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Life and Art in Steinberg, Hockney, and Wojnarowicz

Three new biographies that retell the lives but don't explain the creativity

Express Newspapers/Getty Images

For biographers, who give a person’s life a second life by putting it between covers, the ever-diminishing shelf life of books has to have a particular poignancy. It was only the day before yesterday that new biographies of three artists of our time appeared, and yet those lives of David Hockney, Saul Steinberg, and David Wojnarowicz, each of which has been received with generosity and attentiveness, are already off the stage. The long drum roll of attention that used to greet an important new biography, reviving old stories and supplying a fresh stock of anecdotes, has given way to something more like a noisy flash of attention, after which there is a suffocating silence. Although multi-volume publishing events are nowadays said to be a thing of the past, I find it significant—and encouraging—that among the rare successes of recent years are biographies that defy that assumption. Robert Caro’s work on Lyndon Johnson and John Richardson’s work on Picasso may stay in the public imagination in part because the old-fashioned expansiveness of the storytelling, with volumes appearing over decades, confounds our tendency to feel that no life is now worth even Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes.

To see Deirdre Bair’s account of Saul Steinberg’s life swept away with such rapidity feels especially ironic, because Steinberg’s creative achievement and extraordinary fame were so inextricably intertwined with the triumph of sophisticated print culture in this country. Nobody knew better than Steinberg how to marshal the democratic power of publishing, with his drawings constituting a magnificent drum roll of wit, wisdom, paradox, and drollery sent forth from the offices of The New Yorker and spreading across the country, week after week and month after month for half a century. That Bair’s book has not caught fire is in part owed to her inability to sustain narrative focus and drive, but I would also not underestimate the extent to which the story of Steinberg’s success is quite simply incomprehensible in the terms in which success is understood today. The eventual scale of Steinberg’s fame was built on a slow but inexorable crescendo, each cartoon or group of sketches or cover design a piece of a puzzle that the public put together over a period of years. Publishing, whether of books or magazines, used to be about building lifelong relationships. Although Steinberg could be a snobbish and curmudgeonly fellow and sometimes regretted that collections of his work did not sell more than they did, I do not think he ever lost his faith in his public.

The reviewers of Bair’s biography have paid particular attention to what has become Steinberg’s most famous invention: the view from Manhattan with all the rest of the United States a slender wedge of land on the far side of the Hudson River, which was published on the cover of The New Yorker on March 29, 1976. Bair relates the story in a chapter titled “The Man Who Did That Poster,” explaining that when it was reproduced as a poster the image sold some 25,000 copies by 1980, and at the very beginning of her book she confesses that a copy of the poster “has hung in every house I’ve lived in since then.” The poster had become so ubiquitous by the time it was appropriated for an advertisement for the movie Moscow on the Hudson in 1984 that Steinberg, a litigious man, sued and came away with $225,859. 

According to Bair, Steinberg’s drawing was designed to reflect his increasing despair at what he saw as the deracination of American life, and “was not meant to be the cheerful, optimistic poster people took it for”—a “public misreading of Steinberg’s intention [that] only deepened his chronically gloomy outlook.” While I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of Bair’s account of Steinberg’s reactions, I worry that the tendency to see this drawing as a one-off sensation fails to account for the sophistication of Steinberg’s countless admirers, who had long been engaged in a complicated negotiation with his work, receiving the signs and symbols he sent out through The New Yorker and responding to them in a protracted if often indirect exchange between artist and audience. The great joke of Us and Them had been building for a long time, the Us in Manhattan versus the Them in the rest of the country, which included some of Steinberg’s most ardent students.

The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society
"View of the World from 9th Avenue," by Saul Steinberg

At a time when there is widespread confusion, among old and new media folk alike, as to how creative work can reach a substantial audience, it cannot be easy for a biographer to understand, much less explain to readers, how a life as it is lived day by day relates to the creative or imaginative life. Christopher Simon Sykes, in David Hockney: A Rake’s Progress, his fluidly and pleasurably spun account of the life up to 1975, when Hockney was not yet forty (a second volume is in the works), observes that his goal was to “conjure up the man that he is and in doing so put his paintings in the context of his extraordinary life.” I would not want to land too hard on what is obviously a casual prefatory remark, but it does seem to me that biographers make too much of the life as a context and too little of the life as the soil from which the work emerges through a process of imaginative materialization.

The tendency to see something gemütlich about biography, as if it were all a matter of simply telling it like it is, can do little justice to the mysteries of the imagination, which may well have been explored far more deeply in biographies of literary artists than of visual ones. In 1959, Leon Edel, whose enormous life of Henry James is nowadays sometimes unjustly dismissed, published a series of lectures called Literary Biography that strikes me as just about the best thing on the subject of how to approach the imaginative life. “We must weigh the relationship between criticism and biography,” he said, “for surely the writing of a literary life would be nothing but a kind of indecent curiosity, and an invasion of privacy, were it not that it seeks always to illuminate the mysterious and magical process of creation.” And he goes on to speak of “those deeper springs of our being where the gathered memories of our lives merge and in some cases are distilled into transcendent art.” Of course “indecent curiosity” and “invasion of privacy” can sound terribly peculiar today. What, after all, is indecent or private anymore?

In any event, some of the most troublesome elements in these new biographies of Steinberg, Hockney, and Wojnarowicz have nothing to do with the private life and everything to do with navigating the relationship between the public life and the artistic life. Taken together, the three biographies rather neatly encompass three-quarters of a century of artistic experience in the United States and Europe, frequently emphasizing the artist’s entrepreneurial chops. Steinberg, who died in 1999 at the age of 84, was born in Romania and built a great career in the United States beginning in the 1940s. Hockney, born in 1937 and growing up in modest circumstances in Bradford, England, was a sensation in London by the time he was in his early thirties. Wojnarowicz, who was born in New Jersey in 1954, was an artist to be reckoned with in the East Village long before he became a touchstone in the fight for public recognition of the AIDS crisis in the years leading up to his death in 1992 at the age of 37.

Of these biographies, Cynthia Carr’s Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz is surely the most distinguished, a steady, elegantly lucid account that is not without its flashes of fierce passion. Through the precision with which she joins dissonant impressions of her protagonist, Carr manages to recreate Wojnarowicz as a multi-dimensional character, his virtues and failings naturally mingled. Even Carr, however, sometimes seems to treat the creative process not as the heart of the matter but as a sort of interruption of the action, an interlude when the protagonist leaves the stage in order to do something or other that takes him away from family, friends, lovers, collaborators, enemies, and frenemies alike. 

The real drama, in these accounts, is sometimes less in the act of creation than in getting the show up on the gallery walls. Carr has Wojnarowicz rolling up to PPOW, the gallery where he is showing, “in a truck with [his friend] Marion [Scemama] and all this art work sometime around three or four in the afternoon. The show opened at six.” Sykes has Hockney returning “to London bearing two sketchbooks filled with drawings and a tight schedule ahead of him, as he had an upcoming show with André Emmerich in New York. ‘I must really get down to painting now,’ he wrote.” As for Steinberg, commissioned to create a mural for the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, “to be ready for [the opening], he worked for ten or more hours every day, seven days a week. He made it a point to return to the hotel at 6 p.m. for a two-hour nap.” I am reminded of those potboiler representations of the creative process in the movies, where the novelist is frantically banging on the typewriter keys as the ashtray overflows with cigarette butts. 

Gjon Mili/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Saul Steinberg, 1959 

The poet and critic Howard Moss once observed that “the truest changes in art are not changes of technique but of sensibility,” and it is precisely these changes that we look to the biographer to reveal, by paying close attention to how the day-to-day engagement with the works and ideas of teachers and friends and exemplary figures past and present shape the imaginative life. Although neither Sykes nor Bair exactly ignores the various signposts, they are not assiduous enough about following the leads. Hockney’s move in the late 1960s from graffiti-like simplifications to full naturalistic illusions—first realized in the double portrait of Christopher Isherwood and Donald Bachardy—has more intellectual weight and substance than Sykes suggests. Sykes fails to reveal how Hockney’s evolving neoclassicism builds on a profound English ambivalence about abstraction and modernity that Hockney shared with London contemporaries such as Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff and with his close friend the American expatriate R. B. Kitaj. And although Sykes pays a good deal of attention to Hockney’s reverence for Picasso, he misses the deep conceptual significance of Picasso’s neoclassical line. That line, which Picasso derived from Ingres and often employed as he was exploring the strong homoerotic perfume that suffused the Ballets Russes in the years around World War I, was reimagined by Hockney in a more purely journalistic spirit for his erotic etchings accompanying poems by Cavafy, which are among the most heartfelt achievements of his career. 

As for Deirdre Bair, in her vigorous and detailed account of Steinberg’s first great success, when he was employed in Milan in the late 1930s by the satirical magazines Bertoldo and Settebello, she seems to me to miss the creative significance of this work. Bair, who is best known for biographies of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir that evince a clarity of surface and structure that her Steinberg certainly lacks, may simply be uncomfortable with the visual material. Whatever the reason, she has failed to notice that a particular kind of playful graphic wit that we tend to associate with Steinberg, ribbing the skeletal austerities of modernism with baroque and rococo twinkles, was characteristic of a whole range of artists who were starting out in Italy in those years. Steinberg’s style, so often said to be the prototypical product of a European’s encounters with America, may in fact be prototypically Italian, growing from the same soil as the slyly comic graphic design work of Bruno Munari, who was a friend, as well as the surrealistically collaged furnishings of Piero Fornasetti, the witticisms and conundrums of Gio Ponti’s interior decorations, and even the paintings and murals of Massimo Campigli, with their humorous treatment of fashionable females. There is a mockery of modernism in those artists, the Italian imagination too accustomed to ruins not to predict the ruination of modernity; and it pervades Steinberg’s art, and may begin with his early experiences in Milan. 

If Bair, Sykes, and even Carr are not as attentive as they might be to the life of forms in art, their subjects certainly keep them busy, each with a social calendar that frequently seems to leave little time for the studio. Sykes has written a remarkably likeable and sunny biography, which probably reflects Hockney’s own comfort with the life he has lived. His loving and loyal mother and his father, a brave and idiosyncratic figure who was a conscientious objector during World War II, never blinked at their son’s unlikely desire to become an artist, and he was an admirably dutiful son in their later years, generous with his time, his affection, and his money. This volume covers the great love of Hockney’s life, Peter Schlesinger, whom he met in 1966 when the eighteen-year-old boy from the San Fernando Valley walked into a drawing class that Hockney was teaching at UCLA. But if there was deep sorrow and some considerable turmoil when Schlesinger moved on five years later, Hockney was too firmly grounded in his work and his friendships to flounder for very long. While other friends went off the rails—perhaps most spectacularly the designer Ossie Clark, who was the subject of a famous double portrait with his wife Celia Birtwell—Hockney never lost his bearings, although he certainly took full advantage of the carnivalesque pleasures of the 1960s and 1970s. The book ends with the world premiere of Hockney’s sets and costumes for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne in 1975, “a never-to-be-forgotten occasion,” with Hockney’s friends traveling from London on a bus where they were plied with champagne and LSD, the dinner interval “a bacchanalian scene [that] included handsome Cuban waiters handing out more champagne and the tables now groaning with food,” Henrietta Guinness “high on LSD … found head down in a flower bed,” and on the bus back to London “more champagne … and even buckets for people to throw up in.”

Sykes, writing about an apparently happy man, has produced a happy book, and perhaps it is not especially surprising that Bair, in writing about Steinberg, who from all accounts was an extraordinarily tortured soul, has produced a torturous book. The painter Hedda Sterne, to whom Steinberg remained married through epochal bouts of womanizing, once told her husband that the French writer Jules Renan had been known as “the sweetest of cruel men,” leaving little doubt that this was a personality type with which Sterne was intimately acquainted. From his parents and his sister and her family, whose eventual immigration from Romania he engineered and whom he labored to establish in the West, Steinberg received enough complaint and ingratitude to justify his own lack of warmth. With friends and lovers he could certainly display the coldness of the classic Don Juan, and his unflinching self-centeredness could not have been good for the great love of his later years, a younger woman named Sigrid Spaeth, as she sank beneath the depression that eventually led her to jump from the roof of the Riverside Drive building where he had bought her an apartment. Bair emphasizes the grueling, sadistic elements in Steinberg’s personality to such a degree that it is difficult to see the charm to which so many people responded. She writes at some length about all the attention Steinberg lavished on his house on Long Island, and yet her pages of description pale beside John Ashbery’s fleeting observation, in a profile of the artist in 1970, that “it’s a little old shingled house which he says looks like ‘a Chaplin dream of happiness.’ D. W. Griffith would no doubt have felt at home in it too, and the front screen door seems to be waiting for Mary Pickford to fling it open and rush ecstatically down the steps, all curls to the wind.” In Ashbery’s few words, we see the Steinberg that his friends loved.

Much of the power of Carr’s account of David Wojnarowicz, with whom she had a deepening friendship in the months leading up to his death, is in the delicacy with which she separates fact from fiction, all the while recognizing that a life without some element of fantasy may not be a life worth living. It is easy to see why Wojnarowicz, who had a hardscrabble childhood and youth, with a sadistic father and an adolescence in part spent on the street, became such a romantically inclined fellow, by some accounts a mythologizer who made his noirish early years sound even more noir than they were. Carr, a cultural reporter for the Village Voice during some of the period that she chronicles here, appreciates the hell-bent romanticism, the ecstatic drug-taking, and the thrilling sexual experimentation of those times, but she also has no illusions as to the wear and tear of living in terrible apartments with practically no money—even before AIDS turned the parties into wakes. 

Without apologetics, and without in any way passing judgment, she describes Wojnarowicz’s swings from charismatic engagement to moody introversion and inexplicable rages, and his tendency to isolate his longtime lover Tom Rauffenbart from his art world friends. What emerges is a fully dimensional portrait of the artist as a young man. Particularly remarkable is the account of Wojnarowicz’s brief love affair and lasting friendship with Peter Hujar, the brilliant photographer who was a mentor to Wojnarowicz and whose death from AIDS in 1987 was for Wojnarowicz the beginning of the end. As for the debates about NEA funding of the arts that consumed so much of Wojnarowicz’s time and energy in his later years, Carr relates this bleak story with astonishing confidence and without resorting to any form of italicization. Wojnarowicz was not looking for a fight, at least not initially, but the mendacity and the cruelty of Jesse Helms and the Right made inaction impossible, and the lack of resolve among many liberals, who were caught in the middle for reasons both good and bad, left Wojnarowicz and his friends quite understandably feeling betrayed.

Andreas Sterzing
Still of David Wojnarowicz from Silence=Death, 1989 

What is missing from all of these biographies is some theory of creativity, some idea about how the raw materials of experience are transformed into art. Carr is most successful in describing that transformation, probably because the mechanisms by which Wojnarowicz produced his work were close to straightforward expressionism, with experiences and fantasies pretty much projected directly into paintings, photographs, films, and prose. What some may interpret as a complex language of signs and symbols in Wojnarowicz’s paintings and collages strikes me as closer to a simple diagrammatic structure, derived from such countercultural mainstays as the Whole Earth catalogue, tantra paintings, and urban graffiti. Wojnarowicz’s art makes its chief claims as poster and polemic, as rants and riffs related to what Carr calls his “neo-Beat prosody,” the silkscreen images and collaged techniques often originating in works done on walls in the abandoned Hudson piers where he found studio space and watched—and sometimes participated in—the sexual free-for-all. Carr’s biography may be a monument to Wojnarowicz that finally overshadows his own artistic achievements, an account of a life composed with an artfulness I do not see much in evidence in his own work, which pales beside the achievements of his friends, especially the photographs of Peter Hujar and Nan Goldin and the high-camp delirium of the needlepoint paintings of Nicholas Moufarrege, who died of AIDS in 1985.

Artfulness can itself be a way of foreclosing the power of art, of course; and in Sykes’s portrait of Hockney there is sometimes a sense that style, for Hockney, is a rosy-colored glaze or varnish mostly meant to give a satisfying unity to his recapitulations of friendships and love affairs and travels. Sykes comments that Hockney “was developing the portrait as a drama” in such works as the double portrait of Isherwood and Bachardy and the portrait of Hockney’s close friend the curator Henry Geldzahler and his boyfriend Christopher Scott, but the tensions in these cool compositions strike me as little more than savvy journalistic accounts. The crisscrossing glances and the rival egos are muffled by pictorial arrangements that are as seamlessly and blandly elegant as the stripes in the Color Field paintings that were often exhibited in the same galleries in London and New York where Hockney was making a reputation in the late 1960s. For Hockney, whose life appears to be an open book, it is style that is the mask. He often seems to use his gift for historical impersonation—whether of Ingresque neoclassicism, or of various phases in Picasso’s career, or of the ebullience of Raoul Dufy—to foreclose some deeper kind of experience. Hockney is at his best as a graphic artist: his drawings and prints of friends, family, and especially his lovers exude an ardent, unabashed literalism that probably reflects all that is most frankly warm and admirable in his personality.

I would imagine that a biographer, in investigating the life of an artist, would at least want to consider whether the art offered some imaginative resolution to the conflicts in the life, but Deirdre Bair never really tackles the problem. While I do not doubt the truth of much of what she has to say about Saul Steinberg’s unholy amalgam of generosity, cruelty, snobbery, and charm, in the end I suspect that the man Steinberg’s friends admired is more like the man we know from the drawings than the man who emerges in Bair’s book. Much has been made of Steinberg’s passionate relationship with his adopted America—with baseball, small town life, car culture, commercialism, and all the rest of it. But what pushes Steinberg’s explorations beyond mere comic reportage is the intense emotional climate that informs everything he does. There is a compulsiveness about Steinberg’s response to the American scene, some need that this restless spirit feels to be reconciled with everything he sees, that forces him to reach deeper and deeper into his bottomless bag of stylistic tricks. In Steinberg’s work, the endless jokes, puns, rebuses, mazes, modes, and mannerisms are joined in a sweet-and-sour style that is strangely lovable, as no doubt Steinberg himself could be.

For Steinberg, drawing was catharsis, the great escape. If he sometimes found much that was dispiriting and demoralizing in the American scene that he lovingly described, perhaps that was his way of grappling with all the dispiriting and demoralizing aspects of his own personality, which he was apparently incapable of ever confronting directly. Steinberg transformed his uneasy relationship with every corner of modern life into an utterly personal comedy of unease. The key to the biographical puzzle of Saul Steinberg is there in plain sight, in the disorderly order of the art, a comedy that turns all of life’s follies and foibles into cause for celebration. 

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. He is the author, most recently, of Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture (Eakins Press Foundation).