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'Just Drawing'

July 10, 2008 By:
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Preliminary illustration for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, 1969

I remember how surprised I was when I learned, about a decade ago, that the famous New Yorker cartoonist and children's book author and illustrator William Steig hadn't at first wanted to be an artist. Actually, his most sincere desire as a young man was to run off to sea.

That wish, of course, makes perfect sense once you think about it in relation to Steig's literally massive body of work. The sea is everywhere in his drawings; it can be a refuge and sometimes a challenge, but it's an abiding presence throughout the artist's long career, often cropping up in his cartoons for The New Yorker ("The Eternal Sea") and in many of his beloved children's books (Amos & Boris and Zeke Pippin, to name only two). The sea is the wellspring from which so much of his work has sprung.

"I loved reading adventure books," Steig has said, "and I remember stories by a writer named Daniel O'Brien about the South Sea islands. That was my dream, leaving home and sailing off to the South Seas. In fact, when I was about 15, I did run away from home after a row with my dad. ...

"I decided to run off to join the Marines. I had a quarter in my pocket.

"We lived way up in the Bronx and the recruiting office was down at the Battery," the artist explained. "I spent a dime on an Everyman's Library book to read on the subway, and a nickel on the fare.

I spent the night in Penn Station.

"After the Marines turned me down in the morning, I spent my last dime on a hot dog, so I had to walk all the way back to 170th Street. When I finally got home, my mom and dad hugged and kissed me and we cried. We were a very emotional family."

Those familiar with the memorable and moving children's book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble will recognize where that work's happy ending may have had its beginnings.

The long quote above is drawn from The World of William Steig, the last major compilation of the artist's work, I believe, which appeared in 1999 and was written by the former art director of The New Yorker, Lee Lorenz, an accomplished cartoonist and children's book author in his own right. The two men may have been employee and boss respectively, but they were steadfast friends throughout their lives. Lorenz's book appeared four years before Steig's death, and was a perfect melding of subject and author.

Now we have The Art of William Steig, a co-production of Yale University Press and the Jewish Museum, which hosted a show on the cartoonist that ran through March of this year. It was definitely time for a new look at Steig, especially since the "Shrek" phenomenon has quieted down.

You might think that nothing could touch the quality and insight of the Lorenz volume, but the new work is a splendid and loving series of essays by people who knew the man and his various works well. There are fellow artists and admirers, such as the legendary Maurice Sendak and Edward Sorel, and family members, like Jeanne and Maggie Steig, his wife of 30-some years and his daughter. As was true of the Lorenz book, there is also a generous sampling of Steig's drawings here, representing all the phases of his career, all wonderfully reproduced, their colors and many layers intact.

The voices that fill this book are, next to the drawings, what make it so special. Claudia Nahson, associate curator at the Jewish Museum, starts off her introduction by quoting Whitney Balliett on Steig (the two men were colleagues at The New Yorker, and Balliett was one of the finest stylists who ever graced those pages, which is saying a great deal). Balliett tries to identify that "mysterious line that separates cartoonists from artists." According to the great jazz critic, "cartoonists are sketchers who deal in obsolescence," whereas "artists, more heavily equipped, aim at permanence." And yet there are "those few cartoonists, like Steig, who are also artists [that] make you laugh, then lead you to their drawings," for he "draws well enough to keep you after the laughter stops." As Nahson notes, Balliett's observation couldn't be more to the point.

In his essay titled "The Ever-Evolving Art of William Steig," Edward Sorel writes that "like Picasso, whom he revered, William Steig was an artist of change, continually moving from one style to another, but always in the direction of the more spontaneous. Late in life Steig regarded any kind of drawing that required tracing or preliminary sketches an unwelcome labor. Only 'free drawing' brought him joy. 'I often ask myself, "what would be the ideal life?" I think an ideal life would be just drawing.'

"What Steig -- always 'Bill' to everyone -- meant by 'just drawing' was, presumably, allowing an image to escape from his unconscious. Art that was personal was the only art that had value. By middle age he considered drawings that required planning and reworking not only less enjoyable than free drawing, but less worthy artistically."

What more could you ask for? Here you get it all: Lots and lots of Steig drawings, and commentary that helps you better enjoy lots and lots of Steig drawings.

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