2.5 Christoph Niemann and Saul Steinberg

A comparison between the work of Christoph Niemann and Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg and Christoph Niemann are both illustrators and artists who incorporate found objects in their images.

The objective of this research task is to compare their work in order to establish the similarities/differences in their use of objects and whether the works are fun or serious.

Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg was born in 1914 in Romania and died in New York in 1999 aged 84. His father was a bookbinder and was very involved with typography, something that influenced Steinberg in his later work. He was trained as an architect but never received formal art training.

He migrated to America in 1942 to escape anti-Semitic persecution. In an interview, Jennifer Russell Curator of a 1978 Saul Steinberg retrospective at the Whitney Museum, said that Steinberg’s art ‘defies categorisation‘ and that he describes himself as ‘A writer who draws; a kind of novelist’.

Harold Rosenberg sums up Steinberg’s themes and approach. ‘Logician of stereotypes and repetitive social situations, Steinberg brings to life dramas of abstract entities masquerading as people, animals, landscapes. All his formulas, comical mainly through their magical terseness, have deep contemporary reference’. Most of his work is a commentary on the American Dream from the view of an outsider.

He is best known for his cartoons that appear in New Yorker Magazine.

The following selection of images concentrate on some of the ways Steinberg combined illustration with real life objects which was just one area of his work.

The Bathtub series show the heavy influence of Dadaism and Surrealism and involve illustrations of people and objects on real life objects. Women in a bathtub, sitting on chairs or a man in or on a cardboard box.

Saul Steinberg - Girl in a bathtub, 1949
Girl in bathtub, Saul Steinberg, 1949

The Fingerprints series is about identity, perhaps motivated by his own experiences. Fingerprints identify you as a person whilst remaining faceless. They are part fun and part about how do you find out who you are in America as an immigrant.

Saul Steinberg, Passport photo 1953
Passport photo, Saul Steinberg, 1953

Between 1959 and 1963 he produced a series of paper-bag masks that play with the idea of disguise and that to a lesser or greater degree everyone wears a mask. These were made famous through photographs taken by Inge Morath.

Saul Steinberg, Small Family Group, Chelsea Hotel
Small Family Group, Chelsea Hotel (from the Mask Series with Saul Steinberg), 1962. Photograph by Inge Morath

Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann is an illustrator, artist and author. As well as creating covers for the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Wired, he also has numerous corporate clients and has written a number of children’s books.

In her article Deutsch marks: Christoph Niemann, Katherine Nelson describes his work: ‘Niemann’s flexible approach is unusual. It runs the gamut from clean-lined caricatures to weird painterly abstractions, although there is always an underlying current of wit and humour’.

Niemann describes his approach to illustration:”You have a visual problem and you try to find the best idea or style to work as the solution”.

His combination of found objects and illustration stems from an ongoing series of images he calls his Sunday Sketches.

Christop Nieman Sunday sketches 01
Sunday sketches – Christoph Niemann

He describes these to an audience at a talk he gave called ‘You are fluent in this language (and don’t even know it)’. ‘On a Sunday I would take a random object from around the house and try to see if that object would trigger an idea that had nothing to do with the original purpose of that item. And it usually means I’m just blank for a long while, and the only trick that eventually works is if I open my mind and run through every image I have stored up there, and see if anything clicks. And if it does, just add a few lines of ink to connect or to preserve this very short moment of inspiration’.

Questions

What are the similarities/differences in the use of objects in their work?

It is true that both artists use found objects in their work subverting their original properties into something new as part of an image, and both use humour as a tool to communicate meaning. The cartoon illustrations they make are also generally very simple and ideas are expressed with a minimal number of lines. Christoph Niemann says of this: ‘My goal as an artist is to use the smallest amount possible. I try to achieve a level of simplicity where if you were to take away one more element, the whole concept would just collapse’.

Apart from these stylistic similarities, the motivations and intentions behind their work is completely different.

Fundamentally Saul Steinberg is always creating work within a bigger context; commenting on the American Dream from an outsiders point of view. In other words his starting point is a big idea and everything he does fits within that framework.

In his Sunday Sketches, Christoph Niemann is very reactive to the qualities of the objects and uses these as his starting point. He lets his imagination and creativity make connections that end up placing the object within an image in a completely different and unusual context.

Are these fun or serious pictures?

Christoph Niemann’s Sunday Sketches are fun. They delight viewers by taking an everyday object and using something about it’s quality to create an illustration that has a completely different meaning; the top of a pot of ink becomes a camera, a marker pen becomes a man’s leg. The humour comes from how the original meaning of these objects is subverted.

Saul Steinberg’s use of objects is also fun, but there is often a more serious side to the pictures. The Bathtub series are fun and whimsical and operate in the same way as Christoph Niemann’s Sunday Sketches. However the Fingerprint and Paper-bag masks, whilst being fun on the surface, at a deeper level are dealing with ideas around identify within a broader social and political context.

References

The Saul Steinberg Foundation, Paper-bag Masks, http://saulsteinbergfoundation.org/

Vogue, On Saul Steinberg’s Centennial, an Exhibition of His Work Opens at Pace/MacGill, https://www.vogue.com/article/saul-steinberg-centennial-at-pace-macgill

The Guggenheim Museum, Saul Steinberg, 1978, Mimi Poser discusses the Whitney’s Saul Steinberg retrospective with Whitney curator Jennifer Russell, https://www.guggenheim.org/audio/track/saul-steinberg-1978

You are fluent in this language (and don’t even know it) – https://www.ted.com/talks/christoph_niemann_you_are_fluent_in_this_language_and_don_t_even_know_it?language=en#t-316107

Deutsch marks: Christoph Niemann Nelson, Katherine. Print; New York Vol. 53, Iss. 1,  (Jan/Feb 1999):

Sunday sketches: http://www.christophniemann.com/portfolio/sunday-sketches-2/