by Salvatore PelusoJul 22, 2022
"Steinberg is a frontiersman of genres, an artist who cannot be confined to a single category. He is a writer of pictures, an architect of speech and sounds, a draftsman of philosophical reflections,” art critic Harold Rosenberg once wrote.
At the entrance to the exhibition dedicated to Saul Steinberg at the Milan Triennale, you can find a string of quotes like the one above, testimonials to the esteem of great 20th century intellectuals for the famous Romanian illustrator, naturalised American.
The exhibition curated by Italo Lupi and Marco Belpoliti with Francesca Pellicciari brings together everything about Steinberg's life and work with encyclopaedic ambition: from architecture to drawing, from his relationship with Milan to that with New York, from maps to his correspondence with Aldo Buzzi and the artists who were his friends, such as Costantino Nivola and Alexander Calder.
Triennale Milano usually dedicates this kind of major monographic exhibition to the great masters of Italian design: the latest include Achille Castiglioni, Enzo Mari and Ettore Sottsass. Their aim is to recount the greatness of complex figures in a complex way, bringing out new interpretative keys and going beyond easy labels and classifications. Personally, I consider this genre of displays to be the most successful and interesting for the Milanese museum. Every year, visitors to the institution can add an important brick in the construction of a personal history of design.
The title Saul Steinberg Milan, New York underlines the illustrator's connection to the two cities. Steinberg lived, studied, and worked in Milan for eight years. He was madly in love with the anti-monumental urban landscape of the Italian city, and in particular with his neighbourhood, Città Studi. This aspect will emerge several times in his drawings, maps, and self-geographies. Unfortunately, he was forced to flee Italy in 1941 for racial reasons. New York then became the city where he achieved international fame, so much so that he was nicknamed Saul "Newyorker", due to his very long association with the American magazine.
To celebrate the character's versatility and genius, the curators' choice can only operate by constellations, highlighting the multiple aspects of his work. There are 350 original works in the exhibition: pencil drawings, pen drawings, pastel drawings, watercolours, paper masks, sculptures, collages, and fabrics. The artworks are accompanied by a vast documentary and photographic apparatus that tells the behind-the-scenes story of his creations. There is also an original selection of books and magazines, as well as his iconic covers, including his famous View of the World from 9th Avenue (The New Yorker, March 29, 1976).
The core of the exhibition is a work created specifically for Milan: four preparatory drawings, long strips of paper measuring up to 10 metres, which, enlarged photographically, were engraved with the "sgraffito" technique on the curved walls of the Children's Labyrinth, a pavilion designed by BBPR for the 10th Milan Triennale in 1954.
One unconvincing aspect of the exhibition is its display, which is too neat. The choice is almost certainly forced by the shape of the space in which the exhibition is set up: a monumental, elongated, and curved room, which forced the exhibition designers Migliore and Servetto to work rationally, using the curved sides of the space longitudinally and placing the displays perpendicular to its marked directionality. The result is a forced, serpentine path, which perhaps does not do justice to the master of "doodles": those forms of artificial elegance that let the imagination go, revealing hidden formal principles and personal intuitions.
"The doodle was born as a linear trace in the margins, as an idle reverie. Already in ancient notarial documents it is the scriptores' pastime, and, in a joyful digression, it allows the stylus to escape the rigour dictated by the tedious norm of legal structures," writes researcher Simonetta Nicolini in the exhibition catalogue.
To avoid the norm and the rigidity imposed by the layout, I recommend this way of enjoying the exhibition: I devoted the first part of the visit to the careful and regular study of the works, diligently following the order studied and carefully reading each caption. Afterwards, however, I devoted half an hour to casual observation of the works, looking for personal connections that elude the categories imposed by the curators to create a new "grammar of the imagination", as the Italian writer Gianni Rodari would suggest. Finally, I tried to imagine the route taken between the desks, hoping to have created a wonderful, joyful doodle, like the ones Saul Steinberg used to make. You have until March 13, 2022, to do this experiment.