Leo Steinberg, 1920-2011


Leo Steinberg, a giant among art historians, died on Sunday in Manhattan, age 90. At the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) awards ceremony last night, MoMA curator John Elderfield told this anecdote:

“Years ago I ran into Leo on the street, and he asked, ‘How do you like my coat?’ I said, ‘I think this is a trick question.’ Leo replied, ‘It is a trick question; this is Alfred Barr’s overcoat.'”

According to Elderfield, when offered artwork by the estate of Barr, MoMA’s founding director, the one thing Steinberg wanted was the coat, not an impressive memento of Barr’s intellect and stature. This story perhaps demonstrates the importance the anecdote-loving Steinberg placed not only on the big picture but on its details.

Steinberg’s early writing challenged the prevailing Greenbergian approach to art criticism. Though he was a specialist in Renaissance and Baroque art, he frequently wrote about modern art with the same incisiveness, and in an accessible, lively style.

In his 1953 essay, “The Eye Is a Part of the Mind,” Steinberg insisted on the importance of meaning and content, not just formal values. More importantly, he drew links between form and content, life and art, in order to convey a work’s full story. This approach sometimes led to accusations of over-interpretation and, arguably, the imposition of his own psychology.

In the 1967 essay, “Objectivity and the Shrinking Self,” Steinberg addressed what he perceived as a crisis in criticism, taking art historians to task for their intellectual timidity and conventional professionalism. It’s an evergreen subject that is echoed in today’s calls from some art observers for more opinion and meaning from judgment-wary, information-purveying critics.

Steinberg’s publications include the 1972 Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, a collection of essays written between 1953 and ’71, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983), which investigated the prominence of the Christ child’s genitals in Renaissance paintings, and Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper (2001), which examined the perpetual interest in the famous mural. He also contributed short reviews to Arts magazine in the 1950s, on such figures as Picasso, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Julio Gonzalez.

Born in Moscow in 1920 and raised in Berlin, Steinberg studied art at London’s Slade School before moving to the U.S. in 1945. After earning his Ph.D. in art history from New York University’s Institute of Fine Art in 1960, he held long professorships at Hunter College and the University of Pennsylvania. He also held posts at Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Texas at Austin, among others. In 2002, he donated his collection of 3,200 prints, to the Blanton Museum of Art at UT-Austin. Estimated to be worth $3.5 million, the collection—with works by artists ranging from Michelangelo to Jasper Johns—reflects Steinberg’s broad appreciation of art.

Linda Nochlin’s appreciation of Steinberg will appear in an upcoming issue.