When the Delay is the Gratification: Allen Saalburg

Allen Saalburg, Martini (ca. 1979), screenprint on glass, image 17 1/2 x 23 1/4 inches, glass 20 x 26 inches. Private collection. Photo: Elliott Mickleburgh.

A Noilly Prat vermouth ad from 1955 claimed that “whether you mix your Martinis two-to-one or six-to-one, the finesse of the one is what makes it a Martini.” Or is it? The ingredients of Allen Saalburg’s Martini (ca. 1979), a rare instance of screenprint on glass in a noncommercial print, were assembled over half a century, and pulling them together will be the exercise here.

Saalburg (1899–1987) was an elegant but self-effacing character who moved between the midcentury New York smart set and its rent-controlled brethren: his older brother, Leslie, was a famous illustrator of men’s fashions (though the photographer Irving Penn remembered that while Allen was “more worldly than us,” he didn’t share Leslie’s “yearning for the paneled men’s club”).1 His circle of friends included artists such as Peggy Bacon and the writers Dorothy Parker and S.J. Perelman, and he was married to the fashion and costume designer Muriel King. Juliana Force, the founding director of the Whitney Museum, was a strong supporter. As with many American artists of his generation, his career straddled the ambiguous territory between art and “visual culture” and incorporated painting, printmaking, illustration and interior and theatrical design. George Balanchine asked him to create the sets for his definitive 1954 choreography of the Nutcracker (Saalburg declined, he said in horror later, because he didn’t care for Tchaikovsky). Some of his work was produced on commission, but most was not—Martini is among the many images made after he established his own press in the late 1940s. It is representative of his aesthetic and conceptual interests: visually witty and unabashedly decorative in a manner that subsumes the sleekness of European modernism, the earnestness of American folk art and a timeless mix of longing and repose.

Saalburg had studied with John Sloan at the Art Students League in New York before following his brother into advertising and magazine illustration. In 1929, when he went to Paris with his wife to help sketch runway couture for American department stores, he showed his work at the venerable Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, which exhibited modernists such as Henri Matisse, Jacques Villon and the American expatriate Gerald Murphy (1888–1964). An announcement for Saalburg’s show there reproduced a painting titled Tobacco in Chromo, a burlesque of cigar-box art presided over by a stylized cigar-box Indian. Saalburg’s playful disruptions of advertising iconography and his adherence to the flat truth of the picture plane give his work of this period a resemblance to that of Murphy, whom he likely met in Paris through their mutual friend Dorothy Parker.

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  1. Letter to the author, 8 April 1997. []