New York

Saul Steinberg

Sidney Janis and Betty Parsons Galleries

Saul Steinberg seemed to be cleaning out the attic with his double show, and the result was something like a retrospective. There are sketches dating from as early as 1943, done in Kunming and influenced by Peter Arno. There is evidence of all the roads considered but not taken by Steinberg: the particular tilted space of his drawings of the late ’40s, which seems dated now, the more cartoonlike treatment of the human figure in those same years, and the fingerprint “passport photos” of 1952, among others. Through it all runs a growing assurance that what he is about is something more than cartoon-making as most cartoonists practice it.

It is pleasant to see Steinberg’s work growing richer in its details, more allusive of the specific peculiarities of the everyday world, more indulgent in the whole-pack-of-pencils spectrum of color, more illustrative of clichés in a way that does not restate but reveals our unconsidered a prioris. Beneath all else, Steinberg’s work has been grounded in the project of literalization. His drawings exist on a portion of the frontier—unshared with any other artist—between caricature and idealization. Congruent with this position is the interchange that occurs between abstract and specific in his drawings. These pairs shuttle back and forth in representation of each other. Often their interaction takes the form of mock allegory. Frequently it turns artistic involution into a joke and responds to estheticism with a healthy scepticism.

But Steinberg does not so much caricature as represent the caricatures that are already there: conventional caricatures of time and date, of public space and location, of class and profession, of ethnicity and zeitgeist. A rank of businessmen all step simultaneously over the line between Monday and Tuesday; March gives way to April by way of a tiny bridge over a stream. Bleecker Street is rendered as a cakewalk of cartooned hippies and oddities. Tough policemen and all-legs prostitutes occur again and again. There are wonderful renderings of Puerto Ricans and Japanese in New York, and views of fascist Italy, with its curious architecture and dress. The shadows and stances of film and T.V. are exaggerated; music is given physical rendition in midair. All of these drawings and paintings seem theatrical, but Steinberg’s is an almost Brechtian theatre, an “epic” theatre of linguistic lesson and hoisted sign.

Many of the works shown in these shows were studies or stages along the way to the final product, hinting how much of the easy, natural style of the drawings is, in fact, practiced and studied. Also, there often occur several versions of an idea, like the vivid renderings of “I do/I am/I have” or of the border of April and May. Each version is valid and fascinating in its own way, and cannot be considered a stage so much as a parallel possibility.

Phil Patton