The Magazine

Man With a Line

The gimlet eye of Saul Steinberg.

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The saddest of Steinberg’s love affairs, recounted in detail by Deirdre Bair, was the longest lasting. This was with a German emigré named Sigrid Spaeth, which began in 1960, when he was 46 and she 24. At first besotted by her, he shaved off his mustache at her request—for a vain man, the ultimate sacrifice. As Bair puts it, “The thirty-five years war began.” Sigrid, who called herself Gigi, was psychologically fragile, given to deep depression. He moved her in and out of his apartment in Greenwich Village and house in East Hampton. He took her to Europe and paid for her many trips to Africa. He gave her an allowance, paid her tuition for courses at Columbia, and provided her with everything except what she really wanted: marriage and children. He made plain that he was up for neither—and added that, in any case, he wasn’t in love with her. A bit of a hippie, with lots of love affairs of her own, and a druggie, she eventually killed herself, at the age of 60, by jumping off the roof of the Riverside Drive building in which Steinberg had bought her an apartment. 

In her bill of complaint against Steinberg, Sigrid Spaeth claimed that he often shut her out, and that he didn’t include her in his social life. She embarrassed him, he countered, by not being sufficiently sophisticated, socially or intellectually. Steinberg was often invited to the dinners and parties of those rich given to dabbling in art. As an intellectual who read in a serious way, he also had entrée to the Partisan Review crowd. Two figures in that circle, Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald, pushed him politically further to the left than he might other-wise have gone. A closer friend was Harold Rosenberg, a high-powered schmoozer who wrote art criticism for the New Yorker and who championed Steinberg’s work. 

On his frequent trips to Europe, Steinberg met with Alberto Giacometti, Vladimir Nabokov, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Nicola Chiaramonte, Carlo Levi, Janet Flanner, Igor Stravinsky, and Pablo Picasso. He bought Stravinsky’s Cadillac, and described Picasso as resembling “an old Jewish man in the Florida sun—all torso and shorts. The voice of a cigar smoker .  .  . the falsetto of a cello.”

Steinberg thought of his own art as in the tradition of James Joyce and Nabokov. If so, it would have been the Joyce of Finnegans Wake and the Nabokov of Pale Fire, farcical works built on the mockery of the vagaries of language. Nabokov, Bair reports, reciprocated Steinberg’s admiration, and said of him that, in his drawings, he “could raise unexpected questions about the consequences of a style or even a single line, or he could open up a metaphysical riddle with as much wit as Escher or Magritte and with far more economy.” Steinberg also admired Picasso, and thought he and Picasso were the two most important visual artists of the 20th century—an assertion that, at best, may be half true. 

Resisting all attempts to get him to explain his art, Steinberg said: “The sort of people who need an explanation deserve a mystery.” He claimed to be “a writer who draws,” by which he must have meant that he was a visual artist of ideas. Anton van Dalen, his studio assistant, maintained that Steinberg “was all about ideas.” Steinberg’s notion of his own art was that it was “only an indispensable way of showing a poetic invention. Notice the drawing.”

The first things worth noticing about his drawings are their immediate fascination and infinite charm. “Don’t underestimate your god-given ability to enchant and delight,” Hedda Sterne told him during one of his many glum periods. And so his endlessly inventive talent does. Steinberg held that one of the aims of the artist should be to keep alive the childlike ability to see things innocently and afresh. He was aided in this attempt by being an outsider in every culture into which fate had tossed him—Romanian, Italian, American
—which gave him his peculiar off-center slant on things. 

What to American eyes might be ordinary was to Steinberg’s often astounding. He could be amusing in his representations of American ambitions and vanities, and took particular note of the contradictions that ran up the center of American culture. In a famous New Yorker cover showing an American monument, the figure of Prosperity sits atop the highest pedestal, flanked by statues of Freud and Santa Claus, while at the bottom Uncle Sam shakes hands with Uncle Tom; in the middle, under a banner reading “The Pursuit of Happi-ness,” a snake and a crocodile are biting off each other’s tails.  

Death was always much on Steinberg’s mind. He has drawings in which he sets out life as a series of ascending steps from childhood to a paunchy retirement in Florida, which he called a “concentration camp for old people.” In one drawing, a man appears enclosed on the right side of a parenthesis, a bird about to place a wreath over his head, with the date 1905 followed by a dash occupying the left side of the parenthesis. In another drawing, a Quixotesque figure on horseback, lance at the ready, chases a crocodile down an incline, unaware that a large boulder (death itself) is in pursuit of, and certain to kill, him and the crocodile both.

The autobiographical element in many of Steinberg’s drawings is not difficult to espy. A drawing of a man earnestly dancing with a girl crudely limned in crayon recalls a photograph, reproduced in this book, of Steinberg dancing with Sigrid Spaeth. The subject of many of his drawings is drawing itself, and the comedy of artistic creation generally. In several of these, styles from different art-historical periods
—from cubism to childish scrawlings—appear in the same drawing, just one of the many instances (as he put it) in which he combined “ideas in unpredictable ways.”  

A splendid calligrapher, Steinberg was able to bring letters of the alphabet, as well as numbers, to life. In one drawing, the letter “H” from the word “Who” pushes over the word “Did,” which crushes the letter “I” in the word “It” in the phrase “Who Did It”—with the question mark off to the side presumably asking the question. In another, a man sits before a desk while the authoritative man behind the desk fills the large balloonish letters “N” and “O” with much indecipherable writing, all of which of course adds up to “NO.” Owing to their construction, he thought the numbers 5 and 2 erotic, and 1, 4, and 7 quite without sex appeal, though he felt the number 4 might be of interest to cats. 

Cats with human countenances—many of them resembling that of Franz Kafka—in Steinberg drawings slyly observe people solemnly pursuing their ridiculous ambitions. He drew false documents in which he substituted fingerprints for faces. In other drawings, human beings are lost in mazes and labyrinths; military men are given severely geometrical faces; women are all legs in whorish high heels or else menacingly birdlike; rococo architecture looms in the background (he drew the Chrysler Building over and over); a vinyl record, on the Sphinx label, shows the head and bosom of a woman attached to a cat’s body, with the song on the record called “Kumming Tango.” 

In an oeuvre so large as Steinberg’s, not everything succeeds. Late in life he began producing the tops of desks and their contents, and these, apart from being tidy compositions, seem of slight interest. His postcards, often of landscapes with rubber stamps on them, fail to engage the imagination. In the 1960s, his view of America darkened, and so did his drawings. They began to be filled with menacing Mickey Mouse-like figures toting guns, hookerish women, fierce dogs, rats, bums, menacingly bearded Black Panther types. Of all his drawings, these seem most like the doodlings of a frightened neurotic, and hence are of the least interest. 

Steinberg was best as a humorist, though one who went in less for jokes than for puzzles, paradoxes, and visual parodies. “I try to make [people who view my drawings] jittery by giving them situations that are out of context and contain several [possible] interpretations,” he said. He even claimed that he published a few drawings in the New Yorker “that I myself didn’t quite understand.” He rendered the watercolor painting of a palette of watercolors; a man under the hood of an old-fashioned camera photographing a woman in a burka; men and women carrying portraits, statues, busts, and pennants of themselves; a parade of avant-garde painters like so many soldiers in Red Square, marching in lockstep past a building marked the “National Academy of the Avant-Garde.”

As “a writer who draws,” Saul Steinberg also claimed that “drawing is a way of reasoning on paper.” Had he been born “in a place with a good language, a good vocabulary,” he told a New York Times reporter, 

I would have stayed there, I would probably have become a writer. This was my inclination. But being deprived of this thing, and having what I considered a modest talent, gave me from the beginning a métier. I transformed this métier into something much more complex and much more to my own needs. 

That “something” was illustration at the service of ironic observation. 

Steinberg’s uniqueness resides in the fact that we do not enjoy his work in the way we do most art—considering its elements, examining the feeling it evokes, gauging its power—but instead tend to read it for meaning. He himself sometimes referred to his audience as “readers.” These drawings force us to ask, What’s going on here? What is the true subject? Why is it amusing? And, finally, What makes it all so Steinbergian?

Like “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque,” “Steinbergian” is a personal adjective of a kind assigned to only a few exceptional modern artists. The Steinbergian figure is a man who, like E. M. Forster’s description of the poet Cavafy, stands “at a slight angle to the universe.” In Steinberg’s various drawings, he is a male figure with a rabbit inside his head, or a man able to detach his nose from his face, or a man photographed holding the hand of a life-size photograph of his 8-year-old self. Fairly certain that life is a joke, Steinbergian Man anxiously awaits its punchline. 

Because he published his drawings chiefly in the New Yorker, Steinberg probably had the largest audience for his art of any visual artist in the 20th century. Print was his preferred medium, and magazines the preferred venue for his work. Of that work, Harold Rosenberg, in an essay accompanying the collection of drawings that appeared at a Steinberg retro-spective at the Whitney Museum in 1975, wrote: “Steinberg is the only major artist in the United States who is not associated with any art movement or style, past or present.” 

Because of this, Steinberg’s art is not easily categorized. I think of him as belonging to that small but lustrous school of artists—Alexander Pope, Honoré Daumier, Maurice Ravel, Max Beerbohm are of this same school—who do not overpower, but instead charm through the mastery of their craft and the unalloyed pleasure they provide.   

Saul Steinberg’s considerable success—financial, critical, social—wasn’t sufficient to offset the depression that scorched his last years. As a hypochondriac who was more than a bit paranoid, a heavy drinker, and a man more than normally terrified by death, Steinberg found life drearier and darker as he reached his seventies. As his friends died off, Steinberg’s depression deepened. So strong was its hold on him that, in the hope of shaking its grip, he submitted to electro--convulsive therapy. Being diagnosed with slow-growing lymphoma didn’t lift his spirits. Pancreatic cancer took him in his 85th year. 

Saul Steinberg was not the first, and doubtless will not be the last, of those artists who gave the world much more pleasure than he was able to derive from it. 

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is coauthor, with Frederic Raphael, of the forthcoming Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.