Folk Art (Summer 1996)

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40 SUMMER 1996 FOLK ART

publications. This article, then, is an attempt to synthesize and preserve the basic facts on an American original. "Hey mistah, I got paintings here! Or maybe you want a Hoishey bar." He must have warbled some variation of this theme a million times in his unmistakable crackly Brooklynese. Like Grandma Moses before him, Steinberg came to painting at an advanced age. Until the last of his eighty-five years, however, he remained a simple street vendor, typically rising with the sun and returning by subway at the end of a workday to one of a succession of nondescript Bronx apartments long after dark. Whether hawking ice cream from a cart or candy bars from a low-slung cardboard box, Steinberg never earned more than enough to provide the necessities for himself and sister Pauline. He enjoyed a small but livable income, fresh air, no boss, steady customers, and, in his own restricted universe, a measure of fame. Back in the World of Tomorrow days of 1939, when he still signed his name "Chuck," Charles Saxon, best known for his long tenure as a New Yorker cartoonist, rendered for the Columbia humor magazine Jester a pen-and-ink caricature of a man with his feet firmly planted in the present. In almost every respect, this sketch closely resembles the Sam of forty years later: candy bar in the right hand, left hand raised in the air to signal a potential customer, cardboard box beside him, the bright eyes and summoning upturned mouth, the prominent nose and ears, the baggy pants and work oxfords, the ever-present coat and oversized taxi driver's cap.9 Appearing more gaunt and less robust forty years later, as health waned and age waxed, Steinberg was nevertheless the unmistakable subject of Saxon's drawing. Shortly after Steinberg's death, Robert Diamond, a Columbia senior, remarked that he "saw a yearbook picture from 30 years

ago with a picture of Sam in it and he looked the same. What else here stays the same for 30 years?"° In certain photographs from the 1960s and 1970s, Steinberg affects the pose of a boxer challenging his opponent." Perhaps he was paying homage to Jack Dempsey or Rocky Marciano or reliving his own youthful dreams; perhaps it was a photographer's staged pose. Jack Vartoogian, one whose camera captured Sam in this stance, remembers it as Sam's idea.° Pauline Steinberg discounts any thoughts of hero-worship:"You know, Sam didn't admire anybody special. He was a

Gilbene Vasiniejan

berg's assessment of her brother's virtues. More than a few have thought that the paintings also say something wonderful about Sam Steinberg. "The little picture is very interesting; it gives me keen pleasure," wrote Jean Dubuffet in 1973 of one of Steinberg's paintings. "I would like to acquire, if it is possible, some other pictures by him."2 Even a fictional Steinberg painting was sufficient to overcome the protagonist of a Rebecca Goldstein novel "with a nostalgia that surged into desire."3 "He was a very picturesque figure on campus," remembers Professor Robert Austerlitz. "He was straight from the heart."4 Upon the artist's death in 1992, Columbia University president Michael Sovern consoled Pauline Steinberg, Sam's companion of eighty years, saying that her brother was "an institution" and would be "greatly missed."5 "An institution gone," echoed Columbia College dean Arnold Collery of this little man who was for decades a strong presence in the Columbia community, as imposing in his own way as the dome of Low Library or the great limestone tower of nearby Riverside Church.' As Sam Steinberg himself once put it, "Everybody here knows me from my paintings and everybody likes me here."' A typical Steinberg work is as whimsical and surreal as a Klee or Miro, as sincere as a Grandma Moses, as enamored of the boldly colored plane as a Stella and of the almond eye as the Egyptian tomb paintings— and as original as they come.(Who but Steinberg could pull off a portrait with "one Chinese eye and one Japanese eye"?8)Like each of the above artists in some ways, Steinberg nevertheless produced an oeuvre that could not be mistaken for that of any other. "Sam," as he was universally known, touched the lives of thousands, from university presidents to generations of Columbia students. Yet he and his work are virtually unknown to anyone who did not once frequent the few blocks of Morningside Heights that converge on Columbia University's College Walk. The data on Sam Steinberg exists almost entirely in the realm of memory and anecdote, and in a variety of difficult-to-access Columbia

good, plain, ordinary person. He didn't have to admire anybody." Sam painted the famous and the infamous, she says, "because God puts in us the power to do beautiful things." Undeniably, Steinberg painted famous people, icons of history and popular culture among them: Washington and Lincoln, Garland and Valentino, Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ. As photographic likenesses are not the forte of the surrealist or the

Sam Steinberg with William Glaser, 1981. Steinberg is holding his portrait of Glaser.