Steinberg, Saul

Saul Steinberg was born on 15 June 1914 in Ramnicul Sarat, a small town in Rumania. At the end of that year, the family (composed of the parents, Rosa Iacobson and Moritz Steinberg, and an older sister, Lica) moved to the capital. In Bucharest, Moritz Steinberg, a printer and bookbinder, became the owner of a cardboard business. After finishing high school, Steinberg spent a year studying philosophy and literature at the University of Bucharest, and in 1933 began his architecture degree at the Polytechnic University of Milan, unknowingly starting his life as an expatriate. He would remain in Milan eight years, during which he would not stop drawing while learning Italian and some Milanese dialect. Although he formed many important friendships, he would later declare that his greatest discovery of that time was solitude.

One of his first friends was Aldo Buzzi, a fellow pupil at the School of Architecture, who in time would become a privileged interlocutor. To him we owe the very existence of these memoirs and the fact that they are written in Italian. Buzzi, who was four years older than Steinberg, would also never work as an architect: he worked in cinema as an assistant director along Alberto Lattuada —another fellow schoolmate— and other directors. In 1955 he co-directed along Federico Patellani the documentary América pagana (Pagan America), dedicated to Mayan culture. Later, he ventured into the literary world, and he is especially known today as a late author of a handful of unclassifiable books. Above anything, the two friends were enthusiasts who shared a love for literature, art, gastronomy, and travel.

In 1936, Steinberg began to publish his humorous drawings in Bertoldo, for which he soon became famous. The biweekly Bertoldo popularised a type of humour —infantile, absurd or abstract— that would achieve enormous success. The Spanish magazine La Codorniz, in its early days, under the direction of Miguel Mihura, frequently published some of its most renowned collaborators, such as Giovanni Mosca or Guareschi; and also Steinberg, although for different reasons no one has seen his name printed on the publication. Thanks to the agent César Civita, who became his representative, Steinberg took a great leap forward in his professional career when, in 1940, his first drawings got published in the North American magazines Harper’s Bazaar and Life. Civita was an active promoter of Steinberg’s work in America, although he is particularly remembered for being the founder of the publishing house Abril in Buenos Aires, and for introducing, among others, the cartoonists Hugo Pratt and H.G. Oesterheld.

From 1938 onwards, due to the racial laws enacted by Mussolini’s fascist regime, Steinberg found great obstacles to keep working in Italy. In 1940 he became undocumented. Not without difficulty, he managed to leave the country in 1941, after being claimed by relatives residing in New York. In Ciudad Trujillo (present-day Santo Domingo) he waited a year to be awarded the visa that would allow him to enter the United States. During that time he worked at the newspaper La Nación, where he met the Galician painter and writer Eugenio Fernández Granell, and collaborated —via Civita’s office in New York— in magazines such as Cascabel from Buenos Aires, in which Oski drew and César Bruto wrote. On 25 October 1941, while Steinberg was still in the Dominican Republic, his first drawing for The New Yorker was published.

Saul Steinberg arrived in the United States on June 1942, when the country had recently decided to intervene in the Second World War. (The attack on Pearl Harbor took place on 7 December 1941.) In New York he registered with the recruitment office in an attempt to obtain the nationality and he found employment in the Office of War Information’s Graphic Department. In 1943 he became a United States citizen. As a Navy Intelligence officer, he was sent to China and India, and shortly after, —reassigned to the advertising section of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)— to Argelia and Italy. The Moral Operations Division, to which Steinberg belonged, produced material for the psychological war against the Nazi army. Some postcards drawn by him can be found, as well as caricatures of Hitler that appeared in various publications and were included in the exhibition Artists Against the Axis, in which Ad Reinhardt, Crockett Johnson, and Charles Addams, among others, also participated.

In 1944, still in uniform, he married the Romanian painter Hedda Sterne, who had arrived in New York only three years prior. Hedda told her version of their encounter: she wanted to meet the author of some drawings that had inspired her, published in the Mademoiselle magazine, and invited him for tea; Saul accepted the invitation, he showed up at her house and never left. Both of their lives are full of mysterious junctions and coincidences. (Had the world always been so small or were they just where everything happened?) Hedda briefly met Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and it was she, as she recalled, who convinced the author of The Little Prince to —instead of commissioning them to someone else— use his own drawings as illustrations for his now famous story. Both Saul and Hedda always avoided associating themselves with specific artistic groups or trends, although they did share a gallery —and gathered and drank— with artists known as abstract expressionists or as the New York School: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, William Baziotes or the already mentioned Ad Reinhardt. They all saw the same clouds pass by, but who can assure they saw the same things in them.

In New York, Steinberg achieved immediate success thanks to his contributions to the country’s main publications and, specially, to The New Yorker, the magazine he is still associated with and which he even considered to be his homeland. In 1945, the same year he began his epistolary correspondence with Aldo Buzzi, his first book appeared, All in Line, which sold 20,000 copies. All in Line paved the way for other voluminous tomes that would collect, grouped by theme, many of his drawings published in magazines. These books were considered precious gems, and have travelled around the world as much as their author did, becoming, if not a Bible, a kind of catechism for several generations of graphic designers and illustrators. Also for writers, and for any type of language experts. The poet Pedro Salinas, exiled in the United States, cut clippings of Steinberg and Thurber from past issues of The New Yorker and glued them onto blank sheets, for reasons we unfortunately ignore.

Steinberg often travelled to Europe, either for work or to visit family, or, as Ulysses, in search of a home. (Or, most likely, in search of Paradise and rest.) He also travelled across the United States on long bus rides, a pencil in hand, to portray an America hardly seen by anyone prior. He often travelled alone, but in 1957 he travelled around Spain with Hedda: they rented out a Citroën DS 19, never been seen before, and the car and its riders caused a sensation at every stop along the way. A difficult trip, as its protagonist admitted. Perhaps to get this off his chest, in 1958 he visited Picasso at his French estate La Californie and they both enjoyed some time half-drawing various exquisite corpses. According to Steinberg, Picasso spoke with a hushed smoker’s voice identical to that of the Godfather. In 1960, Sigrid Spaeth, a young German photographer and designer, entered Steinberg’s life and would become his new companion. Saul and Hedda, despite their separation, continued to maintain an excellent friendship: until the end of his life, Saul kept phoning Hedda almost every day.

While part of his work was being recognised through magazines and books (he also painted murals, greeting cards, or backdrops for ballets), another was presented to the public through galleries and museums. Steinberg’s first solo exhibition was held in Wakefield Gallery, in 1943, organised by Betty Parsons. Since then and until today, many exhibitions have regularly succeeded that one. The Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries —and, since 1982, The Pace Gallery— have held the representations of his work, and the Maeght gallery has taken it to Paris, Zurich, and Barcelona. An event that is highlighted in all of Steinberg’s biographies is the anthological exhibition the Whitney Museum in New York dedicated to him in 1978. It signified a qualitative leap in his appraisal as an artist and showcased works that were far from what most people had seen in magazines; however, before the exhibition had taken place, Steinberg had mixed feelings about it. Evidently, it was a great honour and an opportunity he could not refuse (moreover, the catalogue’s text was going to be signed by a great critic, his friend Harold Rosenberg), but perhaps it was not all positive: the sculptor Alexander Calder, another friend, had passed away only a few weeks after his retrospective exhibition at the Whitney.

From the mid-seventies, coinciding with the death of his sister, Lica, to whom he always felt very close —and undoubtedly influenced by his conversation with Buzzi in his house in Springs—, this tendency is accentuated in his work, which is often inclined towards the autobiographical. In the eighties and nineties, Steinberg saw many close friends disappear; he became increasingly secluded in his countryside house and reduced his social life to his writer friends of European origin with whom he shared the sheltered status. Aldo tried to entertain him, involving him in his intellectual investigations, and Hedda encouraged him to practice meditation and yoga, to study Zen and to keep a diary. His Mallorcan cook, Josefa, whom he affectionally called ‘the Pearl’ and with whom he spoke in ‘Dominican’ Spanish, was also a protective spirit. In 1955, doctors diagnosed him with thyroid cancer, and advised him not to intervene. The illness worsened his melancholy: he ripped old drawings and gave instructions that at his death some his papers be transferred to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University (where they are today) and that a Foundation with his name be created.

In 1996, after dragging a chronic depression for years, Sigrid committed suicide, ending her suffering and a complicated relationship. Sigrid’s cat, Papoose, had previously left them. After living with it for fifteen years, it had become an important presence in Steinberg’s life. He would later confess he missed the cat more than he did many people: Papoose was also a homeland. At the beginning of 1999, Saul Steinberg knew he did not have much time left. In May he was diagnosed with an advanced pancreatic cancer and died on 12 May 1999. Aldo Buzzi outlived him, who died in 2009 at the age of 99, as well as Hedda Sterne, who died in 2010 at the age of 100. (Perhaps they both reached a centenary so they could take care of their friend?) In 2002, Valencia’s IVAM displayed what would be the first retrospective exhibition after his death and, a little before or a little after, two memoirs books under the care of Aldo Buzzi were published in Italy: Riflessi e ombre and Lettere a Aldo Buzzi, 1945-1999. Late into 2006, the exhibition Saul Steinberg: Illuminations was inaugurated, which has travelled to eight museums in America and Europe and has been celebrated as the largest retrospective dedicated to Steinberg and his extraordinary contribution to art in the 20th century. Much of the information collected here stems from the catalogue that accompanied that exhibition.

(As I am editing this short chronology, the television is on and I can hear a feminine voice say: ‘He was someone who knew the Greeks, he submerged himself in the Greeks, hence Homer’s presence in his work; as Horace, as Virgil. He even had culinary knowledge: of recipes, he was a master. He knew so much about the world! But not only the world of libraries, but also the world of palates, of sensuality. He was capable, all of a sudden, of making a rabbit the leitmotif of an extraordinary reflection’. I assume she is talking about Saul Steinberg so I begin to pay more attention; but no, the speaker is Nélida Piñón and she is referring to the Galician writer Álvaro Cunqueiro. We are unaware if the author of A Man Like Orestes was another mask of Steinberg’s; in any case, perhaps, someone he might have met.)

Vicente Ferrer

In the photograph: Saul Steinberg hand in hand with himself at the age of eight. Photograph by Evelyn Hofer/Grazia Neri