The exhibition ‘Steinberg, Saul. The New Yorker. New York, 1945–2000. (Harold, William, Robert, Tina, David, Eds.)’ was notable for a number of reasons. Top of the list, of course, was Saul Steinberg: a singular figure in 20th-century art, as uncomfortable with being called an artist as he was being known as a cartoonist. (‘All those drawings, whimpering at night, unhappy in adopted houses,’ was how he described his feelings about art collecting.) But mention must be given to Yale Union itself, a remarkable art institution that is perhaps as uneasy with being a conventional art institution as Steinberg was with any box he was pushed into. Founded in 2008, and currently under the directorship of Curtis Knapp, it’s housed in a vast historic building in southeast Portland. Bright and spacious, it contains two huge exhibition-cum-performance spaces, workshops, a recording studio, kitchen, screening room, library and offices. Supporting under-represented and young artists, Yale Union’s approach to programming, the language it uses to communicate with its audience, and the flexibility with which it adapts its physical space according to its needs, is uniquely nimble and inventive. End of commercial break.
Organized by Robert Snowden and Scott Ponik, ‘Steinberg, Saul…’ – which also toured to Artspace, Auckland – presented Steinberg’s published work for The New Yorker under the editorships of Harold Ross, William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown and David Remnick (hence the names in the title). Rather than exhibiting drawings or prints, issues of The New Yorker – roughly four per year of Steinberg’s association with the magazine – were laid out in chronological order along a set of tables that spiralled from yellowing 1945 editions at the edges of the gallery, to glossy back issues from the 2000s in the centre. They were not shown beneath glass – just neatly opened at spreads featuring Steinberg’s work. Snowden and Ponik’s argument was that his art could not be divorced from the context of the printed page. ‘The circulatory system has a message, the page has a message, the ads have a message, the neighbourhood of fiction and news has a message,’ they write in the accompanying brochure. ‘And all of it makes for juxtapositions as eerily apposite as anything the French surrealists or a blender could come up with.’
A drawing from 1969 of bearded, sunglasses-wearing artists marching in regimented lockstep past ‘The National Academy of the Avant-Garde’ occupies a quarter-page spot in the midst of a piece on mayoral politics in New York. Published in 1961, a drawing of a woman peering so closely at an abstract painting that her face becomes part of the canvas sits alongside a profile of basketball player Robert Joseph Cousy. The outline of a man emerges from a deranged storm of squiggles and zigzags opposite an ad for Mouquin brandy, as if to illustrate the drink’s effect. Two figures duel with swords inside a crocodile’s mouth next to a page advertising a perfume named ‘Nostalgia’. Here we have surreal landscapes in which letters become buildings, continents turn into city blocks and people shape-shift from hilarious caricature to abstract shapes. Often taking the guise of a meta-commentary about art itself, Steinberg’s elegant games of language and form – which, if they had played nicely with the art history and museums system would probably be described as using strategies ranging from abstract painting to Surrealism through Pop to Conceptual art – remind us how humour can be one of the most direct and useful tools for understanding the world.
Much ink has been spilled about Steinberg – most notably Harold Rosenberg’s monograph accompanying a 1978 Whitney exhibition – and there are more reliable guides than me to Steinberg’s landscapes of egg-shaped hillocks and giant pineapples. But I will say this about Snowden and Ponik’s show: its success lay not just in a smart exhibition design solution, but in how it raised questions about what it is to be an artist in the world, and of who an artists’ audiences are. Should an artist only ever speak through an institution or gallery, and what does it mean to show work outside those circuits of cultural legitimation? Who gets to ratify an artist’s work? Curators, critics and dealers? Or, as in Steinberg’s case, the editors of a popular magazine? What does it mean to operate as an artist according to cycles other than those of studio production and exhibition? How can an artist speak to issues of language and perception in art, without disappearing down rabbit-holes of specialization – and, well, so what if you do or don’t? Most importantly, ‘Steinberg, Saul…’ reminded us that there was once a time when, for just a few dollars handed over at a newsstand, you too could own a Saul Steinberg.