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.
The 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