Saul Steinberg was behind one of the most famous magazine covers ever: the March 29, 1976, issue of the New Yorker, which featured his depiction of big, bustling Manhattan against a background of fly-over country. And yet the cartoonist once said, “I don’t quite belong to the art, cartoon, or magazine world, so the art world doesn’t quite know where to place me.”
The current Art Institute show commemorating the 100th year of the artist’s birth supports Steinberg’s statement. Shoved into a corner of the Prints and Drawings Gallery, the display includes only five of the 54 works on paper recently bequeathed to the museum by the Saul Steinberg Foundation. But track it down and you’re in for a treat.
The cartoonish Birds is like something from a children’s book: quickly, simply rendered species leaning against each other or hanging upside down like bats or waddling across the paper, some large and ungainly, some little more than the size of a pencil eraser. New York Moonlight uses graphite, colored pencil, and collage to create a landscape that seems to touch on both Krazy Kat and cubism. Certified Landscape includes rubber stamps and tiny reproductions of what appear to be dental X-rays incorporated into a farmland scene.
The most striking piece may be Untitled (Las Vegas), a 1989 drawing in colored pencil and crayon, showing Steinberg’s vision of Sin City’s strip: a tiny highway lined with sphinxlike creatures with the heads of Abraham Lincoln (or is that Uncle Sam?), a hooded clansman, and other U.S. icons. The satirical scene did eventually front a New Yorker issue, but the image seems too idiosyncratic for the magazine, and almost too casual for the museum setting. Perhaps in another hundred years the art world will have figured out what to do with Steinberg, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.