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'Epic Doodler'

April 19, 2007 By:
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I have often said that some of the finest expository prose being produced in this country appears with regularity on the obituary pages of The New York Times. The paper's wide-ranging death notices, written with great authority and aplomb, in a style that strikes just the right balance between facts and fanciful phrasing, praise and critical reasoning, read like the finest of (encapsulated) biographies.

One of the most skillful of these notices was Sarah Boxer's obituary back in May 1999 for artist Saul Steinberg, identified in the headline as an "epic doodler" who transformed his squiggles into fine art. The piece was so good, such a masterful example of the genre, that I've kept a copy of it on file all these years.

The article's lead paragraph is a brilliant bit of portraiture, a textbook case in how to do such things flawlessly:

"Saul Steinberg, the metaphysically minded artist and cartoonist and brooding doodler whose drawings appeared in The New Yorker for more than half a century, elevating comic illustration to fine art, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84."

Though Steinberg was born in Romania, a country, Boxer notes in her piece, that he once described as "pure Dada," the United States was where he spent the majority of his adult life. America was also the subject -- or, at the very least, the starting point -- for so much of his art. "He was enthralled and appalled by America," writes Boxer. "The Chrysler Building, Uncle Sam, the Easter Bunny, Lady Liberty, Mickey Mouse, crocodiles crawling the city streets, police cars and post offices kept creeping into his drawings."

In the opinion of famed art critic Harold Rosenberg, whose work also appeared for many years in The New Yorker and who remained a steadfast champion of the artist throughout his career, Steinberg was "a virtuoso of exchanges of identity," and his drawings featured "a parade of fictitious personages." And, according to Boxer, Steinberg's numerous "influences" included "Seurat, Klee, Egyptian paintings, drawings found in public toilets, primitive art, insane art and embroidery. He had a number of ways of referring to himself in his drawings: as a man in profile, a cat, a dog, a fish, and as a rabbit peering warily out of a man's geometrical head. Mr. Steinberg's alter ego was always, Mr. Rosenberg observed, 'detached, curious, passive and fearful.' "

The first drawing Steinberg sold, in 1935, says Boxer, showed a man peering into a mirror, saying to himself: "Dammit! This isn't me. I got lost in the crowd." These phrases could be taken as Steinberg's motto, she argues. "More than once he was photographed with one of his paper-bag masks over his face. That, after all, he once said, is what people do in America, 'manufacture a mask of happiness for themselves.' "

Though born in Romania, Steinberg was educated in Italy and studied architecture, which is not all that surprising when you consider many of his drawings. In fact, the artist once said that studying architecture "is a marvelous training for anything but architecture. The frightening thought that what you draw may become a building makes for reasoned lines."

Reasoned lines, and lines that reason, "became his stock in trade," notes Boxer. "The doodle is the brooding of the hand," as Steinberg once put it.

"His visual language was a thin, sharp line that was always remarking on its own existence," writes Boxer. " 'My line wants to remind constantly that it's made of ink,' Mr. Steinberg said. 'I appeal to the complicity of my reader who will transform this line into meaning by using our common background of culture, history, poetry.' ...

"Often his drawings poked fun at the art of drawing, the artist growing out of his own pen and winding up as a square or becoming entangled in his own rococo fancies or unable to break out of a never-ending spiral."

I thought back on all these insights as I perused the delicately nuanced reproductions in Saul Steinberg: Illuminations, recently published by Yale University Press. This sumptuous volume is the work of Joel Smith, the former curator at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, where the Illuminations exhibit had its genesis. This new book now joins Smith's earlier, and equally exquisite, Steinberg at the New Yorker of several years ago.

The catalogue brings together works that may not be known by even the most dedicated Steinberg fan. Though the artist is justly famous for the many drawings and covers he executed for The New Yorker, the work gathered in this new compendium draws from an assortment of other projects he created: public murals, fabrics and stage sets, collages and prints, as well as paintings, sculptures, advertisements, even wartime propaganda.

There is a great deal here that is startling and new, truly revelatory, like the powerful drawing of "Giacometti's Face" and the spirited piece of furniture, called "Library," with all of its varied pieces -- books, plants, bottles -- themselves bearing delicate and resonant Steinberg drawings upon their surfaces.

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