Los Angeles

Saul Steinberg and Paul Klee

University of California at Santa Barbara

To claim a close connection between the works of Saul Steinberg and Paul Klee may seem to border on the incongruous, even flavor a little of Dadaism, or one might suspect that such an exhibition was simply another contemporary device to attract attention. In our current jazzed-up world where the museum is forced to pit itself against the competition of television, advertising, and the sports arena, one has come to expect the incongruous even in the overly precious and hallowed halls of the public museum and private gallery. While much of this forced competition has brilliantly spotlighted the superficiality of our present art scene, it has at the same time exerted a worthwhile influence in breaking down the stuffy and artificial salon approach. The sharp cleavage between what we consider art (with a capital A) and what is non-art has become as unreal as the medieval speculation of how many angels may gather on a pin. Thus the 20th-century enthusiasm for the arts of primitive peoples is not only a return to a simple and direct technique and manipulation of form but even more it is a conscious attempt to somehow recapture a world which experienced art in every facet of life. Both Saul Steinberg and Paul Klee have been active participants in this attempt to expand the area of our esthetic sensibility and it is this element of their work which serves as the major link between them. But the connection between the two is even much closer than this. As Steinberg recently observed, “My relation to Klee concerns more the history of literature than art (or perhaps the history of professions). It touches the art history because we express our talent for poetry through drawing in a very precise, sober, and deceiving way (no relation to false literature like Debussy-like painting or illustration in general). The technique is logically a continuation and perfection of the original language—children’s drawing and implicitly peasant, popular, insane, etc.—(in my case also chromo-litho., comic-strip and other monsters).”

Underneath their commitment to a highly subtle linearism, is another facet which provides a close bondage between Klee and Steinberg: this is the element of ambiguity which emerges from their work at a variety of levels. Both have steered a precarious course which has allowed them to utilize phases of Dadaism without falling into the realm of complete self-destruction; which has permitted them to partake of Surrealism, without losing touch with the material and surface reality of their world; and finally they have been able to make a penetrating social comment on their age without in any way sacrificing the formal qualities of their art. The tension of these ambiguities readily explains why we all experience their work on a variety of levels. Where in our visual world will one discover a series of statements which better illustrate the Bergsonian definition of humor as “the mechanical encrusted on the living?” Through what appears to be a simple line (but in fact with both Steinberg and Klee, is a highly complex one), the use of amputated fragments of reality—postage stamps, cigar labels, bombastic unreadable signatures, finger prints, photocollages and the like, we are forced in a most gentle fashion into the reality or non-reality which lies behind the facade of our day-to-day existence. The experience which Steinberg and Klee evoke is then a total one, embracing not only the social and psychological, but the purely esthetic as well. Their uniqueness lies in their creation of works of art which exist as a reality in themselves, and at the same time they go beyond this to make us critically aware of the reality of our conceptual and perceptual world.

David Gebhard