Saul Steinberg, who seemed to draw the way the rest of us breathe -- a visceral element in being alive -- took Cincinnati by surprise in 1948. He's doing it again in 2007.
When Steinberg's 60-year-old mural for the Terrace Plaza Hotel recently went on public view for the first time since 1982, news of the event was noted as far away as the International Herald Tribune (a European source told me). Now the exhibition Saul Steinberg: Illuminations is open at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM).
A new generation can discover that the fuddy old funny man was often bang-on. What's more, his barbs retain relevance even as their immediate circumstance have faded. The formidable subway-strap-hanging ladies in "Three Liberties," dating from 1949-1951, have their counterparts today. The blinkered view of any geography not one's own (see "Wyoming" for the American West and "The West Side" for the west of New York City) has not faltered even as the world grows smaller by the day, in a virtual sense.
No geography here was Steinberg's own, except the abstract human condition that survives in its essentials anywhere.
The "Mural of Cincinnati" is a rich assortment of Steinbergian architecture. He made a fact-finding trip here in May of 1947. He sketched the Roebling suspension bridge, the Tyler-Davidson fountain, the Mount Adams Incline and the sturdily industrial Millcreek Valley. Later, Steinberg would include a windowless, several-story brick block topped by a setback tower that could only be the building for which the mural was destined.
Stephen Bonadies, chief conservator for the CAM and point man for the rejuvenation of the mural, says that Steinberg followed his preliminary drawings very closely.
"Color transparencies (of Steinberg's sketches) exist, very rare, a fantastic documentation," he says.
The canvas was originally pasted on the wall in the hotel's Skyline dining room. When Hilton took over in 1965, it was transferred to the CAM and mounted by tacks, still bearing the grime and smoke from its years in the restaurant. Some of us can remember it slowly sagging on the wall, looking very brown. Temporary walls went up in front of it in 1982, for the Museum's record-breaking Treasures from the Tower of London show, and in 1989 it was carefully removed and rolled on large-diameter tubes, to disappear into painting storage.
Conservation, funded by several grants, took place at the Intermuseum Conservation Association in Cleveland. The Museum had neither the space nor the staff to handle the 75-by-16-foot mural. One of two lost panels has been reproduced, thanks to the transparencies. It is an intentionally paler color than the originals.
Steinberg's technique, even when working with paint, reflected his enormous talents as a draftsman. Of the mural, Bonadies says, "He did it all, no assistants. His black paint line was sensitive to solvents; conservators had to work around that."
Illuminations, to give into the impulse to pun, does indeed illuminate the "Mural of Cincinnati." The exhibition opened last fall at the prestigious Morgan Library in New York City and will be shown at four venues. The first careful look at the artist's full career, the show is intended to enhance Steinberg's reputation and to place him squarely within the art establishment, to which he was a gadfly in life. Curator Joel Smith of Princeton University, who organized the show and wrote the catalogue essay, puts him in the category of Klee and Mondrian, "who did not rewrite history; they are great by reason of their singularity."
Singularity certainly marks Steinberg's work. It is idiosyncratically his, but how he sees things has to be counterbalanced by what he saw. He was, said New Yorker writer Roger Angell, "a world-class noticer." For that he could probably thank all those years when anti-Semitism set him apart. It's the outside observer who sees.
Illuminations includes original art for publications, along with collages and sculptural assemblages. As familiar as we are with Steinberg's work, seeing the full range of his creative powers enlarges respect for his talent and appreciation of the uncluttered vision behind the whimsy. The foibles he records are of his times but timeless. The same can be said for his particular and inimitable style. Grade: A-
SAUL STEINBERG: ILLUMINATIONS is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Sept. 23. Gallery talks centering on Steinberg's work occur 1 p.m. July 28; 1-4 p.m. Aug. 12, 19 and 26; 1 p.m. Sept. 8; 2 p.m. Sept 16; and 2 p.m. Sept. 21.