Saul Steinberg is one of the most prolific, prominent artists whom many people may know even if they don’t recognize his name. For six decades, he contributed cartoons to popular magazines, such as Vogue, Harper’s, and most frequently the New Yorker. His wordless art — combinations of simple and elaborate line work where the punchlines are in the visuals instead of a caption — has set a template many print cartoonists imitate to this day.
Steinberg’s various drawings were collected in seven books over the course of his life. The Labyrinth, originally published in 1960, has long been out of print, but is now being put out in a new hardcover by New York Review Comics. The handsome volume, which comes with a new foreword, an afterword, and annotations sourcing every illustration, is the perfect introduction or reintroduction to Steinberg’s incomparable style.
The first seven pages of the collection exemplify the thematic complexity lurking within Steinberg’s work. Showcasing one piece called The Line from 1959, these opening pages follow a single pencil line. It begins with a face, rendered as simply as possible, with three lines forming eyes and a mouth, and an arrow representing a nose; a hand made of five little curves for fingers holds a straight line for a pencil, which is contiguous with the line that travels across the rest of the panels. At first it suggests a timeline, with a pyramid, sphinx, steamboat, and opulent palaces along it. Then it becomes the point where a building meets a sidewalk, with the edifice on one side of the line and a man looking up at the reader on the other. The line is a clothesline, the edge of a table, and the top of a bridge. At the end, the line breaks from its straight trajectory, winding and twisting and turning to become an abstract figure, before becoming straight again and trailing off.
This is the first appearance of a maze motif that recurs throughout the cartoons and lends The Labyrinth its name. Steinberg loved to build elaborate edifices from this one basic element, and that idea sums up his approach to drawing. He would experiment with how much he could suggest with as little visual input as possible, but could just as easily make elaborately drawn and shaded images (the book wonderfully juxtaposes similarly themed pictures that juxtapose these approaches in little diptychs). In one cartoon, a whole family is depicted as different overlapping squares. A boy and girl ride an imaginary horse and duck, which are drawn as dotted lines. A pair of figures are expressed only with blocks of shading without lines, their whole look legible through carefully darkened cheekbones and folds in clothing.
Aggregating Steinberg’s published works and private sketches, The Labyrinth represents not just his creative output but also a diary of sorts. A significant portion consists of drawings of people and landmarks he saw during his 1956 trip to Russia on assignment for The New Yorker, and there are selections from his mural The Americans from the American Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, depicting caricatured panoramas of American culture. Scenes of everyday life and abstract cartoons form a panoply of views of society as Steinberg saw it during this time period. No one had an eye like he did on the world around him.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.