BROOKLYN EARTH: Two or Three Things I Learned (from Meyer Schapiro)

1.  When I asked Willem de Kooning whether the story was correct that Meyer had in a sense saved “Woman #1” by a long discussion, praise, and homage, the painter paused and almost shouted: Yes, he’s one of those who tells you that you should be doing what you’re doing, not like those who tell you not to do what you’re doing. Tell him to come again, tell him to come again! One would like to hear their play, dialogue, and drama. Meyer modestly told me that he had been too busy over the next decades to make another visit. Gertrude Stein said, There is never all of any visit. One of the things to learn from Meyer is to be a nitpicking historian and also to be a pantheist with a certain ecstasy. On his face a famous smile. Elaine de Kooning told me that Franz Kline visited Meyer’s lectures just to see the ecstasy on his face. Kenneth Koch repeated the joke: If Western civilization were destroyed, Meyer could reconstruct it in 10 days.

Portrait of David Shapiro. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

2. He speaks in his office with me for hours teaching me much about probability. I had thought to write a Ph.D. on Heisenberg and art. Meyer said, We eat bread not electrons. He ended our four-hour dialogue by saying that he was quoting the Marxist neurophysiologist Schilder, but nevertheless I dedicated a poem about Meyer’s poignant way of avoiding a false analogy. The learning I had undergone was vast. Schilder was known for his hypnosis, and here Meyer had woken me to the possibility of a more skeptical plan. Heisenberg himself had told me language is dangerous. He was dazzled by marginalia and its meanings.

Like his sense of the medieval, he was filled with rapture, discrimination, and the love of forms for their own sake, and he praised in Rossellini the confessional taken on the human street. He painted in the summer in modest scale. To flout Greenberg but not publicly, he said of a work with a few lines: a few lines, and there is depth, not flatness. And he approved when I said: In one line there is depth.

After a long lecture by Derrida, who confessed to me later that he did not know Meyer’s work when he compared it to Heidegger, Meyer, fache, who told me Jacques lacked measure: I am a student of John Dewey, and I believe in the truth. A famous philosopher joked, But Dewey didn’t believe in the truth. But Meyer knew Dewey more profoundly, into regions where the truth is ever corrigible and unstable. Like Wallace Stevens, Meyer understood the 13 ways of looking at the truth in painting. His skepticism was even greater than Jacques, with whom I helped a late book on prayer and the body of prayer in a time of hopelessness. With his friend Michal Govrin, Derrida became a philosopher of forgiveness and cities of refuge and explicit political dreams. He had learned some of this from the great Jewish philosophers and poets, like Meyer and Levinas. Learning from Meyer, Jacques’s late lesson was plural love.

3. He gave a talk at MoMA on Cézanne and the philosophers.  For many, for me, this was one of the peaks of knowledge and “making known.” He praised Merleau-Ponty but also suggested that a weakness in the French disquisition was an unwillingness to be more microscopic and macroscopic. The critic should show the joy of particularity. Meyer was unwilling to give up close reading. When Blackmur had teased him about knowing too much, Meyer said, When you use your mind, you do not use it up.

4. There was a noble consolation within him. He seemed to enjoy most the quality of generosity.  He left many volumes in a heap on my desk when he retired. He had chosen also particularly old volumes of poetry.  The Greek scholar Pouncy told me he too had received a heap of language—but also relevantly volumes of Greek. The gift was not a sentimental potlatch. Mrs. Schapiro told me she was still bemused that Mrs. Trotsky had given her a present once that had no relationship to her. Meyer told me of recommending de Kooning, Guston, and Rothko for a Guggenheim. I asked if they had received one. He said, Of course not.

5. He taught me that one style did not win out over another. Cubism did not replace Impressionism, nor did Surrealism hurt or destroy or replace Cubism. This is a mighty lesson for those grown up as haters of pluralism. For Meyer, it seemed that pluralism was a way of life. When asked for a reading list on Marxism, it is said that Meyer turned to Motherwell and harrumphed: Marxism is not a reading list, Bob; it is a way of life. 

6. There are some who saw this side of Meyer’s rigor as a difficulty. He was not a man of a sentimental “yes.” He did refuse to help Siqueiros and ironically wrote a letter suggesting Siqueiros might do good work in prison. He defended, on the other hand, the student rebels of the 1968 debacle. Mrs. Schapiro told me that he had hated the anti-Semitism of the top people at Columbia and particularly despised the way administrators had destroyed the careers of many women there. He admired the great activists and suggested they were greater than scholars.

7. In the hospital, when he was recovering from illness, and Mrs. Schapiro asked me poignantly whether I thought he was still “Meyer,” I was reminded of his first words to me from the hospital bed: Oh, David, I was just considering van Gogh as a religious artist, not in the sense of piety and dogma, but in the spiritual sense. His first words were concentration on the other and an unwillingness to be locked into dogma.

8. He asked me whether I thought his work in the Parma book was too dry. I said it reminded me of the medieval goldsmith he wrote about elsewhere. He smiled and said that Marianne Moore had once said that Elizabeth Bishop should listen to his lectures and consider them as poetry. I turned to my wife in our first meeting, as we marched to devote ourselves to his lectures. What a cadenza of gold. And the young art historian beside me said, And it is all true. One slip and he’s finished. Actually, Meyer found slips in Freud famously but continued to say that Freud was immense and should not be abandoned.

9. When I told him that at Tom Hess’s party, someone told me that she couldn’t look at the collection or works of art there because it all turned into a specter of money. Meyer said, Money and art are two completely different systems. I told Meyer I wish I could hear him and record his voice on secret microphones like the F.B.I. He said, I will talk about conceptual art, but I am not ready or complete in my thoughts. Of the new expressionists he said, People have wanted more meat. Of conceptual artists and their chastity, he said, Where there is an iconoclasticism, there is also much pornography. When I asked him more about the destruction of the object, he murmured in his office, I know of no civilization that does not treasure the precious object.

10. Meyer praised the human body as the site for pedagogy and joy. It was his contribution to a positive education and was influenced by his great teachers Mark Van Doren, who kept a vision of him as a young man on a ladder, reaching for details, and John Dewey, who foonoted Meyer in his aesthetics by the time the young man was a teenager. The lesson is this: Art is not primarily about, nor is art not about, nor is it only about aboutness. It is an experience like love.  The body is a good place to begin because it is the most subtle, complex, emotional, really the most interesting object, and the one that is not a copy. He saw Calder’s work as an unusual example of praising the labile parts of the human body. A sculptor told me that Meyer had created a sculpture of the nude and had been willing to say that art and passion were the two things he cared about. He wrote musically even when in distress, in a bleak year of 1947, he wrote accurately and poignantly my favorite words on van Gogh’s wheat fields: That it showed “the impetuous impulse toward the beloved object.”

11. In my first meeting with Meyer I asked him if the early Christians wore masks. He replied without rushing, I am so happy you asked me that question. If you consult Jones (Princeton University Press, page ****), you will see that they listened to Terence, and that probably accounts for the look of no-look in the catacombs. By the way, how is your Aramaic? And one of the last things he taught me, when I had thought I had failed as a scholar and could only confess to having written poetry, he said, That is what we expect from you. Go on with your work. Many have talked of the infinity of the labor that he required. Actually, I found him to be a great companion of an endless night. When I suggested Picasso’s “Boy” of 1904 was perhaps Rimbaud with laurels, painted after a raucous party that had praised and sung Verlaine, he quietly affirmed me and said, I am learning from you. He had always said there is no such thing as a bad child’s drawing. He told me once, after a lecture on his method at the New School, that everyone should exfoliate his method once, at least.

12. He told painters to visit painters. He explained Cubism by comparing it to different forms of grammar: I am Meyer Schapiro, I is a pronoun, I is a straight line. He was asked an impossible-seeming question by the New York Times. What had been the greatest regret of his life? He said, with a lifetime of solidarity with activism, and as precise as a positivist, but mystical as the man who saved “Woman” from destruction, “My greatest regret is the failure of socialism in my time.” For those who thought painting had died, he stood as witness to that impossibility. To those who played Tory at the university, he left a mound of his generosity. His was a view local as the Brooklyn Museum, where he and his brother roamed through their youth, and a view inherently global, as in his affirmation of Frida Kahlo generations before others. He was open to the abstractions of Pollock, but he never forgot the other mode as legitimate: the figure and the love of the human in trouble. When he was dying, he looked out his window and praised the little Christmas lights outside. He was, in a sense, a great Jewish thinker, and he had finally told me of the secret meetings he had at Scholem’s request that he bring Walter Benjamin out of danger. He loved Benjamin and was prepared to get him a job in New York where he could be saved. But he saved others, and it is not sentimental to say that, as Bill Rubin put it once, Meyer was the greatest man he had ever met, including Picasso. I myself asked him what to say when his mail and mine and ourselves were often mixed up, and I was often asked whether we were related. Say that we are, he replied. He came out of Lithuania and the Brooklyn earth, and he loved to memorize poetry, he told me, in the “other languages.” He loved Yiddish as much as Latin and told me he tried to read Spinoza through each year in Latin. But he told this joke to George Segal about his love of ordinary flesh: A man goes up to a Rabbi and says he is starving, and his family is ruined. The Rabbi says, We either live or we die. Living we need bread; dying we need shrouds. Set up a store, and sell shrouds and bread. The man exits and sets up such a shop, perhaps in Williamsburg or in the Marais. He returns to the Rabbi and tells him, Dear Rav, I am not selling well at all. Well, says the Rebbe, we really don’t live, we don’t really die. We wear out. The last phrase he said in Yiddish and said it is only one concept of Jewish work, but it is one where Meyer had a vision that led him to Soutine and an enduring humanity that is his courage and links him to Benjamin and Scholem, to van Gogh and Cézanne.


David Shapiro