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Leo Steinberg was born in Moscow, Russia, the son of Isaac Nachman Steinberg, a lawyer, member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in revolutionary Russia, and Commissar of Justice under Vladimir Lenin from 1917 to 1918.
Notified that Isaac Steinberg's life was in danger, the family escaped Russia in 1920, when Leo was an infant, and settled in Berlin, Germany. In the early 1930s, the Steinbergs were forced to move again, this time to the United Kingdom, after the National Socialists came to power in Germany. Intending to become an artist, Steinberg studied at the Slade School of Fine Art (part of the University of London).
In 1945, encouraged by his older sister and her husband, Steinberg moved to New York City. For years he made a living writing art criticism and teaching art, as for example teaching life drawing at the Parsons School of Design. His criticism of modern art was important, to the extent that in Tom Wolfe's 1975 book, The Painted Word, Steinberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Clement Greenberg were all labeled the "kings of Cultureburg" for the enormous degree of influence that their criticism exerted over the world of modern art at the time.
However, Steinberg eventually moved away from art criticism and developed a serious, scholarly interest in such artists and architects as Francesco Borromini, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. In 1960, he earned a PhD at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts with a dissertation on the architectural symbolism of Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome.
Subsequently, Dr. Steinberg taught at Hunter College of the City University of New York. In 1975, he was appointed Benjamin Franklin Professor of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught until retiring in 1991. From 1995 to 1996, Steinberg was a guest professor at Harvard University.
Leo Steinberg approached the History of Art in a revolutionary manner, helping to move it from a dry consideration of factual details, documents, and iconographic symbols to a more dynamic understanding of meaning conveyed via various artistic choices. For example, in 1972, Steinberg introduced the idea of the "flatbed picture plane" in his book, Other Criteria, a collection of essays on artists including Jackson Pollock, Pablo Ruiz Picasso, Phillip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, and Willem de Kooning.
In addition, the whole of the Summer, 1983, issue of October was dedicated to Steinberg's important and controversial essay The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, later published as a book by Random House and by publishers in other countries. In that essay, Steinberg examined a previously ignored pattern in Renaissance art: the prominent display of the genitals of the infant Christ and the attention also drawn to that area in images of Christ near the end of his life, in both cases for specific theological reasons involving the concept of the Incarnation -- the word of God made flesh.
Steinberg died on March 13, 2011 in New York City. He was 90 years old.
- 1983 Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
- 1984, Frank Jewett Mather Award in Art Journalism, College Art Association
- 1986 MacArthur Fellows Program
Though an important 20th-century art critic, Leo Steinberg was also a historian and scholar, particularly of the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and other Italian Renaissance artists. He had a particular interest in the depiction of Christ in art, but this caused controversy and debate. He was also a recognized authority in the field of modern art criticism and produced important work on Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning. Because he had experience as a historian, his work on contemporary artists could place them in historical context. One of his most significant essays was Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public, which appeared in March 1962 in Harper's Magazine.
Steinberg took a less-than-formal approach to criticism, sometimes using a first-person narrative in his essays, which personalized the experience of art for readers. In many of his writings, he expressed his love for art's ability not only to reflect life but also to become it and commented, "Anything anybody can do, painting does better." He believed that the difference between modern painting and that of the Old Masters was the viewer's subjective experience of that artwork. He also believed that Abstract Expressionist action painters, such as Pollock, were more concerned with creating good art than with merely expressing a personal identity on canvas, a point of view contrary to that held by Harold Rosenberg, another American art critic of Steinberg's era.
- Leo Steinberg: Selections
- Other Criteria, 1972. Essays
- Pontormo's Capponi Chapel." Art Bulletin 56, no. 3 (1974): 385-99.
- Borromini's San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane. A study in multiple form and architectural symbolism, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York & London, 1977
- The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 1983. First published in the journal October, No. 25, (Summer) 1983.
- Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper, 2001
- Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public appeared in Harper's Magazine in March 1962
- Johnson, Ken (March 14, 2011). "Leo Steinberg, Art Historian, Dies at 90". www.nytimes.com. Retrieved March 15, 2011.
- The Art Story: Art Critic - Leo Steinberg
- Honorary degrees are awarded
- Inventory Of The Leo Steinberg Research Papers
- "Leo Steinberg, Reed College Stephen E. Ostrow Distinguished Visitor". academic.reed.edu. Retrieved November 6, 2010.