“Saul Steinberg: Illuminations”
Morgan Library & Museum, New York.
November 30, 2006-March 4, 2007
When we enter the world of Saul Steinbergs drawings, we find ourselves enclosed in a paradise of delightful absurdities. What we normally think of as the reality of daily life has everywhere been transformed into an animated landscape of wit and paradox. Everything we see in these drawingsnearly 100, from every phase of Steinbergs career, are on view in this fetching exhibitionis either too big or too small, and the force of gravity has been suspended in favor of objects and figures that enjoy the liberties that Steinberg has created for their benefit. Even words are endowed with the power to remain aloft, and a Christmas tree may serve as a suitable costume for a Santa Claus.
Despite the inveterate zaniness of Steinbergs art, however, it would be a mistake to regard these delightful absurdities as some variety of Surrealism. Steinbergs vision is something quite different: the vision of a comic realist. He does not invent his subjects; he discovers them in the realities that others have overlooked. Steinberg, who grew up in Bucharest, emigrated to the United States in 1942 when he was 32, and his art brings to these realities the innocence and wonder of an émigré. And this émigré vision is central to this art, as I have explained elsewhere:
Like an expert archaeologistfor the émigré, too, is a kind of archaeologist confronted with the task of decoding an unfamiliar cultureSteinberg is a connoisseur of forms and their hidden content, the emotions and aspirations contained within the form. You learn a new language, he says, and when you suddenly savor the new syntax of the place, you see things that nobody had seen before.In this respect, Steinbergs closest affinities are, as he acknowledges, with real immigrantsmen like Bashevis Singer, Nabokov, de Kooning. Especially, I think, Nabokov, whose discovery of the American scene in Lolita reads at times as if it were a libretto for a Steinberg score.
When I arrived herethis whole nation was involved in painting like Cézanne. Everything looked like Mont Ste.-Victoire. They had a real paradisethe most marvelous country. When I arrived here, I had such joy to find these things that were untouchedthe diners, the roads, the small townswhile the natives were painting like Rubens on Fourteenth Street and Rembrandt upstate.