Saul Steinberg: Mural of Cincinnati, 1948 Cincinnati Art Museum

When the young and already influential architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati in 1948, it was America’s first hotel in the postwar era. The hotel embodied the Modernist movement’s belief in integrating art, architecture, and design, rejecting the unnecessary ornamentation of previous generations. The hotel tower was offset from the first seven floors, which house two department stores. The sky lobby was located on the eighth floor, which was reached via express elevators. The building’s lead designer Natalie de Blois designed the circular Skyline Restaurant, or the Gourmet Room, atop the 20th floor to offer panoramic views of downtown Cincinnati. In an experiment incorporating art into everyday life, the space’s focal point was a whimsical mural by Joan Miró, his first commission in the U.S. In the lobby hung a mobile by Alexander Calder. My favorite work lived in the main restaurant space, Mural of Cincinnati, by the cartoonist, illustrator, and artist Saul Steinberg.

Selecting Steinberg to create the mural in 1947 was a daring decision. Not long before, he had just created his first mural design for the Bonwit Teller department store in New York. During that period, he was primarily recognized as a cartoonist and illustrator. Nonetheless, his standing in the “fine arts” realm was gaining momentum. His presence in the autumn 1946 Fourteen Americans exhibition at New York’s MoMA contributed to his growing reputation.

When the hotel was sold in 1965 to the Hilton Corporation, the Steinberg mural was donated to the Cincinnati Art Museum, where it was restored after years of gathering gunk and smoke from being in the restaurant. It stayed on view until 1982 when the museum covered it by building a wall to mount an exhibition called the “Treasures from the Tower of London.” It stayed hidden until 2007, when the museum mounted a Steinberg retrospective. In the aftermath, they walled it back off. In 2018 they pulled the cover off, this time for good, as the museum opened a new space, the Schmidlapp Gallery, and reunited it with the Miró mural and Calder mobile. All are now on long-term view. 

So much of the life of this work has been unconventional, especially the fact that Steinberg’s massive mural was 89 feet long, but somewhere along the way, 14 feet of the original work, poof, vanished into the wall. Or perhaps it was lost by the moving company? In its display, the Cincinnati Art Museum has a thin marker to demarcate where the break in the mural happens. A wall label acknowledges the loss and shows a blow-up vintage photo of a piece of the lost mural. 

Steinberg is a fascinating figure whose creative prowess was fueled by a relentless curiosity and a multidisciplinary approach. Born in a Jewish family in Romania, Steinberg studied humanities at Bucharest University and then trained in architecture in Milan, Italy. He never designed a building before having to flee Fascist Italy shortly after completing his degree in the wake of the 1939 law that barred Jews from holding skilled professions. Reflecting on this time, he remarked that architecture was “marvelous training for anything but architecture. The frightening thought that what you draw may become a building makes for reasoned lines.”

In architecture school, he began submitting cartoons to the twice-weekly Italian humor newspaper Bertoldo. He quickly became one of their most famous artists. 

In 1936, while still studying architecture, Steinberg began contributing cartoons to the twice-weekly Italian humor newspaper Bertoldo and soon became one of the paper’s most popular artists. Steinberg started trying to find a way out of Italy in 1940 and began contributing illustrations in American publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, LIFE, Town & Country, and Mademoiselle. By 1941 he published his first cartoon with The New Yorker, and by 1943, the magazine sponsored him to become a U.S. citizen. 

His life in New York was surrounded by esteemed artists, writers, and intellectuals of the postwar world. It was in the 1940s that he began to forge a diverse career path encompassing roles as a gallery artist, a magazine contributor, an advertising creative, and a textile and stage set designer. As well as a muralist. But behind it, all was a line on a page. Steinberg’s perceptiveness regarding lines and his imaginative approach to visual representation drew inspiration from the same artistic realm as giants like Paul Klee, Max Ernst, or Picasso. He defied fitting into a single box. While the world had gone Pop, he was more Cubist/Surrealist with a strong dash of children’s art. Rube Goldberg-ian flourishes, free-association squiggles and scribbles, straight lines that continue so long that they shift pictorial purposes. He loved the New Yorker and found immense satisfaction in the knowledge that the magazine reached a broad audience of cultured readers that would allow him to be a man of ideas. Over six decades, he was a force: 87 covers, 333 cartoons, and 71 portfolios containing 469 drawings for The New Yorker. 

Of the eight murals Steinberg created over his career, the Mural of Cincinnati stands alone as the one painted entirely by his hand. He voiced his exhaustion in response to the demands of working on such a substantial scale by saying, “Those nuts who construct cathedrals out of toothpicks must feel like this when they’ve finished.” He made one site visit in the late 1940s in search of inspiration. Still, the only local landmarks Steinberg depicted in the mural were the Tyler Davidson Fountain, the Roebling Suspension Bridge, a muddy Ohio River, and the Mount Adams incline, defunct by 1948. The Roebling Suspension Bridge is a historic engineering marvel that spans the Ohio River to connect Cincinnati with Covington, Kentucky. It was a precursor to Roebling’s later design of the Brooklyn Bridge. In Steinberg’s hands, the Bridge is a graceful expression of dynamism; the cables spontaneously intersect and overlap, almost like an explosion from a firework. Below is a parade of pedestrians, vehicles, horses, and dogs as they traverse its expanse.

The real stars of Steinberg’s mural are the extravagant people that make up high-society Cincinnati. Floating beside a landscape of fantasy architecture, lavishly dressed men and women gather to dance. Rendered in Anatolian hieroglyphs-style, the figures are larger-than-life and gracefully intertwined in one another’s embraces. There is an inherent contradiction to the figures as despite the women’s flamboyant, eccentric hair and jewelry, the dancers are completely stoic. What should be a scene of vibrancy, a flight of fancy, instead is defined by outward demeanors of calm, composure, and restraint. This is not Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge. Even the gentleman leading his partner into a deep dip executes the movement with utmost professionalism. 

With its blend of historic architecture, scenic riverfront, and quirky arts scene, Cincinnati possesses a certain allure that I have always found charming. Steinberg plays all of those aspects up, and with a blend of whimsy, satire, and intellectual depth, he made a city that sprung from a fantastical dream. It’s imaginative and playful. Its buildings are constructed with unconventional shapes, like fanciful castles. Steinberg’s Cincinnati is a place where imagination reigns supreme, where the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary.