If you want to learn how to look at art, there is a bustling market in books that purport to teach people just that. None of them, however, are quite as effective as a strange volume first published in 1960, called “The Labyrinth.” It contains hardly any words, except those that appear within its drawings, such as the word “help” falling off a stone pier, or “maybe” and “perhaps” balanced like weights on a scale. “The Labyrinth,” the fourth of Saul Steinberg’s seven books, is perhaps his best: the most representative of his artistry, the most consistent and focused in its themes, and arguably the most delightful.
It is also a primer in how to look at representations of the world, a one-volume exercise manual for the eyes. Steinberg, known to a large popular audience for his work at the New Yorker (he contributed 85 covers and more than 600 inside drawings), spent a lifetime thinking with his pen, absorbing the stylistic developments of 20th-century art, and creating a spare, nervous idiom in which he could underscore the odd habits and quirks of the world we process visually.
“The Labyrinth” has been republished by the New York Review of Books press, and looking back into it is a revelation. The book opens with an extended, tour-de-force version of a Steinberg classic, the Line, seven pages unified by a single horizontal line that functions in myriad ways, as a timeline of history, a horizon line, the line dividing water from land, the edge of a table, the top of a bridge, a topographical mark and a clothesline (with socks, towels and shirts appended). From there, the book unfolds as a set of interlocking mini-essays on Steinberg’s favorite and recurring subjects: music and musicians, architecture, the chatter of socialites, the vanity of power and ambition, and the iconography of mid-century America.
“It is the book that bombed,” says Joel Smith, photography curator at the Morgan Library and author of two volumes about Steinberg, including “Steinberg at the New Yorker.” “The Labyrinth” was originally published just slightly too late for the Christmas market, which may have led to its relative obscurity among the artist’s other published volumes. But it was a critical book in Steinberg’s oeuvre, a turning point for the artist.
“It is the book where he turns the corner from being an entertainer to doing more recondite things,” Smith says. Steinberg’s first volume, “All in Line,” which came out in 1945, helps chart the enormous breadth and growth in Steinberg’s work. “All in Line” included work Steinberg made during the Second World War, including cartoons sent from the Dominican Republic, where he lived after fleeing Europe in 1941 and before he gained legal entry to the United States in 1942. The work is manifestly Steinbergian, but more conventional, including single-frame cartoons with captions, a form he would all but abandon as he developed his distinctive voice. It adds up to a potpourri of brilliant jokes and intriguing insights, but it doesn’t have the intellectual heft of his later books.
Steinberg had grappled with art and art history in earlier works, but more from a social observation point of view. In “The Labyrinth,” he digs into art itself, its conventions, its games with representation. A fully formed cubist statue emerges as the talk bubble from a man’s mouth in one drawing; a man’s face is put through a series of evolving variations, exploring its volume, its basic shapes, shadows and inner structure; a family is convincingly rendered as a set of embedded and stacked squares, from the dog in one corner to the parents above; a cat works at an easel, with a jumble of convincing Picassos and Braques leaning against the wall.
“The whole history of art influenced me: Egyptian paintings, latrine drawings, primitive and insane art, Seurat, children’s drawings, embroidery, Paul Klee,” Steinberg has said, and in “The Labyrinth,” you see those influences liberated on the page. He also has said: “Without wanting to, I have become a moralist.”
That, too, is apparent throughout the book. One sequence recounts the political history of mankind, with a knight standing victorious over a monster, a king standing over a knight, a revolutionary figure (complete with pileus, or liberty cap, on her head) and so on, through the rise of the bourgeoisie, fascism and then its defeat, and finally the last of the drawings: a man standing on a plinth, with his own severed head beneath his foot.
There is a fatalism in much of Steinberg’s work, but there are also signs of the extraordinary period of stability that he managed to live in during his most creative years. He spent his life at the center of New York’s creative and intellectual elite, making drawings for a magazine that appealed to a broad, middle- to upper-brow readership, familiar with a common set of cultural and historical references. When he worked Freud or Marx or James Joyce into a cartoon, he could expect a knowing response from his readers. In one colored drawing from the book, the whole ship of state is afloat with Democrats and Republicans represented not as mortal enemies, but opposing baseball teams, with Freedom, Business and Order as quiescent passengers sitting next to each to each other, and Lady Liberty with her torch standing on the bowsprit.
“I appeal to the complicity of my reader who will transform the line into meaning by using our common background of culture, history, poetry,” Steinberg has said. That common background was fundamental to his craft, and the dissolution today of intellectual commonality makes one wonder if a Steinberg figure could ever have the same broad audience he built up over decades of work. Likely not, and it’s in the nature of social change that the audience for cartoons is as fractured as every other audience in the media landscape.
But Steinberg remains powerful today, even if that pool of general cultural knowledge is now not one large pool, but many small ones. His “look at the world” drawings remain as engaging as ever because they point to things, they underscore and uncover, they are in the business of noticing the quirks of seeing. A series of window drawings show us the basic frame of a window from the outside where the passerby might sneak a peak through the curtains. In some, we see elegant, empty spaces; in others, simple furniture, a cat staring at a bird, a woman playing the violin. They capture the illicit pleasure of the flâneur walking the urban landscape at dusk when the lights come on, and before people think to draw the curtains or lower the blinds. They make us complicit in the spying of the artist.
There is also something to be said for the pure sophistication of Steinberg’s work. We live on the cusp of a radical new assault on our ability to tell the difference between truth and fiction in our visual world, with videos easily manipulated to give evidence of things that never happened, and virtual reality greatly enhancing the immersive power of narrative. We face a world in which it might simply be impossible to know for sure what is the truth in much of our media, especially media that circulate without a careful chain of provenance from source to consumer. That will probably force us to rely ever more on instinct and intuition. Steinberg’s work was often wry, skeptical, suspicious of the world, and it leaves those who struggle with his paradoxes and puns a bit wiser about the world, a bit more expert at seeing how representation can be manipulated. Reading “The Labyrinth” gives one access to an acute mind, and perhaps if we worked to understand how that mind works, through the detours and divagations of Steinberg’s line, we would be a little less foolish.