Monday, March 4, 2013

Saul Steinberg - A Legendary "New Yorker" Artist (By Brian Kohen)

Saul Steinberg
A Legendary “New Yorker” Artist

            Saul Steinberg (June 15th, 1944—May 12th, 1999) was an artist born in Râmnicu Sărat, Romania. He began his artwork with a satirical magazine in Milan in the early 1940s. Being a Jew, Fascist Italy wasn’t the best place for him to reside and continue his work. Steinberg wished to live in the United States but immigration laws for European Jews at the time were very strict. Instead, he departed for the Dominican Republic, one of the very few countries that accepted immigrating Jews. While in the Dominican Republic, he submitted some of his illustrations to The New Yorker, while waiting for an American visa. The New Yorker liked his work and sponsored his entry in the United States. This is where Steinberg thrived. He worked with The New Yorker for over 50 years, contributing 90 covers and totaling more than 1,200 drawings over that time period. He was loved for his creativity, use of color, and use of both simplicity and complexity in his drawings.
His most famous work, View of the World from 9th Avenue (below), remains one of the most iconic modern magazine covers. This drawing appeared on the March 29th, 1976 cover of The New Yorker. I like this drawing because the layout looks like a three-dimensional map of space and time, a Steinberg trademark. It has street names, a river, an ocean, and borders, but has the detail of buildings, cars, and street lamps in the forefront. It’s interesting because two streets in New York occupy more than half of the drawing with great detail, while Steinberg leaves less than half of the cover to represent the rest of the world stretching west all the way to Japan with countries like Canada and Mexico visible in the north and south, respectively. Steinberg uses less and less detail after New York’s boundaries to the point that China, Japan, and Russia are just lines off in the distance. This is one of my favorite drawings because of its sparing but brilliant use of color as well as what it seemingly depicts—a New Yorker’s pompous view of the world past their beloved city.

            Another drawing of his I enjoyed was his illustration on the July 5th, 1969 cover of The New Yorker, shown below. This drawing really embodies and exemplifies Steinberg’s use of simplicity while still attracting the viewer. I am immediately drawn to the “4” in the drawing that seems to have been launched from the rest of the numbers 1-10 on the ground. Looking at the date, I quickly realized that the “4” was emphasized to celebrate our Independence. Looking at the year (1969) I inferred that it is very possible Steinberg depicted the “4” launching into the sky like a rocket because America was at the peak of its space missions at the time (first manned moon landing occurred later that month!). Additionally, the use of color really attracts the eye and is very soothing to inspect closer. The sky is not a plain blue but a mixture of lighter and darker whites and blues that vividly give the effect of clouds without explicitly drawing in clouds. This drawing shows how Steinberg turned a very simple concept into an attractive cover drawing using his creativity.

            Lastly, I liked Steinberg’s illustration on the cover of the July 22nd, 1972 issue of The New Yorker. The cover leaves me thinking, “why do I find this drawing so intriguing?” and yet I can’t stop looking at it! This is another example of how Steinberg turns something simple into an eye-catching cover. It depicts a man with a hat standing on top of an upside down pyramid with years starting from 1933 until 1972 in each of the pyramid blocks. Even though he sparingly uses color, much like in View of the World from 9th Avenue, they seem vibrant in the drawing, especially at the top and bottom. You can also see that he uses shading on the bottom and left side of the pyramid, which gives it more character in space. The sky and effect of clouds are beautifully done, much like in the drawing above, except with more coloring and definition.

            I chose Saul Steinberg for a couple of reasons. Being Jewish myself, I think his life story, briefly explained above, is very intriguing. I am also from New York so I am very familiar with The New Yorker magazine and several of its covers, although I didn’t know so many of the famous ones were by him. The main reason I chose him however, was because he is a perfect example of how one doesn’t need to be an incredibly artistically talented and draw complex compositions to be appreciated as a great artist. One can use simplicity, style, and imagination to create beautiful covers. This is what Steinberg does—he often utilizes very simple themes and builds them into something complex using his technique, imagination and creativity.

Blair, Deirdre. Saul Steinberg: A Biography. Doubleday, 2012

Smith, Joel. Steinberg at the New Yorker. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2005

Topliss, Iain. The Comic Worlds of Peter Arno, William Steig, Charles Addams, and Saul Steinberg. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

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