If the magazine The New Yorker helped define American intellect and taste over a 60 year period, Saul Steinberg was an archetype for the reflection of what has been called “the American Century.” His unique vision is beautifully explored in Joel Smith’s Steinberg At The New Yorker, through both the depiction of 363 of his illustrations and an erudite interpretation of how Steinberg’s life informed his understanding of the world.
Romanian by birth and trained in architecture in Milan, Saul Steinberg became an exile after Italy’s race laws were promulgated in 1938. He was adopted by America in 1941, a decidedly fortunate occurence both for him and for his new country. Emigrés often convey a distinctive understanding of their surroundings. Mastery of a second language, as displayed by Steven Tesich, author of the iconic American film Breaking Away, is one approach, and Steinberg’s ability to convey America as wordless metaphor by sketching a few lines on paper is another. The classic, often-copied March 29, 1976 magazine cover looking westward from New York City, starting at Ninth Avenue, crossing the Hudson River and an arid mid-America, until finally the Pacific Ocean emerges in the distance, is Steinberg’s view of an urban-centric America. One intuits the artist’s view of our nation’s first city. And the February 13, 1995 cover, “Wilshire and Lex,” whose gentle interplay of colors connect east and west at last, provides a contrasting yet complementary alternative view. These are two of Steinberg’s subtle manifestations of what has become known as a contrasting red and blue America.
Reproductions of all 89 of the covers Steinberg created for The New Yorker between 1945 and 2004 are found here, in addition to hundreds of sketches, each of which challenges the reader to analyze the artist’s thought associations. Here ideas visibly emerge in life-like splendor, as complex visual representations of thought that leap from the mouths of disembodied faces. Here is a script with 12 variations that enables the viewer to feel the seasons of the year. And here is a visual representation of various sounds that announce “country noises” through carefully plotted squiggly lines. Finding all of these illustrations in one place plays with the viewer’s imagination in interesting and provocative ways.
Saul Steinberg once said, “I am a writer who draws.” His personal chronicle prepared him to illustrate America’s history, not in words but in multi-sensory images. Smith’s book demonstrates just how prolific and insightful a writer he was.
Noel Kriftcher was a professor and administrator at Polytechnic University, having previously served as Superintendent of New York City’s Brooklyn & Staten Island High Schools district.