Saul Steinberg (American, born Romania, 1914–99) had one of the most remarkable and varied careers in postwar American art. While known for the drawings that graced the cover of the New Yorker for nearly six decades, he was equally acclaimed for the drawings, paintings, prints, collages, and sculptures he exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the world. Through these parallel careers—cartoonist and independent artist—Steinberg crafted a rich and ever-evolving idiom and, in the process, became celebrated the world over for giving graphic definition to the postwar age.
Steinberg defined drawing as “a way of reasoning on paper,” and he remained committed to the act of drawing in an era dominated by large-scale painting and sculpture. Throughout his long career, he used drawing to think about the semantics of art, reconfiguring stylistic signs into a new language suited to modern life. He was, as the title of one of his books puts it, the “inspector,” seeing through every false front, every pretense. Sometimes with affection, sometimes with irony, but always with virtuoso mastery, Steinberg peeled back the carefully wrought masks of 20th-century civilization.
His heritage as a Romanian Jew—who experienced firsthand that country’s often virulent anti-Semitism as well as the rise of anti-Semitic laws in a previously cosmopolitan and tolerant Italy—pervaded his take on all things American. Naturally curious, Steinberg was especially interested in how Americans behaved, how they surrounded themselves with luxuries and participated in leisure activities, sometimes without much awareness of the suffering experienced around the world, or even in their own country. The banalities and ubiquities of American culture were frequent subjects of his drawings, themes in which he delighted and from which he kept ironic distance. His work also addressed philosophical questions, still lifes, Hollywood, and identity through masks.
Featuring 54 drawings generously gifted by the Saul Steinberg Foundation in 2013, this exhibition offers a comprehensive survey of the artist’s diverse output. Whether created to stand on their own, for reproduction, or for commercial uses, the drawings in this show afford a new appreciation of Steinberg and his remarkably playful, inventive, and insightful art.