Toon Musings: Saul Steinberg

Fine Artiste or Grubby Cartoonist?

From time to time, when a reflective mood takes me and I find myself in an existential funk, I ask myself, “What’s the deal with Saul Steinberg?”

It’s only happened a couple of times. The most recent outbreak was prompted by the soon-to-be-ending show at the Art Institute of Chicago entitled Along the Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg. Seems I always hear about these things right before they go away. If you happen to be in the area, you might like to go; it’s worth seeing. But go immediately; it closes Sunday, Oct. 29. Or if you can’t go, check out his foundation’s website. There’s a searchable database.

For the uninitiated, Saul Steinberg committed art from 1936 until his death in 1999. His medium was primarily pen and ink, but he wasn’t doctrinaire about it— sometimes working in mixed media, sometimes employing collage, or rubber stamps, or crayons. He seemed to flaunt a playful attitude towards Art, and the interplay between text and art, which is what attracts me to his work. But the question I always end up asking myself is: Was he an artist, or was he a cartoonist?

Steinberg was born in Romania and went to Italy to study architecture. Shortly after receiving his degree, he fled Fascism, eventually arriving in New York City in 1942. He promptly got a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve and travelled the world fighting the Axis (with Art!) with the Morale Operations Division of the OSS. Here’s some of his Battle Art:

It’s Hitler. Get it?

This is toilet paper. The text says “Use this side!”

After the war, he returned to New York and began to produce drawings for several magazines, primarily The New Yorker. He did over 1200 drawings for them, including 90 covers.  Here’s one that you probably remember, from March 29th, 1976:

Yeah, he’s that guy. This idea was swiped by scores of lesser artists, who adapted the concept for their own purposes as a sort of homage. You know you’ve seen ‘em.

So what’s the deal with this guy? The New Yorker is famous as one of the last big bastions of the panel cartoon. I cut my eye teeth on collections of New Yorker cartoons in general, and specific cartoonists of theirs like George Booth, Chon Day, George Price, Roz Chast, Peter Arno, James Thurber (yeah, that one), and the great Charles Addams. But the magazine also publishes arty drawings and nifty little spot illustrations. Is Steinberg a lofty Fine Artiste, or a grubby ‘toon-slanger?

I attended a talk about the Steinberg exhibit, and one of the panelists, cartoonist Chris Ware—who wrote the introduction to the official exhibition book—described his reaction to fine art contrasted with his reaction to cartoons. To paraphrase: With fine art, if I don’t get it, I’m stupid. With cartoons, if I don’t get it, it’s stupid.

The job of cartoons is to communicate concrete concepts, using a fairly well understood vernacular, in pictures and often text, to tell a story to a wide audience. Fine art uses whatever means at hand to express more general and abstract ideas or feelings—except when it doesn’t. Since cartooning’s mission is so specific, and Art’s is so airy-fairy, a failure to communicate gets blamed on the specific medium, not the airy-fairy one.

Looking at Steinberg’s work, it’s hard to pin him down. On the one hand, throughout his career he strived to draw like a child, and his work was designed specifically to be reproduced. The drawings are often humorous, and often employ the kind of shortcuts and inside jokes that cartoonists use. He uses text and symbols in his panels. Sounds like a cartoonist to me.

On the other hand, his work is often evocative and moody, and it’s sometimes difficult to divine what he’s trying to say. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of specific stories being told. While there is text in some of the panels, often it’s indecipherable, and seems to be there to make a comment about text and cartoons in general; it’s mostly about the pictures. And sometimes his work make me feel like I’m not ‘getting it’. Some of his stuff reminds me of Picasso’s Guernica, which as art goes, is pretty darn fine.

But  then I took a close look at the drawing that showcases the exhibition:

Strike me pink if that isn’t an analyst’s couch gag, the second hoariest of all New Yorker cartoon clichés. The bar is his therapy, see? That set me to searching… and then I found this:

Well sink me if that isn’t a palm tree in the background there. Close enough for me. That’s a desert island gag!

That settled it for me:

Is Steinberg a Fine Artist or a cartoonist?

The answer is yes.

The Exhibit

Introduction to the Exhibit Book

The Steinberg Foundation

The Steinberg Panel Conversation

smbldvdshdssPhil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.

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