Art Review Archives:

eArtist: Easy and Intuitive Business Software for the Busy Artist

Reflections and Shadows

By Saul Steinberg
With Aldo Buzzi
Translated by John Shepley
(Book Review)

100 pages; with 12 illustrations by the author
© 2002 Random House, Inc.
ISBN: 0-375-50571-7
hardcover, $24.95

In the morning I set a notebook and pencil in front of me and start drawing. What should I do? What will I do? I feel lost. I seem to have no more ideas. But then it's not true; and the morning hours spent, for many years, trying to find an idea have preserved in me a kind of intellectual vigor that today I would no longer have if instead I had gone on doing what I know how to do very well -- landscapes, watercolors.

Saul Steinberg in Reflections and Shadows

The visual ouevre of Saul Steinberg, the legendary 20th-century satirist and cartoonist, is well published: many weighty books devoted to his drawings, and innumerable editions of The New Yorker, bear the unique imprint of his vision. Reflections and Shadows, a short memoir, is the first time the artist reveals himself in his own words. Based on material tape-recorded in the 1970s by publisher Aldo Buzzi, a close friend from Steinberg's student days in Milan, Reflections and Shadows is a delightful worktable jumble of eclectic observations, useful information and unexpected insights. It is a rare pleasure to journey with Steinberg's perceptive, at times surreal mind.

Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) could quote the absurd more concisely with a half-dozen lines than many artists with a full palette of color and texture. Experimentation, satire, visual puns and intuitive wit all vied for space in his drawings, which ranged from modest penstrokes to page-wide confections of line and shadow. As an artist he seemed to take an almost perverse pleasure in playing on perceptions, in manipulating conventions of art and consciousness. He possessed a distinctive surrealism, but it was surrealism hitched to the yoke of content: his works always have something to say. Art critic Harold Rosenberg called him

a writer of pictures, an architect of speech and sounds, a draftsman of philosophical reflections. His line of a master penman and calligrapher, aesthetically delectable in itself, is also the line of an illusionist formulating riddles and jokes about appearances.

Throughout fifty years of cartooning for The New Yorker, Steinberg worked within the realm of commercial art without becoming subordinate to it. At some point his unique combination of technical mastery, restless intellect and griffin eye for absurdity crossed a dividing line, and were accepted into the realm of fine art. His drawings and cartoons have long been featured by art dealers and shown in museums.

© 2002 The Saul Steinberg Foundation/
Artists Rights Society (ARS)

In Reflections and Shadows, it is not the mordant speech of his pen but rather his intelligent, gravely playful voice that is the focus. The first two chapters are reminiscences, well-salted with observation. In "Romania" Steinberg speaks of his childhood in that country, his gaggle of aunts and uncles, family photographs and the nature of memory. In "Milan" he discusses his days as a young man in Fascist Italy, where, in a paradox reflecting one of his own cartoons, he worked to elude arrest for nearly a year before having to purposely turn himself in to acquire his final Italian visa; he went to prison, where his first cellmates were two bicycle thieves -- "Since I told them I'd been locked up for more or less political reasons, all of a sudden they were afraid and didn't want to have anything to do with me." In the latter chapters, "Washington, Smithsonian Institution," and "Drawing From Life," Steinberg focuses observation on his later years in America, and discusses drawing and cartooning.

The book's tone is conversational, very like long talks with the artist, and Steinberg has the storyteller's ability to drop, almost casually, a tempting opening that keeps the reader hungry for more: "In Washington in 1966, as an artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian Institution, I spent perhaps the strangest three months of my life. It was as though I'd emigrated to a place where normally no one emigrates -- Norway, say, or Albania..." His observations on America are, naturally, gems. The Smithsonian, baseball, diners, Cubism, and the tyranny of children's awful tastes for spaghetti, hamburgers and hot dogs ("with the worst kind of mustard") all fall prey to the artist's peculiar interpretive bent. But Steinberg, being Steinberg, is only to be expected to have much to say on Yankees, that tribe he observed with such anthropological curiosity. (New York Observer writer, Hilton Kramer noted that Steinberg "understood that he enjoyed certain advantages in being an emigré confronted with the task of decoding an unfamiliar cultural terrain. 'You learn a new language,' he once said, 'and when you suddenly savor the new syntax of the place, you see things that nobody had seen before.'") In Reflections and Shadows the real treasures are the artist's comments on art, on drawing itself.

In a sense, the material in "Drawing From Life" is even more personal than the biographical reminiscences in "Romania" or "Milan." Steinberg consistently produced work of superior effect and wit in one of the most demanding visual arts professions: cartooning. Such an ability invokes more than just 'smarts' and good draftsmanship. A painter can paint a still-life bowl of bananas and call it a day; a cartoonist must make the bowl of bananas funny; or sad, profound, unexpected, unusually biting. Cartooning occupied this artist for over sixty years of his life, and in "Drawing From Life" Steinberg, speaking of drawing, seems to draw nearest to expressing a philosophy of himself. Here his observations inspire the most thought, as in his comments on drawing truthfully:

To understand the truth of the drawing's subject matter -- people, architecture, or landscape -- is a complex thing since it isn't a visible, superficial truth. And it takes a lot of effort, a dedication that sometimes, out of laziness, one strives to avoid (it's easier to invent). You must manage to establish complicity with whatever you're drawing, until you gain a deep knowledge of it. You don't draw well if you're telling a lie. And conversely, when a drawing from life tells the truth, it automatically turns out to be a good drawing. Another problem in drawing from life is that we're obliged to find answers to questions that so far haven't been raised. The work you do in the studio is often an answer to questions that are already familiar.

© 2002 The Saul Steinberg Foundation/
Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Reflections and Shadows includes twelve Steinberg drawings from "Shadows and Reflected Images," a series originally published in The New Yorker and from which the book derives its subtly punning title. Portraits of aunts and uncles, sleek architectural visions of Fascist Italy, and meditations on reflection and its verity allow the reader to flip between word and image, to compare the differing aesthetics of spoken wit and sketched wit flowing from the same source.

"It's hard to do a portrait," Steinberg says. "You must first spend a critical moment in which you quickly -- if you're lucky -- discard all the commonplaces about the subject of the drawing." Reflections and Shadows succeeds in discarding the commonplaces. Steinberg's words linger in memory, leaving one with an imprint of that strange, Steinbergian lens: looking for archaeology in the features of aunts and uncles, peering into reflections to see if they really are better than reality. Released in 2002, Reflections and Shadows was published posthumously. That no sequels will follow is the only regret of this short, intriguing, philosophical book. In Reflections and Shadows Saul Steinberg proves to have a voice as varied and memorable as the unique wit of his art.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself. Hilton Kramer's obituary of the artist, "Farewell, Saul Steinberg, a Mordant, Comic Artist," can be found at http://www.observer.com/pages/story.asp?ID=1205. Steinberg published several volumes of his drawings, including The Passport, The Labyrinth and The Inspector (Reflections and Shadows includes a bibliography of such works). A major retrospective exhibition of the artist's work was featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1988 and is covered in Harold Rosenberg's Saul Steinberg (Knopf:1978). The British Graphology Organization analyzes three of Steinberg's works involving people whose speech is represented by scrawls and scribbles in "Saul Steinberg and the Symbolism of Space" (http://www.britishgraphology.org/saul.htm).

Click here to purchase Reflections and Shadows by Saul Steinberg. Other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may also be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link.

Home | Art Reviews | Bookstore | eArtist |Galleries | RSS
Search | About ArtScope.net | Advertise on ArtScope.net | Contact

© 2002 ArtScope.net. All Rights Reserved.