‘Saul Steinberg’: the artist who was ‘pop’ before Andy Warhol

Many of us knew Saul Steinberg primarily as the very witty and very clever cartoonist and cover artist for The New Yorker during its heyday.

Steinberg created a genuinely iconic image for the magazine in 1976 with his cover art showing New York City’s overpowering position in the United States. Whether it was seen as supporting or sending up the way New Yorkers view their city, the beautiful “View from Ninth Avenue” inspired countless posters and who-knows-how-many rip-offs (I have a souvenir refrigerator magnet that tries to apply the Steinberg concept to Philadelphia).

The new biography by National Book Award winner Deirdre Bair — “Saul Steinberg” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) — makes it clear that the artist’s work for The New Yorker was just the tip of a mammoth iceberg that included countless gallery and museum shows of his fine art work, as well as many murals and other public pieces that grew out of Steinberg’s early ambition to be an architect.

The way that Steinberg put popular commercial elements into his art anticipated Andy Warhol and the other “pop” artists of the 1960s by a few decades. Mid-century critics didn’t appear to have any hang-ups about the way the artist juggled advertising assignments with his “real” work.

As the years passed, however, a debate arose over Steinberg’s body of work — Was he merely a brilliant cartoonist passing himself off as an artist, or did his genre-spanning work demand a whole new way of defining art?

Bair is famous for her exhaustive but compellingly written biographies of major cultural figures like Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, but she makes a very strong case for Steinberg being worthy of 600 pages (and another hundred pages of notes and indexing).

The book does a masterful job of juggling the man’s work with a very busy social and sexual life. Although Steinberg found a true life partner and ally in wife Hedda Sterne, he was a major league womanizer who simply couldn’t resist the charms of those drawn in by his offbeat charisma. One of the really wonderful elements of the book is how it shows that a person without conventional good looks can still be incredibly attractive to many members of the opposite sex (Steinberg appears to have been the Woody Allen of the art and magazine worlds).

The relationship between Hedda and Saul is the real core of the book — an artistic and personal partnership that survived countless infidelities. Hedda, who was also a very serious artist, organized Saul’s life and managed his artistic career in a manner reminiscent of Lee Krasner’s handling of Jackson Pollock’s affairs.

“Saul Steinberg” takes us back to a time in the cultural life of New York City when artists and writers and actors seemed to be constantly mingling. There is a Zelig aspect to Saul’s friendships and associations with everyone from Jerome Robbins to Saul Bellow and Mary McCarthy to Michelangelo Antonioni. The facts of one man’s life are all there, but Bair puts them together in a way that results in a terrific read.

Joe Meyers