False Documents

Into this stew of styles, Steinberg tossed in handwriting, which became one of his most famous art forms. In the mid-1940s, he had begun to evolve an elegant, but purposely unreadable, calligraphy with which he manufactured false documents—fake certificates, diplomas, passports, and licenses—whose illegibility deprives officialdom of its self-proclaimed authority . By the 1950s, the “handwriting” had matured into such eye-fooling illusiveness that viewers labored to decipher it (they still do). Some of these documents he gave to friends, others he exhibited in gallery shows. But with their added stamps, seals, and pseudo-photographs, they also echo Steinberg’s fraught effort to acquire the visas and permissions that enabled him to escape Fascist Italy and, ultimately, enter the United States.

First page of Steinberg’s expired Romanian passport, 1940. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
First pages of Steinberg’s expired Romanian passport, 1940. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Affidavit of travel from the US Consulate in Milan, January 16, 1941, enabling Steinberg to pass through the United States in transit to Santo Domingo with his expired Romanian passport. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Affidavit of travel from the US Consulate in Milan, January 16, 1941, enabling Steinberg to pass through the United States in transit to Santo Domingo with his expired Romanian passport. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Pages 14-15 of Steinberg’s expired Romanian passport, 1940. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Pages 14-15 of Steinberg’s expired Romanian passport, 1940. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Artist’s statement for the exhibition catalogue “Fourteen Americans,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946.
Artist’s statement for the exhibition catalogue “Fourteen Americans,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946.
<em>Document for Henri Cartier-Bresson</em>, 1947. Ink and collage on paper, 14 3/8 x 11 3/16 in. Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.
Document for Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1947. Ink and collage on paper, 14 3/8 x 11 3/16 in. Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.
<em>Fake Letters</em>, c. 1950. Ink on 3 sheets of hotel letterhead; ink and wash on pseudo-photograph, 15 x 16 ½ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Fake Letters, c. 1950. Ink on 3 sheets of hotel letterhead; ink and wash on pseudo-photograph, 15 x 16 ½ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
<em>Passport</em>, 1953. Mixed media on paper, 14 ¾ x 11 ¾ in. Collection of Leon and Michaela Constantiner, New York.
Passport, 1953. Mixed media on paper, 14 ¾ x 11 ¾ in. Collection of Leon and Michaela Constantiner, New York.
<em>Diploma for Alberto Giacometti</em>, 1953. Ink, rubber stamp, and seal on vellum, 14 ½ x 23 in. Fondation Giacometti, Paris.
Diploma for Alberto Giacometti, 1953. Ink, rubber stamp, and seal on vellum, 14 ½ x 23 in. Fondation Giacometti, Paris.
<em>The Declaration of Independence</em>, 1949-54 (inscribed to Carl Theodor Dreyer and dated to the time of the gift, 1959). Ink on paper, 14 ½ x 22 ¾ in. Private collection.
The Declaration of Independence, 1949-54 (inscribed to Carl Theodor Dreyer and dated to the time of the gift, 1959). Ink on paper, 14 ½ x 22 ¾ in. Private collection.
<em>Diary</em>, 1954. Ink and watercolor on paper, 14 ¼ x 23 in. Collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel.
Diary, 1954. Ink and watercolor on paper, 14 ¼ x 23 in. Collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel.

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