In 1974, Harold Rosenberg, one of Saul Steinberg’s earliest and most eloquent supporters, wrote that “Cubism… which in the canon of the American art historian is the nucleus of twentieth-century formal development in painting, sculpture and drawing, is to Steinberg merely another detail in the pattern of modern mannerisms; in a landscape, he finds no difficulty in combining Cubist and Constructivist elements with an imitation van Gogh ‘self-portrait.’” These prescient words could describe the attitude of many a postmodern artist toward art history, one in which pastiche and the free association of styles and techniques composes a style unto itself.
Is Steinberg an early postmodernist? At his recent show at PaceWildenstein dedicated to his career as a cartoonist with The New Yorker, he gives some supporting evidence to such a thesis. In two beautiful drawings from his Shadows and Reflected Images series, he displays an encyclopedic study of styles. In one, doubled figures rendered in cartoon contours dawdle on the shore before the water, while a naturalistic colored pencil rendition of the boatman from George Caleb Bingham’s famous “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” drifts by. In the second drawing, “Reflected Rainbow,” a loosely rendered colored pencil rainbow presides over a contour landscape on which a gestural wagon train travels in the company of abstract forms and the counterfeit seals Steinberg habitually created since his days as a refugee during World War II.
Nonetheless, Rosenberg would doubtless reply, Steinberg was not an early postmodernist, and he would be right. As Adam Gopnik points out in his 1987 essay on the artist, “If we mean by irony a kind of false naiveté—if it involves some discrepancy between the way something is shown to us and what we suspect the artist doing the showing actually thinks, …Steinberg’s work is almost entirely without irony.” In Steinberg’s drawings, the disparate styles and techniques he employs are inevitably united by his keen sense of composition and the weight of meaning he imparts to each. This approach precludes irony. Behind Steinberg’s maze of styles lies an earnest attempt to communicate directly.
This is something altogether different from the unintegrated pairing of styles favored by artists like David Salle or Sigmar Polke, which tend to result in the uneasy feeling that all attempts to draw meaningful relationships between signifiers in the modern world are doomed to failure. Steinberg’s work does contain an unease, but it’s an unease linked to what Rosenberg called the New York School’s preoccupation with the “mystery of individual identity,” rather than the postmodern concern with the status of images and the destruction of authenticity. The affinities between Steinberg’s style and postmodern style are a testimony to Steinberg’s vision. If he was not an early postmodernist, one might at least describe Steinberg as the progenitor of a certain strain of stylistic collage in postmodern art. It is, after all, the mark of a master to contain the seeds of a style in his work without being subject to the strictures that confine the style he creates.
Through the depth and breadth of his immigrant’s search for identity, Steinberg unearthed images of an uncommon appeal. They transfix and they confound. As a child, I loved his drawings in The New Yorker before I had ever heard of Matisse or Picasso. As I grew, his drawings only increased in appeal, unfolding their layers of meaning in rhythm with my own ability to grasp them. Steinberg is often quoted describing his drawings as a form of art criticism, and they make sense that way. One is struck by the intelligence of his drawings, not only in the witty juxtaposition of characters and styles but in the alert quality that his line always possesses—it is like thought made visible.
ContributorBen La Rocco
Erika Doss’s Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists and ReligionBy Daniel Kraft
MARCH 2023 | Art Books
Through case studies investigating the role of religion in the lives and works of four 20th century American artistsJoseph Cornell, Mark Tobey, Agnes Pelton, and Andy Warholand through a short closing chapter discussing Christian imagery in more recent art, Doss demonstrates how reductive this dismissal of spirituality really is.
margins…By Lubbock Scapes Collective
DEC 22–JAN 23 | Editor's Message
The Lubbock Scapes Collective is an interdisciplinary group of university faculty from programs in cultural studies, media and communications, poetry and translation, linguistics, Spanish literature, landscape, art, and architecture. Its purpose is to break through the boundaries of disciplines by creating holistic projects that problematize questions of landscapes through scholarly collaborations that seek to understand, define, evaluate, and represent spaces people inhabit.
Lucio Fontana: SculptureBy Choghakate Kazarian
DEC 22–JAN 23 | ArtSeen
Far from the image of the conceptual artist (who, after WWII, called his works Concetto Spaziale), swiftly slashing the canvas while keeping his hands clean, the exhibition of Lucio Fontana’s sculpture at Hauser & Wirth shows how the Italo-Argentinian artist handled space throughout his forty-year career, from the late 1920s to his death in 1968.
Cubism and the Trompe lOeil TraditionBy David Carrier
DEC 22–JAN 23 | ArtSeen
Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition reveals important, far reaching parallels between trompe loeil paintings and Cubist collages. The subjects of these two kinds of pictures include a great variety of handicrafts, all of them small enough to be hand-held: sheets of wallpaper, notated music, chair caning, newspapers, mirrors, musical instruments, bits of picture frames, letters, small pictures within pictures, calling cards, drawing instruments, counterfeited money, advertising materials, and real or fake postage stamps.