Urban Terrorists

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.

Original drawing for “The Power Broker,” part I, <em>The New Yorker</em>, July 22, 1974. Ink, colored pencil, and collage on paper, 14 ½ x 19 ¼ in. Private collection.
Original drawing for “The Power Broker,” part I, The New Yorker, July 22, 1974. Ink, colored pencil, and collage on paper, 14 ½ x 19 ¼ in. Private collection.
<em>Bleecker Street</em>, 1969. Ink, crayon, pencil, and watercolor on paper, 23 x 29 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Bequest of Saul Steinberg
Bleecker Street, 1969. Ink, crayon, pencil, and watercolor on paper, 23 x 29 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Bequest of Saul Steinberg
<em>Bleecker Street</em>, 1970. Ink, pencil, colored pencil, and crayon on paper, 29 3/8 x 22 3/8 in. Private collection. Drawing for <em>The New Yorker</em> cover, January 16, 1971
Bleecker Street, 1970. Ink, pencil, colored pencil, and crayon on paper, 29 3/8 x 22 3/8 in. Private collection. Drawing for The New Yorker cover, January 16, 1971
<em>Civil War (High School)</em>, 1970. Ink and pencil on paper, 22 ½ x 28 ½ in. Yale University Art Gallery; Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection
Civil War (High School), 1970. Ink and pencil on paper, 22 ½ x 28 ½ in. Yale University Art Gallery; Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection
<em>Union Square</em>, 1971. Ink, colored pencil, and rubber stamp on paper, 17 ½ x 17 ½ in. Private collection
Union Square, 1971. Ink, colored pencil, and rubber stamp on paper, 17 ½ x 17 ½ in. Private collection
From “The City” portfolio, <em>The New Yorker</em>, February 24, 1973
From “The City” portfolio, The New Yorker, February 24, 1973
Original drawing for “The City” portfolio, <em>The New Yorker</em>, February 24, 1973. <em>Four Figures</em>, 1970. Pencil, conté crayon, and rubber stamp on paper, 18 x 22 in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation
Original drawing for “The City” portfolio, The New Yorker, February 24, 1973. Four Figures, 1970. Pencil, conté crayon, and rubber stamp on paper, 18 x 22 in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation
From “The City” portfolio, <em>The New Yorker</em>, February 24, 1973
From “The City” portfolio, The New Yorker, February 24, 1973
Original drawing for “The City” portfolio, <em>The New Yorker</em>, February 24, 1973. <em>Six Terrorists</em>, 1971. Colored pencil, pencil, and ink on paper, 14 x 20 in. Private collection
Original drawing for “The City” portfolio, The New Yorker, February 24, 1973. Six Terrorists, 1971. Colored pencil, pencil, and ink on paper, 14 x 20 in. Private collection
<em>Street War (Cadavre Exquis)</em>, c. 1972-74. Pencil, crayon, colored pencil, and ballpoint pen on two joined sheets of paper, 21 x 13 ½ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation
Street War (Cadavre Exquis), c. 1972-74. Pencil, crayon, colored pencil, and ballpoint pen on two joined sheets of paper, 21 x 13 ½ in. The Saul Steinberg Foundation
<em>Four Banks</em>, 1974. Colored pencil on paper, 19 3/8 x 25 ½ in. Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen
Four Banks, 1974. Colored pencil on paper, 19 3/8 x 25 ½ in. Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen
Original drawing for the “Fast Food” portfolio, <em>The New Yorker</em>, February 23, 1976. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 13 ¾ x 20 7/8 in. The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation
Original drawing for the “Fast Food” portfolio, The New Yorker, February 23, 1976. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 13 ¾ x 20 7/8 in. The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation
<em>Bank Street (Three Banks)</em>, 1975. Ink, pencil, colored pencil, crayon, watercolor, gouache, and rubber stamps on paper, 18 7/8 x 24 ½ in. Centre Pompidou, Paris; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Bank Street (Three Banks), 1975. Ink, pencil, colored pencil, crayon, watercolor, gouache, and rubber stamps on paper, 18 7/8 x 24 ½ in. Centre Pompidou, Paris; Gift of The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
<em>Joggers</em>, 1978. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 15 x 20 in. Private collection.
Joggers, 1978. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 15 x 20 in. Private collection.
<em>Untitled</em>, 1964. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 10 ¾ x 14 in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Untitled, 1964. Pencil and colored pencil on paper, 10 ¾ x 14 in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

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

<em>Artist</em>, 1970. Pencil, crayon, colored pencil, ink, and rubber stamp on paper, 22 ½ x 28 ½ in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; The Saul Steinberg Foundation.
Artist, 1970. Pencil, crayon, colored pencil, ink, and rubber stamp on paper, 22 ½ x 28 ½ in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; The Saul Steinberg Foundation.

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.

<em>Fight Artist</em>, 1976. Pencil, crayon, and colored pencil on paper, 11 x 14 in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Fight Artist, 1976. Pencil, crayon, and colored pencil on paper, 11 x 14 in. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

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.


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