But really, if you were to twist my arm, I’d tell you it’s reviews of museum exhibitions that the comics internet craves.

Saul Steinberg: Illuminations

Washington, D.C.! The capital city of the United States of America! All the rumors are true - the streets are paved in pure gold, every man is Uncle Sam, every woman is Lady Liberty, the hallowed halls of government are patrolled by velvet-clad cavaliers riding horses made of precious gems, and every rustling tree and tweeting bird is red, white and blue! Walking down the street, a man passed me by, whispering:

James Dean is alive.”

I believed it.

Yes, it was me and Chris Mautner (of the part of Newsarama that is a blog, not to mention his own site), two Original Rebels out to raise as much hell as pair of nerdy Pennsylvanians in town to visit an art exhibition possibly can. Why, when we sat down for lunch, our waitress actually tried to warn me away from ordering a certain dish that caught my eye - clearly, all other patrons of the establishment cowered in terror from the beef tips over fries which I demanded! Although she may have just been attempting to warn me that the entrée was disgusting, so I decided to get chicken Alfredo pasta instead, and it was good although a little heavy on the onion and garlic!

And yet, our main focus was the Saul Steinberg exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which opened on April 6 and will run through June 24. If you know of Steinberg, you probably associate his name with The New Yorker, the magazine that published a good number of his cartoons and drawings, sometimes on the cover. Walking around the roomy exhibition space, which is set up so that one end of the exhibition represents Steinberg's earliest work, the observer moving forward in time as they progress forward in space, I overheard several art lovers whispering of the wit and sophistication of the artist's output. Indeed, there is much of both to be seen - of the many pages of original art presented, there are several sly ideas (a scale, perfectly balanced, holds a delicate, curled reef of diverse nations on one side, and the lone, square, drab state of Wyoming on the other) and witty gestures (like this) taken from across the breadth of the man's career.

And yet, the emphasis I took from the assembly of the exhibition was that of Steinberg the trickster, an artist fixated on artificialities, which are nevertheless the stuff of politics and living. It is suggested that perhaps Steinberg's escape from Italy's fascism in the early 1940s inspired a great interest in artifice - forged documents transmuted to the glorious nonsense handwriting that twirls across several of his works. Of course, it's only nonsense if you're looking to understand what is literally said. Through the creation of paper masks, fake diplomas, elaborate recreations of his own tools, and perfectly weighted wood simulations of letters addressed to himself (complete with real Postal Service stamps, the project only complete after the fakes had done some traveling), Steinberg processed the food of simple reality through an artist's digestion, regurgitating mightily a strange essence of truth-beyond-truth. As the Saul Steinberg Foundation notes:

"Steinberg did not represent what he saw; rather, he depicted people, places, and even numbers or words in styles borrowed from other art, high and low, past and present. In his pictorial imagination, the very artifice of style, of images already processed through art, became the means to explore social and political systems, human foibles, geography, architecture, language and, of course, art itself."

Note the lack of vomit metaphor. I always try to give a little something extra.

Obviously it's not all tricks and canny pranks, though Chris mentioned to me that Steinberg always seemed to maintain a cartoonist's puckish viewpoint throughout his work, which I agree with. Observing the artist's originals, it's often impressive how many bits of media Steinberg shoves together to create widely reproducible work, something that can only seem more 'whole' when viewed by the many, while the artist's own view seems more like pieces, sometimes mixing in bits of 'found' material, or employing the use of custom-made rubber stamps to produce a sort of computerized aesthetic.

Even this is fodder for commentary - in one piece, a large field is dotted with acronyms, their fonts and positioning cleverly representative of their roles in life. And up in the sky, drawn out in only the faintest of pencils, is the word GOD, so light that it could never quite be reproduced, and can only really be seen if one is directed to look hard in the right place of the original piece. Thus, GOD is forced to become a personal search, inherent to things yet wholly impossible to see by the many, and maybe only acknowledged in the first place as the most private of things.

There's less lofty musings as well. Maybe my favorite bit of the exhibition was a nice collection of Steinberg's doodles and cartoons using official Smithsonian stationary from his time as artist-in-residence. The stately Smithsonian letterhead is fully integrated into each drawing, all of them becoming some sort of satirical or playful comment on the famed institution (many may be viewed here). Likewise, it's not all magazine stuff and carvings and the like - several sketchbook pages are presented, some of which evidence the influence of underground comic books (Steinberg's 'underground' vehicles and buildings remind me a little bit of Skip Williamson's), along with production designs for stage presentations and murals and the like.

It was a nice visit. Afterwards, we got coffee in Chinatown and Chris was almost trampled by the most intense old man I've ever seen, who was in a really big rush to get on the train. What a day.