The Curious Style of William Steig

William Steig is best known as a writer/illustrator of children’s books—or, if you’re younger than forty, as the inspiration for the DreamWorks animated film Shrek. But Steig didn’t begin writing books for younger readers until he was sixty-one. For much of his career he was most well-known as a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, where his cartoons and covers combined a satirical view of American life with an immediately identifiable visual style: loose, ragged lines shaded with watercolor and attached to pithy, sardonic captions, as if a drawing on a cocktail napkin somehow majored in philosophy.

Steig’s visual style didn’t emerge fully-formed. One of the fascinating aspects of my work as I’ve processed the William Steig papers here at the Kislak Center has been charting the development of Steig’s aesthetic, as he straddled the realms of fine art, commercial illustration, and cartooning. In the end, his mature style combined aspects from all three realms: the structural preoccupations of Modernism; the surface attraction of an advertisement; and the ability to compress a narrative moment into a single panel that would prove so crucial when Steig turned to children’s books. You can see many of his drawings online on ArtStor.

Because his most successful work was in commercial and popular art, it would be easy to overlook the influence that early 20th century Modernism had on Steig’s career. Picasso was a particular influence, and he lived and worked within a New York scene that was alive to the larger international avant garde. (This is evident from his inclusion among three young artists in an issue of Magazine of Art, shown below.) Seen in this light, his tortured figures within miniature landscapes have as much in common with de Chirico as with Al Capp.

During this initial period, however, there was a significant difference between the style Steig used in a more adult (or “fine art”) context and the style he used in advertisements and popular magazines. One of Steig’s most successful creations, the “Small Fry” series of cartoons, may have had certain satirical bite when used to parody adult behavior…

but in terms of pure aesthetics they were significantly milder than the alienated figures in books like “The Lonely Ones,” seen here in preparatory notebook sketches. (Indeed, Steig’s notebooks show that the surreal and structural tendencies in his late work were present from a much earlier date; perhaps commercial pressure kept them from coming to fore.)

The same went for Steig’s commercial work, whether in the form of LP covers or advertisements for car wax: clean lines and cartoon noses, safe for a mass audience.

But as Steig’s career continued into the 1960’s, these boundaries began to break down. We are lucky in our collection to have a series of scrapbooks documenting many of Steig’s cartoons in the New Yorker; as one of the main American cultural spaces where high-minded aesthetics met a popular audience, the magazine served as a kind of laboratory for Steig to experiment. As the decade went on, his line became looser, more sketch-like.

Even in his overtly commercial work, he enjoyed employing the kind of visual metaphor he’s used in the work featured in Magazine of Art, though less anguished and more playful.

This change became even more pronounced in the 1970’s, when even his more traditional domestic scenes took on a surreal character.

He played with the line between figuration and abstraction, and took visual metaphor to a higher level of productive ambiguity.

His cartoons, while single panel, no longer conformed to the standard single panel format combining a narrative moment and a pithy one-liner. Instead, their single-phrase captions interacted with the visual content in surprising ways: redefining, deepening, and sometimes complicating how the viewer might interpret the visual space.

Sometimes Steig forewent captions entirely, leaning on the newfound antic energy of his line work.

A comparison might be instructive here. A domestic setting from the 40s and a domestic setting from the 70s:

One would be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t the same artist—though Steig’s notebooks show that this kind of loose line (and surreal situation) always existed in sketch form, waiting to be shown to the public. Perhaps it was the cultural shift, reflected in the New Yorker’s pages, that brought them into the mainstream. Or perhaps Steig simply had the financial and professional stability necessary to allow himself greater artistic leeway.

Our scrapbook collection allows the researcher to evaluate another development in Steig’s career: his successful expansion into the world of children’s books. Whenever Steig published a children’s book, he laid the jacket into the scrapbook, which helps us measure the relationship between the developing freedom of his popular visual style and his book-length work for children, which would later bring him his most enduring fame.

Anyone interested in charting the varied aesthetic experiments that led to Steig’s mature style would find much to appreciate in the Steig Papers. Not only do the scrapbooks give a chronological account of the development of his public work, but the collection also contains more than 2500 original drawings, some of which were never published, that showcase the wide range of visual metaphor, abstraction, and aesthetic experimentation that make Steig’s work so unique.

All of the characteristics of Steig’s mature style are on display in these drawings. His modernist influences are clear, especially the influence of Picasso:

His ability to elevate the classic one-panel cartoon to a subtler, more surprising plane:

caption: “imagined confrontation”

A talent for visual metaphor that gives his work an ambiguous, lasting resonance:

caption: Rush hour – subway

His beautiful line and brush work, particularly evocative in situations where he forewent a caption:

And, when he did use captions, a poetic use of juxtaposition and compression, deepening the visual field:

With its selection of notebooks, scrapbooks, and these collected original drawings, the William Steig Papers provide a vivid cross-section of the artist’s visual (and verbal) style. Our collection gives the measure of an artist who successfully melded the commercial and the comedic with the aesthetic and the experimental, and in the process became one of the most visually striking 20th century American cartoonists.

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