In 1974, Harold Rosenberg, one of Saul Steinberg’s earliest and most eloquent supporters, wrote that “Cubism… which in the canon of the American art historian is the nucleus of twentieth-century formal development in painting, sculpture and drawing, is to Steinberg merely another detail in the pattern of modern mannerisms; in a landscape, he finds no difficulty in combining Cubist and Constructivist elements with an imitation van Gogh ‘self-portrait.’” These prescient words could describe the attitude of many a postmodern artist toward art history, one in which pastiche and the free association of styles and techniques composes a style unto itself.
Is Steinberg an early postmodernist? At his recent show at PaceWildenstein dedicated to his career as a cartoonist with The New Yorker, he gives some supporting evidence to such a thesis. In two beautiful drawings from his Shadows and Reflected Images series, he displays an encyclopedic study of styles. In one, doubled figures rendered in cartoon contours dawdle on the shore before the water, while a naturalistic colored pencil rendition of the boatman from George Caleb Bingham’s famous “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” drifts by. In the second drawing, “Reflected Rainbow,” a loosely rendered colored pencil rainbow presides over a contour landscape on which a gestural wagon train travels in the company of abstract forms and the counterfeit seals Steinberg habitually created since his days as a refugee during World War II.
Nonetheless, Rosenberg would doubtless reply, Steinberg was not an early postmodernist, and he would be right. As Adam Gopnik points out in his 1987 essay on the artist, “If we mean by irony a kind of false naiveté—if it involves some discrepancy between the way something is shown to us and what we suspect the artist doing the showing actually thinks, …Steinberg’s work is almost entirely without irony.” In Steinberg’s drawings, the disparate styles and techniques he employs are inevitably united by his keen sense of composition and the weight of meaning he imparts to each. This approach precludes irony. Behind Steinberg’s maze of styles lies an earnest attempt to communicate directly.
This is something altogether different from the unintegrated pairing of styles favored by artists like David Salle or Sigmar Polke, which tend to result in the uneasy feeling that all attempts to draw meaningful relationships between signifiers in the modern world are doomed to failure. Steinberg’s work does contain an unease, but it’s an unease linked to what Rosenberg called the New York School’s preoccupation with the “mystery of individual identity,” rather than the postmodern concern with the status of images and the destruction of authenticity. The affinities between Steinberg’s style and postmodern style are a testimony to Steinberg’s vision. If he was not an early postmodernist, one might at least describe Steinberg as the progenitor of a certain strain of stylistic collage in postmodern art. It is, after all, the mark of a master to contain the seeds of a style in his work without being subject to the strictures that confine the style he creates.
Through the depth and breadth of his immigrant’s search for identity, Steinberg unearthed images of an uncommon appeal. They transfix and they confound. As a child, I loved his drawings in The New Yorker before I had ever heard of Matisse or Picasso. As I grew, his drawings only increased in appeal, unfolding their layers of meaning in rhythm with my own ability to grasp them. Steinberg is often quoted describing his drawings as a form of art criticism, and they make sense that way. One is struck by the intelligence of his drawings, not only in the witty juxtaposition of characters and styles but in the alert quality that his line always possesses—it is like thought made visible.
ContributorBen La Rocco