Earlier this year when I ran into my New Yorker cartoonist colleague, Ken Krimstein, one of the first things we talked about was the Steinberg exhibit that had opened in Ken’s hometown, Chicago. I thought it would be interesting to hear what a New Yorker cartoonist thought of the show and Ken graciously agreed to review the exhibit for the Spill. I received his fascinating take yesterday and am pleased to share it here.
by Ken Krimstein
At least among my generation of cartoonists, three masters seem to be the entry level drug into making the stuff. Charles Addams, Don Martin, and Saul Steinberg. The precise balance of the three varies, but be sure, one of them is in there.
When you’re a young cartoonist, trying to peel yourself away from Rugrats or Marmaduke or Dick Tracy (not that there’s anything wrong with any of them), the coolness, line, precision, puzzling delight of Steinberg is catnip. Cartoons can do that? Weird, fun, challenging pictures that ignite something in your reptilian cartoonist brain and connect in a way, that at least for me, said, “holy crap, I’ve got to try to do that too!”
So you draw, and you read, and you devour everything you can about this quirky Romanian via Italian architecture school immigrant/refugee who was able to bamboozle the U.S. Army into making him an officer in WWII and who “owned” first chair at the New Yorker from the 40’s to the 80’s. I remember hearing Roger Angell, who ought to know, saying in his almost 70 years at The New Yorker he only marked two bona-fide geniuses. One was Nabokov. You can guess the other.
As I approached the modestly placed show, in a couple of side galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago,, “Along The Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg,” I wondered what the effect would be on me? Would my guru still be singing his siren song? Or would his work seem like some tattered mid-century modern furniture at a second-hand shop? Would there be discoveries? Would there be some gags (a discipline which he quickly mastered and just as quickly seemed to abandon for his ‘thought drawings?’) How securely fastened were these pieces to the wall, and could I manage to escape with one?
But when I turned the corner into the gallery, my doubts were erased. Five of his paper bag masks stared, glared, grinned, cajoled, taunted right into my face. THE PAPER BAG MASKS!!! I had seen them so many times in photographs, but never in person. So amazing, so “breaking the fourth wall,” so tribal/modern, so right there, in front of me. I was disarmed.
The show is comprised of 54 “drawings” gifted to the Art Institute by the Saul Steinberg Foundation in 2013. Since I moved to Chicago from New York several years ago, I’d been longing to go into the print library and examine them. But here they were. And, in total, I’d have to say it is rare that any gallery show has as high a batting average of “holy-crap I wish I’d done that” worthy work as this one. True there was only one pure “gag,” and not incidentally it graces the cover of the catalog (a man laying on bar stools as if they’re a bed), not one of Steinberg’s greatest but still.
Aside from the wit, the “think,” it was the “ink” (or pencil, paint, chalk, foil, rubber stamp etc.) that blew me away. His ideas are fascinating, but his craft was a complete revelation. Up close and personal, his pen lines squeak, his colored pencils whisper, his paints sigh. The creamy paper, left open in large swathes, was as important as his markings. You don’t look at Saul Steinberg originals, you watch them!
I always knew Steinberg as a mind, now I could appreciate him as an eye. So when, in the second image, a crowd of Steinberg people (and a dog) stared up into space, into my eyes, at my eye level, I felt the cagey Romanian’s hands pulling me into the page. I started leaning in as close as the guards would allow, searching for hints of pencil lines, erasing? The layout of the pages, the fantasy, the filigree — more and more seductive. I was in his head, withered cowboys, wrinkled matrons, the full ghastly glory of 1950’s road trips across American in the enormous Cadillac (I know, because he had a drawing of himself driving it.)
As if to say, “take this printers!,” Steinberg takes that horrible phrase “mixed-media” and makes it noble. (Nobel?) In person, watercolors, colored pencils, wax pencils, and lamp-black ink ignite each other in a way that can’t be reproduced. It made me want to seek out “Ivory Wove Paper” whatever and wherever that stuff exists, and corner the market on it.
There were concepts galore, of course. Covers that were large and creamy and delightful. (Delight, in fact, is the refrain of this show.)
Steinberg took delight in letters, in weird words (KONAK), in clouds, in color, in splotches and feathery lines. My favorite piece? Ebbets field in Brooklyn, the brave lights, perched on crooked, patched together poles, pump their wan luminosity over the field, grim, street lamp-lit Brooklyn spreading around it like delightful human fungus. Or something like that. I loved it. Maybe because I once tried to visit Ebbets field and now it’s just a plaque on some housing project.
My other favorite (in Steinberg’s world you are allowed to have two favorites) is a breakfast still life, all light pencils and water color washes and sunlight and a slight hangover and you can feel the sun glowing and smell the coffee, thank God!
So, does he hold up? Oh, yes. But, he’s different to me now. Maybe because I’m different. My take-away, besides all that delight? He drew buildings like they were people and he drew people like they were buildings.
What did I learn from that? Nothing. And everything.
Along the Lines: Selected Drawing of Saul Steinberg, runs at the Art Institute of Chicago through October 29, 2017. http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/along-lines-selected-drawings-saul-steinberg
(Steinberg Mask above copyrighted by the artist)
About Ken Krimstein (pictured left, behind the Steinbergian mask):
Born, Chicago, Illinois. Raised in Deerfield Illinois. Began drawing at age one. Graduated from Grinnel College and Northwestern University. His work has appeared in “Punch,” “The National Lampoon,” “Narrativemagazine.com,” several cartoon anthologies edited by Sam Gross and in others assembled by King Features “New Breed.” As a writer, he has published in mcsweeneys.net, “The New York Observer,” and has read work as part of “Trumpet Fiction” at KGB bar in New York. Krimstein lives with his wife and three children in Chicago. New Yorker work: August 7, 2000 – . Clarkson Potter published a cartoon collection, Kvetch As Kvetch Can, in October of 2010. Website: http://www.kenkrimstein.com/