Spring 2009

The fine line between art, life and illustration [in full]

Saul Steinberg: Illuminations

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
26 November 2008 – 15 February 2009

Saul Steinberg is the only artist that has reduced me to tears on the Underground. That was in May 1999 when I read the obituary in The Guardian – I was so sad that the most influential artist in my life had died (at the age of 84). In a letter to his life-long friend, the writer and cook Aldo Buzzi, Steinberg wrote of ‘The annus mirabilis of 1999, the year of my death – I would guess, calmly.’ And he was right. And, annoyingly, after all his drawings based on timelines and prescience, he didn’t quite make it to the year 2000.

I took two friends to see this touring retrospective of his work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London (next stop Hamburg’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, 13 March – 1 June 2009) and it took all of four drawings for them to be seduced by his wit, his intelligence and his charm. Underneath this, however, is a biting sardonic view of the United States, a country he fell in love with after leaving the impossibility of Romania (he was Jewish) and subsequently the fascism of Italy (he studied architecture in Milan).

Eventually, after somehow working for the us as a war artist, he got past Ellis Island at the second attempt and moved to New York.

He was an immediate success. Apparently, he and his partner, the photographer Sigrid Spaeth, travelled the length and breadth of America, framing the reality with bus and train windows (I recommend this in any country). He drew passionately what he saw. Years ago I asked people at The New Yorker how it was to work with this graphic master. ‘Very difficult,’ they chimed (though he had been popular there), ‘very . . . awkward.’ I love him for that. You can’t art-direct his kind of coruscating talent.

His work has everything for me: not only the perspicacious lines that serve his ideas but the way it smashed down the fence between artist and illustrator – you can be both, as he proved with thrilling results. He had gallery shows and drew many covers and editorial pieces for The New Yorker (‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’ – his 1976 drawing – recently sold for a fortune) but also did ads for House & Home (putting doilies on Modernist furniture to illustrate house-pride and lack of taste), IBM (‘Abstinentia, Pietas, Sapientia, Dignitas’ for a 1961 in-house brochure aimed at saving folk from drink) and a plumbing company (showing the be-hatted, middle-of-the-road Steinberg man pushing his finger through a complicated pipe system). They are all brilliant and he never loses his aim – possibly the lack of focus groups helped. They’re almost cynical and delightfully so. Caustic, even.

Even though I never met him, when I draw, Steinberg is there, sitting on my shoulder, jabbing me in the temple with a 2B pencil, warning me not to rip him off; and if I stray into those uncomfortable waters, he sharpens a 2H ready to do some serious lobe damage.

Asked ‘What did you learn about art that only Steinberg could have taught you?’ Anton van Dalen, his long-time assistant, replied: ‘His entirely uncensored interest in all matters of life and art.’

Steinberg is my favourite artist / illustrator / sculptor of all time. I owe him enormously.

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