Art

Stephen E. Ostrow Distinguished Visitors

LEO STEINBERG
NOVEMBER 12, 2002

Leo Steinberg, one of this country's most distinguished art historians, lectured on "The Mute Image and the Meddling Text" on November 12 in Reed's Vollum lecture hall. The lecture, sponsored by the Stephen Ostrow Distinguished Visitors Program in the Visual Arts; his lecture followed the opening reception for Works on Paper: American Art 1945-1975 at Reed's Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery.

Leo Steinberg, a 1986 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship, was honored as the College Art Association's distinguished scholar of 2002. He has published and lectured widely on Renaissance, Baroque, and 20th-century art. In 1983 Steinberg became the first art historian to receive an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His most recent writings include Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper (2001), Encounters with Rauschenberg (1999), and The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983). Steinberg is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and London's University College.

Born in Moscow, Steinberg spent his childhood in Berlin until moving to London, where he studied art at the Slade School, University of London. After World War II he settled in New York City, working as a freelance writer and translator, and as life-drawing instructor at Parsons School of Design. He studied art history at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, earning his doctorate in 1960 with a dissertation on the Roman Baroque architect Borromini. From 1962 to 1975 he taught at Hunter College and in 1972 was co-founder of the art history department of the Graduate Center, CUNY. In 1975 he was appointed Benjamin Franklin Professor of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania and retired in 1991.

Steinberg has delivered the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery in Washington in 1982 and the Gauss Lectures at Princeton in 1985. He has received honorary doctorates from the Massachusetts College of Art; the Philadelphia College of Art; Parsons School of Design, New York; and Bowdoin College, Maine. He has been a resident scholar at the American Academy in Rome and the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities.

Introduction by William Diebold, Professor of Art History:

"The Ostrow Visitors program brings to the College "individuals who are distinguished in their fields, whose contribution primarily resides in their creativity, and who will provide a forum for conceptual exploration, challenge, and discovery." It is hard for me to imagine someone who fits that impressive bill more or better than Leo Steinberg.

Born in Moscow in 1920, Professor Steinberg lived in Berlin from 1923 to 1933. After emigrating to the United States after the Second World War, Steinberg received a PhD in art history from New York University, writing a dissertation on the Baroque architect Borromini. He taught at Hunter College for many years and helped to found the graduate program in art history at the City University of New York. In 1975 he moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was appointed Benjamin Franklin Professor of the History of Art, a position he held until his retirement in 1991.

So the briefest outline of Leo Steinberg's life and career. But such an outline does almost nothing to describe the depth and importance of his achievements. Indeed, precisely because of those achievements, the task of introducing him is a daunting one. As I was thinking about how to introduce him, I was pleased to find out that the problem was not a new one. For the past several weeks, Reed freshman and their teachers in Humanities 110 have been reading the History of the Peloponnesian War by the 5th-century Greek historian Thucydides. One of the things that makes Thucydides a joy for the modern reader is that he was preternaturally perceptive; as one is reading him, one is constantly finding parallels to one's life and world. So it was with me last week when I noticed, I think for the first time, that in the famous speech that he has Pericles deliver over the Athenian war dead, Thucydides wrote: "Praise of other people is tolerable only up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could, oneself, do some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you will find people becoming jealous and incredulous."

This states well my dilemma this evening. It is true that as dispassionate professionals we try to keep our jealously under control. And incredulity is also not quite right, since I am confident that everything I have told you or will tell you about what Steinberg has done he truly has done. Still, the roster of his achievements boggles the mind. Steinberg has written a number of books, on topics ranging about as widely as is possible for an art historian, from Other Criteria, an examination of 20th-century art, to his studies of the two greatest masters of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo and Leonardo (Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper was published last year), to his remarkable, path-breaking book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, a work whose title announces its radical thesis.

And Steinberg has received almost every honor that academia can bestow. He has been chosen to give the Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art, the Gauss Seminar in Criticism at Princeton, and the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Macarthur Foundation Fellow. He has twice won the College Art Association's Frank Jewett Mather award for distinction in criticism and this year the College Art Association honored Steinberg as the year's distinguished scholar.

As is obvious from even this brief outline of his career, Leo Steinberg is clearly well qualified to be an Ostrow Distinguished Visitor at Reed. But I'd like to single out one aspect of his life and work that seems to me to make his visit especially appropriate in the Reed context. At Reed the Art Department encompasses both studio art and art history. In the world of American academia that situation is already fairly rare. Even rarer is the lack of tension that situation engenders here; the faculty don't squabble and there is very little to distinguish the academic programs of the studio students from those of students doing art history theses. This is not to imply, of course, that studio art and art history are the same thing. Without providing a catalogue of the differences between the disciplines, I can note one obvious distinction: the people one reads in art history classes are typically not the same people one reads in studio art classes. Tonight's speaker, Leo Steinberg, is a signal and rare exception to that rule of thumb, for Steinberg has had a remarkable dual career as an art critic and art historian; thus, Steinberg's work was read this semester in a studio class on painting and in two different art history classes: one on gender in early modern art and the other on postmodern visual culture. Steinberg's work is read in so many different contexts at Reed because, unlike most academically-trained art historians, he also has a truly deep interest in making art. Steinberg's interest in creating art came early. As an undergraduate at the Slade School of the University of London, he studied art; later he taught drawing at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Nor did this engagement with the contemporary production of art subside after Steinberg undertook the academic study of art history. His book Other Criteria, published in 1972, was a crucial document in establishing both the critical reception and the critical terms for the study of the art of thecontempoary American painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, as Steinberg devised criteria "other" than the then-prevalent formulations of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg to describe the work of these artists. One of these "other criteria" was the term "postmodern," which Steinberg was among the first to use in reference to painting. Nor was Steinberg's engagement with the art of this era a thing only of the moment; his interest has been continuous and, in 1999, he published a book entitled Encounters with Rauschenberg. Such sustained attention to both contemporary art and the art of the past is exceptionally rare in the field, but truly a model for us here at Reed. As a result, it gives me the greatest pleasure to welcome Leo Steinberg, who will speak on "The Mute Image and the Meddling Text."

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