Saturday, September 30, 2017

Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) - Raisa Reed

Saul Steinberg was a Romanian-born, American cartoonist. His artwork delves into many styles, techniques, and mediums with the purpose of comic relief from the seriousness (and absurdity, as he might suggest) of typical, everyday life. Most renowned for his New Yorker cover artwork, Steinberg stretched far and wide in artistic success.

Steinberg was born on June 15, 1914 in Romania, but soon moved to Bucharest where his father owned a printing shop and manufactured boxes. After high school, he studied philosophy at the University of Bucharest before moving to Italy where he would study architecture. It is here that he first began his work as a cartoonist--doing satirical artwork for Bertoldo, an Italian magazine. However, during his time in Italy, Steinberg, being Jewish, was placed into an Italian concentration camp until his New York agent acquired a Dominican Republic visa.

Steinberg thus lived in the Dominican Republic--where he first began drawing for the New Yorker and a few other American magazines. He obtained his U.S. citizenship after being recruited into the U.S. Naval Reserve in the Office of Strategic Service. This job sent him to China, India, North Africa, Italy, and Washington, and in each place, his focus was creating political propaganda that was illustrated to appear as if there were a German Resistance. In this time, he continued to create drawings for the New Yorker of military life in these various countries.

In 1944, Steinberg married painter Hedda Sterne and built a social life full of artistic geniuses like himself.

The culmination of Steinberg's past led him to be an artist that relied purely on images on paper to relay his witty messages and commentary. He referred to himself as "a writer who draws," but many artists believed that he could also have been considered "an artist who writes," because his artworks held such clear messages without so much as a single word on the page.

View From 9th Avenue, 1976. Ink, pencil, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper.

As noted above, Steinberg was an immigrant to the United States, and he was also well-traveled in his lifetime. He spent nearly all--if not all-- of his American life living in New York City, New York, and his overall impression of America was that people took themselves much too serious. This drawing illustrates how citizens of NY viewed the rest of the world. Notice how Steinberg uses various mediums in one piece--one fact I found most intriguing about his artwork.

Untitled (Rush Hour), c. 1969. Rubber stamps in black ink, and pen and black ink, over graphite, on ivory wove paper.
Another intriguing part of Steinberg's works was that he enjoyed using rubber stamps. The drawing above an example of this method. While he has some drawings in which he used stock stamps, this drawing encompasses stamps made from Steinberg's own drawings--both the people and the cars. Again, he encompasses multiple mediums--using both stamps and pen in this drawing. It's believed that Steinberg found his stamp interest while doing military office work.

Not Yet, 1965. Watercolor with colored pencil, pen and black ink, and graphite, with black chalk and rummer stamp in black in, ruled in back chalk and graphite, on off-white wove paper.
Above it is mentioned that Steinberg didn't use words in his cartoons, and this appears to be an evident violation of that statement. However, the words "Not Yet" in the above drawing is the cartoon. Like conceptualists of the 1960's, Steinberg drew images that were focused on words--except, his words were drawn in a way that expressed their meaning--hence the unfinished nature of the words in this drawing. Notice, also, the stamp in the upper left that follows Steinberg's love of stamps, but do not neglect the fact that the stamp appears to hold words, but simply mimics language and doesn't actually say anything. This was Steinberg's style--using words as visual elements, but not for the purpose of conveying ideas or language. It was this drawing that led me to be most intrigued by Steinberg's work which I was quite unfamiliar with before recently.

Another example of Steinberg's word drawings:
I Do I Have I Am, 1971. Pen and black ink, colored crayon, and watercolor, over graphite, with colored fiber-tipped pens and oil over cut-and pasted white wove paper, on ivory woven paper.
This is certainly my favorite drawing by Steinberg. It mimics Rene Descartes' famous quote "I think, therefore I am." And embodies what Steinberg found to be a popular American ideal that a person is defined by what they do, what they have, and who they are. But notice that the "I do" has a rainbow halo to suggest the fantasy of pride in your actions, and "I have" is broken and hanging laundry because pride in possessions is flawed and doomed to break down; "I am" is nicely trimmed and pristine because image is everything in the American ideal.

Breakfast Still Life, c. 1974. Graphite, with erasing, and black and colored pencil and crayon on white wove paper.
This final drawing is included to make a single point about Steinberg. He was a cartoonist. Rarely did he draw real objects or images. He took pride in drawing freely from his own mind and believed that "drawing from life [he] became a servant, a second-class character." However, in the latter part of his life, he began drawing still-life images. His style in this image is seen in the unconventionality of the objects and their placement on the table.

This is by no means an all-encompassing post of Steinberg's work. His work varied so widely and he has such a vast collection of pieces that it would be hard to concisely incorporate them all. These images are simply what I found to be key (and some of the most interesting) pieces in his collections.

Fun Fact: By the end of his life, Steinberg could speak five languages: Romanian, German, Spanish, French, and Italian.


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