Plastered on the title wall of Saul Steinberg’s 100th Anniversary Exhibition at Pace Gallery is an impenetrable photographic self-portrait. Wearing one of his paper-bag masks, anonymous in suit and tie, the only indication of Steinberg’s identity is a pointed nose peeking through. It’s not unfitting — in the greater art historical record, he has remained unrecognized. Critic Harold Rosenberg, in answer to the question “Is he an artist?,” called Steinberg “a borderline case.” This exhibition, which spans two floors, includes so many quotes on the walls insisting on Steinberg’s place among “the greats,” they undermine the artwork hanging by their side.
The anxiety comes from the fact that Steinberg is ostensibly a cartoonist, but one who deals in symbolism rather than the usual punchline captions. He’s too general to be a caricaturist, too loving to count himself a satirist. He is, rather, a geographer of emotional landscapes, a mathematician penning equations of society’s institutions, an archivist of cities.
One wall holds three New York City scenes, each from a different decade. The ’60s are all rainbow and chrome: the city as a playground of culture, an amusement park with rides called “Rimbaud” and “Mondrian,” and seen from the low, awe-inspiring vantage point of a child. In the ’70s night falls over the city, interrupted only by the glowing cacophony of taxis, monstrous pack animals carrying ant-sized passengers with Mickey Mouse faces (Steinberg’s perpetual symbol of American vapidity). In the ’80s the sun has yet to rise, but street lamps casting sharp-toothed beams render the sky irrelevant. The city is now seen from above and from inside a space safer than the abandoned streets and darkened buildings below. Careening into the foreground is an abstract, almost Futurist mass of reflections and spinning wheels, a motorcycle gang or maybe an overzealous police car fortified with sirens, helmets, and clubs.
Having worked for many years under the looming title of The New Yorker, Steinberg has become indivisible from the publication and the intellectual yet self-satisfied worldview it promotes. Of all his cityscapes, the best known is “Looking West,” his map of a New Yorker’s parochial version of world geography, with everything beyond the Hudson River classified as the rest-of-the-United-States.
But it is precisely because Steinberg was not a native of this city that he could draw it with such insight. A Romanian Jew who left his country in 1933 to study architecture in Milan, he was imprisoned there in 1941 under anti-Semitic laws. That same year he managed to escape to the United States via Portugal with a passport made official by his own rubber stamp. He was immediately deported from Ellis Island to Santo Domingo, due to a limit on the number of Romanians allowed entry, and only made it back to the States when The New Yorker editors, to whom he sent many drawings for publication, sponsored his visa.
That Steinberg was a stateless man, a perpetual outsider, is vital to understanding his work. One has only to watch an interview from 1967 to hear him explain in his thick, pinched accent that his paper masks represent a preoccupation with the confines of society and its reductive conventions. “The personal remark, the visible emotion, has no place in society,” he says. “Of course [a mask is] something that’s useful, it’s necessary, but it’s also something ugly, because it takes away all the poetry, the spontaneity of life away from people. The more organized society, the more we have these masks.”
Simulation — some may even say forgery — of that society is the philosophical core of Steinberg’s work. In the gallery’s first room hang his series of “documents,” official-looking papers stamped and signed, folded, stained, and fingerprinted. His fountain pen unfurls a maelstrom of flourishes and seals, but the language is illegible nonsense. He authenticates the false, creating a mask of authority.
The same goes for his table sculptures, wooden forgeries of everyday life. Two works from 1981, “Summer Table” and “Table with Knife,” stand in the center of the gallery, full-size furniture at which an artist seems to have been working, or preparing to have a meal. Disparate objects are laid out neatly: a slice of bread, open matchbooks, paintbrushes, a pickle, coins, a watch, an artist’s palette, a notebook, all made from whittled wood. I read them as incidental belongings removed from the pockets of a new inmate and inventoried, to be returned at the end of a sentence. Though Steinberg knew Warhol as “Andy” — their studios were in the same building — this is not Pop art. It’s no celebration of capitalism’s beauty, but a kind of fan fiction of reality, complete with drawn shadows that conflict with those cast by the overhead lights of the gallery. This tallying of possessions adds up to a human narrative, but use and material worth are less important than the symbolism of the objects.
At the center of these tables are what I like to call Steinberg’s “existential landscapes,” watercolors masquerading as bucolic postcards, in which he dots the horizon with stamps of men and women. In suits and hats — futile indicators of Western elegance and class — the figures stand silhouetted, faceless and bewildered, abandoned by society’s infrastructure. Dwarfed by the eerie pastoral of rainbow clouds and distant horizons, they could be Vladimirs and Estragons seen from afar. And, bearing down on them, an official stamp stands in for the sun or moon. The cosmos of bureaucracy reigns over all.
To call Steinberg cynical would be wrong. Always taking the wide view, he portrayed humans as small but not inconsequential creatures. His paper bag masks are not portraits but timeless types. His 1950s series of people sketched onto photographs of city streets and directly onto the walls of apartment interiors (displayed on Pace’s second floor) shows them as the unassuming heirs of civilization. His stamped masses have a bold permanence, even as, around them, history marches on.
One hundred years after his birth, the institutions that define his work are nearly defunct — one of his favorite subjects, the post office, is on the brink of bankruptcy; his postcards are outdated; his preferred medium, magazine print, under constant death threat. Steinberg’s schematic art dates itself to a time when institutions of power were more visibly ostentatious. Imagine what he would think of our world of screens and social media, what he would do with something as metaphorically rich as “the cloud.” The question is clearly no longer “Is he an artist?” but what is his legacy in contemporary American society?
Always his own best critic, Steinberg wrote in his autobiography:
I managed to get out of a number of culs-de-sac, some of the vulgarities of humorous drawing and the banalities of commercial art, while still preserving a little of that element of mediocrity – I’d almost say vulgarity – that I wouldn’t care to give up, since I consider it something necessary; like a man who, in changing his social class, still wouldn’t want to break up with his wife and old friends.
A minor pencil sketch supports this self-deprecating view. Four quadrants define the caste system of The Still Life: first class shows a familiar scene — a violin, a tablecloth swirling around fruit, a vase holding a sturdy bouquet; second class is the modern iteration, a portrait of bohemian life and its accoutrements — a vinyl record, a book on Juan Gris, a bottle of cheap wine; third class is labeled “artifacts” and features a table of tchochkes and souvenirs, objects that reduce the culturally significant to the commercial. And finally, there is fourth class, of which Steinberg seems to insist he is a member: the “art supply,” with a French curve, palette, and tubes of oil paint, their caps inelegantly dotting the landscape of the simple tabletop.
Steinberg used mediocrity as a mask. His past made him a person without category, so he could slip between the classes unnoticed. To the right of this sketch hangs “Buenos Aires Table.” A layered collage of stamps, maps, found pictures, and newspapers, it’s a veritable work of Cubism. Seductive for its cleverness, it’s an example of how mastery can impress with very little thought behind it. To some it may be the only definitive “work of art” in this entire show, but it’s also the most derivative.
To the left of that hangs an earlier still life: a table piled high with speech bubbles shouting indecipherable words, a “stamped” postcard, an American Indian charging at nothing, a Frenchman on horseback, all bravura, leaping with sash and sword. Steinberg wrote about seeing Pop art in Civil War memorials, Brancusi in taxicabs, Picasso in diners, and Japanese screens in the tinted windows of a city bus. For him, art history was much like America: a fantasy he loved and of which he was never fully a part.
Saul Steinberg: 100th Anniversary Exhibition continues at Pace Gallery (32 E 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 18.