Thursday, March 17, 2011

Leo Steinberg, 1920-2011

Installation view of "On to Pop" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: 16 Miles

Leo Steinberg, the erudite historian of Renaissance and modern art who was also one of the 20th century's most daring contemporary art critics, has died at the age of 90. In what may be Steinberg's most famous essay, "Other Criteria" (1972), one has the rare pleasure of encountering an elegant, rigorous writer as he fights to understand the art of his time, admitting with unrivaled candor his deep ambivalence about what he sees as he strolls New York galleries, encountering artists like Jasper Johns for the first time. "Modern art always projects itself into a twilight zone where no values are fixed," he writes in the work, which includes a dazzling assault on Greenbergian theory. "It is always born in anxiety, at least since Cézanne."

In his book-length essay on art, The Painted Word (1975), Tom Wolfe caricatures Steinberg's inner struggle as a "kind of Turbulence Theorem" that enveloped the general public's approach to contemporary art. "If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good," he writes mockingly. "If you hated it — it was probably great." There may be people that espouse that lazy belief, but Steinberg was never one of them. He explains his initial disturbance and then methodically articulates how he came to change his opinion, slowly winning the reader over to his side in the process. One senses, as in no other text that I know of, the strange wonder that must have taken hold wandering into the Castelli Gallery for the first time and seeing targets and flags hanging on the wall, and one senses, too, the enormity of the stakes that he sees in the enterprise of making sense of them.

I first read Steinberg's writing as an indecisive undergraduate vaguely thinking that I might want to study art history. One of my professors at the time, Rosalind Krauss, assigned "Other Criteria" along with Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." It was a brutal combination: two skilled writers going after lofty, ambitious projects, and, to my young eye, conquering them. I loved it, and I assumed that I had understood pretty much everything I had read. But then, in class, Krauss shared a short anecdote, of which I only remember the vague outline. She and Steinberg, she explained, had once spent a lengthy evening fiercely debating the meaning of Benjamin's essay, but they could not even agree about its most basic points. The thrilling, mind-bending message: in art, meanings change, proliferate, and expand; nothing is ever certain or frozen, and debate can change things. I wanted more Steinberg. (The fact that his collected writings, also called Other Criteria, carried the excitingly combative subtitle Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, probably didn't hurt either.)

Bizarrely, until it was reissued in 2007, Other Criteria had been out of print for a number of years. (As a side note: Even if you own an earlier copy, it is worth buying the new edition for an additional preface in which Steinberg shares his feelings about Damien Hirst's use of the title of his essay for his editions and print business.) Whatever the reason it fell out of print, it could not have been because of a lack of interest in Steinberg's writing. His name has popped up in dozens of conversations I have had with people over the years, and various colleagues, admirers, and friends (many who are all three) have been quick to write pieces remembering Steinberg. On Hyperallergic, Kyle Chayka has put together a thorough list of many of those pieces, by writers like Ken Johnson, Andrew M. Goldstein, and Charlie Finch, along with an interview by Blake Gopnik and a transcript of one of Steinberg's talks.

Art historian Gary Schwartz, meanwhile, has published an introduction he gave to a speech by Steinberg in 1994, which includes this perfect passage: "To my mind, Steinberg had already defined the essence of Postmodernism six years earlier, in 1962, when he wrote this about Jasper Johns: 'A crucial problem of twentieth-century art — how to make the painting a firsthand reality — resolves itself when the subject matter shifts from nature to culture.' This daringly simple insight is still the idea to beat in 1994." (It is also a fine reminder that Steinberg was talking about postmodernism in — no joke — 1968, the year he presented a version of "Other Criteria" as a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art.)

Finally, Art in America's Stephanie Cash shares this delightful anecdote, told by former MoMA curator John Elderfield at the Association of Art Critics awards ceremony, which was held on Monday, the day after Steinberg died: "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.'" Cash says that, according to Elderfield, Steinberg was offered artwork by Barr's estate, but he declined, asking only for the coat.

Picking the personal, apparently castoff item over the treasured object, Steinberg, I like to think, was choosing to honor a lifetime's intellectual legacy over the glamor of a single coveted object. At a time when the vast amount of money that has entered the contemporary art market means that most of us will almost certainly never have the opportunity to own much of the work we view, consider, and write about, I can think of no more exciting, inspiring story. If it also suggests a dash of style and playful eccentricity, two characteristics Steinberg apparently possessed in abundance, all the better.

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