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Art & Entertainment

Steinberg at home: a review of the Saul Steinberg retrospective at the Triennale di Milano 

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I have always known Saul Steinberg without ever actually knowing Saul Steinberg.

Growing up, I was fascinated by a fridge magnet in my house that supposedly showed a “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” I now know that the picture was Saul Steinberg’s iconic March 1976 New Yorker magazine cover which depicts the streets of New York City in the prominent foreground, with the rest of the world — a few scattered U.S. states, the Pacific Ocean, then China, Japan, and Russia — expanding out almost as an afterthought in the background. This is arguably Steinberg’s most famous work, although it is conspicuously absent from his retrospective exhibit at the Triennale di Milano, titled Saul Steinberg Milano New York. In its place, instead, is a lifetime’s body of work (doodles, sketches, paintings, posters etc.) that fill out the rest of the picture of the influential 20th century artist — it is the undistorted “view of Steinberg’s world,” if you will.

In his twenties, Steinberg left his native Romania due to the rise of antisemitism at the University of Bucharest, which often prevented him from attending classes, and in 1933, he enrolled instead in the architecture program at the Politecnico di Milano (then called Regio Politecnico). During his time in Milan, he met and developed close and lifelong friendships with the city’s future artists and intellectuals, most notably fellow architecture student-turned-journalist Aldo Buzzi, and Cesare Zavattini, who ran the satirical magazine Settebello that Steinberg often contributed to during his university days.

Given this context, and the countless amount of works Steinberg produced illustrating Milanese and Italian life, the Triennale exhibition feels like a rightful home for a Steinberg retrospective. This is especially true considering that Steinberg’s time as a student in Italy was limited by the rise of fascism. With the completion of his degree in 1940 (his diploma notes specifically his “Jewish race”), his legal residence in Italy expired, and he spent the following year scrambling to obtain permission to enter the United States. After a few tumultuous years in which he was detained in Milan’s San Vittore prison, sent to an internment camp in Abruzzo, and lived in the Dominican Republic awaiting an American visa, Steinberg finally reached New York and subsequently joined the U.S. Navy under the Office of Strategic Services intelligence agency.

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During his time in the Navy, Steinberg produced series of reportage drawings for the New Yorker, and the exposure would eventually launch his art career and lifelong partnership with the magazine.

His drawings during this time, brown ink and watercolor drawings of factories and pictures of the war, feel somehow like storybook material — some are even framed with mock-baroque curlicues (ghirigori). Depictions of war, in particular, take on a fantastical quality, with soldiers, tanks, airplanes sometimes taking on animal forms.

An area of the exhibit is dedicated to a work that Steinberg collaborated on, along with the Milanese BBPR architecture studio and American sculptor Alexander Calder, for the tenth edition of the Triennale di Milano exhibition in 1954. The artists worked on a large-scale sculpture called the Children’s Labyrinth constructed in Parco Sempione. The Labyrinth was a cluster of curving walls built to adult eye-level height featuring artworks and natural elements such as pools of water, grass, stepping stones, and streams.

Steinberg contributed by working on the drawings depicted on the labyrinth’s walls, using the method of sgraffito and etching his works directly into the stone. He considered the sgraffito technique “the people’s medium” (”il piu’ popolare mezzo espressivo”), citing the time-honored and preciously human practices of phone booth or bathroom stall vandalism.

The same celebration of “humanness” can be seen with his cityscapes and drawings of interiors, which are full of rich and specific details: tiger rugs, oriental vases, and antique tchotchkes scattered around a patrician apartment; the particularly patterned bedspread of a hotel room, the motley but gregarious expressions of guests at a dinner party. There’s always something new to look at in his pictures: some scene that you missed the first time around, some curious character lurking in the background, witty details hiding in plain sight. Steinberg’s attention to all this — buildings, objects, faces — belies a deep affection. It feels like love.

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Besides his own works, the exhibit also features a mix of documents (birth certificates, academic transcripts etc.), photographs, letters between his closest friends, and other ephemera from Steinberg’s life.

His personal mail — both the letters he wrote and those he received — is particularly intriguing, and luckily, there is quite a bit of correspondence to pore over. The letters seem as personal — full of details big and small of the lives of others — as his drawings. In fact, for Steinberg, drawing was “a way of reasoning on paper.” He once compared the process to poetry, saying that he “[tries] to use a very reduced alphabet of signs to express ideas that can be very complex and complicated.”

Some of my favorite pieces in the exhibition were Steinberg’s leporelli: a series of (at times loosely) thematically connected illustrations laid out on a single meters-long sheet of paper which calls to mind a decorative scroll or ancient frieze.

I enjoyed the “Shores of the Mediterranean” leporello in particular: in one portion, he places drawings of crumbling Greco-Roman temples next to the geometric formations of telecom towers, or juxtaposes medieval towers with long, brown factory smokestacks. This is, I imagine, his attempt to capture the essence of his “modern Italy,” caught between two eras of history.

His doodling style may be deemed “simple” (by some arbitrary artistic standards), even childish, but his art is by no means banal and in fact full of small details that are easy to miss but make it a joy to take a close, long look at.

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Some later works from the 60s and 70s, especially those depicting cities and buildings, are drawn in more architectural, technical styles, with straight lines and fixed, formal perspectives but this makes them no less amusing.

Steinberg’s work is witty, smart; it is humorous in the way that makes you wish you had thought of it yourself. He is in short, as art historian Federico Zeri once called him, a genius.

The exhibit presentation itself feels a little stuffy and the works feel confined — even the most casual napkin doodle is framed & encased in glass. Despite this, the exhibit is laid out in a spiral, giving the feeling that you yourself are in fact a subject of Steinberg’s drawings — a caricature transplanted (WC) on a page between the looping lines of his pen.

The exhibition leaves you with the impression that Steinberg draws what it means to be human — loose, close-up, messy, intimate, full of circulating objects & debris, pursued by history, and surrounded simultaneously by noise and the negative space of a blank page. I enthusiastically recommend a visit.

Saul Steinberg Milano New York is showing through March 13, 2022 at the Triennale di Milano.

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