Stein­berg at the New Yorker

Joel Smith
  • Review
By – August 13, 2012
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.

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