New York

Saul Steinberg

Sidney Janis Gallery and Betty Parsons Gallery

Saul Steinberg has been known for a long time as an extremely unconventional cartoonist. In his books of more than a decade ago, the next page always represented the unknown. Steinberg’s drawings were never jokes with punch-line captions, and what appeared within balloons demonstrated its form, but was never legible. Penmanship became a linguistic alternative to syntax and semantics. Steinberg’s concurrent shows at Sidney Janis and Betty Parsons don’t contain this kind of constant surprise, but they are not without small, quiet ones.

There are basically three kinds of work at the Janis Gallery: works that look like watercolors, but are oil paint and rubber stamp on paper; wooden assemblages of draftsmen’s tools; and drawings more likely to be associated with Steinberg. The oil on paper works contain at least two landscape pictures per page. Each picture consists of a flat, but not straight, horizon line low in the picture, and one or more minute figures. The figures are made with rubber stamps, and then clothed with oil paint. Somewhere on every work is at least one official seal stamp, as if of a state or territory, and always illegible. The paintings depict bright blue skies and puffy clouds, but vary remarkably and almost imperceptibly. Several look like 18th-century Venetian paintings, while others, for some reason, look more like early Goyas, early Picasso allegories, or just watercolors of exotic tropical lands. I said these paintings vary remarkably because in sensing these differences, it is difficult to figure out what causes them. Only one of the works shows a depiction of a tree, and that tree doesn’t look particularly unusual. The differences are more in the kinds of coloring, the lengths of shadows, and the flick-of-the-wrist brushstrokes of clothing and hats. These are generally the kinds of characteristics we take in without being aware of them or the fact of our awareness. The official seal stamps read any way we want them to: as state seals suggesting official provincial watercolors for the tourist trade; as collectors’ marks; or as official guaranteed art. In some cases, they cause a picture to look like an orange crate label. Like many of Steinberg’s documents, the seals appear to be seals only by their form, never by what they say because they never say anything.

A drawing board, or table in some cases, forms the ground of the wood assemblages. Replicas of drawing tools, all carved out of wood, such as rulers, triangles, pens, brushes, pencils, notebooks, and spare comic-strip balloons complete with indecipherable speech, are fixed to the drawing boards. The tools are carved well enough to be credible, but their carving is rough enough to insure understanding these objects as carved likenesses. Some of the representational devices are obviously tricky and clever; for example, in the assemblages on drawing tables, loose-leaf notebook rings are represented by U-shaped nails hammered into the binding of the open, carved wooden notebook. In the assemblages on drawing boards, under glass, mounted on the wall, the U-shaped nails are replaced by heavy-duty staples. Both solutions appear entirely convincing. For me, the most interesting thing that happens in these works is typified by the box with the label, “Bon Bon, Tasol,” which exists theoretically as a box, and the box is also depicted as a drawing in an open notebook below. Both are depictions on wood, but one seems more a depiction than the other.

The third group of cartoonlike drawings seems to take in just about everything from Mickey Mouse and Krazy Kat to early Feininger cartoons and Richard Lindner. Generally, they look like Modern Times (as in Charlie Chaplin) Art Déco cartoons, showing the mechanization of society and the dehumanization of man. Fortunately, they are more entertaining and less cliche-ridden than that sounds. Other drawings are more formal, more like Art Déco-Cubist still lifes.

The work shown at Betty Parsons was generally like the oil on paper works, but with some basic differences. In one set of oil on paper works, the horizon lines are less landscape lines and closer to anonymous straight lines. Similarly, the color in these works is less the color of sky and ground, and more just color occupying areas in a picture comparable to sky, water, and land. The pictures are landscapes primarily by virtue of the occasional rubber-stamp figures, which in these works are not clothed in oil paint. The art-historical references seem to be gone, but a few of the pictures look like Whistler’s painting of Courbet by the ocean, and others reminded me of Kensett, but perhaps this, too, is only coincidence or overreading. Official seal stamps are more frequent than in the pictures at Janis, and in a few of the works, they literally take over. Another set depicts a flat horizon with a pyramid. There is in these an interesting ambiguity of whether the pyramids depicted are Egyptian or geometry. Most, but not all, of the pyramid paintings had small rubber-stamp figures. Nearly all of the 12 paintings in the set had the brooding drama of 19th-century Romanticism with thunderous dark clouds hovering over the iconic geometry of the pyramid and rubber-stamp man on the barren waste. In all of Steinberg’s oil on paper dramas and fantasies in both galleries, I sense that he feels and believes in them and mocks them and his belief simultaneously—the conflict of the cynical, Romantic, which is quite a spot to be in.

Bruce Boice