Saul Steinberg returns to Milan

A new exhibition at the Triennale in Milan celebrates his legendary oeuvre by bringing together more than 350 works, and documents.

Saul Steinberg with his hand in New York in 1978. © Estate of Evelyn Hofer. Evelyn Hofer

Saul Steinberg was probably one of the most famous cartoonists in the world. Born in Bucharest, he graduated in Architecture in Milan, where he lived from 1933 to 1940. Until 1939, Mr. Steinberg worked for ‘ Bertoldo’, a biweekly newspaper of surreal humour and satire, before leaving Italy, forced by the growing anti-semitic climate, first for the Dominican Republic and then New York.

His figurative world inspired various juxtapositions and suggested as many origins, from surrealism to baroque, all interpretations that Mr. Steinberg always rejected.

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1954. The Saul Steinberg Foundation, New York © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York.

Perhaps few people remember his name, but his work, which includes drawings, photographs, sculptures, and collages, explored the lifestyles, languages, venues, and cities of contemporary society – especially the American one.

Many remember him for his satirical illustrations, or as a commercial cartoonist, but his work goes far beyond that. Although he’s undeniably associated with some of the most iconic New Yorker covers, his oeuvre is much richer and more varied.

Saul Steinberg, Cover of The New Yorker, Mar. 29, 1976. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Cover reprinted with permission of The New Yorker magazine. All rights reserved.

Curated by Italo Lupi, Marco Belpoliti, and Francesca Pelliciari, a new exhibition at the Triennale in Milan celebrates his legendary production by bringing together more than 350 pencil, pen, and watercolour drawings, as well as paper masks, objects, sculptures, documents, and photographs that make evident his unmistakable style.

Walking through the exhibition is apparent the precision and essentiality of the stroke, the elegance and irony of the tones, and the great variety of techniques, form, and content present in the works on display.

His background as a migrant might have played an essential role in his art. Mr. Steinberg seems an outsider exploring specific cultures from a distance, and his origins perhaps allowed him to look at the reality around him with a certain detachment, enabling him to highlight the pretentiousness and ostentation of Western culture.

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, c. 1950. The Saul Steinberg Foundation. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York.

Mr. Steinberg was a much-loved artist, he became famous all over the world and his essential style set the standard. Numerous artists of the following generations were influenced by him: cartoonists and illustrators, who used the sign as a tool to denounce the contradictions and paradoxes of the world around us. After all, if the New Yorker still enjoys an excellent reputation for its illustrations, it is because of the work and style of distinctive masters like Mr. Steinberg.

Running through March 13 and spread throughout the gallery on the first floor of the Triennale, the exhibition also brings out the artist’s complex personality. He is often portrayed with a paper bag on his head, his idea of a mask. Something that could camouflage and provide a hiding place. He once said that women in America wore masks all the time, for example when they wore make-up. Because that was their way of protecting themselves from society.

A portrait of Saul Steinberg, and several of his masks, part of the exhibition “Saul Steinberg. Milano New York” at the Triennale in Milan. Photo by Gianluca Di Ioia © Triennale Milano.

At the heart of the exhibition is a work specifically created by Mr. Steinberg for Milan: four preparatory drawings, each consisting of a strip of paper folded like an accordion up to 10 metres long, which, once enlarged photographically, were engraved with the ‘sgraffito’ technique on the curved walls of the ‘Labirinto per ragazzi’, designed by the architectural firm BBPR for the 10th Milan Triennale in 1954. These four works on paper contain many of the themes and artistic signs that Steinberg would develop throughout his career. First and foremost, that of the line, whose deceptive simplicity takes on inexhaustible variations in Steinberg’s hands and thought, in a continuous narrative experiment.

To offer an exhaustive representation of the Labyrinth, in addition to documentary material on BBPR’s architectural project from the Triennale archives, the exhibition includes a Mobile by American artist Alexander Calder – a great friend of Steinberg’s – on loan from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Turin, as a reminder of what was at the centre of the installation.

A third of the works on display will remain in the city, divided between the archives of the Triennale and the Braidense Library, within the Brera museum complex, thanks to a donation from the Saul Steinberg Foundation. The library will organise another exhibition in October. 

A view of the entrance of the exhibition at the Triennale in Milan. Photo by Gianluca Di Ioia © Triennale Milano.

“We are great because we collaborate,” James M. Bradburne, director-general of the Pinacoteca di Brera, said during the press conference for the exhibition. “We are under the stars of collaboration. A precious and productive cooperation that continues to enrich the city,” he continued.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book edited by Marco Belpoliti, titled “Steinberg A-Z”, published by Electa, and organised as a contemporary encyclopaedia that analyses Saul Steinberg’s work in its many aspects, from architecture to drawing, from his relationship with Milan and New York, to maps, and his correspondence with Aldo Buzzi, to the artists who were his friends and companions such as Costantino Nivola and Alexander Calder, but also Alberto Giacometti and Le Corbusier, among others.

The monumental exhibition not only celebrates – rightly so – one of the greatest artists of drawing but also his indissoluble bond with the city of Milan. “We are happy that Saul Steinberg has returned home. Because Milan is his home,”  said Marco Sammicheli, director of the Italian Design Museum.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is Executive Editor of Milano Art Guide. He writes a column on photography for Exibart and previously he reported for Zero.eu from 2016 to 2020. He is the creator and co-curator of the best-selling “The Colouring Book” published by 24OreCultura in 2020.