Until recently, I had not stopped to think about how much Philip Guston (1913–1980) and Saul Steinberg (1914–1999) had in common. Both were Jews who loved to draw, starting in childhood. One wanted to be a cartoonist when he was young, while the other contributed cartoons to a local publication as a student in Milan, Italy. They shared all kinds of enthusiasms, from satire and caricature to high art and literature. Italy held a special place in their hearts. They were friends with well-known authors, Philip Roth and Aldo Buzzi, both of whom had a satirical bent. They liked to put words and signs in their work.
The critic Harold Rosenberg wrote beautifully about their art (just one of the things for which he should get credit). He was the only critic to write movingly about, and in support of, Guston’s 1970 Marlborough show, in which, for the first time, he showed cartoony views of hooded men riding around town.
Guston and Steinberg are unclassifiable figures who satirized political figures, artists, poseurs, and American consumerism. Although they loved to make landscapes and interiors, that is certainly not all they did. Is Guston an Abstract Expressionist gone rogue? How do his Poor Richard drawings — which he did not show in his lifetime — connect to his paintings? Is Steinberg simply a cartoonist and illustrator? Maybe we should accept that one’s art does not need to fit together, like a well-curated cheese plate.
Though well-known in America, Guston and Steinberg were born elsewhere and moved to New York as adults. The feeling of displacement and isolation was central to their consciousness. Migration was not something that happened to others. Perhaps their interest in art that could be realized on a piece of paper had something to do with this.
A smart exhibition, Eyes Wide Open: Saul Steinberg & Philip Guston, at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery pairs a selection of the artists’ drawings, prints, and objects. For all sorts of reasons, it is a show that should be seen, especially in this bloated age of bauble art and media-driven culture. Working on paper in graphite, ink, and other simple tools, Guston and Steinberg remind us that art need not be a celebration of expensive materials, and, more importantly, a world can be conjured up without relying on mechanical means and capitalism’s excessive machinery of production.
The worlds they conjure up are neither simple nor cliché. Steinberg’s “Albergo Minerva” (1961), a lithograph he has gone over with a colored pencil, depicts a room with a bed and window. It is a scene that Guston explored many times in the last decade of his life. On the diagonally angled wall behind the head of the bed is a drawing of a work of art. (Guston also liked to do paintings of paintings.) In the “drawing” we see a large resting bull staring at a pyramid. Guston includes a pyramid in the painting, “Pyramid and Shoe” (1977).
Was the pyramid, for Guston, an evocation of Egypt and exile, of being driven out? Was the pairing a reference to the Holocaust and the history of enforced migration and repeated exiles the Jews have endured? What does Steinberg’s bull allude to? Is he connecting the history of Spain and Egypt, both places that drove the Jews out?
Two large voice balloons, each filled with indecipherable script, occupy the bed in Steinberg’s piece. Guston also did voice balloons, often filled with images. This is just one of the many cartoonist motifs their work shares. They loved to draw the tools of their trade — paintbrushes, pencils, paintings, and papers — piled on a table. In Guston’s “Painter in Bed” (1973), things are piled on the cover, from under which the painter’s head sticks out, smoking a cigarette. They had a love of things: shoes, jukeboxes, records, irons, and clocks.
Steinberg made masks from paper bags, while Guston depicted boys wearing paper bag masks and hats in “The Porch” (1945) and other paintings from this period. In a number of untitled drawings from around 1983, Steinberg depicts the façade of house whose windows open onto what look like De Stijl paintings. In the foreground of a related hand-colored engraving, untitled and dated 1983-1990, the elided contour outline of a woman in the foreground brings to mind the work of Richard Lindner (1901-1978), a German artist and illustrator who was friends with Steinberg.
Guston made around 60 prints during two periods, first from 1963-1966, and then from 1979 until his death a year later. Aside from one unpublished, untitled etching (ca. 1980), he preferring the fat modeled line he could achieve with lithography to the fine precise line we associate with engraving, which was Steinberg’s preferred medium.
He completed his first group of lithographs with Irwin Hollander, director of Tamarind Press in Los Angeles, California, just as he was entering a period of crisis, and increasing dissatisfaction with abstraction. A print or two from this period would have been great in the exhibition, but I do not think of this show as being the final word on the subject. Rather, the longer I looked at this work and thought about this pairing, the more I felt much remains to be dug up and placed in close proximity.
What strikes me most about this modest show is how smart it is. It seems to me that large segments of the institutional art world have gotten tired. We repeatedly see the same pairings, the same figures, and the same never-ending celebration of the mechanical and technological in the service of efficient production. I think there is something deeply moving about seeing what a person can do in a drawing using simple, inexpensive materials. And this pleasure becomes even richer when looking at the drawings, prints, and masks of Guston and Steinberg.
Eyes Wide Open: Saul Steinberg & Philip Guston continues at Senior & Shopmaker (210 Eleventh Avenue, 8th Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 22.