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book review

‘Saul Steinberg: A Biography’ by Deirdre Bair

Artist Saul Steinberg and a mural.

Gjon Mili//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Artist Saul Steinberg and a mural.

Cartoonist Saul Steinberg will always be associated with his 1976 drawing, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” His satiric map foregrounds the buildings of 9th and 10th avenues and looks outward across the Hudson River to a thin strip labeled “Jersey,” fading into a few bumps of the American West, a perfunctory Pacific Ocean, and in the distance, hints of China, Japan, and Russia. It was widely read as a smirking depiction of cosmopolitan self-centeredness.

But reading Deirdre Bair’s “Saul Steinberg: A Biography,” we learn that this interpretation was at odds with Steinberg’s somber intent. He had not drawn the luxurious parts of Manhattan, but the working-class neighborhoods, and his subject was American provincialism and disconnectedness, not urban smug self-satisfaction. This is just one of the many fresh revelations in this comprehensive and engaging biography.

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Bair, who received the National Book Award for her biography of Samuel Beckett, has also written well-regarded lives of Simone de Beauvoir, Carl Jung, and Anaïs Nin. In this new book she attempts to draw a picture of what might be called the “View of the World from Saul Steinberg’s Head.” Readers familiar with the artist’s covers and cartoons in The New Yorker magazine may be surprised at how dark and driven that world could be.

Bair’s research was complicated by Steinberg’s penchant for autobiographical inventions designed to mislead the prying and the curious — he wore masks as well as drew them. Her account reveals a private man who was relentlessly social, an imaginative innovator who wanted to always be in control, a creator who posed an artist’s purpose as, “To be one’s own witness.”

Steinberg, who was Jewish, left Romania in 1933 at 19 to study architecture in Milan, escaping growing anti-Semitism and entering the Italian world of art and ideas. Broke, and frequently hungry, he feverishly filled sketchbooks with renderings of Italian architecture and street scenes. He began drawing illustrations and cartoons for Italian newspapers for pay, but as he was gaining visibility as an artist, the Fascist grip on Italy tightened, and in 1941 he was interned with other foreign-born Jews before receiving clearance to flee.

Based on his growing reputation as a cartoonist, he was eventually allowed to enter the United States. In June 1942, he landed in Miami, and his infatuation with American excess and its democratic craziness began. Art Deco buildings intrigued Steinberg with their blend of European modernism and American bravado, and, as Bair notes, their design would appear as a motif in his art for the next 40 years.

They were just the first course for the omnivorous “first-class noticer,” as he called himself. He appropriated American emblems and icons to rewrite and redraw America’s self-image.

In Steinberg’s graphic theater, eclecticism ruled. He cast the Founding Fathers opposite a sinister Mickey Mouse, and drew New York’s yellow cabs to resemble Brancusi sculptures. He could draw risible lovers in lilting lines one day and psychedelic riot cops the next. He made cubism talk to classical sculpture and expressionism flirt with pointillism, all on a set seemingly designed by surrealists. In the same cartoons, he often rendered figures in watercolor, pen, gouache, and collage, and the mash-ups were all in the obedient service of his satire, which displayed the virtuosic draftsmanship of a Heinrich Kley, the acid bite of a George Grosz, and the trippiness of an R. Crumb.

Two outstanding examples are his 1976 and 1981 drawings (both reproduced in his 1992 collection, “the Discovery of America”) of Thanksgiving, Steinberg’s favorite American holiday. In the earlier work, the guests are Washington, Lincoln, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, a Halloween witch, and an alarmed Lady Liberty. She seems to be the only one aware that the turkey platter is empty and that a beautiful peacock parades in front of the holiday table. It’s a drawing that plays with ritual, myths, icons, and national vanity, but Steinberg serves the viewer no easy answers.

Five years later, the turkey is present, alive and huge, looming over a capacious bullfighting ring where a diminutive matador, Uncle Sam, is approaching the bird with an American flag cape and an outstretched sword. In the background, Lady Liberty looks on, flanked by Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus, this time in the role of a horse-mounted picador. The image drops New World tradition in Old World ritual. It is ridiculous and riveting.

With Steinberg’s rushed 1943 US citizenship came obligatory military service, and, as a cartoonist he got an appropriately odd assignment. Bair notes: “Fluent in his native Romanian and Italian, with excellent French and good German, able to get by in Spanish, and with a smattering of Portuguese and comprehensible English, he was sent to be a spy in inland China.”

After further propaganda assignments in North Africa and Italy, he returned to the States at war’s end.

He married artist Hedda Sterne in 1944, and Bair’s biography is almost as much about Sterne as Steinberg. She was his co-thinker and critic, and even after they separated in 1960, they talked on the phone nearly daily until his death in 1999.

Gjon Mili//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Artist Saul Steinberg and a mural.

Steinberg was not only a satirist but also apparently a satyr. He had difficulty meeting a woman without attempting a seduction. He had many lovers before, during, and after his time with Sterne, some one-night stands, others liaisons that lasted decades. His other long-term relationship was with Sigrid Spaeth, a woman 21 years his junior. Steinberg and Spaeth both suffered from varying degrees of depression, and the last third of the biography is a harrowing fugue of their intertwining struggles with the illness.

When his brooding slowed his artistic output, Steinberg tried travel as an antidepressant, breathing in new scenery, and sketching new material. He visited Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe and most of the states in the United States. Upon his arrivals back in New York, he was a much-sought-after dinner companion and raconteur in Manhattan’s literary and artistic circles.

Steinberg’s friends included a who’s-who of the cultural elite here and abroad, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alexander Calder, Eugene Ionesco, Billy Wilder, Ian Frazier, Mary McCarthy, and Charles Addams. Igor Stravinsky sold him a second-hand Cadillac; Vladimir Nabokov gave him guidance on quitting cigarettes; and Marcel Duchamp advised him on sorting his mail.

Bair spares few details of the artist’s life as she meticulously documents publication contracts, exhibit arrangements, and dinner party slights. But the book disappoints in two small ways. There are no complete letters quoted, only excerpts — an unfortunate omission given that Steinberg and Sterne were prolific correspondents. It would be nice to see their thoughts develop, even if their English wasn’t perfect. And the book contains too few reproductions of the cartoonist’s work. Bair and her publisher were constrained by the condition imposed by the Saul Steinberg Foundation that the book be limited to 35 of his drawings. This is a shame. Steinberg described himself as a “writer who draws,” but writing, even Bair’s able descriptions, is no substitute for seeing a drawing. Readers might do well to find a library copy of one of the Steinberg collections as a companion to this compelling biography.

Dan Wasserman is the Globe’s editorial cartoonist. He can be reached at wasserman@ globe.com.
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