New York

Saul Steinberg

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Saul Steinberg’s America is a peculiar place; its buildings tend to be absurdly big, its people absurdly small. Arrogantly abstract freaks, Steinberg’s Americans move mechanically through the country’s streets like wind-up toys, traversing a place where everyone is on the move, travelling fast to nowhere in particular. Steinberg’s America is indeed “nowhere”—an artistic utopia in which the abstract and concrete are one and the same because the balance between them has not been worked out by history. Whether one tilts toward the abstract and artificial or the concrete and natural one is in the same utopian place—an artistic never-never land populated with illusory types that, because they are self-caricaturing, seem remarkably individual. Every last one is entirely a product of Steinberg’s wizardry, of an imagination in hot pursuit of the bizarre effect which unexpectedly turns out to be true to life. Indeed, a good cartoon—especially a good Modernist cartoon, in which modernisms have turned into mannerisms—always involves the exact, acute observation of reality. In fact, the decadent Modernist style of Steinberg’s brilliant cartoons is a popularized, kitschified Modernism, in which the difficult seems easy and the unusual a cliché, the high, low, and the written, spoken.

Slyly, but with a peculiar quiet violence, Steinberg brings out the comic, indeed sardonic and spiteful, potential of Modernism as well as its nihilistic irony and nasty fantasy. His art is full of dadaistic fun and black humor as well as high-Modern earnestness carried to a self-mocking extreme. One has only to recall Pablo Picasso’s aggressive remark that he had to “end” his Cubist analysis of the figure in a caricature or there would have been nothing left of it; in a sense, he made mincemeat of it. Steinberg picks up these perverse tidbits and uses them to construct a world that is so familiar it cannot help but seem a caricature of itself. One is reminded of Freud’s view of America as an “error,” a culture in which ideas and lives could not help but be distorted because there was no notion of what it meant to be undistorted. Indeed, the New World was a decadent place from its beginning—it had no tradition against which to measure the authenticity of the new, which is why it lends itself to Modernist absurdity. Steinberg has discovered that artistic and human novelty exist for their own silly sake—that novelty has become a wry cliché. It is anxiously believed in, perhaps because it seems to allow one to hold one’s little own against the inconsequence of life in Steinberg’s America, for all its colorfulness.

The peculiar pointlessness of Steinberg’s figures is not unconnected to America’s vast spaces, almost metaphysical in their emptiness. Indeed, there are seemingly endless stretches of flat, empty space in Steinberg’s pictures, in which buildings and figures are inscribed like Potemkin village facades. However playful, clever, and funny the pieces of Steinberg’s puzzle are, he has a morbid, existential, peculiarly tragic vision of America.

Donald Kuspit