Saul Steinberg

Who was he?

On 5 September 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt recorded in her diary that most of her compatriots – herself included – found particular amusement in the drawings by Saul Steinberg depicting the American way of life. Mrs. Roosevelt was referring to the colossal mural panels entitled The Americans that Steinberg created in 1958 for the US Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, but what is more generally implicit in her observation is that Steinberg was considered for all intents and purposes a compatriot, eighteen years before his famous View of the World from 9th Avenue entered the canon of twentieth-century American art and sixteen years after emigrating to the United States.

Saul Steinberg was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Râmnicu Sârat, a small town north of Bucharest, on 15 June 1914. After high school, chronic Romanian anti-Semitism forced him to leave Romania and in November 1933 he moved to Italy, where he enrolled in the Faculty of Architecture at Milan Politecnico.

The years in Milan played a major role in shaping his creativity: he frequented a culturally stimulating environment and began to forge his own artistic path through contributions to the Italian satirical newspapers of the 1930s, gaining him early fame as a cartoonist. He graduated with a degree in architecture in 1940 and the following year, due to the enactment of racial laws, he departed for the United States, where – after a year’s stay in Santo Domingo awaiting a US visa – he arrived in New York in 1942. His first drawing to appear in The New Yorker was published on 25 October 1941 and a few months later he signed his first contract with the prestigious magazine.
He quickly obtained American citizenship and his work met with almost instant success: in 1943 he had his first exhibition; in 1945 he published All in Line, his first compilation of drawings, and in 1946 he took part in the exhibition Fourteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside Robert Motherwell and Arshile Gorky, among others. As his fame grew, his artistic style evolved: he quickly abandoned his classic early cartoonish approach to make way for what Ernst H. Gombrich would define as a ‘philosophy of representation’.

Throughout his career Steinberg juggled between drawings for The New Yorker and work for art galleries and museums, all while creating designs for fabrics, wallpapers, tapestries, greeting cards and advertisements. His work was, as Roland Barthes observed, both ‘refined and popular’, retaining as Steinberg himself said, ‘the same attitude of the child, who observes things as if he were seeing them for the first time’.

No doubt thanks to his architectural studies, Steinberg found elective affinities with the world of architecture and design: from the end of the 1940s he collaborated on various large-scale projects, working with Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Bernard Rudofsky and the Milanese studio BBPR and his murals were highly praised by the greatest architects of his time, such as Le Corbusier and Alexander Girard, who invited him to participate in An Exhibition for Modern Living at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Steinberg’s parodies of furniture and architectural styles were amusing, but at the same time they also revealed his great critical insight into contemporary American society, which would not have gone unnoticed by Charles and Ray Eames, who were also invited to participate in the Detroit exhibition and whose chair was reproduced in the first few pages of Steinberg’s second book The Art of Living (1949).

In 1950 he published two inset booklets in the acclaimed but short-lived magazine Flair, where he first experimented with a combination of drawings and photography: he used existing photographs and drew on them – for example, turning a chest of drawers into a skyscraper; or he drew directly on furniture and objects.
In the same summer of 1950, Steinberg travelled to Los Angeles with his wife, Hedda Sterne, to ‘play’ the painting hand of Gene Kelly in Vincente Minnelli’s movie An American in Paris, but ultimately decided against participating. He remained in Los Angeles for the summer, spending time with Billy Wilder, Igor Stravinsky and, in what may appear as the final stage of an inexorable connection of kindred spirits, the Eameses.

Even before he went to the West Coast, their mutual friend Bernard Rudofksy introduced Steinberg to Charles and Ray Eames and the three had already corresponded. So, it is no coincidence that they immediately got together and began developing a series of creative experiments, with the same playful approach for which they were each renowned. They prepared backdrops where Steinberg drew some of his characters surrounded by Eames furnishings; they projected a drawing of a woman onto Ray’s face and then photographed it; they collected eucalyptus leaves in the garden of their studio for Steinberg to transform through illustrations into birds. They even planned a movie about Los Angeles. And, last but not least, Steinberg made a number of drawings on a few Eames Fiberglass Chairs: two different silhouettes of nude figurines and, returning to one of his favourite subjects, a curled up sleeping cat.
Although he departed Los Angeles at the end of the summer, Eames chairs continued to appear in his drawings and the three remained in contact over the years despite the distance – a close bond and friendship based on mutual admiration.

Publication date: 15.06.2023
Author: Francesca Pellicciari
Images: 1. Saul Steinberg with drawn face on his hand, Long Island, 1978 © Estate of Evelyn Hofer; 2. Eames Fiberglass Armchair with nude figure by Saul Steinberg, 1950 © Eames Office, LLC 2023; 3. Steinberg with Papoose in his studio, Amagansett, Long Island, 1974 © The Saul Steinberg Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; 4. Hedda and Saul visiting Eames Office, 1950 © Eames Office, LLC 2023; 5. Eames Fiberglass Armchair with nude figure and cat by Saul Steinberg, 1967 © Eames Office, LLC 2023; 6. Charles Eames and mould of La Chaise with nude figure by Saul Steinberg, 1950, used under the license from, photo: Peter Stackpole;

This might also interest you