Friday, October 10, 2014

Saul Steinberg at 100

Ian Frazier in The New Yorker.

If Saul Steinberg were still alive, he would be a hundred years old. He was born in Romania in 1914, just before the start of the First World War. In 1942, escaping from Italy, where he had been an architecture student, he came to the United States. For the next six decades, his amazing work levitated this magazine; here was a major twentieth-century artist who also possessed an unmatched gift for the magazine page, especially The New Yorker’s.

He died in his apartment, on Seventy-fifth Street near the corner of Park Avenue, in May of 1999. I was with him when he died, and felt a kind of only-in-New York irritation at the terrible racket outside his bedroom window during his last hours. When I left his apartment later in the day, I saw that the noise had been caused by reconstruction work on a nearby brownstone. The work included sandblasting of the red bricks, and its blood-red runoff was surging along the curb past Saul’s building. He had a wizard’s power to transform his surroundings. Naturally the gutters of Seventy-fifth Street would run crimson when he died.
He said that he always tried to draw like a child. The portrait photo he engineered of his adult self holding hands with a life-size cutout photo of himself at age six shows how seriously he took this idea. The goal was to draw like a child who never stopped drawing that way even as he aged and his subject matter became not childish. The young Saul in the sailor suit and short pants of a middle-class Romanian boy of the early nineteen-twenties remained his permanent companion. He enjoyed this society; he often said that he was his own best company. Perhaps because he survived the war, he made a point of not doing things that he didn’t want to do, true to the sincerest instincts of his child self. He did what he wanted more faithfully and to better artistic effect than anybody I’ve ever known. 

One of his later covers for this magazine was an enlarged map showing the route, marked with blue lines and arrows, that he often followed when he left his apartment. Errands took him along Seventy-fifth, to Lex, up to Seventy-sixth, over to the other side of the street, and so on, back to his building. He witnessed the life of the circumscribed city dweller at closest range and registered his environment down to the reflections of the pigeons’ feet in the puddles on the sidewalk. The centripetal magnetism of New York drew him into minuscule detail. 
But this is also New York’s snare, as he also knew. You can get so myopic that the next thing you know you’re thinking anybody who would live elsewhere must have something wrong with him. Saul loved New York, but he loved Elsewhere just as much. Though he saw the city close up, he had a passion for the most distant horizons in space and in time. The lonely protagonists of his drawings often contend with huge space-time expanses all around. 

Saul’s most famous horizon drawing became perhaps the most widely known (and widely imitated) cover in the history of the magazine. His “View of the World from 9th Avenue” showed apartment buildings, fire escapes, Tenth Avenue, Eleventh Avenue, the Hudson River, the broad, mostly empty U.S.A., and the Pacific Ocean concluding at China, Russia, and Japan on the horizon’s remoteness. In one stroke, his “View” unclenched the self-obsessed city and spilled it open like a briefcase. 
Unhappily, that cover went on to be his bane. The many imitations that appeared almost immediately kept sneaking into his peripheral vision and making him mad. Once, we were walking in the city when he passed a pirated “View” on a bus shelter, advertising a brand of wine. He winced and set his jaw and kept on going. In his later years, in general, Saul got gloomier. A drawing he did of the millennial year, 2000, looming up ahead is characteristic of this period.

A version of the drawing appeared as a cover of this magazine in 1997. On the winding trail he drew, the marker in the road just before that year began may stand for his late-life catastrophe, the suicide of his girlfriend, the artist Sigrid Spaeth, in 1996. The uphill windings and switchbacks of the path ahead were not going to be fun, he suspected. The year 2000 was a three-eyed monster staring at him over a wall he would not reach.
His child self never left him, nor did his love of Elsewhere. When I was living out West, in the late nineties, Saul said that we would meet up in the town of Big Timber, Montana. He had seen the name on a map and liked it; for one reason or another, that trip never happened. 
Once, when I was back for a visit, we walked his usual errand route from his apartment, and he stopped to put a letter in a mailbox. After depositing it, he leaned over the mailbox and shouted the letter’s destination. He said he had always done that. When he was a boy, his family often sent letters to relatives in a city near Bucharest. Saul’s father would put the letter in the mailbox, then lift Saul up to the slot, and Saul would yell into it the name of the city where the letter was going: “Buzău!” In my mind the remotest place, the horizon, belongs to Saul.

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