Leo Steinberg (1920 - 2011)

The Inexhaustible Leo Steinberg
by David Levi Strauss

1967, location unknown.

Leo Steinberg was a great writer. His writings will endure as long as readers still exist who cherish art and writing as much as he did.

Anyone who got to know Leo grew accustomed to his repeated complaints that “no one reads my books.” What he meant was “not everyone has read my books,” and “no one reads my books as closely as they should,” and he was right on both counts. Reading Leo’s books closely entails a commitment to a way of seeing and thinking about art that is unreasonable and inexhaustible.

In 1997, I was commissioned to write a consideration of Leo’s work for the Wilson Quarterly, at the instigation of Leo’s close friend Nancy Goldring. I didn’t know Leo personally at that time, but I had been an ardent reader of his work for decades. Other Criteria (1972) changed the way I thought about art and about what was possible in criticism. When my essay on Leo appeared, he called to thank me, and to, if I didn’t mind, point out two things in the piece that especially drew his attention. Describing the second edition of The Sexuality of Christ (1996), in which Leo responded, in great detail, to everyone who had ever criticized the book, I wrote that “such a text might have read like a legal brief, and there are times when the litigious intent does threaten to overwhelm both reader and writer, and the relentless rehearsal of evidence to induce a kind of penis ennui.” Leo liked that.

The other wording that caught Leo’s eye in that early version of my essay was the statement that “The Sexuality of Christ is obviously a work of genius.” Leo wished I’d correct that. “It’s not obvious,” he said.

Leo Steinberg was a narcissist who found, in teaching, a way to get out of himself, to give of himself, and he did that, inexhaustibly, for most of his life. Three years ago, Leo agreed to meet with my students in the Art Criticism and Writing graduate program at the School of Visual Arts. We set it up at Nancy’s apartment in Westbeth, so that Leo could chain-smoke through the three-hour session. He was worried, beforehand, that he wouldn’t be up to it, that his energy would flag, and that he would let the students and me down. But as soon as the session began, Leo’s passion for teaching flamed up, renewed, and he gave my students an object lesson in how to see and understand great works of art (in this case, Pontormo’s Capponi Chapel and Jan Steen’s “The Drawing Lesson”) that changed their lives.

Leo’s precision and attention to detail, which made him such a meticulous scholar, arose from his early observance of the extensions and consequences of human fallibility, grounded, ultimately, in the Shoah. When my essay on him appeared in my book From Head to Hand last year under its restored title, “It Has to Be Danced to Be Known: On Leo Steinberg,” Leo was pained to discover an error he had missed in the periodical publication. In my book, I say that Leo was “born in Moscow in 1920 and lived in Berlin and London before emigrating to the United States in 1938.” In fact, of course, he spent all of World War II in London, and did not come to America until January 1945. When we spoke about it, he said, “you know, there was a very big difference between leaving in 1938 and leaving in 1945.” I was appalled by the mistake, and apologized profusely, but I told Leo that I wouldn’t have plucked that date out of thin air, that I must have found a solid reference to it somewhere. He asked me to find that source, if I could, and I did, in the biographical/historical note that accompanies the Leo Steinberg Research Papers at the Getty Research Institute Library in Los Angeles. I gave him the citation at his 90th birthday party, and he was very pleased, because now he could correct the error at its source. After he’d read From Head to Hand, he wrote me a letter of congratulation. It began with this sentence: “I hope you won’t have to wait until 90 before someone writes about your work the way you wrote about mine.”

Goodbye, Leo. And thank you for your inexhaustible attention and unreasonable gifts.

My Rabbi
by Robert Storr

I have been losing close friends and family at a horrifying rate these past few years, and of that period the past month has been the worst. The terrible scything of the AIDS epidemic in its initial stages was my first taste of such a highly concentrated mortality rate. Now it is age specific illness and age all by itself that accounts for the losses. Among those of my own generational cohort the deaths of Elizabeth Murray and Kirk Varnedoe were among hardest to absorb. Of the cohort just older than me, that of Michael Sundell, a scholar, former President of Yaddo, and, ever in tandem his wife Nina, a dear and uncommonly civilized companion of me and my wife, was just as hard. Of the elders of our small community, the recent passing of Leo Steinberg came as the sharpest blow, although as one well acquainted with the nicotine saturated aroma of his book and art filled apartment and with his nearly life-long, nearly-life-draining love affair with tobacco, I was often surprised that death had not visited him sooner. That he quit smoking in his last years—albeit with an emergency supply of cigarettes filling the icebox “just in case”—astonished me. Nothing could more vividly express the primal will to live since no one has ever yielded to medically mandated good behavior with greater regret.

When Kirk was ill and he was worrying about my own hell-bent tendencies and the stresses that the new MoMA might also be having one me he gave me a copy of Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” as a friendly warning. I have since reread it often. In the opening paragraphs Seneca cites several examples of the complaint that “Life is too short” and then answers them saying, “It is not that we have a short time to live but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.” Imagine that glowing on a wall over a museum opening dinner like the divine graffiti at Belshazzar’s Feast.

Leo was not a party animal, although in his younger years he had cut a dashing figure on the art scene and had frequented the great houses. “Because” he might have said, paraphrasing Willie Sutton, “that is where the pictures are.” He was first and last a learned man, and, in his own fashion, a stoic. In his last years one might even say that after a lifetime studying Christian art from the vantage point of an ardently secular man, with his van Dyke beard morphing into that of a Talmudic scholar, he became the chief rabbi of his own independent school of pictorial exegesis and those of us who joined him occasionally or frequently for long conversations over Asian take-out were his devoted students. But not his disciples since, uncharacteristically for someone in the art historical profession, he did not seek adoring acolytes but—true to his Russian roots—longed instead for the company of other independent minds with whom he could enter into Bakhtinian dialogue.

As age and infirmity increasingly limited him to house-bound exchanges and to his own objects, pictures and books, his forays into the world grew fewer and farther between; a trip downtown to lecture at the Studio School (amazingly enough until I interceded at the Institute of Fine Arts from which he had taken his degree in 1960, no invitations from that uptown bastion of advanced studies were extended to him) or, in his last weeks, an expedition to see a performance of the Paul Taylor dance company at the end of which he arose painfully from his seat one last time to join the audience in a standing ovation.

Of these ever rarer adventures one in particular stays in memory. In 2008 the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples lent Parmigianino’s “Antea” to the Frick. Leo arranged to see it. With—I believe—his most loyal interlocutor of the final decade, Prudence Crowther. A day or so later I dropped by West 66th Street and he spoke at length about the painting and what he had discovered in it. (The next day I went myself to confirm what he said and of course he was right.) Then, with a sigh inflected by the fact that at 88 almost everything one does one is doing for the last or next to last time, Leo protested that he wished he had not been so hurried. After all, he said, he had had only two hours to scrutinize it.

Coming from a man who had read more widely and more deeply than any other art scholar I have ever known beside Meyer Schapiro, this complaint struck a profound chord in a person who haunts museums—when not working in them—and laments the amount that is written these days by colleagues who “interrogate the gaze” but barely glimpse at the actual objects of their study. Indirectly, it also gave the lie to Seneca. Despite his claim to the “highest achievements” in a career exceptionally well spent, for anyone as passionate about thinking with his eyes as Leo, life itself is too short.

On Why Artists Loved Leo Steinberg
by Nancy Goldring

Championing artists:
When news reached me that Leo had slipped away, I found the courage to open a yellowed envelope labeled “Leo” in which I had stored a small cache of letters and postcards written in his familiar penciled hand (the same elegant script that appears on the little yellow Post-It notes poking out of his thousands of books). What I had entirely forgotten, after 40 years of close friendship, was the care and support he gave me as a young artist—his comments on the work (that seem generous in retrospect) and careful reading of reviews (“what deplorable syntax!” he wrote of one). He took artists dead seriously, teaching us to follow his example, taking ourselves just so.

His plightless public:
How to fathom the odd mixture of young students and cane-toting artists (often oil and water) lining up around the block for his lectures. A large group sits in a darkened, stuffy room, so conducive to that drowsiness that infects art students during historical lectures. The slides stick, the projectors hum too loudly. Instead, all appear alert, enchanted, and on the ready for his sly witticisms and practiced flourishes delivered with dramatic visual punchlines. Nearly four hours with “Las Meninas”? Hard to imagine. An evening of 16th century Roman and Florentine Drawing? Who ever heard of Perino del Vaga? Yet all present seem magically transfixed. Merriment and intense learning commingling.

Looking at pictures with Leo:
His “incessant” teaching assumed its greatest form when he stood in front of paintings or sculptures: his eyes and his mind at work, detecting, reconsidering, and sharing of himself with a great generosity of spirit. He carefully dispensed his thoughts, leading one to his desired conclusion, contriving to reveal that essential point: “Does anything bother you about this painting?” He would ask provocatively. “The left finger?” I would hazard. Concurring, he would deliver a short impromptu lecture on the way that one tiny reprehensible pinkie disturbed the entire composition and thus the sense of the painting. Images implanted themselves in his mind with a stunning indelibility. Just as he could recite Milton from memory for an hour without hesitating over a single word, the paintings he had scrutinized were ready for retrieval and could be easily summoned, even if 20 or 60 years had passed since his viewing.

Why words matter:
The more art students are being trained to pen tiresome statements, “contextualizing” or identifying “referents” for their “practice,” the further they move from their real work. Leo’s writing sends artists back to their proper activity—making art—while simultaneously leading them to understand the great usefulness of words for their process. He would often wrestle with a word for days until he found just the right one, or invented it if he had to (one of my favorites is “iconarrhea,” citing the cause for Picasso’s prodigious output). He would grapple with a phrase until he felt sure that word would enable us to see what he saw, to understand what he intended. In his writing, and especially in his lectures, he gave us the essential tools for finding and articulating what needed to be said, what would make a difference to our work.

Contemporary artists and history:
It was Other Criteria that impelled me to seek Leo out many years ago. He agreed to let me—a stranger and “only an artist”—sit in on a criticism class at the Graduate Center if I promised to participate, and thus began our long friendship. Having just arrived from Europe, I was anxious to remedy my remarkable ignorance of current art in New York, and could find no easy access until reading “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public.” His piece on Jasper Johns’s work instructed me in how to pose appropriate questions. And his essay on de Kooning opened me to new passions. And each new volume—The Sexuality of Christ, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, and his last great unfinished work on the “Doni Tondo”—convinced me that one needn’t relinquish old loves, whether for the “Theodosian Obelisk” base in Istanbul or Correggio’s “Io,” but instead need only carve new space, formulate new questions, seek out connections, and mostly to look hard and long, opening heart and mind.

Leo introduced his lectures on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel at Columbia with a warning: the series was only for those who cherish images. He did, and made us know why.

Written Friday, March 18, 2011


David Levi Strauss

Robert Storr

Nancy Goldring

NANCY GOLDRING is an artist living in New York. A founding member of SITE, Inc. an experimental architectural group in the seventies; she has received two Fulbright grants, one to Italy and another to Southeast Asia. A professor at Montclair State University, her most recent exhibitions include Galleria Martini Ronchetti in Genoa and the Architectural Association of Rome.