I am among the few who continue to draw after childhood," Saul Steinberg once said, "continuing and perfecting childhood drawing--without the traditional interruption of academic training." Steinberg, who died in New York last week at the age of 84, wielded a whimsically wicked pen, pencil and watercolor brush for 60 years. In fact, he was one of the greatest draftsmen of the 20th century. His graphic inventiveness was right up there with Picasso's, his visual conundra as eerily hilarious as M. C. Escher's, and his viewer-friendliness equal to Charles Schulz's. Steinberg's capacity for distilling a complex world down to its essence, with a quirky, poetic shorthand, was absolutely original. A little Steinberg calligraphy about New York in the summer can make you feel the spray from the open fireplug, hear the police sirens, and feel the heat from the asphalt.
But he was hardly untrained, having earned a doctorate in architecture, which must have involved drawing classes. He was born in 1914 near Bucharest, Romania (a country he called "pure dada"), went off to study in Italy in 1932, and then fled fascism to the United States in 1941. Steinberg got out of Europe with an expired passport brought up to date with his own rubber stamps. After military duty in the Pacific (he instructed Chinese guerrillas in demolition), and a stint in North Africa with the OSS (he drew anti-Nazi cartoons for leaflet bombing), Steinberg commenced his amazingly prolific career--85 covers and more than 600 drawings for The New Yorker magazine alone. The covers included the most iconic image in American art since Grant Wood's "American Gothic": the March 29, 1976, Gotham chauvinist's view of the world, looking west from Ninth Avenue toward--in equal perceptual leaps--10th Avenue, California and Japan.
Steinberg could chide America--and embrace it whole--because he was one kind of quintessential American: the wry, educated European immigrant who knows better but can't help himself. Vladimir Nabokov, the author of "Lolita," is literature's parallel. Steinberg catches us growing wrinkled while playing the wheel in Vegas and constructing self-congratulatory monuments (Vice and Virtue shaking hands under the gaze of Santa Claus) to our own well-being.
There is, however, a deeper meaning in Steinberg's art in what the late art critic Harold Rosenberg called Steinberg's "remodeled cliches." A drawing of Don Quixote jousting with a giant, cloudy white bunny reminds us that our enemies just might be nicer than we are. A humanoid cat peering into the opening of a figure 4 says a lot about the futility of looking to hard science for answers to questions about living life. Steinberg--who had a museum retrospective in 1978--noted that people who see one of his drawings in The New Yorker will think it's funny because it's a cartoon. If it's in a museum, they'll think it's artistic. "And if they find it in a fortune cookie," he said, "they think it is a prediction." They're all correct--especially if someone adds the word genius.