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The Romanian-American Saul Steinberg led a charmed life. He was already employed by Harpers Bazaar and Life magazines before arriving in New York in 1942, a refugee from fascist Europe. He himself acknowledged that commercial success gave him lifelong freedom to experiment.

This retrospective, Saul Steinberg: Illuminations, is the first to cover his six-decade career: more than 100 drawings, cartoons, collages and assemblages from the 1930s to his death, aged 85, in 1999. His genius encompassed wit, visual comedy and great draughtsmanship. With nothing but a pen nib and bottle of ink – accompanied by huge intelligence, astute observation and a clever understanding of people, he created concise, elegant, satirical statements with a single seductive line.

The new Morgan, which reopened this year after a splendid $106m expansion, is putting fresh emphasis on the 20th century with some exhibitions of a more popular appeal. Illuminations fills the bill admirably.

Steinberg began his career as an architect. But in 1939 a law barring Jews from the professions sealed his fate and, helped by The New Yorker magazine, he got a US visa. By 1945 he had published a best-selling book, All in Line, had exhibited with the celebrated dealer Betty Parsons, had run a weekly cartoon strip on Hitler, had designed Christmas cards for the Museum of Modern Art and had more offers of work than he could handle.

Steinberg’s best known image is “View of the World from 9th Avenue”, from 1975, for a New Yorker cover, now made into posters, postcards and T-shirts. It shows a Manhattan-centric orientation: naturalistic 9th and 10th Avenue streets are lined with cars and people, but beyond the Hudson river – and the range of cab service – the entire US is compressed into narrow flatlands, with Mexico to the left, Canada on the right and Japan straight ahead across the Pacific.

Steinberg was prolific: a vast range, from high to low art, murals to magazines, caricature to cartography. The show begins with early cartoons from Bertoldo, an Italian journal that was Steinberg’s proving ground. For five years, with three weekly deadlines, he learnt his trade.

As an architect Steinberg loved New Yok’s buildings. In 1946 he made “Underground”, the first of several full-page drawings for Architectural Forum. With its plunging spaces it celebrates Manhattan’s urban ritual as dazed passengers emerge from a crowded, labyrinthine subway. In 1951 he depicted plump, rich Upper East Side matrons as “Three Liberties”, strap-hanging in all their Madison Avenue finery, embodying the drive, panache and appetite of the American dream.

He also had a passion for public spaces: Venice’s Piazza San Marco (he drew it four times), England’s Brighton Pier and American baseball stadiums. “Ebbets Field” at night is one of many. He saw baseball as “an allegorical play about America” with keynotes of “courage, fear, good luck, mistakes and sober self-esteem”. During long road trips across the US and Europe he took visual notes from bus or train, collecting thousands of postcards of small-town views. On the journey he always booked the top floor room of a hotel on the main street, the better to observe life below.

Steinberg called himself “a writer who draws”. Beauty for its own sake held no interest. “I want to say something. And as I say it, out of politeness I make it look beautiful.” He described calligraphy as “my true teacher” but he also believed in drawing from life, “dal vero”, from the truth, hence his obsession with sketching on the road. “Essentially what I am playing with is the voyage between perception and understanding.”

He put his ideas or themes through many swift changes in a short span of time, editing and simplifying his visual vocabulary in daily drawings that he referred to as “searchings”, never as preliminary sketches.

Steinberg’s cartoons rely on sheer graphic invention. A long-term critic of contemporary culture, he poked fun at status, at middle-class party mores, at “Florida types”, lampooning modernist furniture, postwar nine-lane highways crawling with insect-cars, small-town skyscrapers. He also addressed the culture of Jim Crow and the isolation of black Americans. With the coming of war in Vietnam his work took on a more grotesque and psychedelic key, as befitted the times. Death and destruction came to his paper people; pandemonium and graffiti invaded “Bleeker Street” and “Canal”.

The older he grew, the darker his vision became. America changed for him. The gap between an idealised American dream and the reality grew: “I rid myself of terrors etc by drawing them in a comic way.” Steinberg’s deep friendship with Saul Bellow, Calder, Breuer, Cartier-Bresson, Nabokov, Ad Reinhardt and other pivitol figures reflected his intellectual capacity. After outliving most of his friends, he began to suffer from depression.

With the complexities of émigré status, he looked at the US as a self-made man but with an outsider’s fresh vision. The advantage, he said, was that he had “nothing to lose”. Throughout his life he exhibited with important galleries and museums but his singular style, and its humour, placed him at art’s outer edge. More and more he felt an ambivalence about the difference between his gallery art and his popular comic drawing.

The focus here is on Steinberg’s magazine work. It does contain a few portrait and still life drawings, but skims over the Hallmark cards, the books, the collaborations as illustrator and his theatre, opera and ballet backdrops for Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and others.

It was above all his brilliant use of line that characterised his art. A 33-ft-long drawing, “The Line” from 1954, showcases the semiotic richness of his fundamental tool, a nib-wide ink line. It’s Steinberg’s manifesto of his view of art: a realm for the mind’s free play, a horizon line that can turn into a railway, a bridge, a lake, a sea, a tunnel, a palm tree, a cowboy – whatever the artist decides.

‘Saul Steinberg: Illuminations’ is at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, until March 4. Tel +1 212 685 0008. Then at the Smithsonian Art Museum, Washington, DC, and Cincinnati Art Museum

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