PRINT February 2007


Saul Steinberg

SAUL STEINBERG, the New Yorker artist famous for his map of the self-centered way Manhattanites see the world, was practically a household name in America for the second half of the twentieth century. But in art history he is nowhere. Why? That is a question posed by two current New York exhibitions (neither of which is at an art museum): “Saul Steinberg: Illuminations,” at the Morgan Library & Museum, and “A City on Paper: Saul Steinberg’s New York,” at the Museum of the City of New York, both organized by Joel Smith, curator of photography at the Princeton University Art Museum (the latter show was organized in collaboration with MCNY’s Thomas Mellins).

Well, here’s a theory: Steinberg was behind his time and ahead of it too. In an era dominated by abstraction and expressionism, he emerged as a representational artist—and one with a deep and (for the time, at least) eccentric idea of representation. He wasn’t interested in how things look. His subject was representation itself—how things, cities, words, nations, and people (including himself) present themselves to the world. He was into the trappings, the masks, the symbols, and the fabrications that tell.

He could be pretty cagey about how he presented himself. His autobiographical sense verged on self-erasure. One of the first drawings that Steinberg sold, in 1936, to an Italian humor magazine called Bertoldo, was about loss of self. It shows a man staring in the mirror, saying to himself: DAMMIT, THIS ISN’T ME! I GOT LOST IN THE CROWD. And in later years, when photographers came to call, Steinberg would sometimes put one of his paper-bag masks over his head. “I was able to relax inside the masks and show a constant public image of myself to the camera,” he once explained.

Steinberg’s art was, as the art critic Harold Rosenberg once noted, “the public disclosure of a man determined to keep his life a secret.” Born Jewish in 1914 in Romania, a country he described as pure Dada, Steinberg graduated in 1940 with a doctoral degree in architecture from Milan’s Reggio Politecnico, in Fascist Italy. He couldn’t return home because Romania was getting cozy with Hitler. He couldn’t stay in Italy because foreign Jews were being expelled. So, in 1942, he moved to New York, and with him he brought a breezy (and partly fabricated) immigration story involving a “slightly fake” passport that he freshened with a homemade rubber stamp. The truth, as Smith makes clear in the catalogue, is that Steinberg’s harrowing immigration took two years and included a real Romanian passport with real stamps and signatures, a run-in with Portuguese officials, six weeks in an Italian prison, and a year in the Dominican Republic trying to prove his employability in New York.

Steinberg’s myth of a self-made immigration does, however, have a touch of truth. Although he did not become an American through falsification, he did become Steinberg that way. Look at his drawings before immigration (there are a few in the Morgan show), and you’ll see a competent, run-of-the-mill cartoonist with a Surrealist edge. His early line drawings often include a large female Mussolini figure with a flag growing out of her head, a tiny cowering Steinberg boy, and some dreamlike imagery—a ladder leading nowhere or a toy train in a tree.

But Steinberg in America was gloriously original. His immigration ordeal left him obsessed with the marks of official identity: fingerprints, stamps, passports, and signatures. And when it came to his adopted city, New York, he engaged not with its grit and ash cans but with its official trappings—particularly its maps and monuments.

Steinberg’s first mockery of official identity came in 1946, Smith writes, when Dorothy C. Miller, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, invited him to participate in her exhibition “Fourteen Americans.” Steinberg’s works in the show included line drawings of cities being bombed and a busty Surrealist bust of a bird woman. But easily the most Steinbergian aspect of his entry was an unpublished artist’s statement he sent to Miller. It looks like handwriting, but is total gibberish in baroque almost-letters. The only part that you can make out is the name STEINBERG at the end.

Shortly after that Steinberg began making fake passports and diplomas to give to his friends. The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson got a safe-passage letter. And Steinberg made false diplomas for Igor Stravinsky, Charles Eames, Le Corbusier, Billy Wilder, Alfred H. Barr Jr., and Josef Albers. Steinberg’s wife, the painter Hedda Sterne, hung two diplomas on her kitchen walls: one for dishwashing (over her sink) and one for cooking (over her stove).

In the early 1950s Steinberg began playing with another crucial mark of identity: the fingerprint. With nothing more than his inked thumb and a stencil, he created tribes of faceless businessmen in jackets and ties. He posed his thumb-men individually and in groups, turning his personal mark into a portrait of anonymity. You can read Steinberg’s false documents as a kind of small-scale, “hand-sized variation” (in Smith’s words) of what the Abstract Expressionists were doing. And some of the documents, with their wild faux handwriting, can look a little that way. But they feel like the opposite, an antiexpressionist gesture full of scorn for the very idea of self. Steinberg comes across as a postmodernist before his time. There is no soul, only style.

Remind you of anyone?

A few floors below Steinberg’s studio on Union Square West was Andy Warhol’s Factory. “They were intrigued by each other,” said Anton van Dalen, Steinberg’s assistant from 1969 on. Steinberg was a one-man assembly line. He would make, van Dalen said, “sheets and sheets” of dark Dutch skies with smudgy fingerprints. Then he would “go in” and “put figures” on these sheets. At the end, he would stamp the drawings like a notary public.

Steinberg bought or made more than three hundred rubber stamps—among them a crocodile, a cyclist, an American eagle, a running commuter, a woman in heels, a square of stipples, an Indian on horseback, an artist at his easel, a fake visa, and one bearing the words CERTIFIED LANDSCAPE. From a few postcards of 1920s Bucharest, Steinberg derived several stamps, including one of a mysterious bowler-topped figure that he called the Inspector. Stamps, Steinberg once said, were the emblems of his “having suffered so much with visas and documents. ”And with his grab bag of prefab images and icons, Steinberg populated whole cities.

But it was not those cities that Steinberg would be known for. In 1975 he drew View of the World from 9th
, a pastel-colored map showing just how little Manhattanites think of the rest of the world. You can see why that map, or at least some map, would become the quintessential Steinberg work. Maps are to cities what fingerprints, passports, and signatures are to people. They are its official representations. And Steinberg, whose very subject was representation and whose main trauma had to do with losing one city and gaining another, simply could not resist.

New York was the city he gained. And in the 1970s and ’80s (as the MCNY exhibition shows), Steinberg often presented it as a kind of drag-queen pageant: banks decked out in Art Deco, plaster cornices rendered in absurd detail, facades bearing gaudy exhortations (BE, DO, GO, SEE, BUY). Steinberg’s clear favorites were the two landmarks with the most fabulous gowns and crowns: the Statue of Liberty and the Chrysler Building. These are buildings that represent themselves, that wear their identities on their sleeves.

Steinberg toyed with mass production like Warhol; he played with words and emblems like Jasper Johns; and he even riffed on Mickey Mouse like Roy Lichtenstein. So why didn’t he ever make it into the modern canon? Was it because he rarely worked on canvas? Or was he just too cute? In the drawing I Do, I Have, I Am, 1971, one of Steinberg’s crowd-pleasers, the I AM is the unobtrusive platform for a rickety clothesline that holds I HAVE and is easily upstaged by the flashy I DO in the sky. It’s pop metaphysics.

Perhaps he was simply not cool enough. Even at his most deadpan, Steinberg has a poetic, even nostalgic, streak that was, and still is, deeply unfashionable. Consider the drawing he made of a scale weighing the state of Wyoming, a simple yellow-tinted rectangle (labeled 97914 SQ. MI.), against the curvaceous colorful landmasses of Tahiti, Martinique, Oahu, Zanzibar, Albania, Sicily, Holland, Puglia, Switzerland, and others, together totaling 97,914 square miles. It’s funny and witty, yes. But the artist is still an immigrant weighing places, longing for escape.

In 1969 Steinberg made some rubber stamps of the praying peasant figures in Jean-Francois Millet’s iconic Angelus, 1857–59—figures that his father, a printer and box maker, had used to decorate chocolate boxes in Romania. Like an immigration officer, Steinberg would stamp the peasants onto various American postcards. But the effect of this official gesture is strangely melancholic, for the peasants appear hopelessly disoriented and out of place in the American landscapes, as if they had left something behind and were looking for it on the ground. Even the witty constructions that Steinberg made toward the end of his life—tabletops with fake rulers and erasers, unplayable phonograph records made of sheet metal and postmarked letters made of wood—have an air of sadness.

One of the most moving works in the Morgan show is a Steinberg bookshelf filled with wooden books ostensibly by Nabokov, Gogol, and Stendhal, but, of course, constructed, decorated, and worn down by Steinberg. The books are old-world Warhols, boxes without that fresh Brillo script, cans without the Campbell’s label. Yet they actually do have a recognizable label: They are all Steinbergs. And, like all Steinberg objects—maps, calendars, doodles, and passports—they are part of his biography, part of who he was or, more precisely, the things you would put in his tomb to show who he was.

For such a private man, an awful lot of pathos and personality seeps through. Steinberg used many pictorial aliases in his lifetime: a bewhiskered cat, a rabbit nervously peering out of a man’s head, a tiny ME shop in a row of businesses, and a little man drawing himself and getting tangled in his own fancy line. But in the end, Steinberg’s most exact self-portrait is his thumbprint, impersonal and personal at once—an image of a modern man defined by the marks that made him, and yet a self-made man. He is nothing more and nothing less than his own imprint.

Organized by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, “Saul Steinberg: Illuminations” is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, through Mar. 4. “A City on Paper: Saul Steinberg’s New York” is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through Mar. 25.

Sarah Boxer is a critic and the author of a cartoon novel, In The Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary.