Farewell, Saul Steinberg, a Mordant, Comic Artist

Saul Steinberg, who died on May 12 at the age of 84, was one of the best-known and most admired artists of his day-and certainly the most consistently amusing. Yet his name was rarely, if ever, thought to merit even a passing mention in the most widely read histories of 20th-century art. This could not have been much of a surprise to Steinberg himself. He understood that he was an anomaly on the American art scene-a comic genius who, though he succeeded in entertaining several generations of New Yorker readers and exhibited his drawings in such strongholds of the Abstract Expressionist movement as the Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries, never really belonged to either of these milieux .

He understood, that is, that his experience of the world was of an entirely different order. He was the very archetype of the 20th-century European intellectual in America who made a vocation-a comic vocation-of his alienation from the mainstream pieties of American life. America was, after all, his greatest subject, yet his vision of America was that of a bemused and mordant observer of exotic tribal customs and costumes. If you compare his work with that of another celebrated New Yorker humorist-James Thurber-the latter looks thin and innocent and even cozy. Thurber’s war-between-the-sexes is white-collar domestic comedy, whereas Steinberg’s accounts of life in New York-particularly of what he called the “Mickey Mouse brutality” of 14th Street in Manhattan-attains at times the mordancy of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night .

As an artist, he found more inspiration in the streets than in the museums. About the old 14th Street in the decades following World War II, he admitted to finding it hypnotizing, even “beautiful.” “All these guys-6, 7 feet tall, with Afros and high platform shoes watching filthy movies in stores.” He called 14th Street “the key to the City, the U.S., and the Western world. I make a tour of 14th Street to see what’s new all the way from east to west. It’s the-what shall I call it?-it’s like a cross section of the human body. You see all the organs.”

About such subjects he was a true visionary. In many respects, the street life of Manhattan today looks even more like a Saul Steinberg drawing than it did-to most eyes, anyway-in the period when the drawings were executed. And about that aspect of his work he was not an artist given to false modesty. He understood that he enjoyed certain advantages in being an émigré confronted with the task of decoding an unfamiliar cultural terrain. “You learn a new language,” he once said, “and when you suddenly savor the new syntax of the place, you see things that nobody had seen before.”

He was also undisguised in his contempt-or was it only pity?-for what he considered the failure of an earlier generation of American artists to take possession of a subject that remained, in his view, largely unexplored. “When I arrived here,” he once said, “this whole nation was involved in painting like Cézanne. Everything looked like Mont Sainte-Victoire. They had a real paradise-the most marvelous country. When I arrived here, I had such a joy to find things that were untouched-the diners, the roads, the small towns-while the natives were painting like Rubens on 14th Street and Rembrandt upstate.”

It was no doubt for that reason that he felt his closest affinities to be with what he called “real immigrants-men like Bashevis Singer, Nabokov, de Kooning.” Willem de Kooning-the de Kooning of the Women paintings-was indeed the only American painter I ever heard him speak of with complete approval. Otherwise, his preferred comparisons were with writers-with Nabokov, above all, and especially the Nabokov who wrote Lolita , which is in so many respects a literary analogue to Steinberg’s own vision of American life.

He was in fact much given to pondering what exactly his place in history might be. He certainly did not wish to be considered a cartoonist. He would have preferred to be a writer, but fate (as he believed) had denied him that opportunity. Writing about his work in The New York Times in 1966, I spoke of “a Mozartian lightness and verve” in his drawings, and this brought a prompt response from Steinberg himself. (I had not yet met him.) Not surprisingly, he was very pleased to be compared to Mozart, and in his letter to me-I paraphrase from memory-he said that he belonged to the tradition of what he called the stoic comedians: Mozart, Chekhov and Colette. An odd trio, to say the least, and even when I got to know him a bit, I could never bring myself to ask him to elaborate on the claim. In my experience, anyway, a conversation with Saul Steinberg did not leave much room for interrogation. His talk was like his drawings-allusive, mordant, full of rapid transitions and unexpected incongruities, and an abiding refusal to be too easily understood.

It wasn’t until the occasion of his retrospective at the Whitney Museum in the spring of 1978 that I got to spend any time with him. I had been asked to write a long article about him for The New York Times Magazine , and he agreed to meet for dinner a few times to talk about his work and his career. The observations I have quoted here are drawn from those conversations, in which it was understood that nothing about his private life would be discussed. He did talk some about his early life in Bucharest-”born in a Turkish ex-colony,” as he put it-which he always described as pure Dada, and about his study of architecture in Milan in the Mussolini era, and about his first impressions of the United States in the early 1940′s.

Then, as my article was about to go to press, I got an urgent call from him. He made it sound as if we were confronting an emergency situation, but he seemed to be so amused by this emergency that I was more curious than alarmed by whatever it was that had happened. He had just received a call from the young woman at The Times who was checking the details of my article, and she had put the following question to him: Why was Saul Steinberg in a hurry to leave Italy to come to the United States in 1940? It seems that she herself visited Italy and had found it enchanting. Why would he want to leave? With all of the mock gravity that I had come to expect from Steinberg as a prologue to some hilarious story, he said to me: It’s a heavy duty, Hilton, but you must do it. You must break the news of World War II to Miss W___. It seems she’s never heard of it.

That this could be true of someone on the staff of The New York Times in 1978 was also what made America “the most marvelous country” for Steinberg-which is to say, a place of marvels, where even the greatest disasters of the modern world could be so easily forgotten.

He was a deeper artist-and a deeper thinker-than he was commonly thought to be, and I was pleased to see the

really extraordinary obituary which The Times devoted to him on May 13. Written by Sarah Boxer, this may very well have been the single best obituary The Times has published in my lifetime-certainly the best ever to be devoted to an artist-and my only regret is that Saul Steinberg wasn’t still around to read it and offer his customarily mordant analysis of its many virtues.