Opinion

Remembering Art Historian Leo Steinberg

Leo Steinberg, portrait by Lisa Miller (image via brooklynrail.org)

Renowned art historian Leo Steinberg died on March 13. The iconic academic, lecturer and critic left behind a legacy of books, papers and comments that have been memorialized in recent days. Here are a collection of reactions to Steinberg’s passing, as well as archives of articles and talks.

Known as much for his engagement with contemporary art as for his study of Renaissance and modern artists, Steinberg is perhaps best known for his book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1997), examining the obvious presence of very human genitalia in portrayals of Christ. Steinberg’s attendant attention to sexuality and imagery stuck with him for the rest of his career, though the author’s work can’t be reduced to such a cliche.

From personal anecdotes to more staid obituaries, it’s pretty clear that Steinberg was a huge art world personality as well as a brilliant scholar and writer. Check below for a list, but be SURE to check out Charlie Finch’s tale of a Steinberg encounter.

  • The New York Times obituary by Ken Johnson is a good introduction to Steinberg’s life and work and lays out the sweep of his career, from anti-formalist beginnings to the controversy of his Sexuality of Christ and teaching career. Painter, curator and critic Robert Storr lays out Steinberg’s relationship to artists:

    Along with Meyer Schapiro and a handful of other scholars, he saw in terms that were useful to artists… He could take an extremely elaborate, philosophical meditation and bring it down to specific things, using encounters with works of art in time and space.

  • Artinfo speaks to Steinberg’s engagement with modern art and artists and puts him in context with critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. On Steinberg’s writing style: “an accessibly jargon-free first-person style replete with anecdotes and a humane subjectivity.”
  • For those needing to catch up on Steinberg’s bibliography, philosophy and theory, The Art Story has a full flash-card set of information on the author, including plenty of bullet points.
  • The best exploration of Steinberg’s ideas comes from the man himself. The Brooklyn Rail has a transcript of a meandering talk the scholar delivered at the College Art Association Conference, Philadelphia on February 21, 2002, called “False Starts, Loose Ends”. He narrates his own artistic development, from curious child to academic firebrand and provocateur. Worth the entire read, particularly for this childhood quote, remembered by his parents:

    Books are like people… the covers are their clothes, and the letters are their teeth, and if you don’t read them, they feel hungry.

  • For the Washington Post, Blake Gopnik interviewed Leo Steinberg in an attempt to unravel Raphael’s great “Alba Madonna” (1508-1511). The ensuing analysis is a step by step look into Steinberg’s process.
  • Charlie Finch runs into Leo Steinberg on a stoop around Chelsea in this memorable tale, including one of the more intriguing quotes from Steinberg. This little column perfectly encapsulates a mercurial character, to say the least.

    I’m past the stage of sexuality, but I can tell you that the best moment in life is after an orgasm, when you open your eyes.

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