PRINT February 1973


Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art

Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria, Confrontations With Twentieth Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press), 1972, 436 Pages, 278 Black-and-white Illustrations.

You can, as an artist, try to say something big about life; or be content to make the stuff in your hands come to life. And this humbler task is the greater, for all else merely follows.
—Other Criteria

AS A BOOK MODE, the collection of a critic’s occasional essays tends to be unjustly neglected or condescended to. Prejudices in these matters run in favor of the substantial thesis, the monograph, the survey, the in-depth or the full-scale, as if solid contributions come only in a Sunday dress form. But time and again, it is the shorter, less assuming and considered, but on-the-spot and immediate exercise in critical judgment that lives in the literature. And there is no contest between the typical reading attractions of the two modes. Because of its variety, tension, freshness, and something more, too, a look into an author’s most typical qualities of response, the collection of essays becomes a psychic as well as a cultural document. It readily bares the authenticity of which a writer is capable as it also recalls his engagement with and the character of his original audiences. In contrast, few practitioners of the historical study resist its demands for an evenness of tone and an impersonal mode of address. Too often, continuity is attained there at the cost of a predictable and disembodied flattening of attention. Yet the shorter actions in a critic’s career have their own coherence too—even of overlap and contradiction. Brought together, they display mutual if not always conscious patterns of attack and evolving commitments. They connect with and arrange themselves differently on separate readings. The gaps between them shorten or lengthen depending on where one dips in. For the often striking unity of such volumes endures, when it does, on a level other than the one that settles into a book.

In Other Criteria, Leo Steinberg offers a most self-conscious enterprise in malleable criticism. A scholar of Renaissance and Baroque art, he now assembles his involvements with that of the twentieth century. “Confrontations” he calls them, although I think “perusals” might have been better if “perusals” is sharpened to mean intense and close rather than leisurely readings. They break down into three rough categories: takings from his brief stint as a reviewer for Arts in the mid-’50s—brief because it exhausted him; meditations on the esthetic and moral challenges of new, and the study of past, art; and the tracing of self-modifying themes in complex masters: Rodin, Picasso, Johns.

Certain fragments or versions of these essays many of us have already encountered in prior states—mostly lectures remarkable for their density, dramatic internal timing, and confessional aura. Transposed from their social occasions into print, these pieces often retain the flavor, not only of the spoken word, but the format of commentary portioned off and adhering to running sequences of images, now reproduced in black-and-white where they once were radiant, outsized projections. So many insights are targeted on aspects of the plates that going through the book is as much an uncommon experience in seeing, or in following what the author sees, as in reading. The text lacks the presence of the speaker and his/our space. It does not stay put as continuous discourse, but constantly wrenches visual and mental focus, demanding the kind of divided yet matching scrutinies that are more integrally achieved by listeners at a performance. Still, even those pieces that made their first appearances in article form read as if their author had voiced them earlier, alone this time, on a darkened stage.

But what kind of voice is it? One can scour the researches of orthodox art historians and the technical language of current critics, and not find its like. And this is not merely because we are dealing with a unique personality whose allegiance to two disciplines produces a hybrid style. This prose obviously owes its tone as much to the attempt to make public and private modes of communication equivalent. It does not compromise between them nor will it pitch itself politely on any intermediate level. To coin a term, it is, in the best sense, teacherly in stance, but wants to be delivered as a musing among peers who have an equal interest in fine points and subtle distinctions.

The intricate weaving of arguments about reproductions of frequently obscure or physically inaccessible works is probably more the fruit of armchair meditation than of firsthand encounter. But you are solicited to look at these works as if you were in the same room with the writer, engaged in his same suspenseful voyage of mental and sensory discovery, in which no single example is going to retain the meaning it might initially have had. Moreover, works of art are rarely examined as wholes. They are marshalled in sets as evidence for a thesis that extracts specific exemplary points from them. All this has a surface diffidence and intimacy that I think is gentlemanly English in origin. Yet as statement it talks you through themes that have deep personal resonance for the writer/speaker, and that have been entirely appropriated in advance by him. So that often unprepared, the reader is at a disadvantage, questioning the high, implausible stakes invested in each essay but finding at its end—and this is a principle of the book—perpetual metamorphoses and open possibilities of view. The signals emitted by works of art are generally shown as self-altering. Their deciphering gives the impression of more alternatives to meaning than are usually guessed by an individual. Compared to this ripe inconclusiveness, however, most dicta on art seem constricting.

When they are sectioned off, for there seems much cutting and pasting in them, these essays do not really start or continue from any indicated vantage. They just take off abruptly without introduction, pretending to be random notes, episodes from a sensibility in action. Nor do they always develop with any obvious connection between their subheadings. Rather, they grow in implication, causing wonder at the elusiveness and yet energy of the subject. ABC questions (What is a painting?) are constantly brought in rhetorically to pose the riddle of art. In the end, though, we are not sure whether it is his riddle or ours, or whether, being his, it should not also be ours. As I say, no one writes like this.

It is also hard to read this book without catching its didacticism. Not only are most previous critics on his subjects shown as wanting in some basic comprehension—although Steinberg is elaborately decent about their views, showing them as fragmentary rather than wrongheaded—he adopts an outsider’s position when setting forth his own. Each case he makes is consciously against the grain of then received opinion, or is designed to add something unexpected to it. Occasionally his appreciations make fairly early entrances, such as the Johns essay, a first full analysis of 1962, or the 1956 piece on Monet’s Water Lilies which contributed to the wave of new interest in that artist stimulated by color field abstraction. Frequently Steinberg reexamines previously familiar but put-down material, like most of late Picasso, or, in 1962, he adds a long interpretation to Rodin studies just then getting underway after a long hiatus. Only the ongoing Picasso papers have yet to accent the history of taste.

The title Other Criteria refers to the continual shift of standards and revisions of judgment that give art different faces at different times and according to changing needs. Steinberg takes pains to show where his own assessments fit into or may deflect our prior consciousness of specific artists, yet with full awareness that such assessments are “seasonal.” In this light, he is very explicit as to what a critic does:

A work of art does not come like a penny postcard with its value stamped on it; for all its objectness, it comes primarily as a challenge to the life of the imagination, and “correct” ways of thinking or feeling about it simply do not exist. The grooves in which thoughts and feeling will eventually run have to be excavated before anything but bewilderment or resentment is felt at all. For a long time the direction of flow remains uncertain, dammed up, or runs out all over, until, after many trial cuts by venturesome critics, certain channels are formed. . . . Most people—especially those who belittle a critic’s work—do not know, or pretend not to know, how real the problem is. They wait it out until the channels are safely cut, then come out and enjoy the smooth sailing, saying, who needs a critic?

He then adds: “It is in the character of the critic to say no more in his best moments than what everyone in the following season repeats; he is the generator of the cliché.” Against the perpetuation of clichés and unhappy at too long a smooth sailing, Steinberg has little to say in favor of formalist criticism. His antagonism to this doctrine, a central motif of the book, serves many ends. Basically he would humanize modern art for the art historians, and show exceedingly well to modernists, its inherent continuity with the past. Already his earliest essay “The Eye is a Part of the Mind” (Partisan Review, 1953) demonstrates a persistent advocacy of twentieth-century art’s engagement with outer sense and natural fact. If the piece is dated now, it is because most of us have long ago accepted the notion that the contemporary artist “inures us to the aspect of a world housing not discrete forms but trajectories and vectors, lines of tension and strain.” And he reconfirms, too, that if this is a reality fundamentally different in its inner, induced mutations, from that of the Old Masters, theirs was in process of incessant outward negotiation between mind and eye as well.

That you cannot stigmatize the one world-view without miscomprehending the other is, nevertheless, a point he felt necessary to reexplain 20 years later in his title essay, this time worked out in far more illustrative detail. During the interval, formalism had gained enormous social prestige if not intellectual substance, it had enlisted a generation of historically trained critics indifferent to the lessons of history, and it had waned as the interest of the art it espoused was superseded by opposed concerns. Steinberg calls this episode in criticism “preventive esthetics,” holds it accountable for its reduced range of reference, and its refusal to vote “across party lines” when it was supposedly occupied with “quality,” not style. But these are merely rebukes of its moral parsimony. He can demolish the theoretical tenets of formalism by showing that the attributes it awards exclusively to modern art—the canceling, say, of illusion and the attempt to purify artistic means through self-criticism—all occur variously in the Old Masters. In the criticism of Clement Greenberg, the theoretical scheme “keeps breaking down because it insists on defining modern art without acknowledgement of its content; and historical art without recognizing its formal self-consciousness.”

Possessed by its categorical rather than a functional approach, formalism aligned artists in a predetermined current of self-definition, as if their worth could be established only by the way they conformed to a retrospective vision of reductive design. That this may not have been the expressive problem faced by the artist, and that it does not equip us to deal with the resonance of his work today, reveals the psychological and empathic deficiencies of formalism. In logical terms, too, the author implies the want of credence in a theory that aims to encompass a phenomenon by substituting one of its part for the whole, and conceives metaphors and structural conventions as literal, self-referring properties of works of art.

Politically, formalism is no less questionable for him. It would attempt to decontaminate artistic experience in the name of a monopolistic standard and an arbitrary rigor. It would domineeringly make invidious distinctions between “high” and “low” art, all masked as eulogy for radical innovation. Between 1953 and the late ’60s, formal criticism moved from a championing of little appreciated abstraction to a celebration of the entrenched privilege enjoyed by that abstraction, all couched in the same beleaguered, defensive language. The author of Other Criteria does not touch upon formalism as a politics of withdrawal from a deeply troubled social scene, but he does speculate on reflections of that society in the work of “formalist” artists. He sees an analogy, for instance, between the highly tooled, “speedy” color bands of Kenneth Noland and the ethic of corporate technology.

A more distanced criticism of ’60s art might show parallels between the gigantic scale and overwhelming optical brilliance of mature Noland and Stella with national self-imagery of the period. The contrast between the anxieties of Pollock and the shop-fabricated assurance of the two later men is one not solely of personality and of art modes. It coincides also with a larger history that includes a money boom, the increased bureaucracy and rigidity of the corporate establishment, American economic, military, and cultural imperialism, and the retreat from concepts of individual authenticity toward collective symbolisms of sterilized power.

Leo Steinberg is of an intellectual generation that predates this history, for the value he finds in art ought to test “my personal courage.” That is what urges him, not only to pose and articulate imaginative choices open to him, but to lift “a subject to a new plane.” No esthetic system, no “avant-garde” or “conservative” position, will vouchsafe the freedom needed to accomplish this goal. These would be too determinist to accord with his artistic experience. That experience is meaningful only when it encounters difficulties that are understood as challenges to personal resources. (Old art is as likely to provoke on such a level as new art.) Steinberg’s morality and psychology suggest that the best art is praiseworthy because it invokes some corresponding enlargement in the being of the spectator, encourages him to attain greater powers of self-understanding and of functioning and feeling in the world. He complains of institutionalized art history because it discourages the initiatives of private involvement and because it inhibits the application of modern experiences in the study of its subjects. The values of the ideal modern seeker are closely tied with his search for emotional knowledge in the contemporary world of fragmented, multilayered meaning, partial truths, and perpetual ambiguities. To participate in the outlooks of Joyce and Freud as does Steinberg is to link one’s own subjectivity with the great questions of one’s age and to subject the certitudes of all past seekers to critical examination.

Such is the clear-cut working assumption of this author. It nevertheless sets many problems before us. In many ways, for instance, Joyce and Freud are remote from the situations of even their most admiring readers today. Moreover, it is one thing to embody and affirm all observation as part of one’s consciousness; it is quite another to make that consciousness too overtly a medium in its own right, as would an artist. Solipsistically tagged in this way, many remarks are made to appear less applicable to material discussed than their actual substance in this book would indicate. In addition, there are several expository functions of art writing that do not overly tax or have little to do with the writer’s psyche, just as there are valid critical aims and audience needs that cannot be absorbed by the continual suction of personal sensibility. To trace the precedents of a theme and show its metamorphoses, to relate the connections between iconic sources, to provide many kinds of contextual information: these are not acts of temperament, but of scholarship, however original or characteristic. We can sympathize with an author who wants to lighten the burden of his erudition, but we are also aware that he may somewhat misrepresent what he does—against his avowed aim. Moreover, we can derive a great deal from art, especially pleasure, without feeling that extraordinary, stressful, and anxious demands are made upon us. Of a psychological reality and a sensuous experience in art that does not strain Steinberg gives little account. One will always find him elsewhere at the call of pressure and challenge. He thereby lifts enjoyment to a provocative level, but not necessarily a more inclusive one. Although patiently explanatory in style and plainly solicitous to our understanding in argument, Other Criteria is often genuinely singular in effect. And this is not because other people’s minds are less effortful than the one displayed here. It is because his opinions are so frankly acknowledged as to become_ proprietary, and somehow resistant to being shared. The book discourages agreement even as its author reaches out to the reader on the basis of their common vulnerability—a vulnerability made flattering because of the sophistication assumed. Finally, the point about criticism being a testing of the self is tedious if the critical “self” is dull and unresponsive; and it is unnecessary if the self knows in a very lively way what it is about.

There can be no doubt of how lively are the present essays. Steinberg is attracted to Jasper Johns’ art because, while it is evidently flat-surfaced post-Abstract Expressionist in idiom, the painter “regains that perpetual oscillation which characterizes our looking at pre-abstract art.” But this structural ambiguity that so typically beguiles his pen leads into a psychological problem. Critic and artist meet head-on memorably in an interview on the subject of Johns’ stencilled lettering, which in part reads:

Q. You nearly always use this same type. Any particular reason?

A. That’s how the stencils come.

Q. But if you preferred another typeface, would you think it improper to cut your own stencils? A. Of course not.

Q. Then you really do like these best?

A. Yes.

The writer first reflects that “Johns would not see the obvious distinction between free choice and external necessity”—something queer about his values there—but then rapidly concludes that what Johns “likes about those stencils is that they are Art not quite yet. He is the realist for whom preformed subject matter is a condition of painting.” This conversion of bafflement to insight becomes a model of much that happens in the essay on Johns, but does not yet account for the introspection that finally discovers in Johns’ realism “tokens of human absence from a man-made environment.”

For Steinberg, and, I think, for many of his readers, such discoveries emerge as poetic moments. It was at this early point, with a subject crucial for an understanding of American art in the ’60s, that the writer most intriguingly and richly equipped to illuminate it, signs off his engagement with the contemporary. We shall not know what other criteria might have been applied to Morris, Oldenburg, Warhol, and Stella, but we have reason to regret the decision that has deprived us of essays on these artists, and that created a sorry absence in American criticism during the period. That the enigma of Johns was the occasion “to stave off the psychology of avoidable middle age” is belied by the freshness of Steinberg’s later writing. From now on, however, he will concern himself, as a historian, with Michelangelo, Rubens, Velázquez, Mantegna, and Leonardo, and as a critic, with their modern equivalents, those whom he considers to be Renaissance artists in their own right, Rodin and Picasso.

The material on Picasso comprises a book within a book, impossible to summarize here. Early on, Picasso is spoken of as tracing a pattern of periodic but ever deepening descents into an underworld—first of social vagabonds (1901–06), then into a region of primitive awareness, where “the symbolic environment is the jungle” (1907–08), and finally, an even more marked vertical drop into biological metaphors of organic mutation (during the ’30s). This scheme, shifting from the social to the anthropological to the evolutionary, roughly signals some new critical tactics.

We are first “confronted” with the evidence of Picasso’s sleepwatchers, a recurring theme that juxtaposes two states of active and passive be ing. Broadly viewed throughout his career, they are seen as the maintenance of a fantasy in which the conscious figure seems to conceive or project the body of the sleeper in a dream of desire that is also Picasso’s anticipation of image-making. The master is later analogized to an “Argus-voyeur whose eyes see from a hundred points,” and whose relentless labyrinthine twining of the human body functions as a denial that anything can be averted from his gaze. Here Cubism is transcended, or rather put in perspective as one episode in an endless depiction of contorted anatomy. In an exhaustive study of the Femmes d’Alger series, Steinberg ventures the theory that Picasso searches for

the form which satisfies both the impulse for erotic possession and . . . the most systematic investigation of the plane surface as a receptacle of information. In other words, to discover the unique coincidence which is at once diagram and embrace.

It is an arresting and also a troubling proposal. Far from being a fanciful hypothesis, it convinces on every page, but so much so that the two of them, the artist who proliferates and the writer who detects the endless twists of bodily entanglement, really wear you out. “The coincidence of a diagram and an embrace” is a dissonant subject, and one asks why an author would wrestle with it if it did not touch upon some intensive purpose of his own. Doubtless the nude undergoes the most hideous transformations in Picasso, and following him, Stein-berg senses that sexual appeal is finally no more a motive than sadism in the artist’s quest to objectify his very process as a form of power. But on the contrary, it is admitted that both the potential seductiveness of the nude and aggression is considered by Picasso to be a challenge to his manhood. Evidently there is an intellectual ideal here, too, for the artist tests “the capacities of the flat field for improved efficiency as a conveyor of data.” Regardless of whether one places much value on “improved efficiency” as an artistic goal, it reveals much about the critic. The efficient conveyance of what is, after all, ambiguous data in Picasso might also stand as a summary of Steinberg’s own method. It is true that the theme and variations of the Femmes d’Alger oblige him to overburden our memory with a cumber some point-by-point analysis of a series of mutated works. Yet it also furnishes him the opportunity to ferret out a wealth of overlooked vantages that in the end demonstrate his literary will to power: the power of comprehensive empathy. The identification with Picasso is very intimate and one feels that the dependent and re-creative role of criticism precipitates almost into an imaginative diary of the artist’s mind. Still, Steinberg insists that the important thing is not what the artist thought at the moment of execution but what his work gives you to think.

More specifically, Other Criteria implies that the crucial esthetic transaction consists in what art does to stimulate our bodily responses—what artistic allusions to corporeality, sensory capacity, gesture, work, and emotion excite our haptic experience. For the space with which this criticism is most vitally concerned is the space inflected by the human figure. Such a writer is quite prepared to read art nominally as a charade of symbolic action and an enactment of the physical destiny of human beings, indeed as if, very often, artistic form could be shaped for no higher purpose. Yet so intensely does the writing give itself over to this purpose that, at certain passionate moments, the events and the figures described cease being perceived as signs, cease to be fictive appearance. They emerge for us with a larger animation and consequence that is heroic. I am not so much concerned with the defensibility of this position—although in these essays it becomes weirdly persuasive—as I am with the way it characterizes the mood of the book. Simply on an organizational level, the movement from the Johns essay to the Picasso pieces midway unfolds a shift from consideration of an art devoid of human presence to one replete with figures, though they be figures more revealed as functions of the dreaming mind than available to the sense of touch. It can be no accident that these writings conclude with a study of Rodin, in whose outlook the tension of the body is entirely palpable, and the circumstances under which it must cope are tragic.

“One must do it oneself and perform every one of these poses to realize how desperately these statues act out the drama of powerful bodies giving their whole strength to the labor of holding on.” It is hard to imagine critics and art historians doing “it” themselves—harder still, toward it color an imagery whose embodiment to discount the usefulness of the doing. Recalling Berenson’s “tactile values,” this is a far more pragmatic, even schoolmasterish model of inquiry. It is also a mystical appeal. If Rodin “seeks to create, by implication, a space more energetic than the forms it holds in solution,” so Steinberg wants to do something equally impossible with his subjects in the medium of words. Rodin, like Picasso, one of those outpouring, overpowering artists, the kind who rarely leaves off, nevertheless incites a different prose style. Gone are those words—snood, therianthropic, quincuncial, addorsed—so appropriate to the grotesquerie of Picasso’s images. With Rodin, metaphors about the sculptural material, seen not as a representation of flesh but as a state of physical energy, draw immediate attention. Yet the discharge of process—the impatient kneading of fingers, the accidents of casting, the impress of wet rags—so thoroughly enhance this art that it becomes intensely thingified. The modeling of Rodin carries with it all the stresses of his environment, so that his fragmented, battered figures, and especially the 150 small plaster casts of hands, witness the irritable, springy grip of a life lived worthily because it has survived real obstacles. Though it offers less novel and risky perceptions than the Picasso papers, the Rodin essay seems closer to this author’s sensory responses. And it is a happier subject in its pathos—because bodily pathos can highlight the resurrection of pride.

In his early reviews, Steinberg talks unrestrainedly of this pride in Degas, Gonzalez, Guston, and de Kooning. It shows as the pride in difficulties undertaken by the artist and acknowledged by the critic in his own formulation of artistic meanings. We do not require of criticism that it be a species of agonism. But a criticism that does not consider all works of art available to ready-made assumptions and is willing to be credulous—this is a criticism valuable in any circumstances.

And there are other elements here, too. The frequent references to movie structure and engineering suggest an envy of these more protean and calculated modes of prospectus and assembly, as if their augmented yield of information and stimulus could somehow become a model for criticism. The blueprint aspect of Picasso’s drawing emerges as a sign of verification, while on a much simpler conceptual level, Rauschenberg’s “flat-bed picture plane” serves as “a reservoir, switching center, abundant with concrete references freely associated as in an internal monologue . . . ” Why should this be intrinsically valuable? The answer occurs elsewhere, in an essay on Monet:

Most of his life the painter had been fascinated by reflections in water. Then, in his later years, he seemed to have found the cause of that fascination and to have faced what it implied: that a groundline which arbitrates between the actual and its false mirror image separates two absolute equivalents . . . that the hierarchy of things more or less real is not determined by degrees of tangibility; that all those things are real which fully form the content of experience."

Subsumed by this insinuated doubling are all the eloquent conflicts of Other Criteria: the alter-egos of the public and private voices, the art historian and the critic, the analysis of form and reading of content, and the gap between the creator and the observer.

I have not done justice to this book, neither to its evanescent though still material judgments, nor to its texture, which would alone make it admirable reading. Considering the spread of issues and the plethora of important subjects in twentieth-century art, its scope is not great. But it activates a candor appropriate to the evaluation of any art. As writing, it makes that of most of its contemporaries look prophylactic. There is this further difference too: Steinberg is impelled continually by the sentiment of homage. He has a need to know himself inferior to his material . . . and then, obviously, this too, a homage to vie with it. With so many colleagues, a similar compulsion would hardly crimp their range. In him, it does.

Max Kozloff