Greatest Art Critics Series
Leo Steinberg

Biography of American Art Critic, Renaissance Historian.


Leo Steinberg (1920-2011)


Education and Early Career
Hunter College, City University, New York
Writings on the Italian Renaissance

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Leo Steinberg was not only one of the great American art critics in the area of modern art, but also one of the most original Renaissance historians of his generation. Not only did he produce innovative interpretations of twentieth century painters - including Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Jasper Johns (b.1930) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), to name but three - but also a number of innovative works on Renaissance art, including paintings by Michelangelo and others. His most famous work was undoubtedly his controversial essay entitled The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983), but he also wrote an influential collection of essays on contemporary art entitled Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th-Century Art (1972), which was avidly read by artists and other professionals for its lucid simplicity. From 1961 to 1975, he was Professor of art history at Hunter College, New York, after which he was Benjamin Franklin Professor of art at the University of Pennsylvania (1975-1991). An inspirational speaker - his lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were invariably sellouts - he delivered the 1982 Mellon lectures at the National Gallery, Washington DC, as well as the 1996 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University. The recipient of numerous awards, Steinberg was the first-ever art historian to receive a literature award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1983). In addition, he won the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Criticism (1984) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1986. Shortly before retiring in 1991, he was appointed Meyer Schapiro Professor at Columbia University in New York. Even so, he had his critics. His Freudian-style study of Christ in the art of the Italian Renaissance, while praised for its originality, was not accepted by the academic establishment. He also had a celebrated public disagreement with William Rubin, director of the Museum of Modern Art over his controversial essay on Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. Moreover, some of his views on art were rejected by Feminists as being anti-women. Other critics in the area of contemporary American art, were Harold Rosenberg (1906-78), John Canaday (1907-85), and Clement Greenberg (1909-94).



Education and Early Career

Born Lev Zalman in Moscow, Russia, the son of Isaac Nachman Steinberg (Lenin's Commissar of Justice) and his wife Anyuta Esselson, the young Steinberg accompanied the family into exile in Berlin, when his father's idealism made him persona non grata with the Russian authorities. With the rise of the Nazis, however, the family fled to London, where Steinberg studied painting and sculpture from 1936 to 1940 at the Slade School of Fine Art. In 1945, the family moved once again: this time to New York. Here, he worked as a freelance translator and writer, learned philosophy and taught figure drawing at Parsons school of design. He did a PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University on the history of art: his thesis (completed 1960) was an analysis of the diminutive Roman baroque church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, designed by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), lifelong rival of the great Bernini (1598-1680), which elaborated the architectural devices of the structure. While thus engaged, Leo also wrote numerous articles on various types of art for several arts magazines, becoming in the process one of the most articulate interpreters of the rising New York School. The latter included Abstract Expressionism and early forms of Pop Art, exemplified in the work of Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Jasper Johns (b.1930), Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Willem de Kooning (1904-97). Steinberg's writing was already distinguished by its jargon-free style, and he became one of the few serious art critics whose articles were devoured by artists, curators and other arts professionals, for their clarity. His classic collection of such essays was published in 1972 as Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th-Century Art.

Hunter College, City University, New York

Between 1961 and 1975 - in addition to his art criticism, and editing for Life magazine - Steinberg taught art history and drawing at Hunter College, the City University of New York, where he helped to develop the curriculum for the institute's graduate program. In 1962, he married Dorothy Seiberling from whom he was later divorced, and wrote one of his most significant essays, entitled "Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public", for Harper's Magazine. Also during this period he began his career as one of the most sensitive art collectors, amassing an outstanding collection of Renaissance and Mannerist prints, augmented with the works of modern masters. [Note: The Leo Steinberg Collection, valued at $3.5 million, now resides in the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin.] In 1972, Steinberg wrote two famous articles. The first, entitled "Reflections on the State of Art Criticism," reflected his abiding interest in why the artist wanted to create a particular work of art. It therefore rejected purely formalist criticism in favour of a more pluralistic approach: one which included emotional as well as formal analysis, and which also placed the work of art in its historical context. Steinberg's method was widely adopted over the following decades. The second article, entitled "The Philosophical Brothel" was an analysis of Picasso's landmark work of Cubism - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York), which caused a major scandal among feminists and other groups.

Writings on the Italian Renaissance

In 1975, Steinberg left New York to become Benjamin Franklin Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained until his retirement in 1991. A recognized authority in the field of both Renaissance and modern art, he wrote the first of several monographs in 1975. Entitled "Michelangelo's Last Paintings", it covered the the frescoes of the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter in the Cappella Paolina, in the Vatican. In the following year he wrote his most famous but controversial essay The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, which explored a previously ignored phenomenon: the prominent display of Christ's private parts in Renaissance paintings and Renaissance sculpture, in both cases for specific theological reasons. Needless to say, Steinberg's focus on such a topic caused a storm of controversy, which overshadowed his scholarship. Undeterred, he continued writing and teaching. In 1982, he delivered the A.W.Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, on the subject: "The Burden of Michelangelo’s Painting." One of his last works, which appeared in 2001, concerned the popularity of Leonardo's Last Supper, the Florentine's famous fresco painting in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Steinberg passed away in New York on March 13, 2011, aged 90. For several decades he had been greatly helped by his assistant, Sheila Schwartz.

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