Saul Steinberg

Start with the signature. It’s always there, plus a date and sometimes a copyright symbol. Abbreviated to “ST,” “Steinberg” even becomes a brand name on products in the work. This apparent monomania extends to the creation from scratch of a world that resembles the real one. Pencils are carved and painted, a camera is a block of wood with a pushpin for a button and the screw top from a soda bottle for a knob. There are signs that the world outside Saul Steinberg’s studio consists of landmarks like hotels and banks—Miami and Istanbul are Miami and Istanbul because trains stop there; Steinberg shows stations and nothing more. Cairo has oriental architecture, which is cracking. It also has “International Style.” That is cracking too. These blank places seem to exist only because they are there and have names.

Yet the opposite is also the case. A Steinberg signature is a line on vacation, capable of endless metamorphosis. Similarly his artistic persona is mercurial, eclectic, multilingual, as totally dependent on the world as any tourist. A piece of fruit, an Arabic label, a box, an Algerian banknote, a 50-lire ticket to visit the dome of a building in Florence, a Ugandan trademark, an enamel clock-face that looks French. . . . Look back at the drawings; like passports, they bear the impressions of rubber stamps. The Steinberg myth takes over—another album of fragments: fear of labels that could have led to denunciation in his native Rumania, hints of forged documents. The real Steinberg never stands up; or if he does, there is a brown paper bag over his head. His signature becomes a trademark like any other. Perhaps his real signature is the visa stamp in gibberish.

The more that stamp is used the more sinister it seems, a monogram that is specific to him but not unique—immediate but passionless, both public and private. As some commentators argue about Jackson Pollock or Arshile Gorky, Steinberg stage-manages a skirmish between camouflage and expression. There the comparison with Abstract Expressionism ends. If theirs was a language problem, he has made his a strength, and in doing so has distinguished himself as a dissenter. Were those late Adolph Gottliebs or Ad Reinhardts really so different in motivation from the manic repetition of a graffitist who inscribes one name—his name—over and over? Never certain of his status as an artist, Steinberg disposes of the “aura,” ritual, and uniqueness Abstract Expressionists so cherished, making an identity crisis the pivot of his art. Travel, translation, and reproduction form his triple theme, all ways of transferring something to another place.

In some cultures reproducibility and heresy are closely allied. Steinberg would sympathize. His favorite device, the signature, combined with his other favorite, the impress or seal, is a conceit that displays his sensitivity to infinitesimal degrees of difference, the change incurred by each transfer from original to copy. An open box contains Rorschach blots, more faded on one side than on the other, an entire printed “blot” returned to its origin as a real blot. In other works this simple gesture of replication becomes increasingly complex. A (wooden) book lies open to reveal an etching plate of a woman looking through a grille at the opposite page, from which, in the etching itself, the same woman looks back. Identicalness is always spurious; one’s doppelganger is a disappointment. Looking more closely it is possible to see that the grille is a Mondrian in perspective. “Art” is that still point at which the change between image and original is generated. And at that very point Steinberg can intervene, using the wafer-thin distinction between things and versions of things as a vast area of activity.

Far in the distance in Rainbow Reflected, 1974, is the rest of the world—in shorthand terms, an opera house, some trees, a windmill, the Eiffel Tower, and a pyramid—while a series of puddles between the horizon line and the bottom of the drawing become a sea, a river, an estuary, then at last a sidewalk puddle. A rainbow, reflected in the water, becomes more fragmented the nearer it is. Far away ships drop anchor. Settlers with wagons trek around the edge of a lake. A man flies a kite, another fishes, a third (the older man and his cat from George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, ca. 1845) floats aimlessly along, and at the base of the picture a bird on the edge of a birdbath contemplates its reflection. All this is mirrored in the water. The sketch is a reflection in a puddle and a reflection on that reflection. Though a rainbow has as little tangible about it as a reflection, the latter verifies our existence while the former gives that existence a reason. The pursuit of happiness is every bit as important as life and liberty; together the rainbow and the puddle almost produce an image of eternity, a complete circle of light.

Schoolboys write their names, then long addresses that end “The Solar System” or “The Universe.” Steinberg too sits in one place, makes his mark, considers it, then uses it to improvise complex philosophical games, ways of locating the terms by which he exists. His work may not permit us to know him better. Rather, it allows us to eavesdrop on a debate which is only ever semipublic.

Stuart Morgan