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The lines of Saul Steinberg’s mind

A new exhibit at the Art Institute exemplifies the genius of the 20th-century artist.

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Saul Steinberg liked to call himself "a writer who draws," but during the 20th century few draftsmen could approach his inventiveness. In his drawings, Steinberg's lines seem to reinvent themselves as they progress, zigging when you expect them to zag, or disappearing abruptly just as they appear to be gathering steam. In the Art Institute's revelatory new show "Along the Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg," curator Mark Pascale has gathered 54 examples of Steinberg's work spanning from the 1940s to the '80s (given to the museum by the Saul Steinberg Foundation in 2013), and has presented an artist who's always searching for the purest distillation of thought through the act of mark making.

Born in Romania in 1914, Steinberg studied architecture in Italy, then fled the spread of anti-Semitism and fascism in Europe for America. His slant on the United States was always from the perspective of a newcomer, an immigrant's view of his strange new home. Though known best for his many New Yorker covers and drawings, Steinberg wasn't a cartoonist, as were many of the other prominent contributors to that magazine. It's a testament to his unique place in art history that he was included in the Museum of Modern Art's pivotal "Fourteen Americans" show in 1946, alongside such modernists as Arshile Gorky and Robert Motherwell.

Many of Steinberg's drawings employ text, but the words don't illuminate the images or vice versa; instead, both written and drawn elements cohere for a unified poetic statement. In I Do, I Have, I Am (1971) the phrases are both a graphic and literary message: "I Do" appears as a mixture of rainbow and sun, "I Have" is rendered as fencing and sheets hanging on a clothesline, and "I Am" is carved out of a piece of earth.

Throughout his career, Steinberg had a knack for using quotidian tools like stamps in sophisticated ways. He applies bureaucratic stamps throughout Certified Landscape (1969), transforming them from their everyday usage into moons and building decorations. In fact, every mark in that drawing, in addition to several others in "Along the Lines," was made using only stamps. What look from a distance like hand-drawn etchings are actually custom-stamped lines, imprinted repeatedly to form crosshatched and rhythmic textures. Elsewhere, Steinberg adopts collage elements in a transformative fashion. A newspaper clipping of a pipe organ becomes a skyscraper, a ledger sheet morphs into a building facade, and a hotel label is incorporated into its surroundings and becomes the vanishing point of a landscape.

In his catalog essay, Pascale posits that Steinberg's greatest contribution was his demonstration that the drawn line is equivalent to thought. Indeed, Steinberg is rarely concerned with outward physical appearance and is much more interested in what and how we perceive what we see. His portraits and landscapes are of interior worlds rather than external ones. But his interest in the human psyche isn't dry or academic—much of the humor and mystery in his work occurs in the way he relates humanity's lack of understanding. When Steinberg draws thought balloons, for instance, they are usually filled with non sequiturs or gibberish.

Cartoonist Chris Ware also contributes a catalog essay to "Along the Lines," and in it he quotes fellow artist Lynda Barry: "[Steinberg's] drawing went not from his mind to his hand but rather from his hand to his mind." In other words, Steinberg made his art in order to find out what he thought. Now, thanks to this beautiful exhibit, we can gain some insight into what he thought as well.  v

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