Critical Fortunes

“Victims of an immense prank”—a typically acerbic Steinbergian claim, designed to provoke a dry smile. Like many of Steinberg’s remarks, as well as much of his art, the intent is jest in earnest. Laughter, however, no matter how serious, does not sit comfortably in the art historical canon. “America’s arriviste academies lack the confidence to grant humor equal status with other genres of art—witness the rarity of Best Film awards for comedies.”87 But more than humor accounts for Steinberg’s ill-defined position in the mainstream of postwar art. In the 1960s, his reputation in the art world began to diffuse, as the developing critical canon privileged large-scale painting, sculpture, and installation. It was difficult to find a place for an artist who worked primarily on paper and whose art seemed, on the surface, unrelated to vanguard movements. The very complexity of his art, moreover—its profusion of styles and thematic intrigues—also thwarted critical acceptance.88 Whereas most artists work in a single style at any given moment, Steinberg “absorbed every visual mode that seized his connoisseurial attention.”89 The critic Harold Rosenberg lamented in 1978 that art history had not “assigned a place to Steinberg, perhaps for the reason that he has swallowed its subject matter—the successive displacement of one style by another—and regurgitated it as a single mass of expressive leftovers existing in the present.”90 Such multiplicity remains the mark of an artist whose imagined worlds knew no bounds.

Steinberg defined drawing as “a way of reasoning on paper,” and he remained committed to the act of drawing. Throughout his long career, he used drawing to think about the semantics of art, reconfiguring stylistic signs into a new language suited to the fabricated temper of modern life. He was, as the title of one of his books has it, the “inspector,” seeing through every false front, every pretense. Sometimes with affection, sometimes with irony, but always with virtuoso mastery, Saul Steinberg peeled back the carefully wrought masks of 20th-century civilization.

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