Saul Steinberg.
The Americans

March 23 – June 23, 2013

Saul Stein­berg’s The Amer­i­cans, a colos­sal mu­ral-col­lage over 70-me­ters long made for the U.S. pav­ilion at the 1958 Brus­sel’s World’s Fair, is be­ing ex­hibit­ed by the Mu­se­um Lud­wig in its com­plete state for the first time since the Fair closed.

The ex­hi­bi­tion will al­so in­clude a se­lec­tion of re­lat­ed draw­ings from the 1950s and mag­azine fea­tures by the artist who al­ways crossed the boun­daries be­tween high and low art.

Ro­ma­nian-born Stein­berg (1914-1999) studied ar­chi­tec­ture in Mi­lan be­fore emi­grat­ing to Amer­i­ca in 1942. He set­tled in New York and achieved promi­nence for his draw­ings for The New York­er and other mag­azines as well as his art for gal­leries and mu­se­ums (long be­fore his fa­mous View of the World from 9th Av­enue from 1976).

For the U.S. pav­ilion at Ex­po 58 – the first world’s fair to be mount­ed af­ter World War II, which was shaped by the Cold War ri­val­ry be­tween the U.S. and So­vi­et pav­ilions – Stein­berg cre­at­ed a monu­men­tal mu­ral-col­lage con­sist­ing of eight pan­els with a to­tal length of over sev­en­ty me­ters. They pre­sent a pano­ra­ma of ev­ery­day life in Amer­i­ca, rang­ing from the hus­tle and bus­tle of the big ci­ty to the ap­par­ent­ly idyl­lic world of ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. An ar­ray of col­laged hu­man fig­ures dom­i­nates the fore­grounds, some­times sing­ly, some­times dense­ly packed, of­ten against a back­ground of en­larged pho­to­graphs of draw­ings. The fig­ures tes­ti­fy to Stein­berg’s as­sim­i­la­tion of a wide range of artis­tic in­flu­ences and to his cre­a­tive en­gage­ment with a va­ri­e­ty of me­dia and ma­te­rials, in­clud­ing draw­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, wall­pa­per, pack­ing pa­per, and comics. His view of the Amer­i­can way of life, though af­fec­tio­nate­ly hu­mor­ous, does not ex­clude its dark­er as­pects. He looks at the Unit­ed States with the fresh eyes of an im­mi­grant, ob­serv­ing and reg­is­ter­ing pheno­m­e­na like the post­war au­to­mo­bile cul­ture and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment, but al­so the cul­ture of cor­po­rate con­for­mi­ty and a so­ci­o­log­i­cal sense of alie­na­tion.

In ad­di­tion to its sub­ject mat­ter, The Amer­i­cans is dee­p­ly en­gaged with is­sues that re­s­o­nat­ed in the art world of the 1950s, from Ab­s­tract Ex­pres­sion­ism and Pop Art to the faux-naïve style of Paul Klee and Jean Dubuf­fet. The mu­ral’s monu­men­tal scale an­ti­ci­pates the bill­board-size works of James Rosen­quist, while the ragged, life-size card­board cut-outs al­so seem to fore­sha­d­ow Claes Ol­d­en­burg’s land­mark in­s­tal­la­tion of 1960, The Street. The reuse of pop­u­lar im­agery, such as com­ic strips for col­lage ma­te­rial, play­ful­ly calls in­to ques­tion the tra­di­tio­n­al bor­ders of “high” and “low” art. Such boundary-cross­ing was a fix­ture of Stein­berg’s ca­reer, with the re­sult that, as he once ad­mitt­ed, “the art-world doesn’t know where to put me.”

Af­ter Ex­po 58 the mu­ral was cut in­to 84 ver­ti­cal boards in or­der to fa­cil­i­tate tran­s­port and stor­age. Still, it proved to be dif­fi­cult to find a mu­se­um that was willing to ac­cept them for its col­lec­tion. In the end, they en­tered the col­lec­tion of the Musées Roy­aux des Beaux-Arts in Brus­sels. Sec­tions have been ex­hibit­ed since, but un­til now the huge mu­ral has nev­er been seen again in its en­tire­ty.

Along with the mu­rals, the ex­hi­bi­tion will pre­sent sev­en­ty-three of Stein­berg’s con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous draw­ings, col­lages, and masks. Th­ese works put the mu­rals in the con­text of Stein­berg’s art—his use of col­lage, his fas­ci­na­tion with the di­ver­si­ty of Amer­i­can life and its peo­ple, his sharp eye for ver­nac­u­lar Amer­i­can ar­chi­tec­ture, from skyscrap­ers to small-town streets. Add­ed to the ex­hi­bi­tion is a se­lec­tion of the pa­per-bag masks that he be­gan mak­ing the fol­low­ing year, whose for­bears can be seen in the cutout faces of The Amer­i­cans.

While nu­mer­ous art mu­se­ums in the USA can claim Stein­berg’s works as part of their col­lec­tions, in Eu­rope his work re­sides pri­mar­i­ly in in­sti­tu­tions de­vot­ed to the art of comics, il­lus­tra­tion, and car­i­ca­ture. The Mu­se­um Lud­wig, with its great col­lec­tion of Amer­i­can art, is now the ide­al site to re­con­tex­tu­al­ize Stein­berg’s achieve­ment for Eu­ro­pean au­di­ences by ex­hibit­ing it in proxim­i­ty to the mu­se­um’s ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of post­war art, in­clud­ing Pop Art and the many man­i­fes­ta­tions of ab­s­trac­tion.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is ac­com­panied by a ful­ly il­lus­trat­ed ca­t­a­logue in En­glish and Ger­man.

he Mu­se­um Lud­wig cor­dial­ly thanks The Saul Stein­berg Foun­da­tion, New York and the Musées roy­aux des Beaux-Arts de Bel­gique, Brus­sels.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is gener­ous­ly sup­port­ed by the Kun­st­s­tif­tung im Mu­se­um Lud­wig, Cologne.


Cu­ra­tor: An­dreas Prinz­ing