Let’s Talk Art: Pace Gallery’s Samanthe Rubell Shares Insight into Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg “Riverhead, Long Island,” 1985. Colored pencil, crayon, ink and watercolor on paper. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Pace Gallery Senior Director Samanthe Rubell shares some insight into the art and life of Saul Steinberg (1914–1999). Though the artist was most renowned for his iconic covers and cartoons for The New Yorker, for many years, he was also an East End resident. Pace Gallery in East Hampton is currently hosting a solo exhibition of 21 photographs and works on paper by the artist. In addition, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill is also featuring his work in a show running through April 2021. 

Let’s talk about the works on view at Pace East Hampton. What is the time period in which it was created? 

SR: The featured works span 50 years, from 1949 – 1989, giving a wide look at the breadth of the artist’s career.

What is the unifying theme in the pieces presented in the exhibition? 

SR: These works all present views of everyday life as depicted by Steinberg, presented in his characteristic cerebral style, which experimentally brings together drawing, photography, collage and sculpture. The works also depict scenes from his travels, which were very much a part of his life. 

Steinberg was an immigrant who was born in Romania and came to the U.S. from Europe in 1942. In what way do you think his work reflects the immigrant’s view? 

SR: In an interview in Art in America in 1970, he said: “By putting oneself in the uncomfortable position of an immigrant, one is again like a child.” As an immigrant, he was able to experience culture with “fresh eyes.”

In many ways, Saul Steinberg’s status as an immigrant permeated the ways he viewed the world. Though beloved by the American public who would experience his work on the pages and covers of magazines, he often felt like an outsider, so he had a sharp eye for details drawn from everyday life in America. He was able to pick up cultural nuances from American life and society that someone born into the culture might not notice so acutely.

What do we know about Steinberg’s working process? Did he sketch scenes on the street and then come back to the studio to complete them, or were they created from photographs or imagination? How long would he spend creating pieces like those in this show? 

SR: Drawing was a way of life for the artist, but he was reluctant to draw explicitly from life. He rather tried to communicate his own experiences from memory. In a 2002 publication of a series of interviews between the artist and Aldo Buzzi, Steinberg stated: “What I try to do is to say with painting something more than what the eye sees.”

Of his practice he shared in an interview with Art in America in 1970: “I draw because I want to explain to myself something I have seen. How can I understand it if I don’t draw it? Drawing is a way of reasoning on paper. Drawing is extremely free, extremely without codes… Because there’s an immediate correspondence between thinking and action.”

He also said in the same Art in America interview : “…In making a drawing or even starting a phrase — let’s talk about starting a phrase — I have a very vague idea of what I’m going to say. During the time I say it, the conclusion and the main idea, I hope, will jump in. How? By plunging into it… When I make a drawing I’m just like a writer. I have a desk — a bigger desk of course; I need more space. But I sit down and look at this piece of paper and think, what am I going to do?”

Can you tell me a bit about the various art styles that he would typically incorporate in his work? Was this his way of sharing a stylistic code with a wink and a nod?

SR: Steinberg derived inspiration from a wide variety of sources. His works often ingeniously incorporate the stylistic codes of Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism, among other movements in their mining of art and history. Steinberg was also trained as an architect, and brought this keen sense of structural design into his own personal visual language. Part of what makes Steinberg’s work so unique was the intense range of influences and sources of inspiration one can trace in a single work.

Steinberg is of course best-known for his famous covers for The New Yorker, but fewer people know that he had a home in Amagansett beginning in 1959. Do we know what — or who —brought Steinberg to the East End of Long Island? 

SR: On May 22, 1959, Steinberg purchased a house on Old Stone Highway in Springs in Amagansett. The house was across the road from sculptor Tino Nivola and his wife and Ruth, who remained among his closest friends. This home was to become his refuge from the busy life of New York, and gave him a place to work away from the pressures of the city.

What about Steinberg’s relationship to the Hamptons region? What do we know about his social and working life here?

SR: Saul Steinberg’s Amagansett home was incredibly important in his life. He was neighbors with critic Harold Rosenberg, Willem de Kooning, and later the novelist William Gaddist.

He also added a studio to the home in 1973, so it was central to both his work and professional lives. He often entertained friends and family there, and towards the end of his life he spent a majority of his time at his Amagansett home.

How did the local landscapes and landmarks figure in his work? What were the local scenes that attracted him?

This exhibition features Steinberg’s “Riverhead, Long Island” (1985), which exemplifies the artist’s ability to reimagine his local landscapes through his personal lexicon. The drawing pulls from the local landscape in its featuring of the Flanders Big Duck building, located in Flanders.

Additional verdant locations, such as Louse Point in Springs, became a continuous source of inspiration for his work from 1960 onward.

At his Amagansett home, Steinberg also began to draw portraits and watercolors of visitors in the late 1970s. He was always intrigued by daily life and the local landscape, so the East End lent itself beautifully to both. They were a constant source of inspiration for him like many great artists that have and continue to frequent the East End.

“Saul Steinberg,” a solo exhibition of photographs and works on paper, runs through January 17 at Pace Gallery, 68 Park Place Passage, East Hampton (pacegallery.com). “Saul Steinberg: Modernist Without Portfolio,” runs through April, 2021 at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill (parrishart.org).