Steinberg’s line is the line of a master penman and artist. It is also a “line”—that is, a kind of organized talk. The pen of this artist-monologuist brings into being pictures that are also words, e.g., the odd birds at a cocktail party. Or they are visualizations of things said, as in the drawings in his book The Labyrinth, where people utter flowers, strings of beads, heraldic decorations.
Both because of his superb penmanship and the complex intellectual nature of his assertions, I think of Steinberg as a kind of writer, though there is only one of his kind. He has worked out an exchange between the verbal and the visual that makes possible all kinds of revelations. For instance, there is a drawing in which a triangle on one end of a scale weighs down an old, patched-up, decrepit question mark on the other. Axiom: A NEAT FORMULA OUTWEIGHS A BANGED-UP PROBLEM.
To build his labyrinth, Steinberg had only to draw a line from A to B on the principle that the truth is the longest distance between two points: the result is an enormous scrawl within which the original two dots appear as the eyes of the Minotaur.
As if the relations between words and objects weren’t complicated enough, Steinberg has thrust between them the illusions of the drawing paper. “There is perhaps no artist alive,” E. H. Gombrich testifies in Art and Illusion, “who knows more about the philosophy of representation.” A long straight line keeps changing its pictorial functions—first it represents a table edge, then a railroad trestle, then a laundry line, until it ends up in an abstract flourish. Steinberg is the Houdini of multiple meanings: the line with which he creates his labyrinth and entangles himself in it is also the string that leads him out of it.
Logician of stereotypes and repetitive social situations, Steinberg brings to life dramas of abstract entities masquerading as people, animals, landscapes. All his formulas, comical mainly through their magical terseness, have deep contemporary reference. A sequence of drawings shows a serpentine line penetrating, or being swallowed by (is it the same thing?), a cube and coming out on the other side organized into a geometrical pattern—a spoof about cubism yet also a reminder of the forced straightening out of our ideas (our “lines”). Steinberg’s dialectic, however, also recognizes that we desire this straightening: on the facing page, a roughly sketched cube dreams of one drawn with a ruler and with its corners lettered in ABC order. Then comes a sketch in which an artist’s line leaves the canvas and fills up the room around him—the labyrinth again—while on the following page the line organizes itself into a road map of success labeled with the motto inside the crest of the Pall Mall cigarette package: Per aspera ad astra. I know of no American novelist or poet today who is saying these things more astringently.
In Steinberg’s conceptual realm, words have the substantiality of things. Elaborating on the speech balloons of the comic strips, the series of word-visualizations mentioned above shows ephemeral persons enunciating huge constructions, solid grills, architectural designs; a dog barks a zigzag, while on a mountain of gibberish he is in the process of emitting gesticulates an orator who is a scribble.
Counterpointing this theme of the materiality of speech is that of words behaving as “characters,” as in the incomparable group where SICK lies flattened out on a cot, HELP topples off a cliff, TANTRUM explodes into a rocket display.
Irresistible as a juggling act, Steinberg never satisfied himself with the merely entertaining—the reason, I should say, why his vein has shown no sign of running out. His translations of words into pictures and pictures into writing continuously scoop meaning out of platitudinous situations and set phrases. This is a labor of philosophy. Specifically, Steinberg is a philosopher of identity, a subject he dreams about all day and reasons about in his dreams. His illusionist double language is, in the most complete sense, an autobiographical record, notations of a prolonged research into the artist’s self within surroundings at times menacing and always full of strangeness. And Steinberg reveals that meditating on who one is cannot be carried on by mere remembering and analyzing but involves a game with devices of the imagination that are not unlike those let loose by mental disorder. Foremost among these risky toys indispensable to poetic investigation is the device of the projected self—the device of the mask, ancient device of comedy and tragedy and symptom of the split personality. On the jacket of The Labyrinth is a profile of the author as a square-jawed Solid Citizen whose head is a cage out of which a white rabbit peers fearfully through the eye socket. On the inside flap, Steinberg turns up in a full-length photograph wearing a mask of Steinberg drawn on a paper bag. Behind the solid citizen, the rabbit, the caricature on the bag, is the unknown Steinberg who watches the others—and who in the collaboration with them is the creator of his drawings. Steinberg’s fictions make him visible to himself by exaggerating him: a living face can be deadpan, but not as dead a pan, or capable of challenging the world with so fierce a stare, as the same face drawn on a bag.
Steinberg is present under disguise in most of his drawings; in all, if one accepts the view that everything Steinberg draws is Steinberg in contour (the exceptions are some beautiful pen-and-wash drawings done for their own sake as well as from a perverse desire to mislead). In the past, in addition to being the little man at cocktail parties and art galleries, Steinberg used to be a cat. Lately, he has become a fish. As a cat he was engaged in domesticating himself (an early book was called The Passport). As a fish he’s out to catch himself (another meaning for the “line”). The axiom of one drawing might be: THE FISH IS A SPHINX TO THE CAT.
Steinberg lives in a world of Steinberg (e.g., drawing of the Trojan Steinberg into which all the little men climb), of quasi Steinberg (e.g., this author, through the formula, a Stein is a Rose is a berg), of anti-Steinberg (scenes in Florida, Russia, the Far West). Anti-Steinberg is the mask of the unfamiliar, including the crowd and public applause: a harpy queen is determined to clamp laurels on the brow of a fleeing little man. Drawings of monuments and glories end with one of the hero with his foot on his own head. In another, the laurel-lavishing harpy repeats her bid to Steinberg-laureate standing on a base adorned with Steinberg couchant, the whole ensemble hanging over an abyss. Such is fame, declares the artist-student of self, listening for the crash.
Since his drawings are themselves “words,” their meanings flowing, as in Baudelaire’s Correspondences, from sense to sense and from thought into materiality, captions would be superfluous and Steinberg never supplies any. His images retain their silence, and this is a source of their pathos, even when the joke is strongest.
Harold Rosenberg (1906–78) was an art historian and critic, remembered as one of the most incisive and supportive writers on abstract expressionism. He was a regular contributor to the Partisan Review and served as an art critic at The New Yorker.
All images © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Excerpted from The Labyrinth, by Saul Steinberg, published by New York Review Books.