Saul Steinberg was one of those twentieth-century artists who worked primarily at the interstices between commercial and fine art; a Steinberg work looked as at-home on a Christmas card or a New Yorker cover as it did hanging on the wall of the Museum of Modern Art. We can surmise that this was a boon for Steinberg, as working across various platforms, each with their own requirements, allowed the artist to approach his constant subject, the United States, from myriad angles. His distinct visual take on American life—the squiggly vertical lines that make up the faces of old ladies gambling, the exaggerated spurs on the cowboys dueling in front of a Sears Roebuck store, a topographical map of New York City as the epicenter of the country, if not the universe—not only tell us much about Steinberg’s visual approach, but also gives us a sense of what America gives an artist to work with as a subject.
Sphinxes, the enigmatic markers of ancient empires, litter the side of a busy highway in Steinberg’s mixed media drawing “Untitled (Las Vegas).” The human-felines are variously crowned with a ten-gallon or Uncle Sam hat, a Native American headdress, Mickey Mouse ears, a Klan hood, and a ballistics helmet. Long-legged and stout torsoed-cartoon creatures gorge themselves with various dripping and messy foodstuffs in “Untitled (Fast Food).” “I Do I Have I Am” is a landscape made up of the words of the drawing’s title; “I Do” a vibrant celestial in the sky, “I Have” made up of wooden structures to hang drying laundry, “I Am,” a grass-covered ground with one sprouting flower. Steinberg’s rejoinder to Descartes’ famous proposition, spread out as a pastoral, gets to the crux of American “being”—work, own, exist. While these works are indeed parodic of the essence of the American dream, they are nonetheless caring reflections of the anachronisms of American life that everyone knows but still doesn’t quite understand.
Unlike the soppy American scenes that Norman Rockwell would paint for the Saturday Evening Post, Steinberg, an immigrant from Romania, caught the spirit of American life by understanding its uniquely absurd idioms as perhaps only an outsider could. “Along the Lines” poses as a mini-survey of Steinberg’s vast and varied work, bound together for their formal ingenuity. Yet, one cannot help but read the works included in this exhibition as potent remarks on the American image, presenting our jesters and Puritans as one in the same. (Chris Reeves)
“Along the Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg” shows through October 29 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.