“Saul Steinberg: A Biography” (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese), by Deirdre Bair
When New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg was honored in 1974 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the architect Philip Johnson puzzled out loud over how best to describe him.
Although Steinberg was about to receive the gold medal for graphic art, wasn’t he also a satirist, a painter, a humorist and an architect? After bemoaning the seeming necessity of putting artists into categories, Johnson concluded by saying, “We cannot pigeonhole Saul Steinberg.”
Now Deirdre Bair, the author of well-regarded books about Samuel Beckett, Carl Jung and Simone de Beauvoir, has taken stock of this wildly inventive and original artist in a 600-page volume that marks the first comprehensive biography of Steinberg since he died in 1999 at age 84.
Steinberg was happy to call himself a writer who draws. An architect by training, he delighted in drawing fantastic buildings and cityscapes, including his iconic “View of the World From Ninth Avenue,” the New Yorker cover endlessly parodied since it was published in 1976.
Steeped in the Dada, surrealist and cubist art movements of his youth in Romania and later Italy, Steinberg never lost his off-kilter, intentionally childlike and absurdist view of the world. He peopled his imaginary worlds with animated letters, numbers and punctuation marks; with battle-ax women patterned on his domineering mother; and with a profusion of animals and objects that were his own personal totems yet which resonated with a wide swath of the public.
Even as a penniless Jewish refugee awaiting permission to enter the U.S. at the start of World War II, Steinberg found success selling his offbeat cartoons to the New Yorker. Once he was finally settled in New York, nothing could stop his rapid rise to the pinnacle of the art world, not even his hypochondria, anxiety and lifelong depression.
In “Saul Steinberg: A Biography,” readers learn that Steinberg was a man of insatiable appetites: for women, books, objects and travel. Bair gets bogged down at times in the details — the endless parties and dinners with art world celebrities; the haggling over commissions and negotiations with publishers; his apartment and studio renovations; and the bitter fights with his lovers. But overall she has done an excellent job of trying to answer the question that perplexed even Steinberg’s ex-wife and lifelong friend Hedda Sterne when she considered his work: “Where did this come from?”
More Related Stories
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
- Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive
- Morgan Freeman sleeps during televised interview
- J.J. Abrams reveals deleted shower scene with Benedict Cumberbatch
- Is the anti-gay backlash on?
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11