Cartoonist Saul Steinberg, subject of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s traveling “Saul Steinberg: Illuminations,” tickled America’s funny bone from the 1930s until his death in 1999 at age 84.
Despite many covers and cartoons for “The New Yorker” magazine (plus minor sculptural assemblages, collages and mural designs), his only previous major gallery retrospective was at New York’s Whitney Museum in 1978.
Coordinating exhibit curator Joann Moser says Mr. Steinberg is “one of the greatest draftsmen of the modern era” and a “comic genius.” The organizing museum, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, calls the artist a “modern-day illuminator, putting word and image into play.”
Like Honore Daumier, the famed 19th-century French satirical painter, Mr. Steinberg wanted to be known as a “fine artist,” a reputation Daumier earned by painting and in sculpture as well.
But Mr. Steinberg was no Daumier, as the exhibit’s 113 smallish works show. (About half of them are from the Saul Steinberg Foundation in New York City.)
There’s no denying Mr. Steinberg’s line can be economical and deft, as the flourishes of his 1991 self-portraitlike “Signature” (magic marker, carved and stained wood glued to paper) reveal.
Like many Chinese calligraphers, the artist presses in a deep black at center and flares two light gray flourishes outward into empty space. “Signature” could be a Chinese work, except for the cutesy carved wood piece glued at the bottom — a surrealist touch.
Mr. Steinberg loved drawing detail-filled pictures from different perspectives, such as “Motels and Highway” (1959, ink and ballpoint pen on paper) in which he spoofed America’s auto mania. Drawing the cars from side viewpoints, he made them “roll down” their respective hills, adding sparely drawn words such as “flamingo,” “motel” and “diner” at back and front and accompanied by a crocodile, a symbol of savagery.
The Romanian expatriate’s love of detail may have come from studying architecture in Milan before fleeing fascist Italy in 1942, first to Santo Domingo and then New York, where he began creating “New Yorker” illustrations, in addition to greeting cards for Hallmark and set designs for the theater.
Judging from the exhibit, he may have been one of the most imaginative artists of his time. Note the way he draws his family in Bucharest.
A few years later, Mr. Steinberg’s Picasso-esque “Head” (1945, ink over pencil on paper) served as a model for bizarre, caricatured women. Some of them became the “Three Liberties” (1949-1951), depicted as sharp-nosed, subway-strap-hanging females with Statue of Liberty curves. Snobbish people — also sharp-nosed — get similar treatment in “Techniques at a Party” (1953, ink, colored pencil and watercolor on paper).
The artist also spoofed cities and their inhabitants. The surrealist “View of the World From 9th Avenue” (1976, ink and colored pencil on paper) is Mr. Steinberg’s most famous work. Here, the artist humorously depicts the Big Apple as the world’s epicenter. People and cars jump from Ninth Avenue to the Hudson River. He gradually lessens the size of areas labeled “Nebraska,” “Pacific Ocean,” “China,” “Japan” and “Russia.” This diminishing of the rest of the planet should satisfy any born-and-bred New Yorker.
The artist didn’t miss aiming at Washington, either. Appointed Smithsonian Institution artist-in-residence from January to April 1967, he sketched 18 remarkable caricatures on Smithsonian stationery, transforming the engraved image of the original Castle building into witty statements about life in the capital (including one of a female with the Castle logo covering her breasts).
Visitors will leave the show with a chuckle after enjoying Mr. Steinberg’s witty, linear art.
WHAT: “Saul Steinberg: Illuminations”
WHERE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets Northwest
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., daily through June 24
WEB: americanart.si.edu and reynoldscenter.org