Saul Steinberg, Taking Liberties

"Three Liberties" is among the works of Saul Steinberg on display at the renovated Morgan Library in New York. (By Saul Steinberg. The Saul Steinberg Foundation, New York)
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Even if you think you don't know the works of Saul Steinberg, you probably know his witty 1976 drawing of a New Yorker's parochial view of the world, with the city portrayed in loving detail in the foreground and the rest of the world a vague and mysterious terra incognita far across the Hudson.

"View of the World From 9th Avenue" is alone reason to view the new Steinberg retrospective at New York's newly renovated Morgan Library. But there's lots more to see by the famed New Yorker magazine artist, including sculptures, collages, masks and an array of amusing fakes: pseudo-documents, dog tags, wooden "envelopes" complete with airmail borders and elaborately drawn stamps, cameras, postcards, books -- even sheet-metal record albums. The guy was manically inventive.

But it's those clever New Yorker drawings he's best known for, and they constitute the core of this fun and frisky exhibit. Steinberg referred to himself as "a writer who draws," and his work is suffused with a writerly intelligence and awareness. His first New Yorker cover, "Untitled (Cat Garden)," is of an anthropomorphic cat watering a garden of dingbats and other printers' symbols. Another of his funniest drawings, "Three Liberties," shows three subway riders with uncanny resemblances to the Statue of Liberty. Cocktail parties, overblown Broadway blurbs, traffic jams, small-town skylines -- all are depicted with a sly and subtle humor.

Or not so subtle. One Dali-esque family scene ("Untitled," 1941) shows a matron in a rocking chair surrounded by a variety of bizarre children while a crow with omelet-laden wings holds a naked man in its beak. The artist's recurring character Aunt Helen, the exhibit notes dryly, might have been modeled on his mother or Mussolini, or a little of both.

Steinberg was born in 1914, arrived in New York in 1942 from Italy and quickly became known for his work as a cartoonist (including a stint drawing propaganda cartoons for the Allied war effort), greeting card designer, advertising artist and stage designer before focusing on gallery work and the New Yorker in the 1960s. He died in 1999.

His fascination with architecture is readily apparent, and there's a real traveler's sensibility in many of the drawings. Whenever he traveled to an American town, we learn, he'd book a room in a Main Street hotel, where he would stand at the window and take in the view of the water tower, supermarkets and other small-town landmarks. He rode trains and buses for days, sketching the architecture and incorporating it into his drawings.

One timeless collage from 1952, "Untitled (Florida Types)," skewers iconic Sunshine Staters, who sport lots of hats, chins and spectacles (some things never change). And a laugh-out-loud drawing of the crowd in Venice's St. Mark's Square skillfully contrasts the old-world architecture and elegant Italian locals with clueless, camera-toting American tourists. Plus, great pigeons.

One of the best things about this show is observing people's reactions to it. One viewer, closely inspecting one of the artist's lavishly fake pseudo-documents, mused to no one in particular, "When I was a kid I used to try to read the writing on these things and I never could. Because they don't say anything!"

The show moves to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in April, so why not just wait for it to come to D.C.? Because it's a great excuse to visit the new Morgan, which reopened last spring after a three-year renovation.

The complex -- which comprises the sumptuous private library of 19th-century financier Pierpont Morgan, the family's restored brownstone residence and attached museum -- now has an expanded campus designed by Pritzker-winning architect Renzo Piano. After seeing the Steinbergs, check out the lush library and almost lurid private study with its red silk walls; treasures on display include literary (Dickens, Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson) and music (Mozart, Beethoven) manuscripts, drawings and prints (Rembrandt, Rubens) and medieval and Renaissance illuminated texts. Then have wine and tapas in the glass-enclosed central court while a string trio plays, or splurge on a fancier meal in the Morgans' former private dining room.

-- K.C. Summers

"Saul Steinberg: Illuminations" runs through March 4 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave. at 36th Street, 212-685-0008,http://www.themorgan.org/. Admission is $12.

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