Saul Steinberg: Illuminations

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Filed under: Satire

I Do, I Have, I AmHere’s a review of the Saul Steinberg: Illuminations retrospective currently at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, on exhibit April 6 through June 24, 2007 posted by Heather Goss in the DCist. Steinberg (1914-1999) was an incisive satirist and artist who’s illustrations and drawings were featured in dozens of books and in countless New Yorker magazines. -JS


Saul Steinberg @ Smithsonian American Art Museum
By DCist contributor Sriram Gopal

An exhibit designed as career retrospective must be a daunting proposition, especially when focused on a prolific artist whose output ranged over sixty years. Too many pieces, and the exhibit becomes bloated. Too few, and the audience does not get an accurate cross section of the artist's work. Thankfully, the curators of Saul Steinberg: Illuminations, on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, threaded this needle. In doing so, they have mounted a captivating and wholly satisfying exhibition of one of the most insightful American artists of the 20th century.

Steinberg (1914-1999) is best known for his illustrations that appeared in The New Yorker, many of which are included in this collection. The exhibit includes over 100 drawings as well as collages and sculptural assemblages. A native of Romania who became a U.S. citizen in 1942, he described his work as occupying the space "between perception and understanding." His proclamation that the 20th century was "an immense prank" sums up his somewhat cynical outlook.

A View of the World from 9th AvenueSteinberg's most well known pieces, with A View of the World from 9th Avenue being the most celebrated, are included in the display. Particularly interesting are the map studies that led up to this seminal work. His Flat Earth, The West Side, and Wyoming effectively portray, and gently mock, the self-importance and hubris with which Americans tend to view our place in the world. Other recognizable illustrations on display are his Crowd at a Racetrack, Three Liberties, and Techniques at a Party which poke fun at New York's high society. As a peek into Steinberg's philosophy on the role of the artist, Artists and War portrays mechanical forces, literally rubber stamped on the page, aligning against one another as an equally monolithic group of artists sits to record the event. Of course, any Steinberg presentation would be incomplete without the sublimely uplifting I Do, I Have, I Am (pictured).

Other notable pieces include Steinberg's pseudodocuments, which take important documents that we hold dear, such as diplomas and passports, and reduce them to a role of insignificance by showing that the holder of such papers is still just one amongst the faceless masses. Collection is an arresting wall mounted assemblage that recreates the perspective of an art gallery hallway. D.C. gets a special treat as this stop on the exhibit's tour also features a series of delightful sketches on Smithsonian letterhead that Steinberg drew in 1967 as a Smithsonian artist-in-residence. One sketch depicts the iconic Smithsonian castle on the edge of a precipice, appropriate considering the recent controversy surrounding the institution.

After viewing the very relevant retrospective, one wonders whether the Smithsonian would have been able to host this exhibit four years ago. Saul Steinberg's occasional biting tone and world view might resonate with us today because this country is at a moral and philosophical crossroads. Many Americans have come to question whether the view of this nation as a guiding beacon is still accurate, relevant, or even morally just. Would these pieces have had the same impact when unquestioning patriotism was the order of the day and self-doubt was an anathema? If one function of an artist is to provide social commentary, we are fortunate that an artist with great insight and foresight into the American psyche created over a half century's worth of commentary that we can still tap into and revisit.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is located in the Reynold’s Center at 8th and F Streets and is open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free. Illuminations runs through June 24.