"Steinberg, Saul," The Oregonian
"Steinberg, Saul. The New Yorker. New York. 1945-2000. (Harold, William, Robert, Tina, David, Eds.)" at Yale Union (YU), Portland, Oregon
Originally published in The Oregonian

Although Saul Steinberg, the subject of an excellent exhibition at YU Contemporary, is best known as a cartoonist, the work he contributed to the New Yorker magazine for more than 50 years until his death in 1999 seldom possesses the modest scope implied by the medium. 

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. 

Thus, even in his own show, Steinberg frequently appears on the periphery, his sketches sidling up against columns of text, ads for extinct liquor labels, and the pithy, one-line cartoons of his contemporaries. The 200 or so magazines are placed open on a series of white tables, which spiral inward to the center of the room like a whirlpool. They are displayed chronologically, so that, as viewers move through the exhibition, they are swept up in the passage of time, charting Steinberg's stylistic evolution in tandem with the cultural development of the United States.

The earliest ink drawings, which span the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, are masterfully fluid, as if they sprang from Steinberg's imagination fully formed. In one, a hunched museum-goer scrutinizes a canvas at close range, but in the line work -- in fact, the entire drawing may be a single line -- her face becomes inseparable from the painting she studies. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, indeed. 

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. 

By the early 1980s, Steinberg had begun using colored pencils and taking on more mundane subjects. A cover drawing from 1983 depicts the contents of a junk drawer: stamps, pennies, buttons, a padlock, paper clips and so on. It's a humble -- and humbling -- image that heroically captures an aspect of universal experience in decidedly unheroic terms.

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.