Monday, 3 May 2010


The great Saul Steinberg never learned to paint clouds.

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

Perhaps Steinberg smiled in doubt at Constable's claim 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

It is traditional for artists to perfect their techniques gradually over their careers. For example, Rubens gradually developed his distinctive approach to painting human flesh until he settled on his mature style. Annibale Carraci slowly mastered anatomy. Georgia O'Keefe refined her method of painting flowers, each stage going a little further. But Steinberg's mind was too restless to linger over polishing technique. He seemed more interested in concepts than implementation, and refined his technique just enough to diagram his concepts effectively.

At an age when other artists worked hard to sharpen and 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 Steinberg be taken seriously as an artist when his creations all look so playful?

Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz imagined the wild fun at the beginning of the universe when the gods first began creating something out of nothing. Rather than treating creation as a somber process, Milosz asks us to envision the hilarity when the celestial "Board of Projects" began inventing 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 bet 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, it's a goddamn exhilarating thing.

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