A 'parody of talent': A new book posits that Saul Steinberg did for art what James Joyce did for literature
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 June 2005)

After some success as a graphic artist in the late 1940s, Saul Steinberg decided he should drive like a tourist around the United States, seeing for the first time the country that had accepted him as a Jewish refugee from Romania. Immediately, a problem arose. He enjoyed driving a big car, but he knew that a big car marks you as a big shot. He disliked public attention and wanted to visit motels and diners without being considered a millionaire.

He decided the situation called for a costume, so he went on his travels wearing a chauffeur's cap and jacket. That meant he was accepted everywhere as a working stiff, no matter what car he was piloting for his imaginary boss. This was a typically Steinbergian manoeuvre. He enjoyed being invisible. He hid in plain sight.

A philosopher with a pencil, Steinberg saw reality through art and recreated it in the form of endlessly inventive parodies. If he looked at a mountain he saw art deco forms, and by the time he got to his notebook the mountain resembled the Chrysler building. He claimed that if he came upon a beautiful scene when walking in the country, "I look for a signature in the lower right hand." His subject was the visual imagination as expressed in art. Harold Rosenberg, a great critic, claimed that "in linking art to the modern consciousness, no artist is more relevant than Steinberg." A wonderful new book, Steinberg at The New Yorker (Abrams), edited by Joel Smith, functions as a sly account of style through the ages, everything from ancient Chinese wall painting to abstract expressionism.

Steinberg did for art what James Joyce did for literature: He reworked, with punning economy, the great accomplishments of painting, sculpture, architecture and typography. Perhaps we don't take him as seriously as Joyce because in maturity he was never neglected. His art had one great customer, The New Yorker, which sustained him as he honoured and enlivened it with his presence. (In 58 years he contributed 89 covers and 1,150 drawings.)

Like Joyce, he made delicate parody central to his work. "You have to think of a lot of my work as some sort of parody of talent," Steinberg once said. Stylistically, he was a one-man conglomerate. His talent for pastiche pulled hundreds of imitations into a recognizable style of his own, which no one has ever successfully imitated.

In his oblique way he taught us to love the two-dimensional universe. Anything flat that was printed or painted or scrawled would attract his attention. He studied labels, official stamps, eccentric handwriting, equations, odd forms of punctuation. He could build a visual drama around an emotion-charged word like "yesterday" or "nowhere." He imitated comic strips by drawing thought-bubbles above his subjects. He drew a triangle that dreams of its proud role in the Pythagorean theorem but can't think of anything else; another triangle, having apparently done nothing significant, has no thoughts at all.

He liked letters of the alphabet and in his personal mythology gave them feelings, even yearnings. On the cover of the May 25, 1963 New Yorker, the letter E, expressed in boxy, unlovely typography, lives with some ordinary animals in an ordinary garden. But E nourishes a dream, as its thought-bubble confesses. E wants to be elegant and miraculously thin; it wants, in fact, to be French, with a stylish acute accent hovering in the air above it. What other artist could even imagine transferring familiar human aspirations to letter forms?

Rather than reflecting "real" life, Steinberg created an alternate universe, where he made all the laws (even those governing gravity) and dictated every detail, right down to the medals that pompous soldiers wore on their chests. He caricatured bureaucracy by making all certificates, documents, passports and diplomas illegible; they were written in a script that looked like language but couldn't be read by anyone.

Steinberg loved commercially designed objects, the more outlandish the better. In his imagination they bled into each other. A juke box turned into an office building or an office building became a juke box. A European who had lived in visually static environments (Romania first, then Italy, where he studied architecture), Steinberg viewed the New World as a vast and haphazard collage of imagery.

His most famous work, a 1976 New Yorker cover called The View of the World from 9th Avenue, satirized Manhattan's self-obsessed mental geography by depicting most of the planet as more or less a suburb of New York, Canada a tiny triangle to the right. That sweet local joke turned, unexpectedly, into a graphic metaphor that the whole world understood and borrowed.

City magazines and poster artists as far away as Kyoto and Vienna published local variations, as if to say that their views were just as provincial as New York's. Steinberg's brilliant notion became a touchstone of modern art, like Matisse's cut-outs or Pollock's drip paintings. Recently, at Merivale High School in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean, a teacher showed the Steinberg map to his graphic-arts class and had them create similar drawings depicting their home towns as the centre of the world. Some started from the Ottawa streets; others put the global centre in Lisbon, Beirut, or Seoul. Always the philosopher, whether by intention or not, Steinberg taught us to remember that wherever you are can feel like the capital of everything.

Once he reached the U.S., Steinberg never went home, even for a visit. He had no desire to look for a Romania that no longer existed -- though he did say that if a travel agent could sell him a ticket to 1920s Bucharest he would reconsider. Even so, in his last years he made affectionate drawings of his childhood environment and directed two of his life's obsessive interests, in postcards and maps, toward his homeland. He had his assistant of 30 years, Anton van Dalen, collect postcards showing the Bucharest streets he had once known; these he carefully studied through a magnifying glass. A friend brought him a street map of old Bucharest and van Dalen got a photo-enlargement of the section where Steinberg grew up.

From this he drew in pencil his last map, which was also the last drawing he made before he died in the spring of 1999, at the age of 84.

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