PRINT October 2011


Leo Steinberg

Leo Steinberg was a beacon of twentieth-century art criticism. Whether in his trailblazing interpretations of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Pablo Picasso, and Jasper Johns, his revelatory understanding of Monet’s late work, or his contributions to Renaissance art history, Steinberg’s enduring faith that “the eye is a part of the mind” freed his thought and writing from the orthodoxies of the age. In the years before his death this past March, Steinberg gave his last interviews to curator ACHIM HOCHDÖRFER, who here presents their wide-ranging conversations for the first time.

Leo Steinberg, 1987. Photo: Pamela Blackwell.

WHEN I VISITED LEO STEINBERG for the first time, in September 2009 in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he welcomed me in fluent, accent-free German. Despite his eighty-nine years, he made an agile impression, and everything he said was marked by a rock-solid decisiveness and intellectual intensity. His health, Steinberg reported, was good; his only cause for complaint was that after seventy-five years of daily cigarette consumption he’d had to give up smoking. As a small monument to his sacrifice, he had mounted a cigarette-shaped dowel vertically on a little pedestal on his bookshelf. The letters on his desk showed him to be a prolific correspondent, and several reproductions of the Doni Tondo bore witness to his tireless thinking about Michelangelo’s sole surviving panel painting. Mounted on the walls were old-master drawings and prints as well as a Woman drawing by de Kooning and—toward the back, approaching his more private rooms—a print by Jasper Johns. We immediately started talking about his childhood in Berlin, and he began a solemn recitation of a poem by Schiller that he remembered from his school days. Because he was Jewish, Steinberg was excluded from physical-education classes after Hitler seized power—a cruel humiliation for a twelve-year-old, he added. His family realized how serious the situation was and emigrated to London and then, after the war, to New York.

Steinberg, who died this past March, was perhaps the most important critic of the postwar period. The keen intelligence of the essays collected in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (1972) offered a new vocabulary for discussions of contemporary art, and The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983/1986) was likewise groundbreaking in its challenge to conventional art-historical thinking. His encyclopedic knowledge ranged over many centuries and enabled him to situate individual artworks within a network of art-historical, scientific, theological, and personal observations. The extraordinary eloquence with which he developed his thoughts and arguments makes reading his essays and books a literary pleasure, a fact recognized by the Award in Literature he received in 1983 from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Moreover, in remaining outside the polarity between Greenbergian formalism and the nascent October approach to criticism, his now famous essays on Rodin, late Monet, Picasso, Johns, and Rauschenberg were an inspiring model for much criticism of the past decade.

Indeed, I had drawn heavily from Steinberg in my essay “A Hidden Reserve: Painting from 1958 to 1965” [Artforum, February 2009], which I sent to him before we met. When I switched on the recording device and sketched out my ideas for him once more, Steinberg interrupted me, saying: “I have a general suspicion of theories, and now you appear on the scene, coming from Vienna, and you suddenly accuse me of being a theorist like everybody else. Clement Greenberg, who was wrong on every count, is still constantly quoted and written about, and I have often thought that my work will pass into total oblivion because I don’t have a theory.” Steinberg spoke in perfectly polished sentences, and the hour I’d promised him our interview would take turned into an entire afternoon and then was followed by two other long sessions in December 2009 and March 2010. He spoke with such vividness and his memory was so sharp that it seemed as if the half century separating us from the events he was recalling were nothing at all. He said that although he was “a very private person,” he had heard a lot of art-world stories from his friend the artist Paul Brach, who, he said,

knew everybody, went to every party, and told me what was going on. Once, for example, he played poker with a group of painters including Jackson Pollock, and Paul was sitting at one end of the table, Jackson on the other end—Paul never said Pollock, it was always Jackson. And Jackson lost, put his cards down, and with an angry, glowering look he then started walking around the table toward Paul, who had won, and Paul said he was scared because Jackson was a powerful man, he had a bald head like a bullet. He came over and Paul just stood there waiting to see what would happen, and Pollock came closer and closer and suddenly threw his arms around Paul and gave him a big hug. So Paul would tell me stories like these.

I was keen to know when and how Steinberg had developed his “theoretical” principles of modernism, so I started asking him about his essay “Monet’s Water Lilies,” which appeared in the February 1956 issue of the magazine Arts. Several of the considerations that would later lead to Steinberg’s famous formulation of the “flatbed picture plane” are already contained here in nuce. Monet’s late pictures, Steinberg asserted at the time, are concerned with the basic experience of disorientation in modernism, and nature is portrayed as a “projection from our human posture.” In the concluding sentences of the essay, which presents an incisive definition of postmodernism avant la lettre, he writes: “The whole world is cut loose from anthropomorphic or conceptual points of reference. Those points are still available, but they no longer constitute the world. If we must put them in, we may; for the picture is willing and the world pliant enough to accommodate any construction that will serve our needs.” Steinberg told me that in the 1950s he traveled to Europe every summer and that in 1954 he began to take an interest in the late Monets in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris:

I had been brought up to think of him as a man who was stuck in his old ways. Modernism was conquering the world and Kandinsky had introduced abstraction and Picasso and Braque had introduced Cubism—and Monet, he was still painting his lily ponds and trying to keep Impressionism afloat after fifty years. That was the common view, and I have come to learn that for anything that becomes a common view, something that everybody knows to be true, the overwhelming probability is that it is simplywrong. So I wanted to test it against real experience, and I suddenly realized that Monet’s late paintings go far beyond Impressionism and open up a whole new perspective for modernism.

Steinberg’s notion of the flatbed picture plane would build on these thoughts and diametrically change our view of art. As Steinberg put it in the 1968 lecture (subsequently published in Other Criteria) in which he elucidataed this term, the shift in painting of the early 1950s away from the simulation of vertical fields to a horizontal “psychic address” became “expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.” Though I was familiar with many of Steinberg’s enthusiasms from his published writing, he surprised me again as our conversation continued with the complexity of his view on the period. “I looked passionately at de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, but I could never get on with Barnett Newman. I tried but it just left me cold, and I was never in sympathy with John Cage. I think de Kooning was the great one rather than Pollock.” I didn’t know that Steinberg was excited about Bruce Conner, Michael Goldberg, and especially Joan Mitchell and Frank Stella—as well as Johns and Rauschenberg, of course. “When I encountered Johns’s and Rauschenberg’s work,” he said,

I could see that something that I had valued, maybe unconsciously, all my life was coming to an end: that is, the use of paint and the canvas surface as a medium for transformation. But still, take a typical Johns like Target with Plaster Casts [1955]. I was interested in the paradox that it is literally a target and literally casts of human heads, but then as I thought about this, it transformed itself into a whole series of metaphors. When I was writing my essay on Johns, I told Jasper that much of the work seemed to me to be about desolation, and when I looked at Coat Hanger [1958], I thought that one knows that it will never again be clothed; human life has departed. Jasper said to me, “That would mean a failure for me.” And then in my essay I wrote one of the most difficult lines I’ve ever written: that he fails, not as an artist but as a critic. D. H. Lawrence said, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.”

We wound up talking about Cage, whom Steinberg had first encountered at a meeting in the early ’50s about Zen Buddhism, which took place at the club the AbEx painters had recently established. “Cage was one of several speakers, and there was one painter who said that one of the things he loved about Zen is that you don’t have to be a Buddhist: ‘I am for one a Zen Methodist,’ he said, and everybody laughed. I noticed that Cage didn’t say a word. He let all the other three members of the panel talk, but he never said a word, and I respected Cage for not wanting to join in.” I hadn’t expected Steinberg to be so skeptical about Cage’s aesthetic ideas, but he criticized the aesthetic arbitrariness of a piece like 4' 33" (1952) and objected to Cage’s break with the European musical tradition that sometimes seemed like a pose (“We don’t need Beethoven”). Furthermore, Steinberg’s melancholy interpretation of Johns was at odds with Cage’s ironic lightness: “Jasper said that John Cage never liked my interpretation, and I realized I wasn’t talking to Jasper directly, but through John Cage. Jasper wanted his art to talk through John Cage.”

Pop Art Symposium at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 13, 1962. From left: Hilton Kramer, Leo Steinberg, Dore Ashton.

Steinberg observed the rise of Pop art with great interest. He made a legendary appearance at the December 1962 symposium that was decisive in establishing the concept of Pop (at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). Here, Steinberg defended the young movement against established critics such as Hilton Kramer and Dore Ashton. Responding to the accusation that Pop was too banal and vulgar even to be considered art, Steinberg commented: “That’s one of the best things about it, to be provoking this question.” Because Pop brought the external world of advertising and window displays into the gallery, Steinberg made the case that “the artist does not simply make a thing, an artifact. . . . What he creates is a provocation, a particular, unique, and perhaps novel relation with reader or viewer.” The sea change Steinberg describes, that from the object itself to its relationship with the observer, thus anticipates by five years Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” in which the relationship of subject and object is established as the defining attribute of modern art.

When we talked about Pop artists, it was clear that Steinberg held Lichtenstein and Warhol in high esteem, but it emerged that he especially valued Claes Oldenburg and regretted never having written an essay about him. When he visited Barbara Rose’s 1969 Oldenburg retrospective at MoMA, Steinberg told me, he found himself in a difficult phase, having just separated from his wife, Dorothy Seiberling. He was so taken with Oldenburg’s surreptitious humor that, standing in front of one of the “Soft Manhattan” pieces of 1966, he found himself laughing aloud for the first time in months.

On the other hand, the arrival of Minimalism and the polemics that accompanied it appears to have accelerated Steinberg’s withdrawal from the contemporary art scene: “Minimal art has rarely been enticing to me. I thought about it at the time; you had to. I used to see Minimalist art as a determined attempt to reduce a complex structure of an artwork—in which you make a hundred, a thousand, a million decisions—to make it look as if it were the product of a single decision. And,” he continued,

I disregarded the Minimalist notion about the death of painting. To say that painting is dead means that you are predicting that the next generation and the generation after that will all agree there is nothing to be done anymore. You are making a forecast, a prediction to which you are not entitled. There is an extraordinary satisfaction in making a mark on a blank surface, and the people who leave graffiti or scratch their signature on a public monument all experience that. If you say painting is dead, that has to do not with painting but with the kind of figure you want to strike in the world. “I have news for you—painting is dead!” It isn’t even interesting.

On one occasion, we came to talk about Serra. “Richard Serra is a problem for me,” Steinberg said, although he acknowledged respect for him before bringing up the controversy about Tilted Arc, 1981:

[Rosalind] Krauss spoke in favor of it; you know the story. . . . All the office workers in the buildings surrounding the square wanted the experience of an open space: It is what they expected, and had a right to. Tilted Arc destroyed that completely, and then there were the dogs urinating on it, and it had this concentrated smell of urine when you walked past it. A work of art functions like a joke most of the time. A joke is only funny if it takes place in a receptive environment. If a woman comes in all distraught because she has just seen her child run over by a car, this is not the time for a joke; it would not be funny if you made one. Tilted Arc modifies space in interesting ways, but the people who come out of these office buildings for a quick lunch or snack are not in the mood to ponder the effect of a Tilted Arc space. You have to understand it is a social interchange with a receptive audience. Serra is solving a problem. For him, the space of that square is his raw material, but there are a thousand people working there, so this is not raw material but the space of their existence.

Eventually, we came to the question of why Stein- berg stopped writing about contemporary art in the mid-’60s. He spoke of the difficulties and conflicts of interest that inevitably arise even in friendships between critics and artists: “My soc- ial relations became more and more politicized. At that time there were very few people writing about contemporary art, and what appeared in one of the major art magazines could make a difference in the artist’s career. I didn’t want that responsibility, so I gradually pulled away. The other thing is that my experience with contemporary art sharpened my perception of Renaissance and Baroque art, and I could see things that those artists were doing that had not been seen by anyone else.” As an example, he cited his 2001 book, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, in which a paradoxical dialectic between literalness and transcendence that he had first come up with forty years earlier in connection with the work of Johns and Rauschenberg appears once more:

The real subject of the Last Supper _is the paradox of simultaneity. It begins with the simultaneity of reincarnation: Is it possible to be God and man at the same time? How can you visualize that? At the Last Supper, two events occur. One is Jesus announcing his imminent betrayal, that his physical body is going to his death. The other is the institution of the Eucharist, which is achieved through his divinity. Leonardo says, “If God and man can coexist in the same body at the same time, then these two events can also be.” He is painting on a flat surface on the wall, and the wall is flat, and it will always remain flat no matter what you do to it, but you cannot resist the impression that it is a deep space in recession. Can it be both at the same time? It is impossible: Either it is flat like this wall or it recedes. Leonardo says, “Can I make this impossibility of being flat and deep at the same time formally expressive of this paradox of the God-man who acts simultaneously in his divinity, in instituting the Eucharist, and in his humanity, in announcing his death?”

Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg Combine Materials, 1954, black-and-white photograph, 10 x 10 1/2".

In his remarks, Steinberg had a gift for transforming concrete formal descriptions both plausibly and unexpectedly into everyday observations that seemed to partake both in the psychology of perception and philosophy. At one point in our conversation, I showed him a photograph by Cy Twombly of materials on Rauschenberg’s studio floor, some of which would be used for Combine paintings. Contemplating this photograph, Steinberg began thinking aloud:

This is an image of an unswept floor, of a disordered working studio. If you attach the name of Rauschenberg to it, it becomes very evocative. What Twombly has done is to keep the foreground out of focus, so that one looks over it, which corresponds to the way that we see. Strong sunlight enters the window and everything in the room immediately welcomes the light and responds to it. There is no hostility and there is no idea that the darkness could not comprehend the light; it comprehends it perfectly. Do you remember that verse from the opening of the Gospel of Saint John? “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

Steinberg got up and pulled out a Bible—in German— and in a solemn voice recited this passage of the Gospel of John, comparing it with the conception of light in Genesis. Then he remembered the view from the window during a recent stay in the hospital: “I could watch the light change, how the light would fade and how darkness reclaimed itself. There was a peaceful cooperation. A cosmic politesse. I am a lover of painting, and without the cooperation of light and the dark there would be no paintings and drawings.”

Achim Hochdörfer is a curator at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien.