This is too many cartoons to display on the entire sixth floor of the library, let alone the Goldstein Family Gallery, so the exhibition opens with an interactive database of hundreds that could not fit. Before even entering the gallery, this electronic archive hints to the viewer that Steig’s work cannot be contained to a single medium, or even a single adjective, except for maybe “boundless.”
Considering he drew over 2,600 cartoons for the New Yorker alone, the database and tangible exhibit together comprise only a fraction of Steig’s oeuvre. But even reviewing this computerized cross-section of sketches, one notices the incredible diversity of the artist. Steig created characters in color, black and white, watercolor washes, and even simplistic stick figures. He studied personality and emotion through color and texture, and at times also focused on minimalist drawings that leave these subjectivities up to the viewer’s imagination.
So as to not spoil your personal journey through Steig’s collection, I will not tell you about individual pieces or about the specifics of Steig’s life as they relate to his art. I can say that the exhibition, through its dual organization by chronology and stylistic phases, expresses Steig’s versatility and ability to thrive within a changing landscape for professional artists, all while still maintaining his core artistic principles.
Steig did not settle into one aesthetic for very long; his life was a constant drive to find new sources of inspiration and harness them. It was this devotion to adaptation and experimentation that allowed him, even as an artist only for the sake of art, to be his family’s primary financial support for much of his life.
He anchored each medium he mastered and new influence he explored to his core artistic goals — speaking to children and exploring human personality and psychology. Whether in his stick-figure phase, his Picasso-esque phase, or his unique monster aesthetic phase, his pieces always connected to these lifelong areas of interest.
Walking through the exhibition, I noticed one case of artwork that stood apart from the others. This case held a few of Steig’s cartoons created specifically for advertisements for various products such as Jell-O and Delco Batteries. During the Great Depression, Steig had tried commercial cartooning as a financial lifejacket. This endeavor failed and Steig went the creative cartooning route, but he turned back to advertisements for a while in the late forties. Lynne Farrington, Curator of Printed Books at Penn's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, quickly explained that Steig was always “uneasy” about using art for advertisements. Though (literal) commercial art-making provided Steig with financial security, he did not enjoy it.