In South East Portland, Oregon is a beautiful turn of the century brick building that used to employ hundreds of female workers as laundresses before people could afford personal washing machines in their homes. Eventually, after the plant closed sometime in the 1950′s, the building was dead space. In 2008, seeing the beauty of this industrial gem, The Yale Laundry building was purchased and turned into The Yale Union (otherwise known as YU), a center for contemporary art whose mission statement is: “Led by a desire to support emerging and under-acknowledged contemporary artists, propose new modes of production, and stimulate the ongoing public discourse around art.” This summer, they present a New Yorker-based exhibition, bibliographically titled:
The New Yorker. New York, 1945-2000.
(Harold, William, Robert, Tina, David, Eds.)
The show is a collection of New Yorker back issues, containing 200 plus Steinberg drawings, of the over 1000 published by the magazine. Steinberg contributed nearly 200 drawings over the course of his career and is one of those remarkable artists who quietly rides the border of high and low while making utterly compelling work. The magazines are laid out across narrow tables, unmarked, just open to the appropriate pages. Almost everything is rectangular. Open magazines, magazine covers, columns of type, the drawings themselves, even the space, a long room lined with windows (in the upper level of the building the wood floor is still marked by the enormous machines that used to occupy the space.) The tables make a neat timeline, spiraling inward from the earliest issues to the most recent. There are no arrows, thank goodness, but the order is there if you want it. The format is akin to Steinberg: possibly thorny, a little twisted, but mostly simple but with enough surprise to make you wander over it.
In the late afternoon heat, the whole space smells like warm paper. A few of the enormous industrial windows are open, and the wind keeps flipping the pages, which gives the funny impression that the show might be breathing. The pages are diligently flipped back, and then of course the wind turns them again. Many of the issues are stamped as property of the libraries that once circulated them. There are so many visible hands: editors and essayists, ad-men, cartoonists, librarians, curators. Not a stuck-under-glass presentation, but something a little bit more fragile and little bit more awake.
In keeping with Steinberg’s idiosyncratic mien, the show includes some surprises. Little hiccups, or reminders to look again, to notice that this is not just what you expected to see. There is a repeated cover—one faded and spotty with mildew, the other looking a bit tidier, like its librarians did better against the damp. One magazine is turned face down, showing a color photo of a bar of gold, an advertisement for Chivas Regal. Confused visitors keep flipping it over, thinking someone has been meddling with the show. It is not meddling. It is a surprise on purpose. It gets flipped back. There is a Barthleme story, filled with big black squares, an interruption filled with surprising interruptions, which are all, of course, not interruptions at all but just surprising parts of the thing they belong to. This is another way that the exhibition is breathing. Idiosyncrasy and liveliness are not so far apart, and they make a wonderful home for Steinberg’s pictures.
It’s easy to get stuck, of course. To worry about interpretation. Looking at those pictures, and looking at the gold bar, I wonder, is there a key that I’ve missed… Do I get the pun? Am I invited in? Is the context telling me secrets or distracting me? Probably both. I can unpack some of the puns, but I’m probably doing it differently than the teenager across the aisle. But who cares? Because the puns I don’t get are just a shove into wonderment. The juxtapositions that don’t immediately announce their meanings leave room for the best questions.
Steinberg, Saul will be up through August 10. YU will hold several talks around and about the show during July and August. A screening of ‘Modern Times’ by Charlie Chaplin on Tuesday, July 24, 7pm, a lecture by the exhibition coordinators Robert Snowden and Scott Ponik, Tuesday, July 31, and a screening of ‘The Right Way’ by Fischli and Weiss on Thursday, August 9, 8pm. YU is located at 800 SE 10th Avenue, Portland and is open to the public Thursday – Saturday, 12 – 8 pm.