"Steinberg, Saul," The Oregonian
Instead, Steinberg's automatic drawings and satirical sketches swung for the fences, taking on language, philosophy, art history and no less than the cultural DNA of America with an incisive intellect that feels top-heavy compared to the airy spontaneity of his line work.
Yet despite Steinberg's acceptance into the sanctioned art world -- he exhibited internationally throughout his career, including a 1978 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art -- he never warmed to the idea that he was an artist, either. For Steinberg, the faddish booms and busts of the art market, gadfly collectors and the hysterical hunt for the new were contrary to the quiet self-discovery he found in a daily practice of thinking and drawing.
Steinberg's work is inextricably linked to the pages of the New Yorker. When the Romanian-born artist fled the tumult of fascist Europe in the early 1940s, it was the magazine that sponsored his U.S. visa. This pivotal affiliation is reflected in the YU exhibition's thoughtful layout, in which curators Scott Ponik and Robert Snowden have chosen to preserve the art's original context, displaying the magazines themselves, many perfumed with library must.
In a drawing of a family from the same period, each member is rendered in a different style of European modernism, including cubism by way of Picasso and Leger as well as Miro's surrealism. Apart from flaunting his firsthand familiarity with the European vanguard, Steinberg suggests that the ways we see ourselves are constantly changing, but does so with such pitch-perfect simplicity that absorbing a big idea is no more taxing than drawing a breath.
As the United States underwent seismic cultural shifts at the end of the 1960s, Steinberg's work became more political and grotesque. In one drawing, a troop of Nazi skeleton-robots double over in hysterical fits in a barren landscape flecked with distant monumental architecture, as if some of R. Crumb's creations wandered into an eerie de Chirico landscape.
The drawing, and others like it, make the curators' decision to present magazines, rather than original artwork, so much more than a resourceful and imaginative move for a fledgling institution; it preserves Steinberg's quiet faith in quotidian miracles.