October 20, 2018

Big Apple Of His Eye

He was the guy with all the good lines. The late Saul Steinberg helped establish The New Yorker magazine as a purveyor of visual excellence. "Art of the Spirit," an exhibit at The Jewish Federation running through Dec. 15, is a welcome reminder of the late illustrator’s visual wit.

For nearly six decades, Steinberg’s art became a graphic trademark of The New Yorker. Most famous for his "View of the World From Ninth Avenue," a snooty, poster-ready geographic graphic that gave us a New Yorker’s worldview of the United States (New York = cultured, bustling; Rest of country = barren, barely registering), the artist took magazine illustration to Empire State Building heights. In 1966, he became artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian Institution.

Born in 1914 in Romania, where his father’s cardboard factory produced matzah boxes, Steinberg shifted from studying philosophy in Bucharest to architecture at Milan’s Politecnico. From architectural drafting, Steinberg gleaned a linear precision and a profound understanding of creating complex three-dimensional forms from spare two-dimensional lines. Steinberg applied this approach to cartoons he created for the satirical biweekly Bertoldo. By the time Steinberg left in 1940 — a move expedited by Fascist Italy’s anti-Jewish laws — his drawings surfaced in Life and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1942, while awaiting entry to America, Steinberg began illustrating for The New Yorker — what became a nearly six-decade association that produced 85 covers and 600 drawings before his death on May 12, 1999, at age 84.

You don’t need much backstory to enjoy the images Steinberg created during his 1984, 1993 and 1997 visits to West Hollywood’s Gemini G.E.L. The Melrose Avenue publishing workshop, founded in 1966 by Sidney Felsen, Stanley Grinstein and Kenneth Tyler, donated the "Spirit" collection, which includes "North Dakota," featuring a horizon where the sky is humorously busier than the plains; and the 1997 "Gogol" series, which comically captures — in six- and seven-color etchings — Russian Revolution poet Nikolai Gogol in a gendarmes-like uniform.

Also included: prints by Jonathan Borofsky and beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whose busy doodlefests — "The Ballad of the Skeletons" and "Harry Smith’s Birthday Party," which were created before Ginsberg’s 1997 death — nicely complement Steinberg’s sketches.

"Art of the Spirit" runs through Dec. 15 at the Bell Family Gallery, The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. By appointment only, (323) 761-8352.