The Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College
November 2, 2007 - February 24, 2008

Bart Gulley, Inside/Out Hudson Valley
Inspecting the Inspector

Creating his own manifest destiny, Saul Steinberg unfurls his flag across the American landscape, laying claim to all the territory in view. An emigre artist and so a natural outsider, he creates his own new world, claiming it boldly as an insider. This dichotomy is central to the virtuosic, fanciful genius of his work. Steinberg extends the American vernacular to create a visual language born of dislocation, the whimsicality of which makes it easy to underestimate the scope of his achievement.

That scope is on display in a beautiful show and major retrospective of the famed New Yorker artist at Vassar College's The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The show, which runs through February 24, brings together 100 drawings, collages and sculptural assemblages from the 1930s through the 1990s. Viewing them together, one sees the extent to which Steinberg puts entirely different styles of draftsmanship into direct dialogue with one another in order to nail characters and landscapes to the page with precision and grace. He incorporates art-historical styles that range from cubism, art deco, pointillism and romanticism to the sleek cool of Bauhaus, adopting whatever visual idiom suits his purpose. These stylistic shifts continually transform his line and demonstrate his grasp of geography, architecture, language, culture, history and philosophy.

Steinberg's studies of social identity tease out the strangeness and dividedness that characterizes contemporary consciousness. Putting allegory in the service of wit, he recreates his own version of American mythology, while exposing the cultural falsehoods that often underpin it. Combining satire with celebration, he represents the virtuous, the iconoclastic, the pious and the self-important.

The vehicle that brings these diverse idioms, styles and moods together is Steinberg's unmistakable horizon line, which enables him to explore both temporal and spatial progression. The double nature of this progression demonstrates the democratic energies that gave spark to American culture, while also tracing its potential for self-inflicted decline.

Because the work is shown in chronological order, the viewer can watch Steinberg move through time from the predominantly European values that originally shaped him to the modern experience he discovered in the new world. The trajectory of this timeline also suggests an American future that is both hard to predict and potentially dangerous, reflecting the increasingly gloomy view of the US that Steinberg came to hold during the country's involvement in Vietnam. He shows America's idealized version of itself while also depicting a more troubling reality coming into view, revising his aesthetic ideas in response to his evolving vision.

His darkening perspective is most apparent in his portraiture from the 60s and 70s which, though amusing, can also be menacing and ambiguous, employing an "illusionist double language," as one critic noted. In many works of this period, society seems to be veering toward dystopia, alienation and breakdown even as it explores new-found and exuberant liberties. The richness of these opposing themes converge in a decidedly American manner, offering an ongoing demonstration of civic and social commentary framed by artistic imagination and boulevardier observation.

Steinberg also uses his horizon line to explore a mental geography that demonstrates the American idea of expansion and exceptionalism, with its continual westward gaze and belief in its own manifest destiny. Mapping this phenomenon, Steinberg depicts a home-grown high/low society parade, in which both popular culture and European influence are preserved, while new and old values jostle alongside one another. In this geography of dislocation, gritty urban scenes intersect with vast western landscapes, cowboys populate downtown canyons while organization men roam the desert, and g-men hobnob with the avant-guard. A bright light throws these paradoxes into disquieting relief.

The unexpected and dizzying perspectives revealed by this mapping suggest multiple meanings and fresh meta-narratives, giving distinction and importance to this fun-house show, which delights the visitor with its graphic beauty. With his signature style and interpretive timeline, Steinberg manifests his own destiny as an artist, layering illustration and experience in order to catalogue the unsettling diversity of our time.