Books 30 Dec 2007 09:55 am

Steig at the Jewish Museum

- Yesterday, we went to the Jewish Museum on the upper East Side of Manhattan to see the exhibit of William Steig‘s works. Unfortunately, like most other New York buildings, (pictured on the left) there’s a scaffold surrounding the museum, with some kind of construction going on. On Saturdays, entrance is free, so you’ll note the long line to enter. Within, there’s an overly cautious search of your property to make sure you’re not trying to sneak in with a bomb.

On display were many of his original cartoons as well as original color illustrations for the many children’s books he wrote and illustrated. The exhibit included a lot of roughs as well as dummy copies of several books – including Doctor DeSoto.

They dressed up several rooms with wall-sized images from the books as well as copies of the books to view, and there were people with kids strewn about the floor.

I’m sorry it didn’t occur while Steig was still alive. When I first got out of the Navy in 1970, I came upon a small exhibit of his New Yorker cartoons at a rare-book seller’s shop (no longer there.) I was so taken by the drawings that I used all my money at the time, $75.00, to buy the least expensive (and my favorite) one of the pictures. Years later when I told him about the drawing I’d bought, he knew exactly which one it was. He said that’s the only picture bought at that show.

At the Jewish Museum, I learned early on that I wasn’t allowed to photograph the pictures. I still took a few pictures on the sly and have tried to clean them up for this post.

“Are we too early?”
An early New Yorker cartoon drawn before the arrival of
William Shawn as editor of the magazine.

Steig’s cartoons often depicted brutally honest thoughts
on male/female relationships.

There were a number of Steig’s black & white drawings from his books, The Lonely Ones and Small Fry. These were originally collections of New Yorker cartoons.
The Lonely Ones cartoons reflect the influence of Wilhelm Reich and his unusal psychoterapy. Steig was an ardent follower, and the “Orgone box” appears in many of the illustrations or as subtext to many of the children’s books.

In the first room you entered, there was a beautiful New Yorker image of many faces.
Later in the show, this image was enlarged to wall-size, and several of the faces opened
for kids who wanted to interact with the masks.

Many of his children’s books were well represented. Abel’s Island, above left, and
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, above right, were shown. There were some excellent images from The Amazing Bone. (I almost thought I was looking at artwork from my film;
it was the exact same size.)

There were a couple of images from the stunningly beautiful book, Brave Irene. This is the one book I wish I could’ve animated.

The final room included a number of images from Steig’s book, Shrek. It isn’t one of my favorites of his books, but the paintings still are excellent. On a wall opposite were drawings and sketches by several of the Dreamworks artists and their versions of the character. A table in the center of the room displayed a couple of sculptures of the ugly character from the films.

It’s bad enough that the beautiful illustrations of Steig are trashed for the ugly repre-
sentations in those films, but to complete a retrospective of the man’s art with that left a bad taste in my mouth. Obviously, Dreamworks must have helped finance the exhibit. I didn’t take any more pictures in this final room.

The exhibit is attractive and it’s a good way to see Steig as an artist. The art is small, so if there’s a crowd there can be a small wait. However, it’s worth any troubles. There was a book, The Art of William Steig. It was Saturday, and the bookstore was closed, and I wasn’t able to buy one. Perhaps when I do, I’ll post more of the images from this show.

5 Responses to “Steig at the Jewish Museum”

  1. on 30 Dec 2007 at 10:23 pm 1.Will Finn said …

    Thanks for the pix and details of the exhibit. This is an exhibit I would love to see “in person” i hope it comes to L.A. Steig was a terrific author and artist and his range was pretty amazing. If you have any stories about the man to share those would be fun to read.
    THE LONELY ones artwork reminds me of Robert Osborn a bit.

  2. on 31 Dec 2007 at 7:01 pm 2.Eddie Fitzgerald said …

    Thanks much! Steig was a genius! Hey Will, I know one story about Steig, but I can’t remember where I got it. Maybe from the book:

    Anyway the story goes that The New Yorker didn’t like Steig’s later Picasso-type drawings so they found an artist who could mimic Steig’s earlier, cartoony style. That artist was non other than the popular kids’ author and illustrator, Syd Hoff. Steig appealed to the editors to stop but they claimed they saw no resemblance in the styles, and they continued to use Hoff…so Steig quit.

    I can’t swear to the accuracy of this story and if anyone has a correction I’d love to see it.

  3. on 01 Jan 2008 at 1:02 pm 3.Will Finn said …

    Funny story Eddie. There is a similarity between Syd Hoff and early Steig, but could the sophisticated NEW YORKER really have rejected his work at any time? Saul Steinberg’s work was also abstract (even a bit dada) and they always published him.

    You never know though. At one point the NY TIMES asked Al Hirschfeld to “tone it down a bit” (can you believe it? what did they even mean?). He refused and took a hiatus. The clamor for his artwork brought him back and the editors left him alone after that.

  4. on 02 Jan 2008 at 1:22 pm 4.Anne Scher said …

    Many thanks for this article. The William Steig exhibition is on view at The Jewish Museum in NYC until March 16, 2008. It will then travel to San Francisco, to be shown at The Contemporary Jewish Museum from June 8 – September 7, 2008.

  5. on 05 Oct 2011 at 10:58 am 5.Jo said …

    This exhibition was indeed very enjoyable. I also never forget to visit the Kabbalah jewelry store nearby the museum!

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