Sad news from New York about the passing of Leo Steinberg, one of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed art historians, whose critical insights, eloquent writings, and articulate ideas about art from Renaissance to modern, sharpened the minds of several generations of scholars, critics, and artists.
Born in Moscow, educated in Berlin and London, Steinberg earned his doctorate from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts in 1960. Steinberg later taught at the City University of New York, Hunter College, and Harvard University, and was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he held for sixteen years (1975-91).
Steinberg pioneered a now much more common approach to art and letters: as his own body of work moved from criticism into art history, he still wrote articles for the most influential journals and magazines of his day, from Partisan Review and Harper’s to ArtNews and Art, many of which are collected in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art.
A maverick scholar of Rauschenberg (Encounters with Rauschenberg: A Lavishly Illustrated Lecture) and the Renaissance noted for his thoughtful integration of works, both internally and externally, Steinberg formed an infamously imagined triad with Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, celebrated by Thomas Wolfe in The Painted Word (1975) as the “kings of Cultureburg.” Coiner of the “flatbed picture plan,” Steinberg levied criticisms against formalism, the dominant mid-century critical methodology, and encouraged scholars to look beyond the content of a painting and aspire to find meaning in more visual choices, like color and shape. This merging of representation and subject matter paved the way for radical critical understanding—and openness—to the works of the Abstract Expressionists. As Steinberg said of painter Jasper Johns: “The formalist (a)esthetic, designed to champion the new abstract trend, was largely based on a misunderstanding and an underestimation of the art it set out to defend.”
Later work saw Steinberg address the as yet unsuspected eroticism of the iconographies devoted to Christ and Mary, the subject of The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, and the cause of much controversy. An extensive museum lecturer, Steinberg also was the first art critic to receive the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters, in 1983.
We remember Steinberg for those three works published by the University of Chicago Press, for his prodigious talents as a writer and iconoclastic thinker, and for his reverent approach to painting and what it might offer us, as students of our own humanity.