New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross found them too personal and too serious to publish in the magazine. But after Ross's death, in 1951, his successor, William Shawn, made room for cartoons with more-avant-garde ambitions. Saul Steinberg stretched gag cartooning's formal boundaries (and got a 1978 Whitney Museum retrospective), whereas Steig explored its emotional range. The other pre-eminent New Yorker cartoonist of that era, Charles Addams, declared his wicked Addams family values. Then, beginning in 1978, Roz Chast pushed their innovations into absurdist territory.
Steig sought to make his drawings as beautifully messy as people themselves and as free, open, and heartfelt as children's drawings. So in the 1960s, he stopped making preparatory sketches. Each drawing was the final artwork — though sometimes it took multiple tries. He worked hard to make it look effortless, practicing, throwing away riffs, until he hit on just the right improvisation.
The Rockwell Museum exhibit runs from the 1950s to 2001. Steig's early style is represented by his "Dreams of Glory" series (eventually collected in a book), which here includes a 1950 cartoon of a boy hanging out of the window of a burning building and lowering a woman who's fainted into the arms of a firefighter as a worried, astonished crowd watches. These are warm-hearted jokes about the heroic aspirations in our Joe Shmoe hearts.
Steig draws rascal dreamer kids, underdogs, snarling couples, soft-hearted saps, sad-sack clowns, grinning drunks, yearning fools, and people taking themselves much too seriously. He had a talent for drawing funny, but don't overlook his deft eye for expressions and body language. In one sketch, a man raises a finger to shush a little dog as he sneaks in the door with a surprise bouquet of flowers.
Steig was a sharp, witty observer of everyday victories and stumbles — the small stuff. And pets. A May 1971 New Yorker cover depicts a stout, sweet lady trying to lure a bird from a tree back into its cage. Only briefly, with some "Dreams of Glory" cartoons during World War II, did he touch on current events. More typical is a July 4 New Yorker cover from 1968 — the height of the Vietnam War, and the protests — that shows a dog sleeping on a sunny porch below an American flag hanging proudly from a post. It's about what makes Steig's America great: the safety and security of a calm, lazy summer day.
One of his most brilliant gags was a 1992 Thanksgiving drawing of a turkey with a Gypsy fortune teller staring into a crystal ball. (It was drawn to be a New Yorker cover but appeared inside the magazine — Steinberg got the cover.) The bird sits erect, expectant. The fortune teller sheds a single tear and puts her finger to her chin as she ponders how to break the bad news. Combining two cartoon tropes — the fortune teller and the Thanksgiving turkey who doesn't yet realize he's doomed — Steig makes them fresh, hilarious, poignant.
In 1968, he published his first children's book, CDB!, and that launched him on a dazzling new sideline as a Caldecott Medal–winning children's-picture-book author and illustrator. The exhibit closes with 16 drawings from Shrek! ("fear" in Yiddish), about three-quarters of the book. They're small, nearly always 8.5 by 11 inches or less, and that gives his line the casual intimacy of penning a letter.