Online Viewing Room

Saul Steinberg

Imagined Interiors

Mar 23 – May 3, 2020
Curated by Michaela Mohrmann

Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) redefined the possibilities of drawing, casting it as a philosophical investigation, “a way of reasoning on paper.”

His ingenious experiments with drawing and other media, including photography, collage, and sculpture, earned him critical acclaim as a modernist artist in the post-war period, while his numerous drawings and covers for The New Yorker made him dear to a broad American public—the people whose daily lives and customs became the subject of his art. ​

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, c. 1950, gelatin silver print, image, 8 7/8 x 5 7/8 inches paper, 10 x 8 inches (25.2 x 20.3 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Untitled, c. 1950, gelatin silver print with hand-applied ink, 4-3/4" × 4-3/4" (12.1 cm × 12.1 cm), image 5" × 4-1/8" (12.7 cm × 10.5 cm), paper 11-5/8" × 9-5/8" × 1" (29.5 cm × 24.4 cm × 2.5 cm), frame

Creative Pursuits at Home

Steinberg often depicts interiors as cocoons of creativity—ideal sites for introspection and artistic activity, ranging from drawing, collecting, and playing instruments. 

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1949, ink on paper, 14-5/8" × 23-1/4" (37.1 cm × 59.1 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Sphinx II, 1966, crayon, pencil, colored pencil, and ink on cut brown kraft paper mounted to Strathmore, 30" x 40" (76.2 cm x 101.6 cm), image 33-7/16" × 43-5/16" × 1-11/16" (84.9 cm × 110 cm × 4.3 cm), frame
Saul Steinberg, Untitled (Victorian Interior), 1949-1954, ink over pencil on paper, 14-1/4" × 23" (36.2 cm × 58.4 cm)
Box 20 Early Photos 4 of 4 (1) SM.jpg

Steinberg at his drawing table in his room above the Bar Il Grillo, Milan, c. 1937. Saul Steinberg Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

"My purpose is to transform an idea that I had into a drawing. I am not so preoccupied by the outside world. I’m preoccupied with my own inside world."

Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg, Untitled (Drawing Table), 1966, ink and rubber stamp on paper, 19" x 25" (48.3 cm x 63.5 cm)

Click image to hear Charles Louise Ambroise Thomas's "Gavotte," from "Mignon," the composition pictured in Steinberg's drawing.

A Closer Look

In the 1970s, Steinberg began reflecting on his early life in Romania and Italy, creating overtly autobiographical drawings—a rarity in his oeuvre. But rather than indulging in nostalgia, this image of the artist playing the violin as a boy finds humor in his humble beginnings. Keeping tempo by tapping his foot, young Steinberg seems to awaken the tiger adorning the rug—a visual play underlining the fact that both beast and child exist on the same two-dimensional plane, even though the latter is read as somehow “less flat” than the former. This drollery momentarily distracts from the modesty of the family abode, sparsely decorated with rustic furniture and folksy patterns. “I was embarrassed to be part of a primitive civilization,” Steinberg expressed of his Romanian background. Nevertheless, the centrality of music and presence of an attentive listener in this scene suggest that an appreciation for the arts did exist in his childhood home. 

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1978, pencil and colored pencil on paper, 10-1/2" × 13-3/4" (26.7 cm × 34.9 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1966, ink, watercolor, colored pencil and rubber stamp on Passantino brands sheet music, 19" × 14" (48.3 cm × 35.6 cm)
ST and Papoose---1974.jpg

Steinberg with the cat Papoose in his Amagansett studio, 1974

In Good Company: Pets

Perhaps more than any other domestic animal, the cat evokes the insularity of urban apartment-dwelling. Because of its cerebral aloofness, the cat, a recurring figure in the work of Steinberg, operates as a stand-in for him. “There is something more clever and philosophical about the cat,” he explained. “The cat represents the artist, who is also not involved completely with the life that surrounds him.” 

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1983, crayon, graphite and ink on paper, 14-1/2" x 23" (36.8 cm x 58.4 cm)

"Cats and dogs, being near people, are people. They become interesting because they clown people."

Saul Steinberg ​

Saul Steinberg, Untitled (Now!), c. 1960-1965, watercolor, pen and ink, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 20" × 15-1/4" (50.8 cm × 38.7 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Looking Down, 1988, marker, crayon, colored pencil and conté crayon with collage on paper, 20" x 14" (50.8 cm x 35.6 cm)

In this drawing, a cat engrossed in observation parallels our position as viewers, linking three dissimilar spaces: the raucous streets of New York; the barren interior of a small apartment; and the real world beyond the drawing. By identifying with the cat, the viewer ironically loses the cool remove that is the feline’s chief characteristic. A visual magnet, the pet quickly draws our gaze past the spartan home toward a bewildering urbanscape, made all the more eye-catching by its tilted spatial coordinates and accents of color. 

Hiroshige cat.jpg

Utagawa Hiroshige (Ando) (Japanese, 1797-1858), Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival, No. 101 from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 11th month of 1857, Woodblock print, Sheet: 14 3/16 x 9 1/4 in. (36 x 23.5 cm) © Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Anna Ferris

Looking Down’s mise-en-scène references Utagawa Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e print of an Edo period brothel visited during the Torinomachi Festival. Hiroshige emphasizes the impenetrable intimacy and quietude of the prostitute’s chamber by showing only a cat, rather than nude bodies, and by reducing the festival’s clamorous street procession to a faint, meandering line in the distance. Looking Down, by contrast, amplifies the intrusiveness of the outside world. A subtext may be surmised: in modern times, the divide between private and public spheres is porous, making the critical distance of cat-like artists perhaps indispensable. ​

Portals to Other Worlds

Steinberg defies the hermeticism and immobility of most still life compositions through autobiographical details evocative of distant locations and styles exuding a dynamic vitality. ​

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1989, colored pencil, crayon and pencil on MBM Ingres d’Arches folded in half, 19-5/8" × 26-7/8" (49.8 cm × 68.3 cm)

I try to use a very poor alphabet for expressing ideas that may be very complicated. And this is the nearest thing to poetry, where common words are used in order to explain very complicated things.

Saul Steinberg

Click image to hear an audio recording of William Carlos Williams reading his 1934 poem, This is Just to Say.

This is Just to Say
by William Carlos Williams ​​

I have eaten​
the plums​
that were in​
the icebox​

​and which​
you were probably​
for breakfast​

​Forgive me​
they were delicious​
so sweet​
and so cold​

Saul Steinberg, Still Life, 1980-1981, graphite on folded paper, 14-1/2" x 23-1/8" (36.8 cm x 58.7 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Speeding Still Life, 1979, ink, rubber stamp, and pencil on paper, 19-5/8" x 22-5/8" (49.8 cm x 57.5 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Swiss Still Life, 1988, watercolor, marker, ink, colored pencil, and collaged pentimenti on paper, 17-7/8" x 23-7/8" (45.4 cm x 60.6 cm)

The Fantastic Everyday

"I play with the absurdity of reality. There is something absurd about what we consider to be real—even what we consider to be absurd."

Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1983, crayon, graphite and ink on paper, 14-1/2" x 23" (36.8 cm x 58.4 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1981, ink over graphite and colored pencil on paper, 14-1/2" × 23" (36.8 cm × 58.4 cm), image 20-15/16" × 28-13/16" × 1-9/16" (53.2 cm × 73.2 cm × 4 cm), frame
Saul Steinberg, Bedroom Sphinx, 1987, oil pastel, pencil, and wash on paper, 56-1/2 x 45-1/2"
Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1981, brush and ink, marker, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 14-1/2" x 23-1/4" (36.8 cm x 59.1 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Untitled (Stage set for Rossini’s comic opera Count Ory), 1958, ink, colored pencil, crayon and watercolor over graphite on paper, 14" x 23" (35.6 cm x 58.4 cm)

At Home in Public

By relocating domestic objects into the streets or capturing people at ease in communal spaces, Steinberg often suggests the blurring of indoors and outdoors in modern life.​

Saul Steinberg, Untitled (Train Passengers), 1952, pen, ink and graphite on paper, 14-1/2" x 23-1/4" (36.8 cm x 59.1 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Untitled, June 12, 1950, gelatin silver print, 4-1/8" × 4-7/8" (10.5 cm × 12.4 cm), image 5" × 4" (12.7 cm × 10.2 cm), paper 11-5/8" × 9-5/8" × 1" (29.5 cm × 24.4 cm × 2.5 cm), frame
Saul Steinberg, Chest of Drawers Cityscape, 1950, gelatin silver print, image, 9 5/8 x 6 7/8 inches paper, 10 1/8 x 8 inches (25.7 cm x 20.3 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Untitled, c. 1950, gelatin silver print, image, 10 1/8 x 8 1/8 inches paper, 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm)
Saul Steinberg, Untitled (Family Walking Down the Street), c. 1950, gelatin silver print with hand-applied ink, 4-1/2" × 2-3/4" (11.4 cm × 7 cm), image and paper 11-5/8" × 9-5/8" × 1" (29.5 cm × 24.4 cm × 2.5 cm), frame
Saul Steinberg

Steinberg in his Amagansett studio, c. 1978

Saul Steinberg

b. 1914, Râmnicul Sarat, Romania; d. 1999, New York

Saul Steinberg produced drawings, sculptures, photographs, and collages that continue to elicit critical contemplation. Having studied architecture in Milan, he fled wartime Italy in 1941 and became an American citizen two years later. Influenced by Dada, Surrealism, Cubism, and Pop, Steinberg’s varied output reflects the defiant humor, curiosity, and modernist attitude of an artist trying to make sense of the chaotic postwar period. Marked by a self-aware wit, his work embraces double meanings and philosophical content expressed through graphic means. Widely celebrated for his contributions to The New Yorker, Steinberg’s art became an exploration of social and political systems, language, and art itself.

Steinberg’s work is held in permanent collections internationally, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; The Baltimore Museum of Art; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Jewish Museum, New York; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.

All images © 2020 Saul Steinberg Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • Past, Saul Steinberg, Imagined Interiors, Mar 23, 2020