Monday, May 03, 2010

STEINBERG'S CLOUDS



The great Saul Steinberg never learned to paint clouds.

Compare Steinberg to English landscape painter John Constable, who became famous for painting clouds using techniques he developed through careful research. Constable's approach was based on his philosophy, "you only see something truly when you understand it."

Perhaps Steinberg smiled in doubt at Constable's notion that we can ever "truly" understand clouds. An artist with boundless curiosity, Steinberg worked in a state of perpetual inquiry and never found a formula for clouds that satisfied him for long:


All images © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY









Most artists refine their techniques over their careers, eventually settling on an approach that satisfies them. For example, Rubens gradually developed his distinctive treatment of human flesh until he settled on his mature style. Winslow Homer slowly mastered his famous approach to painting water. Georgia O'Keefe improved her method of painting flowers, each stage building on the last, until she arrived at the approach for which she is known today. But Steinberg's mind was too restless to linger over polishing his technique. Concepts interested him more than implementation, and he refined his technique just far enough to diagram those concepts.

Look at his wild, anarchistic variety of clouds.  Each picture views clouds with new eyes:

















At an age when other artists worked hard to discipline their perceptions of the physical world, Steinberg's perceptions snuck out the back door to elope with his conceptions. You see the fruits of their marriage all over these pictures.
 


How can we take Steinberg seriously when his pictures all look so playful?

Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz imagined the wild fun at the beginning of the universe when the gods began creating something from nothing. Milosz asks us to envision the hilarity when the celestial "Board of Projects" invented such things as hedgehogs:
Celestials at the Board of Projects burst into laughter,
For one of them has designed a hedgehog,
Another, not to be left behind, a soprano....

It is superb fun in the ocean of seething energy...
Buckets of protocolors gurgle, protobrushes labor,
A mighty whirl of almost galaxies beyond nearly windows
And pure radiance that has never experienced clouds.

They blow conchs, somersault in protospace....
The earth is practically ready...and every single creature
Waits for its name....

To invent length, width, height,
Two times two and force of gravity
Would be quite enough, but on top of it panties
With lace, a hippopotamus, the beak of a toucan,
A chastity belt with its terrible teeth,
A hammerhead shark, a visored helmet,
Plus time, that is, a division into was and will be.

Gloria, gloria sing objects called to being.
Hearing them, Mozart sits down at the pianoforte
And composes music that has been ready
Before he himself was born in Salzburg.
I tell you friends, when Steinberg calls clouds into being it's a goddamn exhilarating thing.

80 Comments:

Blogger kev ferrara said...

Clouds are wonderful... full of wonder.

For Steinberg, the wonders never ceased.

5/03/2010 4:47 PM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

he never settled on an approach
Steinberg worked in a state of perpetual inquiry
Steinberg seemed to refine his technique just far enough to diagram his concept and no further.
Steinberg's mind was too restless to linger over polishing his technique.
At a stage when other artists were disciplining their perceptions of the physical world, Steinberg's perceptions eloped with his conceptions.


With all due respect, David, these sound like euphemisms for "he never bothered to learn how to draw."

I think Steinberg proves the theory that, in communication, imagination alone is no substitute for sound drawing; that only skilled artists can potently communicate their musings. I certainly don't understand most of Steinberg's drawings, and I doubt anyone does. I suspect their appeal lies in their playful ambiguity, which is a fine thing in baby talk or windchimes, but is neither rare nor enriching in art.

5/03/2010 5:00 PM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

Gloria, gloria sing, the whole thing is illogical, clouds only get in the way!

5/03/2010 5:03 PM  
Anonymous Matt B said...

After the Lord Mayor's parade comes this junk.

5/03/2010 5:32 PM  
Blogger Ian Jackson said...

@ above >implying Steinberg cannot draw.

... not sure if you're serious, because Steinberg could draw circles around the best with one hand tied behind his back. Don't dismiss the man just because he had no taste for--well I'm not sure what you would consider 'learned drawing'--french academie style or whatever.

If Steinberg can be faulted for anything, it is that his hand couldn't keep up with his brain.

5/03/2010 8:06 PM  
Anonymous BJ said...

Andy Warhol was doing this kind of conceptual shit when he was a top illustrator.

5/03/2010 8:35 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- I must ask (with some trepidation) did you know about these songs because you had previously listened to them, or did they just turn up in some google search after you read this blog?

Jesse Hamm and Matt B-- why do I get the sense that you find Steinberg a little less exhilarating than I do? I think Steinberg draws fully as well as he needs to for purposes of what he is trying to achieve, and that more formal drawing skills would only serve as a drag on the total effect. (Most of his formal training in drawing was as an architect, but I'm not sure what other kind of training might prepare an artist for innovative work such as Steinberg's.) For me, his result is not only "sound" but often deeply beautiful.

5/03/2010 8:53 PM  
Anonymous Blake said...

It's artists like Steinberg that make the illustration world so diverse. How boring it would be if everyone had the same level of drawing skill, or more appropriate for this debate, the same approach to drawing.

5/03/2010 10:14 PM  
Anonymous MORAN said...

You could have picked a dozen other aspects of Steinberg's work besides clouds to make the same point, but clouds will do. He elevated illustration to a whole different level. Kev is right, "full of wonder."

5/03/2010 10:56 PM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

""did you know about these songs because you had previously listened to them, or did they just turn up in some google search after you read this blog?""

They play in my mind. Faith in internet, I know they'll be there. In the clouds.

Both Sides Now seemed a tad trite, but who doesn't appreciate the dulcet baritone of Nimoy? Aside from Joni Mitchell's, this is my favorite version~ 青春の光と影(訳詞付) / カッサンドラ・ウィルソン.

Steinberg seemed to enjoy the nuance of nuages.

5/03/2010 11:38 PM  
Blogger Lesley Vamos said...

it seems like each illustrations clouds fit within their style and context

5/04/2010 3:03 AM  
Blogger TIM said...

Clouds.

5/04/2010 3:48 AM  
Blogger TIM said...

Clouds.

5/04/2010 3:48 AM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

Ian,

I'd be eager to see evidence of Steinberg's drawing ability. So far everything I've seen by him resembles what David posted.

David,

"I think Steinberg draws fully as well as he needs to for purposes of what he is trying to achieve, and that more formal drawing skills would only serve as a drag on the total effect."

That seems unlikely to me, but it would be helpful to know what total effect he was trying to achieve.

Even setting aside his childish figures and awful perspective (which are bad enough to pass for intentional -- though I don't know to what end), his drawings are cluttered, unfocused, and ill-composed. Their centers of interest (a convergence of lines here, a spot of color there, elsewhere an area of high contrast...) are not unified and compete with each other for our attention, cancelling each other out. There are numerous stylistic inconsistencies. And frequent monotonies appear, without the benefit of unity or symmetry to justify their presence (e.g., the mostly horizontal row of figures in the first image, several -- but not all -- of which are evenly spaced apart).

I have seen weak draftsmen with poor compositional skills survive on ideas alone (John Callahan), but there don't appear to be clever ideas here, either. No particular mood prevails. The work isn't dreamy enough to be psychedelic (in contrast with Rick Griffin or Phillipe Drulliet); nor unified enough to be grand or restful (in contrast with Sempe), nor silly enough to be funny (Searle or Dave Cooper), nor frantic enough to be alarming or edgy (Steadman or Panter). There's only awkward, pedestrian whimsy, like the telephone doodles of a bored executive.

I hope none of this sounds antogonistic. I am trying to see what you see in Steinberg, casting my flashlight into every corner of his oeuvre, but I'm coming up empty. Are there any corners left?

5/04/2010 4:01 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Jesse-- all good questions. You don't sound antagonistic at all, you sound like you are approaching these pictures in good faith, and I couldn't ask for anything more than that. If I am going to post these pictures and blab about them, it is my obligation to do so in a way that makes sense. Otherwise this blog adds nothing of value.

It is tough to find helpful analogies because I think in some respects Steinberg is sui generis -- one of a kind. But perhaps the best stepping stones to my high regard for Steinberg (whether you think I am nuts or not) are his pictures with a single point which will enable us to assess one of his visual ideas in isolation, or pictures involving words because if we can supplement an image with words we might understand it better.

If you follow my above links to Steinberg images on prior posts, I argue you will see that 1.) Steinberg thinks in pictures; unlike many conceptual artists who might be better off writing some manifesto, Steinberg's imagination is clearly visual. You can see it in his visual puns and his use of images and symbols-- for example his "trash" picture or his "Who Did It?" picture. 2.) Steinberg's way of looking at the world is radical; who else would think about a landscape the way Steinberg does in that picture with the lightning bolt and the flag? His work simply overflows with fresh and innovative perceptions. The lightning bolt picture is easy to digest because it has one such perception; but another picture might have a dozen, in various stages of ambiguity. 3.) Steinberg knows how to stage a picture to tell a story (look at the "Who are they?" picture-- the night time setting with the creepy moon, the weird fuzzy typography of the "they" who have just come from over those hills in the background.) 4.) Steinberg is one smart fella. It's hard to think of a more literate, intellectual graphic artist in the latter half of the 20th century. I admit that this element counts for more with some people than with others. For me, it counts a lot. I confess that my single biggest grievance with conceptual art is that so many of the vaunted "concepts" turn out to be pretty fatuous. As far as I am concerned, any artist who can transplant original amd illuminating notions from his or her cranium into mine is entitled to a lot of latitude regarding the technique that they use to do so.

I don't know if you are willing to accept any of the above, but those are the kinds of considerations that first had me concluding that Steinberg was worth a closer look. Perhaps rather than prattling on to why I think he rewards that closer look, I should pause here to see if any of that resonates. But let me add that personally I do find his drawing quite excellent in a strong and opinionated way. His drawings are far more than diagrams of ideas. Check out that Citibank picture, with the extreme foreshortening of that woman in the high heels, and the clouds stacked up like huge pancakes. I think there is a whole lot of truth in that picture that you won't find in a picture by Cornwell or Frazetta.

5/04/2010 6:59 AM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

I first saw Steinberg's work in my early twenties. I had grown up thinking that cartooning was silly and boring (the farside was coming out our backsides in calender form, fridge magnet form, birthday card form). Then I saw a Steinberg cartoon...

Though maybe cartoon isn't the right word. Maybe the cartoon is in Steinberg's head, and he just mentally projects the image onto paper which he traces to produce this wonderful art.

5/04/2010 7:31 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Jesse, I think calling Steinberg's whimsy "pedestrian" is a bulwark to any further understanding.

If you can't see that his whimsy in anything but pedestrian then I don't see a way to "make" you appreciate his work... especially given that his entire point is wit and whimsy... (Maybe you can point to all the other Steinberg's out there who share his style of whimsy, thus proving that he is run of the mill?)

I will say, however, that it might help to keep an open mind and to try to appreciate the game someone is playing, before you decide he doesn't play it well.

This can get quite difficult where there's no rulebook for the game to follow along with.

And there's no guarantee you will enjoy the game after you understand it, or even appreciate it.(Not sure understanding their game will help anyone like a Cezanne or a Koons.)

But saying "Steinberg can't draw accurately" is like saying that a great chef has a weak fastball.

Or that Dik Browne is no Alma-Tadema.

5/04/2010 8:49 AM  
Anonymous Matt B said...

Steinberg is one of those illustrators -greatly over-rated- that people reference to show their usually bogus 'sophistication'.The truth is there were many superior so-called intellectual cartoonists who were funnier and better artists.Charles Adams is the first to spring to mind.

5/04/2010 2:59 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

The word verification at the moment is nowsmob. I can not think of a better rebuttal to the comments of Jesse Ham, Matt B and BJ than that.

Nowsmob!

5/04/2010 4:02 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Matt B-- I'm not sure anyone invokes Steinberg to demonstrate their "sophistication." In fact, I think the Hirst or the Koons or the Schnabel crowd would look at you with pity if you confessed to liking Steinberg. A few excellent critics (Canaday, Rosenberg, Hughes) worship Steinberg but if you tout him in current Manhattan gallery circles you'd better be ready for a fight.

Of greater interest is your surprising comparison of Steinberg and Addams. I like Addams, but I have never seen a drawing by him that I would consider on a par with Steinberg, and it's hard to think of a concept by Addams, except possibly the unicorns and the ark,that I would consider to be in Steinberg's league. Can you offer us some examples, or an explanation of what makes Addams superior?

5/04/2010 4:25 PM  
Blogger Ian Jackson said...

@Jesse

I am not sure i could provide you with the evidence you seek. If David's examples are not proof enough, I fear your requirements for drawing ability exclude half the world's artists.

I admit I may have been hyperbolic when I claimed Steinberg could stomp the great masters handily. You are right, his technical mastery is likely lacking. I however maintain my opinion that Steinberg's drawings are not only unique in concept, but exquisite in execution. My opinion. I see now that Steinberg is not as universally loved as I had led myself to believe.

5/04/2010 5:04 PM  
Anonymous Matt B said...

First off, I'm not a habituee of fancy art galleries,so I wouldnt know what the 'in' names are to drop.I'll bow to your greater knowledge on that one.
Am I correct in thinking that both were cartoonists for the New Yorker magazine? If they were then that would automatically make a relevant point of comparison.
Finally, Charles Addams was funny and entertaining in a ground-breaking kind of way, a very capable artist and a subtle and skilled colorist.
Steinberg is ,well, an intellectual art-wank with ,at best, average drawing skills.
People that like him do so because they see some spurious content that makes his work 'significant'.
Often the same kind of crowd that would consider Gary Panter an important artist.

5/04/2010 5:27 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Matt B said "...Often the same kind of crowd that would consider Gary Panter an important artist."

Matt, you really know how to hurt a guy.

You are correct, Steinberg and Addams were both cartoonists for the New Yorker and neither of them could get into that elite group without being damn good. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. I like Addams a lot, although I've never heard of him referred to as a colorist, and I don't think I've seen more than 2 or 3 pieces by him in color, none of which impressed me much.

Perhaps a third New Yorker cartoonist, William Steig, would help me draw a distinction between what I view as two strata of New Yorker cartoonists. For the first few decades that Steig and Addams worked for the New Yorker, they did perfectly capable pictures in ink wash. They both understood perspective and anatomy and employed a pleasant style based on rounded figures that were pleasant to look at and didn't get in the way of the joke. But there was no real visual challenge to the images, nothing that made you grow or stretch or think, nothing that matched the excitement that was happening next door in the fine arts. Then in the early 1960s, Steig-- a big fan of Picasso's drawings-- broke out and moved into a higher category. His drawings became looser, wiser, more impressionistic and subtler. His subject matter began to transcend the joke and to have broader applicability to the human condition. So while I think Addams was often funnier than Steig, Steig graduated to a higher level as an artist. In my view, Steinberg occupied that uppermost strata at the New Yorker ahead of Steig, and I don't think Addams ever made it.

5/04/2010 6:31 PM  
Blogger Joss said...

The fact that I have never found Steinberg particularly compelling says more about me than it does about him. I'm not fond of Searle or Steadman either and bananas have a disgusting texture. I do enjoy your posts about why you like Steinberg and it gives me an appreciation for what people get out of it who aren't turned off by that texture. Certainly there are some aspects I hold in high esteem (in all three artists) but the texture, ecch! I love Banana flavor.

5/04/2010 6:46 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

The difference between Addams and Steinberg is like the difference between Alfred Hitchcock's TV appearances and Steven Wright's stand up.

Sophistication, when it meant something, was about communicating the absolute most with the absolute least. Waste not, want not. Good painting is painting with the least brushstrokes, each as descriptive as it can be.

After some debate, it turned out that a single line was the very least bit of material a visual communicator could use to express a complex thought.

Such poetic concision is the same refining process that Hirshfeld used.

Where Hirschfeld used lines to symbolize character, Steinberg used lines to symbolize thoughts. This is a brand of information design, like Sutnar, but wackier. Its more design than art, and with Steinberg its more writing than design.

They're all connected though.

kev

5/04/2010 7:07 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Those are delightful, David. Thanks for posting them.

They are so benign and gentle that I am astonished to see the torches and pitchforks out in such force already.

5/04/2010 9:35 PM  
Blogger Rob Dunlavey said...

It's fascinating to hear these few arguments that counter the well-understood and appreciated accomplishments of Saul Steinberg. Every professional illustrator that I know, irrespective of style, years in the business, training and temperament revere and are grateful for the way that he opened up the horizons for what could be illustration. In so many ways, he reinvented illustration.

5/04/2010 10:04 PM  
Anonymous Matt B said...

That mid-century American gothic humor was Addams great achievement.The subtle savagery suggested by many of his jokes lifts him above the standard gag-man and makes his humor timeless.
Steig's topicality seems dated and not particularly funny and Steinberg playful like a latter-day Edward Lear.
Not wishing to offend,I can see a kind of meandering line that would later lead to Panter and his ilk.

5/04/2010 10:49 PM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

Ian,

'I fear your requirements for drawing ability exclude half the world's artists.'

It is a shame, isn't it?

Kev,

'But saying "Steinberg can't draw accurately" is like saying'

Was that my complaint?

David,

Thanks for the explanation, and those other images. The lightning pic is delightfully clever, and I enjoyed the "word" cartoons (though they seem gimicky after the first couple). These have more going for them than the rest of the images you posted, or the vast majority of Steinberg pieces I've seen in the New Yorker. Although the staging is occasionally clumsy (Why is "NEVER" founded on "NOW," and firing at some guy instead of at "NOW"? Why underscore the exhaust fumes in "Yes/BUT" with distracting blots of shadow, and fill the bottom of the image with blotchy textures and an incongruous swath of brown? Why lead the eye off the bottom of the "TRASH" image with a redundant sidewalk?), they are basically clear, and each has a point.

However, I'm not ready to agree with you that he's among the most literate and intellectual of 20th Century artists. You rightly complain that concept art often turns out to be pretty fatuous, but in comparison, there's not much profundity in Steinberg's observation that stores falsely praise a lot of trash, or that "but" can be a fatal modifier of "yes." True, yes... cleverly stated, yes... but ultimately these insights are pedestrian (hi Kev!). I'll avoid the debate about Charles Addams's coloring, but since he was cited, here's an Addams cartoon which I think offers more food for thought than those Steinberg cartoons, and by far less contrived means. Where Steinberg must "build" giant props to make his points, Addams needs only shove a note under a door. Poetry!

That said, I would be interested in hearing more about why you think Steinberg rewards a closer look. I can see why you enjoy the other cartoons you linked, but the appeal of the ones posted above is a mystery to me. The Citybank pic, for instance: does this require some inside knowledge of Citybank's doings? I guess the giant shoes could represent materialism, but why only shoes (no purse? no briefcase?), and what do those strange clouds have to do with it? I don't insist on a "diagram" of ideas, but I hope you'll agree that some clues as to his meaning are necessary for the image to convey "a whole lot of truth."

5/04/2010 10:56 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Great Addams cartoon, Jesse, thanks!

Though I have a great urge to call it "pedestrian", just to demonstrate how irritating that word is...

Especially when applied as if it were an argument.

5/04/2010 11:09 PM  
Anonymous wynne said...

Living in Colorado clouds are part of my life and art.
I grew up looking at Steinberg's art in The New Yorker.
Thank you for drawing my attention to his clouds. Looking at old friends in a new way.
I especially love the finger print clouds.

5/05/2010 12:24 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Ian, Blake and Moran-- I'm glad you enjoy this work. Thanks for writing.

Lesley-- I agree. Despite all the variation, these pictures are internally consistent.

Matthew Adams-- you have obviously led a deprived childhood, but I'm glad to hear that you have made up for lost time.

5/05/2010 7:30 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote, "This can get quite difficult where there's no rulebook for the game to follow along with."

Kev, I always figured that Steinberg was playing by the rules of Calvinball.

Joss, if I can carry your banana school of art criticism one step further, it seems to me that bananas offer a range of textures, from squishy to extra firm, depending on how ripe they are when you choose to eat them. By the same token, you may yet find that there is a period or style of Steinberg art that is just right for you. Thanks for keeping an open mind!

5/05/2010 7:42 AM  
Anonymous Mike Hunter said...

It's shocking that Saul Steinberg should need defending, but...

How could one better express the self-contained and centered worldview of New Yorkers and Americans, in which the rest of the world dwindles to a few simplistic images, than in his 1976 "View of the World From 9th Avenue":
http://mappery.com/maps/A-View-of-World-from-9th-Avenue-Map.mediumthumb.jpg ?

Similarly, could words express with such brilliant succinctness what Steinberg accomplishes so hilariously here? http://cartoonist.name/wp-content/uploads/2007/02/no.gif

On a similar vein, Madison Avenue hype is contrasted with what is actually being marketed: http://www.bdonline.co.uk/Pictures/468xAny/q/n/c/Broadway_1986_C083_ready.jpg

A deft bit of architectural criticism, where a hideous slab of a modern building monolithically invades a more human-scaled cityscape: http://tinyurl.com/29mvv98

He'd play with the interplay of different degrees of rendering detail:
"Dancing Couple," 1965: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_zMsg9U8UoyM/RmxRk6OX3tI/AAAAAAAAAZ8/hFSePJdhtRg/s400/
http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org/absolutenm/articlefiles/455-steinberg2-200.jpg
http://www.artknowledgenews.com/files2009a/Steinberg_Techniques.jpg (This last can't help but remind of some of Art Spiegelman's strips dealing with art styles.)

Even more so, when photography and drawing were combined: http://thecraftsdept.marthastewart.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/girl-in-bathtub-saul-steinberg-287x360.png , http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2081/2345758543_fa097b7ce4.jpg

Different personalities expressed as a variety of lines: http://www.saulsteinbergfoundation.org/gallery/gallery_untitled1964.jpg

Different ways of communication abstracted, in "Lines of Talk": http://img163.imageshack.us/img163/1336/linesoftalksteinberg.jpg

In an earlier entry on this blog:
---------
...In this drawing, the great Saul Steinberg captures different lives in their journey from birth (A) to the end (B).

It's hard to imagine a simpler reduction of biographies to plastic form. I suspect you know some of these people. To understand the discipline that line imposes, you might try distilling your own life, or your own relationships, this way.
------------------
See: http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

Corporate men, the epitome of depersonalized uniformity, marching under an ironically romanticized banner: http://www.haditoons.com/site_files/tad-Saul-Steinberg.jpg

...And I recall one drawing where a character drew an elaborate construction in mid-air, which he was then employing to cross a chasm. Much like the philosophers or economists who "build castles in the air," then expect their often-ludicrous imaginings to solve real-world problems.

In http://blog.onpaperwings.com/uploaded_images/steinberg-743914.jpg , Is autobiography or self-portraiture being satirized here? In any case, consider the deftness of the line and calligraphy, or how delightfully an outrageously cluttered environment is cartooned with perfect lucidity in http://www.adambaumgoldgallery.com/drawn_to_the_edge/Lunch_counterWB.jpg , then let's boot that absurd "Steinberg is an inadequate draftsman" argument out the window where it belongs.

Can't find examples right now, but in some works, Steinberg took over the top the symbol-laden tropes of some political cartoonists...

It's interesting to compare how Steinberg and other artists dealt with similar themes.

Steinberg: http://www.viz.tamu.edu/students/dbell/images/thesis/Saul%20Steinberg/gallery_untitled1948.gif
Escher: http://www.poster.net/escher-mc/escher-mc-drawing-hands-7400022.jpg

Steinberg's "The Dream of E": http://img576.imageshack.us/img576/5659/dreamofewb.jpg
Magritte: http://ktuds.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/magritte-chair.jpg

BTW, check out the portrait drawings of Hedda Sterne, married to Steinberg: http://angelfloresjr.multiply.com/journal/item/2738

5/05/2010 9:08 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Mike, thanks a bunch for those!

Btw, that "trash" cartoon isn't about Madison Avenue, but about that well lit street a few blocks west, Broadway.

If you walk down Broadway, you will pass theater after theater with massive marquee posters out front. There's always some gigantic pull quote ("thrilling" "amazing" "stupendous" etc.) which, as Steinberg so pointedly suggests, may bear little relevance to the actual product.

5/05/2010 10:30 AM  
Anonymous Matt B said...

"In my view, Steinberg occupied that uppermost strata at the New Yorker ahead of Steig, and I don't think Addams ever made it."

I completely understand this view.And that's the problem.There is a kind of work that proclaims itself significant.It has an obvious appeal to the 'informed' reader, pushes all the right buttons and becomes a kind of totem for the publication's self-image.So with the New Yorker, so with Raw.
Clearly Steiberg and Steig have artistic credentials but is their work really that profound or that funny?
I can see why Addams might not have been considered as prestigious as the other two at the time, but I believe the real core of Addams' work is still relevant while the others are almost time-capsule stuff.
But,as they say in sport, it's all about opinions.

5/05/2010 10:39 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

-----------------
kev ferrara said...

Mike, thanks a bunch for those!
------------------

You're welcome! I was disappointed to discover (that was my first post on this blog) they weren't "clickable," though...

-------------------
Btw, that "trash" cartoon isn't about Madison Avenue, but about that well lit street a few blocks west, Broadway.
-------------------

Ah; thanks for the clue-in!

-------------------
Matt B said...
...Clearly Steiberg and Steig have artistic credentials but is their work really that profound or that funny?
-------------------

Steinberg is seldom laugh-out funny, true. As for profound, the visual arts are handicapped in the complexities they can lucidly express.

To pick some personal favorites, Piranesi can convey inchoate dread in his prison prints, Balthus warped sexuality, Max Beckmann decadence, a society and human relationships gone awry.

When it comes to clearly making an argument or point, however, the range grows limited. Goya's "The Shootings of May Third, 1808" shows the firing-squad as a dehumanized killing-machine, the victims painfully human. Magritte's ""Ceci n'est pas une pipe" reminds that the image is not the actual object (but he must rely on words to make clear the conundrum); his "The Human Condition" ( http://tinyurl.com/28wrv66 ) is both a Steinbergian gag and a commentary of how constrained art - and human perceptions - are when compared to the larger world.

Fine stuff, yet hardly overwhelming in their philosophic depth and degree of subtlety...

-------------------
I can see why Addams might not have been considered as prestigious as the other two at the time, but I believe the real core of Addams' work is still relevant while the others are almost time-capsule stuff.
--------------------

I thoroughly love Addams, and indeed his humor remains "relevant." (Funny seeing that old 60's criticism brought up here!) But, what is "the real core" of his work supposed to be? That a ghoulish-seeming family can still be close, affectionate? Damned if I can winnow an overarching theme from his comedic corpus.

And if Steinberg's wit and perceptions have grown so cobwebbed, howcum the continuing shows and coverage, the liftings of and take-offs from his ""View of the World From 9th Avenue"?

5/06/2010 7:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable post and chat. I always enjoy Steinberg. He couldn't draw like Da Vinci and Da Vinci couldn't draw like Steinberg (loss of childlike innocence and all that).
It's like listening to a piano being played badly, deliberately. It's funny to me but some think it's just bad piano playing.
As to Motzart, he heard his music 'gleich alles zussamen', before writing a note.
It's all about imagination. Steinberg had it.Many technically better artists sadly, for them, don't.

5/06/2010 8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I meant Mozart. You know, the one without a t.

5/06/2010 8:54 AM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your many examples; I perused them all. However, I find that seeing so much of Steinberg's work at once only underscores its problems. In all but the most rudimentary examples (e.g., the "NO" pic), the points Steinberg is apparently trying to make are obscured by unclear staging or irrelevant detail.

In the "Grid Paper Building" pic, you took his point to be a contrast of personal vs. impersonal architecture, yet the paper building in question is surrounded by equally impersonal buildings. Did he intend a clear contrast and fail, or is his point something else?

In the "Two Chairs" pic, is the point that the fancy chair is (ironically) too uncomfortable to sit on, or does the man prefer the boring chair because he himself is dull?

In "Dancing Couple," why is so much detail and color lavished on parts of the floor? Is this meant to signify something, or did Steinberg briefly succumb to boredom?

In the "Romanticized Banner" pic, what are those shapes in the sky, and why are they there?

Why do four of the "Squiggly Line" party guests point at each other, while the others don't?

He even has trouble clearly depicting confusion itself: his "Cluttered Store" drawing misuses white space in ways which prevent rather than encouraging our perusal and absorption of the clutter, and which highlight various distracting mistakes. (As Strunk & White admonish: "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!")

And so on.

Again and again, Steinberg includes distracting signifiers that point to nothing. This is a habit common to capricious, undisciplined amateurs. In better work, such details are either left out (Arno), or carefully sublimated, giving priority to the points of greater relevance (Thelwell). For instance, in this Thelwell cartoon, we never wonder,"Why is a ray gun on the floor? What's up with that sofa cushion? Do those cards on the TV have special significance?," because Thelwell has sublimated these items to their proper levels of importance. Had Steinberg drawn the cartoon, there would probably be a giant, full color chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Some might take this as evidence of his whimsical genius, but I'd argue that it doesn't require genius to mar a drawing with wacky distractions.

As for Steinberg's "View of the World From 9th Avenue," which you've cited twice now: it's a fun portrayal, but Steinberg is hardly the first to comment on New Yorkers' self-centeredness, or to use a distorted map to make such a point. Witness this map of Texas crowding out the rest of the nation, which dates back at least to the early '50s.

Anonymous -- Da Vinci's sketchbooks brim with cool imaginings: a tank, a hang glider, a helicopter, faces running the gamut from ugly to beautiful, etc.

There's a popular myth that skill inhibits creativity, but I think the history of art bears evidence to the contrary. You have your Mozarts on one hand, and your 3-chord punk bands on the other.

5/06/2010 9:38 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Jesse, your explanations of Steinberg's cartoons have brought to light the main issue lurking behind your negative comments here. The problem is with your comprehension of what Steinberg is saying, not with Steinberg's work. You simply aren't getting the jokes.

5/06/2010 10:08 AM  
Blogger Corey Parker said...

There are some things in Steinberg's work that don't do it for me. His juxtaposition of objects and his exaggerated perspectives (or are they?) are not the bread and butter of his uniqueness. And his naive approach is not something to be in awe over as well, even though David has made his case in the past of how difficult it is for the trained draftsman to let go of everything he has learned to try and draw like a child.
Whether you can see it or not, there is enough evidence in Steinberg's work to prove that he can draw... extremely well.
What does it for me is how he thinks, both conceptually and in executing his ideas. One can argue that he's not that funny. That person would win that argument too. But when it comes to subtle wit, there are few that can compare.
And I think people can appreciate his ideas for how effortlessly he seems to translate them into a visual treat. I could be wrong, I wasn't there. Maybe he spent days trying to get it just right. But I'm willing to bet it was more natural and spontaneous.
So like I said, there are a few things that don't do it for me, but there is just way too much greatness in his work to write him off. He deserves all praise and more.

5/06/2010 4:55 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

Is it a case of you either get it or you don't?

5/06/2010 6:19 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

To clarify, my wife has a fine sense of humour, yet there are jokes I tell, on T.V, in books etc, that her mind doesn't process into humour and instead she is left asking "I don't get it, what does it mean?" At other times she will laugh at something I don't get, leaving me wondering "?"

5/06/2010 6:22 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

To clarify even more, maybe there is no universal humour.





Except the fart. Everyone loves (and laughs at) a good fart.

5/06/2010 6:26 PM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

Kev,

In several cases I am getting the jokes, but they are hampered in one way or another by Steinberg's execution. See my comments on "Yes BUT" and "TRASH," above.

In other cases, I'm not getting the jokes. But I haven't seen evidence that anyone else is, either. Do you agree with Mike that the "Grid Paper Building" pic is a critique of hideous modern architecture?

If so, I reckon you're both ignoring the paper building's similarity to the surrounding buildings, in hopes of granting the drawing some sense.

If not, I'd find it significant that even Steinberg's fans are confused by one of his simplest cartoons.

5/06/2010 8:55 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Jesse,

Certainly, to some degree, this is a matter of taste.

Bob Hope once said of Steven Wright that he "had no delivery."

Yet I love Steven Wright's delivery and think it essential to his act and think it fits perfectly with his material.

You ask for enough clarity that you can get the joke instantly. Fair enough.

What may work for you in that regard, though, I may find to be too "on point"... too telegraphed.

For instance that Thelwell cartoon you hyperlinked is, in my estimation, a cluttered and inept attempt at a weak old joke. If that's clarity, you can keep clarity.

(There is simply no need to show the entire living room in the foreground. We only need a full shot of the child buried in toys talking to the mother by a Christmas Tree to get the whole foreground scenario. “Brevity is the sole of wit”, goes the old saying. None present here. Tons of wasted space taken up by furniture.)

And clarity is not in the least necessary to comedy. Comedy is anything that's funny. Which could be randomness, an attitude, a mistake, surreality, confusion, BS, a sight gag, a reaction, truth, or whatever.

Here's a clip that I think well illustrates this point... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a55kjGzYem4

Re: Steinberg's building cartoon...

The contrast between the well lived-in tenements and unrefurbished brownstones versus the inhuman precision of the skyscraper is the idea. That you think this striking contrast isn't there is baffling. I don’t know what you’re looking at.

The use of the graph paper is an iconic choice. The statement could not be made any simpler, nor more precise, nor in a more clever way.

This is one of the few cartoons ever made where there is no better solution. Because the solution is the cartoon. Only Steinberg delivers that level of perfection.

5/06/2010 10:39 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

after the first two (which are pretty sedate) i find these really irritating. maybe because i feel i'm supposed to find them such wacky fun when actually they look like the sketchbook doodlings of a 1970s art student who's watched the Yellow Submarine too many times.

i quite like the little dog-faced people, and can easily see some crossover with later 'underground' RAW magazine type artists such as Henning Wagenbreth.

5/07/2010 6:54 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

---------------------------
Jesse Hamm said...
I have seen weak draftsmen with poor compositional skills survive on ideas alone (John Callahan), but there don't appear to be clever ideas here, either. No particular mood prevails. The work isn't dreamy enough to be psychedelic (in contrast with Rick Griffin or Phillipe Drulliet); nor unified enough to be grand or restful (in contrast with Sempe), nor silly enough to be funny (Searle or Dave Cooper), nor frantic enough to be alarming or edgy (Steadman or Panter). There's only awkward, pedestrian whimsy, like the telephone doodles of a bored executive.
---------------------------

Mm. I'm reminded of how so many "can't get past the surface," and miss what is outstanding about Gary Panter.

(Reading on, see that Matt B said, "...Steinberg is ,well, an intellectual art-wank with ,at best, average drawing skills.
People that like him do so because they see some spurious content that makes his work 'significant'.
Often the same kind of crowd that would consider Gary Panter an important artist.")

---------------------------
...In all but the most rudimentary examples (e.g., the "NO" pic), the points Steinberg is apparently trying to make are obscured by unclear staging or irrelevant detail.

...In "Dancing Couple," why is so much detail and color lavished on parts of the floor? Is this meant to signify something, or did Steinberg briefly succumb to boredom?

In the "Romanticized Banner" pic, what are those shapes in the sky, and why are they there?

Why do four of the "Squiggly Line" party guests point at each other, while the others don't?

He even has trouble clearly depicting confusion itself: his "Cluttered Store" drawing misuses white space in ways which prevent rather than encouraging our perusal and absorption of the clutter, and which highlight various distracting mistakes. (As Strunk & White admonish: "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!")

Again and again, Steinberg includes distracting signifiers that point to nothing. This is a habit common to capricious, undisciplined amateurs. In better work, such details are either left out (Arno), or carefully sublimated, giving priority to the points of greater relevance...Some might take this as evidence of his whimsical genius, but I'd argue that it doesn't require genius to mar a drawing with wacky distractions.
---------------------------

Joan Miro, Carnival of Harlequin, 1924: http://www.students.sbc.edu/evans06/images/miro.gif

Max Ernst, Celebes, 1921: http://www.students.sbc.edu/evans06/images/maxernst.jpg

Could the problems you have with Steinberg be that, unlike the more strictly, functionally focused imagery of experienced cartoonists (or clip-art, for that matter), like a fine artist Steinberg feels free to add "irrelevancies" that detract from the task of efficiently conveying a punchline?

One may as well gripe about the Ernst, "Why is there a colorful Cubist thingamagig sitting on top of the elephant-like thing?

(I'd guess it's to provide some colorful visual balance to the gloved, lemon-tossing mannequin, which itself echoes de Chirico. Oddly, I'd never noticed the cartoon dog before, its angular stylization presciently like that of those late 1950s and 1960s animated cartoons...)

I keep comparing Steinberg to various Surrealists, which reminds that - unless I blinked and missed it - nothing has been made here so far of his kinship, if not formal allegiance, to that group.

5/07/2010 8:02 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

(Since I couldn't post this comment all in one piece, here's "Part 2")

---------------------------
Jesse Hamm said...
In other cases, I'm not getting the jokes. But I haven't seen evidence that anyone else is, either. Do you agree with Mike that the "Grid Paper Building" pic is a critique of hideous modern architecture?

If so, I reckon you're both ignoring the paper building's similarity to the surrounding buildings, in hopes of granting the drawing some sense...
----------------------------

Similarity? ( http://tinyurl.com/29mvv98 ) They're all rectangles, and that's about it.

Here's something I quickly Photoshopped together. Which it wouldn't take much of a stretch to interpret as conveying a comment about the individual lost amid the conformist masses: http://img191.imageshack.us/img191/861/mannekinb.jpg

Could others complain, "you're ignoring the woman's similarity to the surrounding figures, in hopes of granting the drawing some sense"?

With the buildings, Steinberg was not comparing apples and oranges, but objects in the same category. The better to highlight their differences...

5/07/2010 8:04 AM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

Kev,

I don't insist on getting a joke instantly. It would be enough if the joke were clear upon reflection, such as in many of Sempe's efforts. But that typically isn't the case in Steinberg's work.

To arrive at your interpretation of the building pic, you must invent factors which aren't there. You describe the surrounding buildings as "well lived-in" and "unrefurbished," but no visual clues suggest this. Their lines are straight, and there's no visible wear, nor any sign of human occupancy (plants, drapes, clothes-lines, smoking chimneys, rooftop pigeon coops or gardens, residents on stairs or in windows, etc). Steinberg had half a good idea -- graph paper as skyscraper -- but to make the drawing work, you had to rewrite the joke, imagining that the surrounding buildings look well lived-in.

Further, no more than three such buildings would be necessary to convey the point you describe, yet Steinberg includes over four times that number. You call this simple perfection, yet you condemn Thelwell's two and a half pieces of furniture as overkill? This inconsistency shows considerable bias.

As for Thelwell's cartoon, the strength of the joke is irrelevant to my point. So is the amount of detail; Arno was my example of simplicity, not Thelwell. My point in citing Thelwell was, given a profusion of detail, how well he organizes that detail to maintain clarity. Whether his coffee table is superfluous or not, he prevents it from distracting us from the point. The same can't be said for the markings on the floor in Steinberg's "Dancing" pic, or in the sky in his "Banner" pic, etc., etc.

Mike,

"One may as well gripe about the Ernst,'Why is there a colorful Cubist thingamagig sitting on top of the elephant-like thing?'"

OK, I'll bite. Why IS there a colorful Cubist thingamagig sitting on top of the elephant-like thing?

5/07/2010 8:29 AM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

Mike -- sorry; I missed your answer to that last question:

"(I'd guess it's to provide some colorful visual balance to the gloved, lemon-tossing mannequin, which itself echoes de Chirico. Oddly, I'd never noticed the cartoon dog before, its angular stylization presciently like that of those late 1950s and 1960s animated cartoons...)"

I can't speculate about Ernst's reasons, but the colorful object doesn't balance the mannequin. It's too near the side the mannequin occupies. For a balanced image, there would need to be something else to the left, to release the viewer's attention from the attractions on the right. (This may be why you never noticed the dog.)

5/07/2010 8:52 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Jesse, i pretty much agree with all of your reasons for why Steinberg doesn't work for me either.


"Mm. I'm reminded of how so many "can't get past the surface," and miss what is outstanding about Gary Panter."


Mike, the examples posted by David (which i admit aren't Steinberg at his most concise) appear to be little more than surface... freestyle whimsy, messing about. i hope you're not suggesting there are some clever ideas in this selection we're missing ?

i think there's even less hope of you translating what is outstanding about Gary Panter as there is of translating what is outstanding about Steinberg. my hat's off to you for trying though.

5/07/2010 10:40 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Jesse, the rendering style contains the information, not the details. You seem to have a kind of literal streak that prevents you from understanding this essential point. Those buildings are humanized simply by virtue of being drawn by hand. Further detailing would be unnecessary and distractingly out of scale. Again, this is economy of means.

The reason there are more than 3 buildings (lord knows where you pulled that number from) is because the graph paper building needs to be surrounded by the smaller buildings to situate it in context and perspective. There is no way to do that with 3 buildings. In order for it to dominate the city, there must be a city to dominate.

But all that is subordinate to the use of the graph paper, which is the joke, and cannot be improved upon.

The Thelwell cartoon is poorly organized all around, in my opinion. Of all the toys, only the single plane reads from any distance. I really don't see it as in the least defensible.

I don't find the markings on the floor distracting in the dancing picture. They just provide color balance. Its not a picture I would defend as either good work or good Steinberg, however.

I can't see the banner picture because the gif looks jaggy on my screen.

5/07/2010 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Matt B said...

" But, what is "the real core" of his work supposed to be? That a ghoulish-seeming family can still be close, affectionate? Damned if I can winnow an overarching theme from his comedic corpus."

No.It's a combination of sophisticated irony and 'mauvaise humeur'.More common today but very rare then.How can you look at Addams and not see that? Amazing.

5/07/2010 8:00 PM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

I agree with Matt about Addams. There's a current of grim contemporary humor throughout his work. That it's contemporary suggests the nearness of life's dark perversity, and that it's funny makes such things easier to contemplate. He's one of the tent-poles of the whole goth subculture.

Kev --

In cartoon parlance, 3 or 4 of anything is usually enough to indicate continuity. A row of four apartment buildings (counting the "graph" one) would have sufficed to indicate a city block or neighborhood.

If the rendering of the buildings had been more rumpled, a la Edward Koren, then I could see the style alone suggesting a lived-in appearance. (Even then, contrasting an impersonal building with care-worn buildings seems ambivalent, without human touches like plants or curtains to warm up the latter. And he could have pushed in close enough to include those without losing the height comparison.) But the lines Steinberg used here are pretty straight and spare.

The toys in the Thelwell pic look clear to me; perhaps the resolution on your screen is different. Anyway, a christmas tree surrounded by "stuff" is all that's needed to communicate the idea of opened presents. What's important is that the junk frames the gag rather than pulling us away from it.

"(The 'dancing' picture is) not a picture I would defend as either good work or good Steinberg, however."

Interesting. A contrast of "good" Steinberg with "not good" Steinberg would help me see where you're coming from. On what basis does this pic fall short of his others? Composition? Idea?

5/07/2010 9:13 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

>>>Everyone loves (and laughs at) a good fart.<<<

The great Le Petomaine could fart at a good laugh.

5/07/2010 9:40 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

One of the unremembered cartoonists of that period was Virgil Parch. Like Steinberg, he had firm roots in the surrealism and dada of the late 40's and early 50's. He worked for a broader market but I found a subversive undercurrent in most of his work.

5/07/2010 9:44 PM  
Anonymous Matt B said...

Tim Burton is clearly the modern reference point for Addams, and even now most people wouldn't consider his style and outlook mainstream.

Mike's comment suggests he sees Addams mainly as the 'idea person' behind the Munsters.
It runs a little deeper than that.

5/07/2010 10:00 PM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

Actually, I think the Munsters were the brainchild of a cartoonist named Charles Munster.

Addams was behind some other '60s show.

5/08/2010 2:13 AM  
Blogger Joss said...

Mike said
"Mm. I'm reminded of how so many "can't get past the surface," and miss what is outstanding about Gary Panter."

Have you read David's previous tirades against Panter?
I can't get past the surface either, I would like to be told, what is so outstanding about Gary Panter.

Picasso supposedly said something about it being up to the next generation to make it beautiful, that he was just the groundbreaker. That explains why I find much of Picasso's work unappealing. I do find his ideas stimulating, and see the profound effect his work had on many artists.

I generally prefer more formally refined work, but just as it's fun to learn what people appreciate in Steinberg, I'd like to hear the same about Panter.

5/08/2010 3:11 AM  
Blogger Joss said...

Thankfully we all come to art with different sets of positive and negative stimuli. Art's richness is in the particular forms which appeal to our tastes.

The "awkward whimsy" of flying in the face of convention with unbounded and "unbalanced" compositional/conceptual creativity is a welcome force in a rigid society/mind. Steinberg does this within the language of a "cultured" intellect that would especially appeal to a professional class.

Jesse's comparison of Steinberg's work to a bored executive's doodles struck me as very perceptive.

It is my opinion however that generally, doodles are vastly under-appreciated.

I am in the camp that beauty has some objective standards, one of those being balance, and when art becomes of a fixed type, the restoration of balance will be through a smashing sort of chaos, which in that context will have a beauty. i.e. Dadaism/Surrealism. Perhaps I could even appreciate Panter after too much Mickey Mouse.

5/08/2010 3:53 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

----------------------
Jesse Hamm said:
Kev...To arrive at your interpretation of the building pic, you must invent factors which aren't there. You describe the surrounding buildings as "well lived-in" and "unrefurbished," but no visual clues suggest this. Their lines are straight, and there's no visible wear, nor any sign of human occupancy...Steinberg had half a good idea -- graph paper as skyscraper -- but to make the drawing work, you...the lines Steinberg used here are pretty straight and spare...
---------------------

I wouldn't go as far as describing the buildings about that graph-paper monstrosity (I may not have applauded the approach, but the destruction of the World Trade Center did the skyline of New York a great service) as "unrefurbished"; but when you say "their lines are straight," it's only in a general sense. The other buildings are hand-drawn, with no ruler or other straightedge deployed to give them inhuman precision.

(I'm reminded of a panel in a Justin Green comics story where he renders part of a door-knocker with a circle template. Oy, does that "inhuman precision" jab the eye!)

Steinberg's wavering line on all the other buildings, architecturally nondescript as many are, shows them as more "alive" than the sterile, rectilinear glass-and-steel abomination. (In the same way that a weathered old brick is a more vital presence than a cinderblock. (As shown by its variations of color, partially undulating edges.)

After writing most of this post (and its follow-ups) and reading farther down, I see Kev Ferrara's elegantly made a similar point: "Those buildings are humanized simply by virtue of being drawn by hand."

5/08/2010 7:37 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

----------------------
Jesse Hamm said:
Further, no more than three such buildings would be necessary to convey the point you describe, yet Steinberg includes over four times that number. You call this simple perfection, yet you condemn Thelwell's two and a half pieces of furniture as overkill? This inconsistency shows considerable bias.

As for Thelwell's cartoon, the strength of the joke is irrelevant to my point. So is the amount of detail; Arno was my example of simplicity, not Thelwell. My point in citing Thelwell was, given a profusion of detail, how well he organizes that detail to maintain clarity. Whether his coffee table is superfluous or not, he prevents it from distracting us from the point. The same can't be said for the markings on the floor in Steinberg's "Dancing" pic, or in the sky in his "Banner" pic, etc., etc
------------------------

Again, you're finding fault with Steinberg because his "drawings" (as "The New Yorker" - tellingly in his case - referred to cartoons) do not fit within the functional, focused parameters of cartoons.

Unlike the latter, they can have all matter of digressions and irrelevancies; because Steinberg's drawings don't have conveying a gag as their primary, all-important focus.

One may as well critique a Tiffany lamp for its inadequacy in providing a powerful, shadowless sweep of light the way a surgical lamp does. "And what's with all those decorative encrustations and colored-glass facets? They're so unnecessary!"

René Magritte is the acceptedly "fine artist" (nonironic quotes) whose work most regularly bumps up against gag-cartoon territory. That his "jokes" are frequently unsettling - if not downright creepy - makes Charles Addams his closest kindred spirit in the cartooning world.

Consider these Magrittes; how easily they could be transformed into Addams cartoons. What are the factors they have which Addams would downplay?

"Le blanc-seing" (The Blank Check): http://i207.photobucket.com/albums/bb283/sequentialscott/Magritte.jpg

(A touch akin to Charles Addams' famous skiing cartoon: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2006/12/03/books/YAGO600SPAN.jpg )

"Le Modele Rouge": http://imagecache2.allposters.com/images/AWI/f772-magritte.jpg

"Madame Recamier de David": http://static.zooomr.com/images/6136841_984b5289f5.jpg

(Particularly Addamsesque, in its take-off of the David portrait: http://digilander.libero.it/multilabpitagora/lavori_studenti/museo_david/versione_italiana/biografia/immagini/recamier.jpg )

"Le Reproduction Interdite": http://paulocoelhoblog.com/images/image-of-the-day/Magritte.jpg

"La Clef des champs" (The Key to the Fields): http://www.artregisterpress.com/DonEddy/Img/Chapter3/magritte.jpeg

If doing these Magrittes as cartoons, Addams would also tend to add an unsettled, Everyman observer, to detach us somewhat from the weirdness, serve as a reassuring anchor. Where Surrealists create a sur-reality where weirdness is the norm, Addams makes the odd events depicted eruptions of strangeness in the normal world.

(By the way, what am I doing wrong in the formatting of my posts, that my links to images aren't "clickable"?)

5/08/2010 7:41 AM  
Blogger Jesse Hamm said...

Mike,

"they can have all matter of digressions and irrelevancies; because Steinberg's drawings don't have conveying a gag as their primary, all-important focus."

Fair enough, but as I said earlier: unlike Griffin et al, Steinberg's drawings don't even cohere into a specific mood, IMO. They're a mishmash of divergent imagery, which leads us back to my windchime analogy -- and the discussion comes full circle.

To link here, you need to use HTML. So the tags would be (a href="http://imagecache2.allposters.com/images/AWI/f772-magritte.jpg
")"Le Modele Rouge"(/a), but with "<" brackets instead of parentheses.

5/08/2010 8:04 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Thanks for the tip, Jesse!

----------------------
Laurence John said...
...Mike, the examples posted by David (which i admit aren't Steinberg at his most concise) appear to be little more than surface... freestyle whimsy, messing about. i hope you're not suggesting there are some clever ideas in this selection we're missing ?
----------------------

There are many Steinbergs which, indeed, are "freestyle whimsy, messing about." With no obvious "gag" (or clever idea) attached.

If not trying to force Steinberg's work into the Procrustean bed of gag cartooning, it's not like there isn't a place in the arts for "freestyle whimsy." Think of these Miró's:

"Carnival of Harlequin"

"Dutch Interior"

(Yes, the compositions are cluttered and have no clear focus; but that's not the approach they're going for.)

-------------------
Matt B said...
[Mike Hunter quote]" But, what is "the real core" of his work supposed to be? That a ghoulish-seeming family can still be close, affectionate? Damned if I can winnow an overarching theme from his comedic corpus."

No.It's a combination of sophisticated irony and 'mauvaise humeur'.More common today but very rare then.How can you look at Addams and not see that? Amazing.
--------------------

I'm exceedingly aware of that quality in Addams' work; he's one of my two favorite cartoonists (I vividly recall the thrill of first encountering his work*; it was passionate love at first sight!), and I've a substantial collection of his books.

But I don't consider the tone of his work to be anything as solid as the thematic "real core" which I understood Jesse was looking for.


*In the cartooning books section of the Coral Gables Public Library, fifty-something years ago...! Ah, I remember it as if it were yesterday...

5/08/2010 8:33 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

----------------------
Laurence John said...

[Mike Hunter quote]"Mm. I'm reminded of how so many "can't get past the surface," and miss what is outstanding about Gary Panter."

i think there's even less hope of you translating what is outstanding about Gary Panter as there is of translating what is outstanding about Steinberg. my hat's off to you for trying though.
----------------------

In an old "The Comics Journal" message board thread about the then-new Panter collection, I wrote:

=============
Yakov:
Is there an essay or something somewhere that explains what is so great about Gary Panter?

I'm not questioning his greatness by any means. I'm just saying, I don't see it. I stare at his stuff trying to figure out what the big deal is but haven't been able to figure it out.

Mike Hunter:
I'm far from a Panter expert (though very much an admirer), but let me have a go.

As Alan Moore brings his formidably intelligent and widely-read mind to comics writing, where influences from the arcanely intellectual to Pop creations both famed and obscure cross-fertilize, so does Gary Panter mine the culture for visual richness.

Which he synthesizes with a touch of Cézanne (forms partly broken or skewed, the resulting unfamiliarity helping us see them freshly); the blunt power of Aztec sculpture; cartoon imagery which somehow retains its "cartoon-ness" while fully being brought into the world of fine arts.

Not "fine arts" in simply being lushly painted in an Academic style visually weighty enough to hang in a gallery (Carl Bark's canvases of his Disney ducks, those paintings of Robert Williams or Dave Cooper), but in a visually inventive, analytic, enlightening approach.

Which brings to mind his Jimbo-tours-the-afterlife books. Let's see what commentary Google turns up re his remarkable take on Dante's magnum opus...

Ah, this is a good one! Panter's great "Jimbo in Purgatory" inspired the following critique. Which, as a bonus, more elegantly captures what I was fumbling at:

---------------------------
... Matt Groening...once noted that Panter “applied his fine-art training to the casualness of the comic strip, and the result was an explosive series of graphic experiments that are imitated in small doses all over the world today.”

...although his work seems perpetually protean, it is in fact held together by a coherent sensibility which is always seeking to bridge the gap between high art and popular culture. ...

In many ways, Panter represents the mirror image of the movement started by Picasso. Instead of bringing pop influences into the museum, Panter has spread high modernism to the masses. What else is Pee-wee’s Playhouse except Picasso for the pre-pubescent set? It was Panter’s genius to realize that even tykes could also love the density and complexity of modern art.

Panter loves fusing together disparate things. “Cubism and robots?” he seems to think. “Why not?” He has a synthetic mind, and so did Dante, which perhaps explains why the cartoonist was drawn to the medieval poet...
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Much more....
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The whole thread, with links to a multi-part Panter interview...

5/08/2010 8:52 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Jesse,

You make me laugh, my friend.

Maybe you should go through all Steinberg's cartoons correcting with a red felt tip pen... that way you are absolutely 100% sure they conform to the 20 Golden Rules of Correct Cartooning. You know... the rules from "How to Draw Cartoons for Fun and Profit" from The Scholastic Book Club. (Formerly published as The Newark Amalgamated Cartoonists Society Inc. "Mail-Order Mastery" Guide to Cartooning and Funny Faces.)

Oh, that pesky Harrison Bergeron! Shackle him! (Calvinball makes me nervous!)

kev

P.S. The reason I don't care for Steinberg's dancing picture is because it reminds me too much of Leger. :)

5/08/2010 9:37 AM  
Blogger Joss said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/08/2010 3:35 PM  
Anonymous Pitchfork Holder said...

Down With Whimsy! Down With Whimsy!

5/08/2010 5:05 PM  
Blogger On the Clock said...

Forgive this comment, but I found no way to contact you through email.

Do you ever review books?

My art-related novel, Landscape with Fragmented Figures, needs more art-minded people like yourself to review it.

I can get my publisher to send you a review copy.

Let me know: jcvandez@delta.edu

5/09/2010 1:02 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Who are you talking to, On the Clock?

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kev ferrara said...
Jesse...Maybe you should go through all Steinberg's cartoons correcting with a red felt tip pen... that way you are absolutely 100% sure they conform to the 20 Golden Rules of Correct Cartooning...
------------------

In Jesse's defense, though I disagree with him about applying the "Rules of Correct Cartooning" to Steinberg, for those who are full-fledged gag cartoonists in the classic (i.e., Charles Addams, Peter Arno, etc.) vein, indeed the parameters are narrower; the work needs to (while allowing for individual rendering styles) be more focused on getting the joke across in a lucid, succinct fashion.

B. Kliban comes to mind as someone who could draw "accessible" cartoons, and also stuff of the more head-scratchingly oddball variety; the latter Stephen Wright as opposed to Bob Hope gags. See "Some Kliban Cartoons...In Order Of Increasing Difficulty."

5/09/2010 6:43 AM  
Blogger DB Dowd said...

David: Thank you for a wonderfully curated sequence and commentary. I agree: Steinberg was sui generis, no question. What a treat; what a mind.

5/11/2010 12:15 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

DB Dowd-- Hi, DB! Nice to hear from you, and as always I appreciate your opinion on this.

5/12/2010 6:56 PM  
Anonymous New York City Wrongful Death said...

Excellent collection of artwork.

5/13/2010 1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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5/29/2010 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the excellent book Steinberg at the New Yorker, in the opening pages, how far in exactly I don't recall. There is a small drawing by a certain Ronald Searle. It depicts one of his characters kneeling at the feet of a Steinberg character. It was sent to Steinberg as a fan letter. I think this demonstrates rather clearly the reputation Steinberg enjoys among the great illustrators of all time.

7/21/2010 7:31 PM  
Blogger Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Wow and Double Wow!!!!! A nice post! Thanks much for this!!!!!

5/28/2012 4:35 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Eddie Fitzgerald-- Thanks very much, nice of you to stop by!

5/28/2012 5:54 PM  
Anonymous Thomas said...

Take a look at this guy - stunning worlds he's creating!!!
www.allanbech.com

9/05/2012 2:57 AM  

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