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Obituaries

Saul Steinberg; Artist Best Known for Covers and Cartoons in the New Yorker

May 14, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saul Steinberg, the artist and cartoonist whose sharply honed sense of life's absurdities endowed half a century of drawings and illustrations with wit, whimsy and biting social commentary, died Wednesday at his home in New York City. He was 84 and suffered from pancreatic cancer.

Steinberg was best known for his cartoons and cover art for the New Yorker magazine. He created one of the most famous American drawings, a much-mimicked and parodied map of the world dominated by Manhattan as the cultural center of the universe.

The Bucharest-born Steinberg has been compared to Picasso, Klee, Miro and Duchamp, although he was for years viewed as a lesser artist because he toiled in the minor field of cartooning.

That view of Steinberg had changed by 1978 when New York's Whitney Museum of American Art paid tribute to him in a retrospective of 250 works--watercolors, drawings, collages, wooden assemblages, oils, and a few cartoons. He also had one-man shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York and Galerie Maeght in Paris.

Although gratified by the attention, Steinberg liked it best when he saw his drawings published.

"I have never depended on art historians or the benedictions of museums and critics. That came later," he once said. "I like work to be on the page."

Next week's issue of the New Yorker will contain four of his drawings and a cover illustration, which Steinberg, a very private man, might see as the best tribute in death.

"He created his own reality in a way no other artist could," said Francoise Mouly, art editor of the New Yorker. "He was not a painter, not a cartoonist. . . . He found the place where art intersects with cartoons and created such a powerful body of work that museums had to stretch to embrace him."

Steinberg often referred to his cartoons as "writings" and to himself as a writer. There were more writers than artists among his close friends, Mouly said, such as novelists Vladimir Nabokov and William Gaddis.

Fluent in several languages, including Italian, French, English and his native Romanian, he developed a visual language of signs and symbols. He was, art historian Harold Rosenberg said, "a writer of pictures" whose art intrigued viewers through its ambiguity and layers of meaning.

Thus, in Steinberg's universe, the Chrysler Building sinks into inky blackness, crocodiles crawl city streets, Uncle Sam is a matador facing off against a turkey, and Indians wearing lots of feathers are among the few brave souls.

In the 1960s, his visual vocabulary expanded to include rubber stamps, seals, punctuation marks, letters of the alphabet and elaborate but indecipherable calligraphy. In one famous drawing reprinted in "The New Yorker Album of Drawings" that spoke to anyone who had ever experienced a roundabout rejection, he showed a man talking across a desk to another man, probably a subordinate. Coming out of the boss' mouth are streams of fancy, nonsensical script contained within the outlines of the word "NO," written absurdly large.

The cartoonist mocked America, but he loved it too, especially its diners, motels, highways and kidney-shaped swimming pools. "I'm crazy about the Dakotas," he once told Newsweek. "And Nebraska! It is sensuous driving up and down the hills, like an endless succession of breasts, hips and protuberances." Las Vegas was another favorite. In "The Discovery of America," a collection of drawings published in 1992, Vegas is reduced to a crayon drawing of a woman who is all head, legs, purse and arms at a slot machine.

A constant theme was how New York viewed the rest of the world. His famous 1975 drawing, "View of the World From 9th Avenue," which first appeared on the magazine's cover the next year, "covers the view westward from Manhattan to the drastically foreshortened rest of the world," John Updike recently wrote.

The drawing, which earned no royalties for its creator, inspired a legion of imitators in other cities. Steinberg got so fed up with the rip-offs that he filed a copyright infringement suit against Columbia Pictures over the poster the studio made to publicize its 1984 movie "Moscow on the Hudson." A federal judge ruled in his favor in 1987.

Steinberg was born June 15, 1914, the son of a Romanian box manufacturer and a cake maker. He trained in Milan as an architect, although he never designed a building, and fled Fascist Italy soon after earning his degree.

Before leaving Italy, he sold his first cartoons, including one of a man staring in a mirror who says: "Dammit! This isn't me. I got lost in the crowd." Steinberg once said architecture was "marvelous training for anything but architecture. The frightening thought that what you draw may become a building makes for reasoned lines."

His first drawing for the New Yorker appeared on Oct. 25, 1941, while he was still in Italy. He arrived in the United States in 1942. The next year he became a naturalized citizen and married Hedda Lindenberg Sterne, a painter, who survives him.

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