The late 1960s and early 1970s—like other moments in Steinberg’s career—saw more than one stylistic or conceptual innovation. The most arresting, and lasting, shift in Steinberg’s art came at this moment, when America was deep into the Vietnam war. To express his own aversion to the war and the politics that directed it, he appropriated the visual style of the anti-war counterculture. This style, as Joel Smith observed, was influenced by underground comix, “the visual expression of hippie culture,” which waged “war on conformity and the Protestant work ethic…by drawing far-out, drug-addled fantasies.”56 Enter the urban terrorists who began to populate Steinberg’s drawings—cartoonish thugs, raging cops, predatory birds and reptiles, equally predatory men and women, their heads and torsos supported on bizarrely long legs.
Enter too Mickey Mouse, whom the artist found “really frightening” and who quickly became an indispensable creature in his menagerie.57 In a sardonic inversion of the norm, Steinberg’s cartoonish characters are not meant to entertain children but to make adult statements. As he put it, such works have a “philosophical nature,” but are “camouflaged as a cartoon.”58 In what Smith called a kind of “high-functioning caricature,” Steinberg’s terrorists won leading roles in a long-running theater of fear and phantasmagoria, its tragicomic scenes portraying urban streets, corporate America, and social interactions. Even artists joined the show. In the enigmatic iconography of Artist, the artist is a debased Mickey Mouse threatened by a voracious fish, crocodile, and cat, his easel the target of an oncoming rocket. A skeletal Minnie Mouse holds a switchblade, a hippie girl clasps a cross, both figures laid out like tomb statuary.59
A few years later, an artist with a cartoonish grimace poses in front of his latest work—a shooting tank—while a soldier in cammies wields a machine gun.
Who is waging war and who is the enemy? Whether setting his figures on the streets, in the boardroom, or in the studio, the now middle-aged Steinberg depicted life as a confrontation of dark forces.
But not always. The linear progression common to most artists—from one style, concept, or outlook to another—was not Steinberg’s way. So at the same time as he introduced the terrorist iconography, he also began or evolved other forms of art. Indeed, the late 1960s-early 1970s may be the most fertile period in his career.