Art as Autobiography

The specifically autobiographic character of the Drawing Tables is not without precedent in Steinberg’s oeuvre, though the clues are usually more indirect: the table in a c. 1954 still life is covered with Steinbergian sketches; the drawing entitled November 26,1965 portrays a day in the artist’s life, calendar style.64

<em>Vichy Water Still Life</em>, c. 1953. Ink, pencil, watercolor, lacquer, wash, veneer, and collage on paper, 14 ½ x 23 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation
Vichy Water Still Life, c. 1953. Ink, pencil, watercolor, lacquer, wash, veneer, and collage on paper, 14 ½ x 23 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation
<em>November 26, 1965</em>, 1965. Ink and colored pencil on paper, 14 ½ x 23 in. Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
November 26, 1965, 1965. Ink and colored pencil on paper, 14 ½ x 23 in. Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.

Apr 12 1969 subtly announces the draftsman’s presence by embedding the date of execution within Cubist geometries; dead center in Konak is the collaged hotel bill Steinberg kept from his 1953 stay at the Istanbul hotel.65

<em>Apr 12 1969</em>, 1969. Rubber stamps, colored pencil, and pencil on paper, 22 ½ x 30 in. The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Apr 12 1969, 1969. Rubber stamps, colored pencil, and pencil on paper, 22 ½ x 30 in. The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
<em>Konak</em>, c. 1970. Colored pencil, pencil, rubber stamps, and collage on paper, 23 x 31 ½ in. The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Konak, c. 1970. Colored pencil, pencil, rubber stamps, and collage on paper, 23 x 31 ½ in. The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.

But undisguised autobiographical glimpses of Steinberg the artist enter with the Drawing Table reliefs and continue in both sculpture and drawing till the end of his life.

As for the man Steinberg, pictorial autobiography also emerges around 1970.

<em>Bucharest in 1924</em>, 1970. Ink, pencil, and colored pencil on paper, 23 1/8 x 29 in. Private collection.
Bucharest in 1924, 1970. Ink, pencil, and colored pencil on paper, 23 1/8 x 29 in. Private collection.

It appears in independent drawings as well as New Yorker portfolios, the latter including a series of 1970-71 that—for the first time— reflects on his Italian years in the 1930s. In these works, some published in a 1974 New Yorker portfolio titled “Italy—1938,” Steinberg turns the Bauhaus and Rationalist architecture he’d learned at the Politecnico into an indictment of Fascist repression, where buildings back streets populated with saluting soldiers and citizens.

Original drawing for the portfolio “Italy--1938,” <em>The New Yorker,</em> October 7, 1974. <em>Modena 1939</em>, 1970. Ink, colored pencil, watercolor, and charcoal, 19 ¾ x 25 ½ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Italy–1938,” The New Yorker, October 7, 1974. Modena 1939, 1970. Ink, colored pencil, watercolor, and charcoal, 19 ¾ x 25 ½ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Italy--1938,” <em>The New Yorker</em>, October 7, 1974. <em>Bergamo 1939 (Milano Bauhaus)</em>, 1971. Pencil, colored pencil, ink, and crayon on paper, 22 5/8 x 28 ¾ in. The Morgan Library &amp; Museum, New York; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Italy–1938,” The New Yorker, October 7, 1974. Bergamo 1939 (Milano Bauhaus), 1971. Pencil, colored pencil, ink, and crayon on paper, 22 5/8 x 28 ¾ in. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Italy--1938,” <em>The New Yorker</em>, October 7, 1974. <em>Milano 1938</em>, 1970. Pencil on colored pencil on paper, 18 3/8 x 24 3/8 in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Italy–1938,” The New Yorker, October 7, 1974. Milano 1938, 1970. Pencil on colored pencil on paper, 18 3/8 x 24 3/8 in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
<em>Viale Romagna (Via Pascoli)</em>, 1971. Ink, crayon, and pencil on paper, 19 ½ x 25 ½ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Viale Romagna (Via Pascoli), 1971. Ink, crayon, and pencil on paper, 19 ½ x 25 ½ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.

Steinberg’s personal history continued to provide subject matter as the decade progressed, probably in response to a project he undertook with Aldo Buzzi. In the summers of 1974 and 1977, Buzzi taped conversations with his old friend, in which Steinberg addressed his early life in Romania and Italy no less than issues of art.66 Speaking about his past, and reading the transcriptions of the tapes, seems to have spurred him to give pictorial form to his recollections. Two New Yorker portfolios as well as independent drawings envision his boyhood in Romania, first in “Uncles,” where the older generation, dressed in their Sunday best, lines up like proper Central European bourgeoisie.

Original drawing for the portfolio “Uncles,” <em>The New Yorker</em>, December 25, 1978. <em>Untitled</em>, 1978. Pencil, ink, and wash on paper, 13 x 19 ½ in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Uncles,” The New Yorker, December 25, 1978. Untitled, 1978. Pencil, ink, and wash on paper, 13 x 19 ½ in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Uncles,” <em>The New Yorker</em>, December 25, 1978. <em>Three Brothers</em>, 1977. Wash, ink, and pencil on paper, 14 ¼ x 20 ¼ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Uncles,” The New Yorker, December 25, 1978. Three Brothers, 1977. Wash, ink, and pencil on paper, 14 ¼ x 20 ¼ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.

In the six-drawing “Cousins” portfolio, Steinberg appears three times —in school uniform, wide-eyed in his uncle’s watch shop, and practicing the violin.

Drawing in <em>The New Yorker</em>, “Cousins” portfolio, May 28, 1979.
Drawing in The New Yorker, “Cousins” portfolio, May 28, 1979.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Cousins,” <em>The New Yorker</em>, May 28, 1979. <em>Untitled</em>, 1979. Black pencil, conté crayon, ink, crayon, and pencil on paper, 11 x 15 in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Cousins,” The New Yorker, May 28, 1979. Untitled, 1979. Black pencil, conté crayon, ink, crayon, and pencil on paper, 11 x 15 in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Cousins,” <em>The New Yorker</em>, May 28, 1979. <em>Untitled</em>, 1978. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 10 ½ x 13 ¾ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Cousins,” The New Yorker, May 28, 1979. Untitled, 1978. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 10 ½ x 13 ¾ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Cousins,” <em>The New Yorker</em>, May 28, 1979. <em>Untitled</em>, 1979. Black pencil and pencil on paper, 11 x 16 in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Original drawing for the portfolio “Cousins,” The New Yorker, May 28, 1979. Untitled, 1979. Black pencil and pencil on paper, 11 x 16 in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

But whatever reality underlies these images is overpowered by visual humor. He “feared autobiography—the last refuge of the scoundrel,” which may explain why even these works remain emotionally distant, oblique in their personal revelations.67


Enable Javascript