Leo Steinberg (1920–2011) was the rare scholar with the ability to alter the way we think about art, history and culture, and, inferentially, the things we create.
“The Eye Is a Part of the Mind” is the title of an essay first published in 1953 in Partisan Review and later in Steinberg’s landmark collection, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford, 1972).
In the essay, Steinberg seeks to “show that representation is a central esthetic function in all art; and that the formalist 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.”
The line is classic Steinberg: firing off what sounds like a retrograde attack on the new, only to undercut the reader’s expectations and assert that the formalist defense of “the new abstract trend” (remember this is 1953) sells the art short.
Of the paintings of his time, he states:
Granted that they do not depict what we normally see. But to call them “simply painting” as though they had no referent outside themselves, is to miss both their meaning and their continuity with the art of the past.
For Steinberg, the “social role” of art, “even non-objective art,” involves “fixating thought in esthetic form, pinning down the most ethereal conceptions of the age in vital designs, and rendering them accessible to the apparatus of sense.”
He did not view, for instance, an abstract trajectory in a painting by Roberto Matta Echaurren (aka Matta, now better known as Gordon Matta-Clark’s father) as existing in isolation. Rather, he argued:
The representation of the trajectory in art has its own history, like the representation of the visage of Christ. Emerging in certain Rembrandt drawings as a scribbled flourish in the wake of a volatile angel, it comes in the late work of Turner to invade painting itself. And in Brancusi’s Bird in Space the path of motion at last claims the full sculptured dignity of mass.
The Eye Is Part of the Mind is the title of an exhibition of Steinberg’s drawings at the New York Studio School. It is well known that Steinberg trained as an artist, enrolling at the Slade School of Fine Art at the University of London at the age of 16, before belatedly devoting himself to art history when he was in his mid-thirties.
According to his New York Times obituary, Steinberg’s family emigrated from Moscow when his father’s “outspoken idealism — he wanted to abolish the prison system — led him afoul of the Bolsheviks.” The family initially moved to Berlin and then, with the rise of Hitler, to England.
Steinberg graduated from Slade in 1940 with a diploma “for work in sculpture and drawing that he later self-effacingly dismissed as skillful but overly conservative.”
This exhibition bears Steinberg’s self-assessment out. The drawings, which are almost all portraits and figure studies, would never set the world on fire. They are time-bound in their realist conventions, but they are still a pleasure to look at, primarily because Steinberg, despite his limitations as an artist, was as clear-eyed in his renderings as he would become in his writing.
Again, from the essay “The Eye Is a Part of the Mind”:
The so-called naturalism of certain nineteenth-century academicians was worthless because it was impelled by precept and by meritorious example, instead of by pure visual apprehension.
In the majority of these drawings we find Steinberg tirelessly probing the face or body in front of him, feeling out its contours, solids and voids with his pen, charcoal, graphite stick or conté crayon. The folds of flesh are warmly rounded, the light and shadow delicately articulated.
Ironically, Steinberg’s drawings, which were done between 1937 and 1972, most closely resemble the portraits made by the artists of the Bloomsbury group, in particular those of the artist/critic Roger Fry, whose formalism he singles out for critique (a critique, it should be noted, that he does not cast into black-and-white terms, but rather in degrees of sympathy and demurral).
We may take issue with some of Steinberg’s points today, such as his assertion that abstraction does not “cease to be representational” even when it “rejects the intimations of mere sense perception” — the catch being that despite its negation of accepted apprehensions of existence, it “is drawn from a new order of reality.”
But in his insistence that art must continually engage with the real world and his belief that even its remotest forms, from cave paintings to Egyptian carvings to Byzantine mosaics, hold the power to make art new, Steinberg proffers essential correctives to the plaint that all is criticality and there is nothing left to be done:
The modern critic who belittles all representational concerns, because he sees them only as solved problems, underrates their power to inflame the artist’s mind and to intensify his touch. [The artist’s] images are ever aborning, swelling into space and taking life, like frozen fingers tingling as they warm. It is not the facts they purvey; it is the thrill and wonder of cognition.
The Eye is Part of the Mind: Drawings from Life and Art by Leo Steinberg continues at the New York Studio School (8 West 8th Street, West Village, Manhattan) through March 9.