PRINT March 2002

10. 20. 30

Artforum, March 1972

Thirty years ago, Leo Steinberg’s “Reflections on the State of Art Criticism” punctured the proscriptive formalism that still held sway over contemporary commentary. Art historian Katy Siegel, who joined our masthead last month as contributing editor, looks back at Steinberg’s paradigm-shifting essay.

EARLY IN 1972, John Coplans, who had recently been appointed editor of Artforum, called Leo Steinberg to ask a favor: Coplans had nothing in the drawer for the upcoming March issue—did Leo have anything? Steinberg, then a professor of Renaissance art history at Hunter College, sent the editor an excerpt from “Other Criteria,” the title essay of his forthcoming collection on modern art. The version that appeared in the magazine thirty years ago this month was called “Reflections on the State of Art Criticism.”

Originally delivered as a MoMA lecture in 1968, the piece broadly addressed contemporary art and criticism. Above all, the essay was the occasion for Steinberg’s refutation of formalist criticism, most notably practiced at the time by Clement Greenberg. As Steinberg today recalls the pressure of his influence, “Greenberg insisted that subject matter simply didn’t exist for the intelligent person. He was running a whole empire of younger critics—Rosalind Krauss (before her own turn away from Greenberg), Michael Fried, and others—all intelligent people, all writing in his vein. I was up against them, as well as very powerful dealers and curators.” (In that same March issue, Fried wrote on Larry Poons, while an ad on page four announced a show of Greenberg favorites Caro, Olitski, Dzubas, Noland, et al. by dealer Lawrence Rubin, brother of MoMA curator William Rubin.)

For Steinberg, Greenberg’s was simply the most recent version of formalism—Steinberg was writing as much against its previous incarnations as against the immediate context of the New York art world. As a student, he himself had adhered to the principles of Roger Fry; as an adult art historian, he returned to his childhood interest in human emotion and motivation and their metaphorical representation in Renaissance art. “I realized that it wasn’t either/or, and all the work I’ve done in modern or classical art has been based on that principle, that coalescence of form and content.”

Rejecting the either/or, Steinberg pioneered a pluralistic interpretation that incorporated formal analysis, emotional content, and historical context (including the historical context of the critic)—a mode of criticism that was to become increasingly influential over the next two decades. The Artforum article and Other Criteria (published later that year) emerged at a moment of uncertain direction in both art history and art criticism, when formalism looked increasingly inadequate to new art but a method equal to the work had yet to emerge clearly. Steinberg’s type of multivalent interpretation rhymed with theories of semiotic multiplicity and social history that would soon shape much critical writing. It was Steinberg who led the way in resisting the Greenberg/Fried version of modernism, not the social historians of art or younger critics influenced by French theory.

If Steinberg’s refusal of formalism was the article’s most politically daring aspect at the time, he made many other significant points that would become widely accepted as givens over the next thirty years. Steinberg related the streamlined history of modernism and the speedy perceptual modes demanded by younger artists like Noland to corporate models of efficiency. He also theorized a shift from an art referencing nature to one based on cultural images, as in Rauschenberg’s work, and called this art “post-modernist,” the first use of the term in relation to contemporary art. These concepts remain influential in the study of art history and the criticism of contemporary art, perhaps to the point where we no longer think about their origins; like the first draft of any commonplace, Steinberg’s version was less dogmatic and more nuanced than its later incarnations in others’ writing. To this day, the way he writes, his sense of play and pleasure, remains unmatched.

Steinberg argues brilliantly and strongly—no one could say he pulls punches—but never merely for the sake of destroying his opponent. Younger people often complain that they missed the great days of art-critical polemics; we would do well to remember that Steinberg’s writing is not an instance of these polemics but a rejection of them. He never intended his multifaceted analysis to be set up as the one and only, the pluralism to end all pluralisms. In fact Steinberg never ruled out formalist concerns, just critics who insisted only on formalist concerns. To the extent that he himself was a formalist, he made formalism stronger. As he puts it, in the context of recent art writing, “Nowadays I find myself more of a formalist than anyone.”