already “Klee-like,” perhaps especially in drawings of birds and insects from around 1945 (and we would also have to consider certain of Calder’s works that seem parallel in style). Nevertheless, my point is the characteristic correspondence in the case of Steinberg, between a thorough modern-artistic sophistication and the popularizing diffusion of artistic ideas among a mostly literary audience; and this, equally characteristically, took place without compromising his own essentially visual art.

I think I am tempted to overstress this simply because it is disappointing to see, in recent years, how much debased art derives from such literary or psychological or otherwise somehow “clever,” largely nonartistic sources as many of the text figures in Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, another book whose publication, in 1960 (after being delivered as the 1956 Mellon Lectures), is an essential datum for any serious art-historical consideration of the historical context of Saul Steinberg’s work. Four Steinberg drawings, by the way, are reproduced in Art and Illusion. And several illustrations in Gombrich’s book bear comparison with specific works by Steinberg: for instance, “Bartlett’s Transformations of a Hieroglyph” (fig. 51) with certain drawings of cats, or “Leonardo da Vinci: from the Treatise on Painting” (fig. 285) with The Nose, of 1967. Moreover, Gombrich even says of Saul Steinberg: “There is perhaps no artist alive who knows more about the philosophy of representation than this humorist” (p. 239).

Along the same iconographic lines we might also wonder about significant published examples of “serious” scribbling: the scribbles that illustrate what a writer means to show as literal, and linear, visual non-sense. This sort of illustration has a long history, in which, for sure, the “nonsense” pages in Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (1760–67) are very important. That tradition also intersects with the history of illustrations depicting, in one way or another, a disembodied “expressiveness,” which is otherwise a separate matter. But it will be useful to consider two examples of that kind of nonsense abstract line drawing that are much closer to Steinberg, and that also speak for his generation, since they appeared while he was in school and soon after.

The first is from a paper given at one of the Jungian “Eranos” conferences, in Switzerland in 1932, by M. C. Cammerloher, “The Position of Art in the Psychology of our Time” (reprinted in Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks [Bollingen Series], IV, Princeton, 1960, pp. 424–47). The drawing, a zigzagging nest of calligraphic lines, illustrates, in brief, “the first step a man takes on his road to acquiring his perceptions as a conscious possession.” It is introduced quite abruptly into the text as very much the surrogate for a verbal answer to some general questions on the human function of art-making. We could go on with this, wondering, especially, whether Pollock’s Jungian analyst read this official publication before asking him to draw, when verbalization seemed impossible for him. Surely the relation between Steinberg’s drawings in continuous, unbroken line and Pollock is interesting in itself.

The second illustration comes from Wittgenstein’s 1938 lectures at Cambridge on Freud; it recurs in the “Lectures on Religious Belief” of the same period. In the Freud discussion it serves to illustrate the principle of “recognizing an expression”; specifically, it stands for one “meaningless curve” being indistinguishable from another drawn later and “pretty much like it,” as against two even slightly differently drawn human faces. Then, in the discussion of religious belief, it serves the more Rorschachian psychological purpose of being simply a mute ice-breaker for analytical purposes (one again thinks of Pollock’s analysis): Wittgenstein says that if somebody “connects [—here the drawing replaces a noun—] with death, and this was his idea, this might be interesting psychologically” (in his Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967, p. 69).

What is pertinent in connection with Steinberg is the way these literal-nonsense drawings throw into relief that quality of convincing identity and unique personality that is often noticed in this artist’s works but that is only described with difficulty. It is as visual, and as nonverbal, as the nuances of Chinese calligraphy appreciated “illiterately” by a foreigner (Steinberg’s naval service was in China, incidentally). Both text figures place him among the enlisted draftees of art, for they are mere “illustration,” as “abstract” as they are. Both, nevertheless, were drawn, no doubt with more struggle than most people anticipate when they have to draw nonobjectively, by verbal people who suddenly had to make their point by drawing.

Despite his flexible affinities with various styles in the procession of contemporary art, Steinberg is already clearly a “dated” artist. He is, however, dated in the best possible sense: that of exposing and articulating, thoroughly and consistently, even most commonplace factors in his generation’s world-view. There is something to be said for that (Baudelaire said it for Guys). In fact Rosenberg puts this well by applying to Steinberg words borrowed from St. Luke’s Gospel (16:8): “. . . for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” Some important artists seem to prefer, like bodhisattvas, to remain in the foothills, penetrating the intricacies of ordinary life with us mere mortals.

For example, dealing with the realized Sant’Elia-style architectural fantasies of Fascist Italy permits Steinberg a wide range of witty stylistic insights that, as an essentially visual affair, can never be reduced completely to verbal intellectual meanings, and that have a very evanescent historical presence. Not that such works are without (independent) parallels in contemporary literary culture. Think of the plays of Steinberg’s fellow Rumanian, Ionesco; Frenzy for Two—in which a nervous husband and wife are holed up in a hotel room while a petty revolt takes place in the streets below, the whole thing managing to be very funny despite anxiety—is in much the same spirit as Steinberg’s various melees in city streets, with sirens screaming, whether in Italy in the 1930s or, later, in New York.

Steinberg’s datedness has some particularly charming specific features. One is the kind of G. I. toughness of personal culture that is quite the opposite of the slackness and crudity that seems to prevail nowadays—just as Steinberg’s sophisticated, ironic brazenness could easily be mistaken now for simple Funk, or as even his terse letters-as-images could be read as just “stoned” words. Here is a certain combination of internal artistic refinement with external swagger—pictures of “dives” and of “dames” with great “gams”—that reminds me, for one thing, of Lincoln Kirstein’s formally gross, but poignant, war poems collected as Rhymes and More Rhymes of a P.F.C. And this strikes me as peculiarly American, in a specifically World-War-II, even sort of South Pacific, way that has nothing to do with strutting around as if you’re the only sensitive intellectual in uniform (like the T. E. Lawrence of The Mint). For this reason, to make Steinberg look like the Wandering Jew, simply for being an Italian-trained Rumanian architect in the U.S. Navy in China, as Rosenberg does in his essay (anyway, why isn’t that just cosmopolitanism?), obscures a very American quality in his mature artistic personality. G. I. carriage, now less spirited, has slackened utterly since Vietnam, although in a way that is, for better or worse, just as American: vets with hair-blowers working as bartenders in singles’ bars with hanging plants, or two sailors getting a Navy mortgage to fix up a gingerbread house in San Diego—whole novels in a phrase or two that Rosenberg just misses, by his sheer age, when he hesitates to explore a certain “Victorianism” that he notices in Steinberg’s “dated” vision. Maybe even the elatedness has an odd way of keeping up.

Rosenberg becomes superficial in discussing Steinberg’s relation to Pop art. In the first place, his work is probably more a matter of Dada/Surrealist Survival—to borrow the terminology of architectural history—than an independent style simply coincident with the Dada-Revival side of Pop. It would be possible to discuss this in detail in front of specific pictures, comparing, say, Steinberg’s Cabinet, 1970, with Jasper Johns’ Drawer, 1957. Or we might even, nowadays, compare Steinberg’s “Tables”—pictures of his own drafting table with tools and items of interest carefully arranged in pictorial still-lifes or crisp, quasi-abstract, T-squared patterns—with, variously, Hockneys or Stellas (not to mention Manny Farber’s recent paintings of his own worktable-top).

But it is much more interesting to consider the broader issue of how Steinberg may take his place in the interesting complex of phenomena that could be considered home-grown American Dada. Is it really odd, from such a standpoint, that Rube Goldberg should have published artwork in View magazine? Indeed, Johns himself is in touch with this tradition in his painted maps of the United States, which match up, otherwise quite uncannily, with an extended passage in Chapter 3 of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) about how the country seen from a balloon looks like a map, with the states distinguished by different colors. Or the way Steinberg’s ambiguous cartoon line, which plays with identities of inside and outside, of figure and ground, compares with the line in the “droodles” drawn on television by Roger Price 20 years ago. Or the way Steinberg’s wonderful View of the World from 9th Avenue, 1975, drawn for a New Yorker cover and already almost as famous, in this city at least, as Indiana’s Love, relates to those distorted gag maps of the 1950s that showed “A Map of the United States as Seen by a New Yorker” (or a Texan).

Pop did level some of the difference of elevation between “commercial” and “fine” art. With Steinberg, however, the official rank of “illustrator” never seems to have been an inferior one, for it never stood in the way of explicitly artistic meaning and value. For him drawings that might have been mere cartoons could serve moral, even public, purposes that were once available only on the highest rungs of the established art of painting. Take the drawing, too grand and too profound to call a cartoon, called Sam’s Troubles, from 1960. There the tiny personification of Art tries to coax Uncle Sam away from the tempting distractions of Fortune and her cornucopias fruit, Voluptuousness, away and uphill (the motif of Hercules Climbing the Mountain of Virtue, which appears again in Lex Pax Lux, 1969?) in the train of Law and Light. Art historically, the drawing belongs to the rich category of moral “choice” pictures, especially images of Hercules choosing or images where a little Cupid tries to pull Mars back from running off to war, encouraging him to stay with Venus. But you wouldn’t have to know that to understand the general message—so prophetic, it turned out, for America in the later 1960s—or to appreciate as well the elegantly brittle, Klee-like line. If it is objected that even the general sense here depends on some literary knowledge of classical culture, it can be rejoindered that it depends much more substantially on Renaissance and Baroque iconographic handbooks that were primarily repositories of images, with only minor, and subordinate, texts.

Steinberg is, perhaps like Donald Barthelme in fiction, not so amusing in larger doses. Hence, happening to see one of his drawings somewhere and having the chance to attend to it alone is ideal, although we are certainly grateful for the chance to see such an array of work as the Whitney has shown. Similarly, the occasional pages and covers for The New Yorker may provide a more perfect setting for Steinberg’s talents than a blockbuster retrospective catalogue/book (especially one that is a complete chronological jumble anyway). This artist is a genuine talent, as distinct from a genius; but some talent is more fruitful than genius. If there is a danger for the viewer in his work it is in mistaking visually articulate ambiguity for mere visualized (pun-like, literary) ambivalence, and then mistaking that for genius. The page for Steinberg is an ideal ground. Not because it has literary connotations (which can be ironized something—he is always happy to do), but because it suggests a luminous white field in which line has the freestanding, almost welded, constructional—and yet illusionistically flat—character that is possible only in drawing.

Joseph Masheck