Leo Steinberg Interview
June 14, 1995, 8 PM
(Conducted by Kathy Kienholz for the History of Hunter Art Department Project, Artists Research Group)
KK: This is Kathy Kienholz speaking on June 14, 1995, at 8 o’clock with Leo Steinberg. We can begin.
LS: Well, as I was saying before we began, far more important, if the objective is to compose an oral history of the Hunter College Art Department, would be interviews with Eugene Goossen, who ran the Department, and of course, William Rubin. I suspect Bill will be very happy to talk to you about it. It was, in fact, through Bill that I got into Hunter College.
KK: You started there in ’61, wasn’t it?
LS: It was either ’61 or ’62. But you must have the records.
KK: Yes, I looked it up.
LS: It was ’61, and it happened in this manner: I got a call from Bill Rubin, who was holding down two jobs at the time. He was teaching at Sarah Lawrence and at Hunter College, and he didn’t want to let either of them go. For good reasons he wanted to continue teaching at Sarah Lawrence, and for good reasons he wanted to continue at Hunter, but not full-time. So he called me shortly after I graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts. He asked if I would be interested in a part- time job. I said that was exactly what I would want. Of course, it would give me time to do my own work and give Bill the ability to teach full-time. I knew Bill’s style, and I was quite willing to take the sacrifice for half-pay. Apparently Bill had said to Edna Luetz, who was then the Chairman, that he wanted to go on half-time and as an inducement he said to her, “If I can find somebody just as good as myself to take over the other half of the year, would you be interested?” Edna Luetz said, “Well,if you can find someone as good as you!” So that was the flattery [with] which he tried to seduce me into it. But it didn’t take much seduction. I was delighted, and that’s how I got into Hunter half-time.
I had my interview with Edna Luetz whom I had not met before. She had read some of my scattered writings, and she knew more or less what I could do. She offered me an Associate Professorship right away, which was rather nice as a starting point. Well, those were the good old days. Nowadays you’d be starting as an adjunct and continue as an adjunct for eleven years before they fire[d] you. And that’s how I got into Hunter. Eventually Bill left because he was going on to bigger things, as you know, for the Museum of Modern Art and the Institute of Fine Arts. I was asked whether I would go full-time, but I held on to my contract. I’m also told…I was told at one time-some people thought it was rather irregular to hire someone to teach half-time. There was no precedent for this at Hunter, but it was Mina Rees, a most remarkable woman. She founded the Graduate Center later.
KK: Yes. The library is named after her.
LS: Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. She was an extraordinary woman, the way she ran faculty meetings. I’ve never seen such efficiency. Not a word was wasted and somehow she managed to discipline the entire faculty. They knew she wanted efficiency. Nobody was bullshitting, and things really got done. Well, I’m told that it was because of Mina Rees that my appointment came off. She said “this is a good person-let’s take him on the terms we can get him.” Had it not been for her flexibility and her imaginative approach to education, I think we wouldn’t have gotten that deal.
KK: So you came in full-time? Or were you still part-time?
LS: No, I came in half-time. I insisted upon maintaining a part-time contract throughout my twelve years at Hunter. That meant I was hired as an Associate Professor at an opening salary of $12,000 a year, of which I took half, and it meant all my benefits and so forth were halved. I was happy to make that sacrifice for the job. I recently read that… what’s his name…can’t remember… he’s a well known Harvard psychologist. I’ll think of it in a minute. Anyway, he said that there are three reasons why people went into academia … June, July, and August. So you asked whether this was my first teaching-
KK: I gathered you graduated from the [New York University] Institute [of Fine Arts] in 1960. I assumed it was the first teaching job.
LS: -the first regular teaching job. I actually began giving lectures before I began to study art history, at the YMHA.
KK: Hmmm. What does that stand for?
KK: I’m not sure what that stands for.
LS: Young Men’s Hebrew Association. They call it the 92nd St. Y.
KK: Oh, yes! Okay.
LS: It’s YM and YWHA. It’s where I got my training lecturing to very small audiences. Then I invited-I was teaching life drawing at the Parsons School of Design. I invited the Director or the President of Parsons to come and hear one of my lectures at the Y. And as a result of that, I was asked to appear at the five Art History Lectures that were then being given to the students at Parsons School of Design.
KK: You had taught art? You were trained at the Slade School? [Slade School of the University of London]
LS: Yes, in the 1930s…1936-1940. So I did Art History lectures at Parsons School of Design, but as I look back on it now, I’m embarrassed to remember it. It was frightfully…very unprofessional. I really went to the Institute in order to give myself a solid foundation.
KK: Now, that happened after the Parsons lectures?
LS: Yes, I went to the Institute from I think the age of thirty-five or thirty-six. I was determined to get my…two things before I was forty: a Doctorate and a driver’s license. I almost made it because I didn’t get my driver’s license until a few months after my fortieth birthday.
KK: But the fact that you got your Doctorate in five years is quite impressive.
LS: Yes. As a matter of fact, I was told I was the second fastest to get it, going all the way from the B.A. to the Doctorate in five and a half years.
KK: Oh, you went through for the B.A. as well… at the same time?
LS: Oh well, that was… No, no I got that before. That’s another story, it’s not interesting. It was kind of a phony degree, just so I would be able to get into graduate school. Phyllis Boba [sp?] was the one that did it in five years. It’s supposed to be a record. I came in second in five and a half years.
In a way it was my first regular teaching job in Art History at Hunter College. Edna Luetz was chairperson. “What recollections do I have of her?” I think she was a sort of mother hen. She loved the Department, she loved her work, and she loved the students. I suppose you could say she loved all the faculty, indiscriminately both the Studio people and the Art Historians, which is very rare.
KK: I believe she came out of the Theater Department?
LS: I don’t know. I never knew her well She retired very soon after I began to teach and then Eugene Goossen took over. And not long afterwards I think she died. I do remember writing her a letter, on her retirement, but I had very little contact with her otherwise.
Generally, I must tell you that, about the Department as such, I don’t have very much to say because I didn’t take that much interest in the Department. People like William Rubin, he was really concerned with hiring the right people and promoting the Program, and of course Eugene Goossen, heading the Studio Department, he wanted it to be the best in the nation. He went after artists whose work he really admired, and he managed to get the Hunter Art Department written up. He publicized the fact that there were some famous people teaching there. Robert Motherwell had been a great influence on Edna Luetz, but that was before my time. Motherwell never turned up after my time. I remember Baziotes was teaching and for a while Rothko was teaching.
KK: I don’t know if Tony Smith was there then.
LS: Tony Smith was very much there in my time. As a matter of fact, since none of the studio people would ever think of attending one of my lectures, which I was giving at the Metropolitan Museum, I asked Tony Smith, because I was friendly with him, to come. He did come to one of my lectures. Then he insisted on wanting to give me one of his sculptures, but he never got around to it.
KK: I don’t know if it would fit in your apartment. Although I imagine he did smaller sculptures.
LS: Yes, he would have given me one of his smaller ones, but I never got one. I gave a lecture on Tony Smith in, was it at Yale or at Hartford, I can’t remember now. He had a show and the show wasn’t attracting… wasn’t rousing any particular interest in the community so the man who organized the show… (he became well known as a curator and collector, he’s dead now, I forget his name-that’s what you get for interviewing old men, they don’t use proper names anymore)-
Anyway, he called me and asked whether I would give a lecture on Tony Smith and generate some interest. I did. Then I asked Tony to come to some of my lectures. Otherwise, there was very little contact between the Art History people and the Studio. The Studio, of course, was the predominant force.
KK: I think it’s a little better now. You’re required to take courses as a Studio major, in criticism…in art criticism. So there the two groups mix. However, it is something of the same way still.
LS: It’s a well known thing. It’s very questionable whether Art History and Studio Art should be under one roof in many universities and colleges. At the University of Pennsylvania, where I taught, they’re quite separate from each other. There are a lot of art historians who take a keen interest in contemporary art and in artists. My good friend Ellen Ellson [sp?], who died a few weeks ago, was very interested in going to artists’ studios and meeting with them. I know several such art historians, but they’re not typical. I also know some artists willing to go to museums and even look at Old Master paintings, but they’re not typical either.
KK: Do you think the two should be together?
LS: Do I think they should be together?
KK: You have a unique perspective, seeing as you’ve done both. You’ve seen both sides.
LS: They do very different things. Their minds are in different places. If you do Art History… right now I’m finishing a book which has involved me deeply in Theology. I’ve bee reading early Christian and Medieval Theologians and some Renaissance Theologians, who couldn’t be further removed from the concerns of contemporary artists. And this happens very often. When you take someone like Mary Moore, whose field is Greek vase painting, she might have much more
in common with people in Classics, Classical Literature, Mythology, Anthropology, any field other than contemporary art… than art-making now.
KK: You mentioned that you brought her into the Department.
LS: I was always trying to bring professional art historians in, and this was sometimes a source of conflict. When I knew a well trained art historian was available, I recommended them. I think I did that with Dick Stapleford and Janet Cox-Rearick. I was very moralistic in those days about maintaining one’s standards, and I’m also told that I intimidated people, alienated and antagonized people by being that kind of moralist. It was not the way to make friends and influence people.
KK: That’s what Dale Carnegie would want.
LS: So when I left Hunter I don’t think there was much regret, on anybody’s part.
KK: It seems to have been erased. You know some of your students are now teaching there?
LS: Ah well, Lisa Vergara. Anyone else?
KK: Jane Roos went through the Hunter program.
LS: I don’t remember. Was she a student of mine?
KK: She studied at Hunter. About the same time as Lisa Vergara.
LS: Lisa did her Master’s thesis with me and we remained in contact even when she was writing her dissertation. When she had to defend her dissertation at Columbia, many years later, she asked for me to be invited. I wanted to go, to protect her, because she needed protection, because I knew she had evolved a rather imaginative personal approach to the problem of symbolism in Ruben’s landscapes. She had decided and was able to prove that Ruben’s landscapes were head over heels, that’s the wrong metaphor. She really had to work on her methodology for that, so I thought she might come under some heavy fire, but to my great delight I didn’t have to say a word at Columbia. They were very respectful of her and full of admiration. Then she published a very good book.
Anyway, I was proud of Lisa and she paid me back, in a way, because when she was asked by the Professors at Columbia how she first came to the subject, she said it was one remark that I made in a lecture on Rubens that set her thinking about it. Apparently I had said something like, “Rubens’s vision is so comprehensive that you can get day and night into one picture at the same time,” and that intrigued her sufficiently to start looking at Rubens’s landscapes. Actually, that was the best kind of flattery a teacher can get.
KK: Well, from what the records show you taught mostly Baroque Art, mostly Southern Baroque; then you taught Research Methods.
LS: But I also taught the General Surveys for quite a few years. I remember teaching in a huge auditorium to hundreds of students, and at that time, Lehman College had not been named”it was Hunter College in the Bronx. I used to have to go up there. I can’t remember what courses I taught, but I majored in Baroque Art, so it was quite likely I was teaching Baroque and Methods. I don’t remember what else I taught. Later on I know I taught a Mantegna course. It was the first Mantegna course ever taught in America. Creighton Gilbert, years later, told me he decided to teach a Mantegna course, and I felt very one-ups-man. What’s the phrase? “Oh, it’s been done!”
KK: I’d always associated you with Renaissance or perhaps Modern Art.
LS: I tell you when we … At the Institute in the 1950s, when I was there, you had to take one major, one related minor and one unrelated minor. My major was Baroque art, my related minor was Renaissance art, and my unrelated minor was Ancient art. I was very much involved with Ancient Egypt. I don’t know if I ever taught a course on it at Hunter.
KK: That was a heavy course load!
LS: I no longer remember what I was teaching at Hunter. Although I suspect I still have my course notes, but they will never be available”they will be destroyed. Now shall we look at the next question? What was the structure of the Art Department at the time that you taught? What were you asked to teach? About the structure of the Department…Goossen or Bill Rubin will tell you better. All I know is that there was the Studio Department and then a small Art Department, and I think we felt somewhat orphaned because we couldn’t even get the windows”the proper blinds for the windows. So if you taught a course in the daylight hours, the slides wouldn’t even show up. I got so angry over this, I said, “If those blinds aren’t here by next week I’m going to bring in pots of black paint and brushes and we’re going to paint all the window panes black!” I think that did it.
KK: Who was teaching with you at the time?
LS: I think you’ll have to consult the records; I can’t remember. I know that Janet Cox-Rearick came in towards the end of my period of teaching. Eunice Lipton was teaching for awhile. Dick Stapleford, I think I helped him get in, too. He was a Krautheimer student and he’s still teaching there.
KK: Of all of them, I believe Janet Cox-Rearick has been there the longest of the present faculty, and I gather Mary Moore came in when you were there.
LS: There was another woman. A young woman who taught Ancient art and I had to observe her, and unfortunately I decided she was wrong for us. That is one of the most painful things to do, I did it two or three times, made a judgment, but I was considered the senior art historian.
What were you asked to teach? [reading from supplied questions] Apart from having to teach the survey courses at the very beginning of my teaching career, I don’t think I was ever asked to teach anything. I think I announced what I wanted to teach, that’s my recollection, perhaps I’m re-projecting from my later experience at Penn.
KK: What was Bill Rubin teaching? Did you come in and take over his curriculum as well as his place on the faculty?
LS: I know I also taught Modern. I know I taught Picasso at one time.
KK: You were telling me there’s an interesting story when you started to teach drawing.
LS: Yes, but that happened fairly late because whenever Goossen and I had lunch, sooner or later I’d be drawing something on a napkin or tabletop. Whenever he had a class to teach after me, he would find my drawings on the blackboard because I had a certain academic skill in drawing, owing to the Slade in London, and had learnt the kind of draftsmanship that was no longer being taught. We were all trying to draw like Ingres. So Goossen asked me to teach life drawing which I was delighted to do, for a number of reasons. I like drawing, I like teaching drawing, and I liked the fact that you didn’t have to prepare lectures and you didn’t have to read student papers; it was extraordinarily easy compared to preparing an Art History class. I enjoyed that very much, but I think I also felt that times have changed and that the kind of drawing that I could teach was really not very interesting to students.
KK: Well, Gene Goossen was building up the Department to emphasize abstraction.
LS: Yes. Abstraction, and then Conceptual Art, and so on. Close observation in the kinds of things that I would say to students. I would find students drawing fast and mechanically repeating their lines, drawing, repeating ovals for heads, never looking at the specificity of that particular head at that particular angle in that particular light. I had a feeling they were drawing what they already knew”just exercising a sort of manual habit. If the model happened to have arms, they would only draw the arms down to the wrists.
KK: Hands are hard to do.
LS: Yes. I know why hands are tough to do. Hands are tough to do because there are so many joints in them. Whenever you have a joint, you are likely to have a change of direction. When you’re dealing with the whole body, there are only a few joints: there’s one at the neck, at the shoulders, the elbows, the waist, the groin, the knees”and you get a lot of mileage out of that. You get very little mileage out of drawing hands, and yet if you look at the hands and multiply the number of joints in them, there are almost as many joints in the hand as there are in the rest of the body. That doesn’t seem to pay, so they leave the hands off. I would say to a student, “What about the hands?” and the student would say, “I’m just going for the essentials.” Then I would say, “Your hands are not essential to you?” Then I would point out that 90% of all the movements you make from the waist up are designed to place your hands and move your fingers, and that 90% of all the movements from waist down are designed to place your feet. I would then, in the old days when I taught at Parsons, I would forbid students to draw a line from the shoulder down if they hadn’t seen where that line was going to terminate, so as to feel the movement of the arm as continuous down to the fingertips. Look at two fingers”the thumb and the index finger”and draw right through, so when you start drawing at the shoulder you know where its destination is. You don’t start moving until you know where you are going. The students would be amazed at the results, and you can really break the fear. If you think of the hand as part of the body’s continuous movement, you break the fear. And if you do one, then, with slicing the arm off at the wrist, you never get any further. So this is the kind of teaching I
managed to do. Sometimes, when I thought the students were getting too tight, too picky, I would take the opposite tack. Stop them drawing. Would you like to hear about this?
KK: I would love to.
LS: I would stop them drawing and tell them about Pre-historic cave painting. I travelled once in Southern France, to the Paleolithic caves, and it was generally believed, it might still be true, that these pictures were done by artist-priests. Perhaps done publicly before the assembled tribe prior to the hunt in order to somehow invoke the spirit of the beast”buffalo or mammoth”whatever they hunted. I said to the students, “Imagine yourself one of those Paleolithic artist-priests, and you have to draw with everybody watching every move you make. Don’t move like a Swiss watchmaker, make every movement grand and stately and priestly. Don’t think about the line you are going to put down next, and put it down when you’ve decided how you want the gesture to appear. So that every line you draw is the graph of the gesture you’ve made and the kind of gesture that you want to be seen making.” That would loosen students up. So at the end of the day they would be amazed at the largess and freedom, so I was playing both ends. It was fun. But as I say, in the days of Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual Art, and Minimal Art, these ideas and these skills simply got rather boring.
KK: But a lot of the artists involved in these movements were trained in the classical tradition.
LS: Not very much anymore.
KK: De Kooning.
LS: Oh, De Kooning. Yes, he’s exceptional, De Kooning absolutely. De Kooning was a great draftsman in the classical tradition. Arshile Gorky too, but Gorky was also quite exceptional in that he kept going to the Metropolitan Museum and looking at the Old Masters, and he copied. That’s another generation. Nobody, no American-trained artist, could draw like De Kooning. If you think of Rothko and Newman, Still, and any of that generation, or Motherwell, none of them could draw like De Kooning. None of them had that kind of background. You could tell that from De Kooning’s life when he first departed from figuration and went abstract. Those marvelous white on black paintings”black on white paintings. They had a kind of organic vigor, an elasticity to the line, that comes out of the experience of life drawing. You know, at that period it was a very exciting moment when De Kooning went abstract with those sudden flashes of vision. Like the finger with the fingernail in one of those black paintings that was at a recent show at the Met. Anyway I think I’m really digressing. You don’t want to talk about this.
KK: I haven’t stopped you. I’ve purposefully not stopped you.
LS: I told you about when I began to teach studio classes. Will you talk about your earlier training at the Slade School of Art? [reading from supplied questions] All I can say is that I went there during the late 1930s and it was the most benighted, backward place in the world. England, London, and the Slade School in the 1930s, they were trying to teach academic drawing the way it might have been taught 50 years before”100 years before. One admired Ingres. One would still admire Degas, but people like Matisse and Picasso were thought of as fly-by-nights; they were not taken seriously. They hardly existed in our consciousness.
This was also reflected in the Tate Gallery which was supposed to be the Museum of Modem Art in London at that time, before WWII. They owned, I think, two Picassos, Still Life of 1901 and another early one that had just been given to them. It never would have occurred to them, to the Tate Gallery, to go after Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti (Giacometti was too young then), or Mondrian.
It wasn’t until I came to New York in 1945 to go to the Museum of Modern Art, a totally different world. It was a revelation to me. I’d grown up in Germany from the age of three. I was born in Russia.
KK: In Moscow?
LS: In Moscow, yes. I was three and a half when I came to Germany. As a child I became very interested in art, in German Expressionist art. It was very much a part of my consciousness.
KK: Where were you? In Munich?
LS: Berlin. So that names like Kirchner, Oscar Schlemmer, the Bauhaus, were familiar to me when I was twelve. In fact I wrote my first article about art in a handwritten children’s magazine when I was eleven, about Kathe KÃ¶llwitz.
LS: I was taken to see her.
KK: Were your parents involved in the art scene then?
LS: My mother told my father, who was a Socialist, as Kathe KÃ¶llwitz was, to show Leo’s drawings to Kathe KÃ¶llwitz. I remember it fairly well, I sat in a small dining room at the table with the three of us. Poor Kathe KÃ¶llwitz couldn’t get a word in edgewise because my father talked all the time. I, of course, didn’t say a word. I was too awed. She read my article and as for her opinion of my drawing she quoted Max Lieberman who said”I can remember it in German: “Talents lie above the street. It’s all a matter of character. It’s character that counts.” In other words she said “yes.”
What I was trying to say was to close the loop so to speak. I knew the names and some of the work of these people and then during my nine or ten years in England I always hated, absolutely, my visual field. No one in England had heard of the German Expressionists. When I came to New York…
KK: Why did you go to England, by the way?
LS: Why, it was 1933 and we were Jewish. We were very smart to get out very early. This is because my parents had the experience of the Russian Terror, so they recognized all the signs. So unlike the German Jews who had deep roots in Germany. The German Jewish communities that had lived in Germany a thousand years since Roman times couldn’t imagine leaving. We were in a group that recognized the size of the terror and got out immediately. It was fortunate that we went west to England. Anyhow, I came to New York in 1945 at the end of the war, to the Museum of Modem Art. I remember walking in and there were two sculptures by Lehmbruck and a whole room of German Expressionists. All these names came flooding back to me, but London was incredibly provincial at that time. I remember meeting during the war John Rothenstein, who was then director of the Tate Gallery. He very proudly showed me his latest acquisition”Wilson Steer. It’s possible you don’t know the name; he was a competent Academic English painter. So Wilson Steer he would buy, he wouldn’t have been seen dead buying a Picasso…in the 1940s. Then they changed, they were awakened after the war, but very largely, I think, not until the 1950s.
The personality of Alfred Barr brought the change…the outlook of a whole generation. The way Roger Fry, from England, changed it much earlier. Roger Fry was one of the first to understand CÃ©zanne. That was the great modernism of his day; it was the famous show that was organized in 1913 that presented CÃ©zanne. There were, of course, one or two collectors at the Courtauld who appreciated CÃ©zanne, but they were in the minority. So…
KK: Which is now part of the University of London and the Slade School is also part.
LS: It always was part of the University College. I was made a Fellow of the University College, London, fifteen years ago. I thought, “How does this happen?” I had this fear your alma mater keeps a motherly eye over all its former students so no matter where they scamper, if they’ve done good work, they get rewarded with a Fellowship. As it turned out it wasn’t quite like that, it was because of Lawrence Gowing, who became Director of the Slade School, and he put up my name.
Was there a person who influenced you, in particular? [reading from supplied questions] You mean in my life, generally, or…
KK: Well, I was referring to Hunter at the time, however.
LS: Was I influenced by anybody at Hunter?
KK: I gather not … How about in your lifetime, who was someone who made you want to go into art history?
LS: [Long pause] That’s a long story, but it’s purely autobiographical, and I wonder if it’s of interest in what you want to accomplish.
KK: Probably not.
LS: Let’s skip it.
KK: I’m letting my curiosity get away with me.
LS: I noticed you left the program when Doris Kennedy was chairperson; what are your memories of her and the Department at the time? [reading from supplied questions]
KK: So you came in with Edna Luetz and then Gene Goossen was there a little, then he left and then Doris Kennedy was there.
LS: Yes, he laid down the chairmanship and Doris Kennedy was elected chairperson.
KK: I asked that mainly because I’m going to be interviewing her next week for this project.
LS: I would rather skip that question. [Long pause] I know that Doris Kennedy did not privilege the artists and the studio people the way they had been privileged by Eugene Goossen, and the artists tended to resent that. They thought they could maneuver or manipulate her to continue the old policies. They found she was too much of a disciplinarian to expect the artists to put in time. Although I never had very much to do with her, she did say to me once or twice she wished everyone in the department were like me, in this one respect”I never seemed to demand anything. I guess I didn’t have the imagination to ask for anything.
Some of your former students have gone on to become faculty members. Can you talk of the training of these and other students in the art history program? [reading from supplied questions]
KK: I was thinking mostly of Lisa Vergara.
LS: Well, I mentioned Lisa Vergara. When I started to teach at Hunter it was an all women’s college and still tied to the Bronx campus. There were all women….
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LS: [continued] Before Feminism, the young women were wonderful students, highly encouraging. At the time the education at City [University] was free. There was a common pattern in families, middle-class families, that the boy would be sent to an Ivy League college, and that would use up all the money the family could spare for the children’s education, and the girl would go to Hunter. It was known to be a very good college, very high standards. All the city colleges” Queens and City College”all had very high standards, but they were for people who didn’t have the money to go to Smith or Radcliffe or Mount Holyoke; the standards were as high, if not higher. In addition to being in New York, which always adds a certain edge of sophistication. The girls were bright, interested, happy to be where they were, they were proud of their college, and they were eager to please their teachers.
KK: It sounds like a wonderful combination.
LS: They knew the way to please me was to produce good work. I got wonderful work out of them. The work changed very much. I can remember an earlier period in my teaching career: I was teaching at Parsons School of Design when the war veterans were coming back under the G.I. Bill. These were young men who had just lost two or three years of their lives given to the service of their country in the Army, so they felt they had no time to waste. They worked so hard; it was the finest moment for any teacher in recent American history to have students like that. It kept you on your toes”you had to deliver. It was great fun. It was fun at Hunter. Then we went co-ed. Then in the late sixties came the student rebellions”very divisive, and there were teachers who were very politically oriented and succeeded very quickly in polarizing their class”setting up hostile camps within class. It was the Age of Resentment, which began then and which we still have with us. My recollection”it may just be an old man’s fond recollections of his younger years”but my recollection is that college life was then comparatively idyllic. Except in one sense: I remember, when I first came to Hunter, I learned there was a faculty cafeteria; I thought, what a boon this was going to be, being able to meet people in other departments, listening to informed conversations with biologists and physicists, economists”all the other areas where I felt ignorant. But, I discovered very soon that all conversations were gossip; all about the problems of tenure and appointment. There was nothing I wanted to listen to, and I stopped going to the faculty cafeteria except when I had a conference with a student. We had to meet students in the cafeteria. We had no offices. I don’t know if they have offices now.
KK: They do.
LS: In my days of teaching at Hunter, if you had to talk to a student, you had to do it in the hallways.
LS: So now art historians have offices?
KK: They do.
LS: I didn’t even have a desk”not even a drawer.
KK: Did you have the slide library as a resource, or did you bring your own slides?
LS: There was a slide library, but it was constantly being raided. Things had been stolen from it. It was a terrible problem. It was a great headache for Goossen because he had to fork over the money to pay for slides. But I made my own slides from the beginning. When I was a student, when I was very poor, that was one thing I was able to scrape up. I knew I would be dependent on slides. I started building my own slide collection from my student days. So when I began to teach, I started to supplement them from my collection”most of them were mine.
KK: Do you still have them?
LS: I have tens of thousands of slides. When 1 made out my will, I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I have some former students who are teaching, Kathy Sentora [sp?] who teaches at Pratt. I indicated in my will to my executors that former students of mine who were teaching should have their choice of the slides. Paula Harper”I remember my first conference with her, standing in the hallway at Hunter. She had been a dancer, but had decided that this was not going to be her career. She wanted to take Art History, but thought she was too old. She was twenty-nine or thirty-one, so I told her I was thirty-five when I started. I encouraged her because she seemed very bright. She went through Hunter and then took her Ph.D. at Stanford, and she’s been a full professor at the University of Miami for many years. I have many former students who teach, some who become artists. In fact, there’s one woman who went to Canada, married, raised a family, but continued to work as an artist. About a year ago she sent me a catalog of an exhibition that she’d dedicated to me because she’d remembered my teaching. On the other hand, I was approached by a group of three people, elderly, or middle-aged I should say, at the Metropolitan Museum not long ago. The woman introduced herself as a former student of mine at Hunter, and she had recently met two other friends she still sees from their days at Hunter and they were talking about my classes. She said to me, “We decided. You know what you were doing in those classes?” I camouflaged, thinking “Oh my god, what happened? What was I doing in those classes?” She said, “You were casting pearls before swine.” It took them twenty years to realize what I’d been giving them. So if that was true, perhaps I was talking over people’s heads, and I wondered how many students resist[ed] taking my courses. Apparently I had the reputation of having too-high standards. When a student turned in a paper, I wouldn’t let anything that was wrong”punctuation, or grammar, or spelling, or structure, or ideas”lapse. Nothing we had covered in class…
KK: These were the days before computers, so they had to type them all out.
LS: Some were even handwritten papers, and I read every word. Knowing perfectly well that nine-tenths of the students wouldn’t even bother to read my comments. But I still did it, and I continued to do it until I retired. Now you know why I was happy to retire.
KK: That’s pretty time-consuming.
LS: Yes. I must have put in thousands of hours annotating student papers.
KK: You were doing it for the one-tenth of the students who actually read the comments?
LS: Yes. And in a strange, metaphysical way I was doing it for the profession itself, this is what the job requires, this is what I’m supposed to do. Whether it [was] read or not was not my concern.
I remember from my childhood, I had a history teacher when I was about thirteen or fourteen; I remember having to write a paper on the grab for Africa”it was about European colonialism. I had just learned the word “pugnacious” and I was dying to get it in. So I referred to one of the tribes that were being subdued by a Maxim gun (it was the first machine-gun). I referred to one of the tribes as being pugnacious, and the teacher wrote in the margin “No more so than any other people deprived of their land.” I remember it to this day because I wanted to use a fancy word and impress her. I hadn’t thought through what it meant. She didn’t know my motives; she saw the word “pugnacious” and corrected me. When you asked me who influenced me, I would say Miss Hiatt”that was thirty or forty years ago”because she gave me a sense that we don’t use words unless we know what they mean. So certain lessons stick if they come at the right time.
Well, what else would you like to know? You have more questions here. I had no involvement in the Hunter Gallery or student exhibitions whatsoever.
What was your philosophy about teaching Art History? How did it evolve at Hunter College? [reading from supplied questions]
KK: Since it was your first… since it was your first formal teaching position.
LS: Philosophy is…philosophy”I hate to dignify it…but I can tell you, for instance, since I prefer specifics…it’s the question of dates. There are many things, failings, that people will not admit. No one, for instance, will say “I’m a very ungenerous person.” You never hear anybody deny that they are sensitive. Of course, everyone thinks they are sensitive. There are certain things people boast of, like, “I have no memory for dates.” You would never hear someone say, “I have a great memory for dates.” That would type them as being pedantic and unimaginative, totally wrapped up in clear dry facts. So I would hear students tell they had no memory for dates, just no head for it. You might find out the same students could remember hundreds of different telephone numbers. They may remember a thousand different batting averages if they were baseball fans, but they have no memory for dates.
I recall once a student gave a report on Ingres; every other sentence, she said: “at this time during, at this time during.” Finally I interrupted and said, “What time is this now?” Well, she said she couldn’t remember the exact date. I said, “How old is Ingres now?” She was a little baffled. I said, “Is he a young rebel announcing that his masters had betrayed him, or is he a crusty old establishment figure who is abhorred by these insolent newcomers like Courbet? Doesn’t that make a difference?” I was trying to get across to them that dates translate into real life situations.
Then I remember doing this: there was a young man in the class who had told me a week before that he was about to be married, and 1 congratulated him He was probably twenty or twenty-one, and I think I knew the girl he was marrying was also a student. The next week, quite casually, the question of dates came up. I managed to say, “By the way, you may have heard George is about to be married.” Then I turned to him and said, “You said your wife is forty-two?” You should have seen his jaw drop, people in the class blanched, he had such a look of horror on his face. Then I laughed and said, “See, it just happened!”
Obviously, they all didn’t know he was marrying someone also in [her] twenties. Instead of being born in 1940, she was born in 1960. You see, that’s what dates mean. It’s a matter of understanding a life situation. For contemporary artists this is very relevant: if this artist is sixty, and works of art he produced when he was twenty-five or even fifteen were misdated, it would destroy the whole trajectory of his life’s work. That’s what dates are about.
I would sometimes do that in my teaching, to try to make [students] understand that there’s a certain dignity in what we think is very trivial. We are not talking about anything, we are not talking about human beings if you simply say, “Ingres, at this time,” and you don’t understand the difference between 1920 and 1960.
As for my … I’ve always loved art. I’ve loved art since I was three or four years old. I thought that this was a way of sharing, anyway”justifying my whole life, and giving other people something which would keep them somehow enriched for all their lives because education is the one thing that can’t be taken away from you; it can’t be undone.
If I taught a course in Mantegna, whom I dearly love, he’s my favorite painter- Mantegna has had, we call it a bad press, people think of him as being very dry and stiff and so on. If I can get them really excited about Mantegna and show what a sense of humor he had, a kind of deep wit, and a self-consciousness with which he approaches art. Clement Greenberg thinks that self-consciousness in art is a modem innovation, and Old Masters’ work was copying appearances. Well, there’s far deeper self-consciousness about what he’s doing in Mantegna than there is [in] Abstract Expressionism If I can get that across and make people realize that to look at one work, several works, any work, by a Master like Mantegna or Velazquez for an hour or two hours, it can be as rich and entertaining as watching TV for two hours. As Tom Hess used to say, “it takes years to look at a picture.” If you don’t know what there is to painting, to a great painting, to be seen, what the rewards of seeing that are, then you’re just missing so much of the world. I’m perfectly aware …
KK: It’s called “having an eye.”
LS: Yes. It is, of course, true of any field, the person who really understands flowers or trees, or the human body, the way a scientist understands it. The person that really understands physics,
all these people are deeply enamored with their material (and I’m ignorant of most of these fields), but I can be deeply fascinated to see how infinitely open every area of human interest is to be depending on the mind that does the investigating. I had chosen the field of art because I found it interesting. So, I don’t know if that constitutes a philosophy or not; you’d better talk to my former students to get an answer to that question.
Now then, you asked: you were involved in the forming of the art history Ph.D. program at the Graduate Center with Milton Brown. How did the idea evolve? The original idea is, I don’t remember it exactly, but I think Eugene Goossen also formulated this notion that for two great art history departments in New York, N.Y.U.”the Institute and Columbia. Of course, Art History was also being taught at other places, but these were the two main institutions. They both had enormous libraries and large faculties. They were doing a very good job except for three areas, and those three areas were American Art, which was hardly taken seriously”it was only beginning, and Milton Brown was planning it”so American art, and modem art, which is certainly not taken seriously. There were no modernists. Modem art was considered a field for journalism, but not for serious study. Here again, it was Alfred Barr who gradually changed that. He, for the first time, introduced the idea that when you do a show of contemporary art, you do a catalogue with the same scientific scholarly rigor that you would bring to an Old Master show. This had never been done before. Barr was trained in art history. He originally meant to write his dissertation on , which he never did. Did you know that?
KK: I didn’t.
LS: But Alfred Barr always respected the history of art.
KK: He was at Princeton for his degree, wasn’t he?
LS: Yes. He taught for a while at Vassar. Anyway, he was a pioneer in this, but it had not yet percolated to the Institute of Fine Arts. When I was a student at the Institute in the middle fifties, I began to write contemporary art criticism. But I kept it quiet; I didn’t want any of the faculty to know. My image was like that of a respectable woman who does streetwalking at night and doesn’t want anyone to know about it. So…and the faculty found out about it at the College Art Association where I was awarded… I was given [a] citation for Best Criticism of the Year; then they suddenly found out I’d been looking at contemporary art and writing about de Kooning and Pollock on the side. Respectable art historians were supposed to have their noses in Bernini or ….
KK: It must have been irresistible being in New York City when all this was going on.
LS: Resistible to a few, the other students, my fellow students”my generation”[someone] who was doing the same thing was Robert Rosenblum. He of course was specializing in eighteenth and nineteenth century art, so the leap was not so great. I made a larger leap because I was coming from Renaissance and Baroque to Modem, but I was always going to shows and going down to The Club. A colleague of mine, at Penn, said to me some years ago”he had also been a student of the Institute””You know those days in the 1950s, did you ever go down to The Club?” You know what The Club was?
KK: Yes, yes.
LS: And I said yes. I remember Franz Kline and De Kooning talking and so forth. He said, “You know I had a friend who was always asking me to go down, but I thought it’s a waste of time.” So he never did. He says one of his students is writing a dissertation on The Club. But anyway, he was quite characteristic. He didn’t think that keeping up with this contemporary world was a part of his job”as training to be an art historian. Well, I began to write about it and Bob wrote about it,and, of course, he remained to become involved in contemporary art to this day”much more than I. But he also married a contemporary artist, which, he once told me, helps to keep his hand in.
Why did I digress into this, oh yes, the Graduate Center. Well, the Graduate Center. The idea was that there were three areas where these great art history Departments, Columbia and the Institute, were not pulling their weight. They were American art, modem art, and criticism. New York is, of course, the place for that, the center of art criticism, contemporary art and, to some extent, the center of American art, although nineteenth century American art is more diffused. Anyhow, the idea was then to start the graduate program in these three areas and since we could start it at the new Graduate Center which Mina Rees had founded… and it happened to be across the street from the New York Public Library. We made special arrangements for our students to work there so we wouldn’t need the millions and millions, which we would never get, to build a library to compete with the great established art history departments. It seemed very reasonable and so some of the powers-that-be were persuaded that this was a good, workable idea, and we started with just ten students, and I ended up teaching the first ten students we enrolled.
KK: When was that, ’71?
LS: Something like that. I was…I didn’t get an appointment at the Graduate Center because, Milton Brown, who was chairman, pointed out, “We don’t need to appoint you because we’ve already got you, you’re at Hunter, you’re within the City system.” The only appointment they made was the late John Rewald who was commuting to Chicago and was very happy to find a space here. And it was all right except that John Rewald didn’t prepare lectures, he would just sit and reminisce of what his experiences were as an art historian. I’m sure the students got a lot out of it, but they were jam sessions.
Well, that’s how that started, and I taught only modern courses there because at that time you weren’t supposed to teach general art history to the students. Insofar as the students at the Graduate Center were supposed to have a background in art history, they would take courses at Hunter or Queens or whatever. The only courses I taught there were in criticism, methods, and Picasso.
KK: I’ve heard an interview with Milton Brown for the Archives of American Art, and he said there was a bit of trouble starting up the art history department because it was approved as a department and then the funding was put on hold. Then David Rockefeller spoke to his brother Nelson Rockefeller, and said that art history is a needed part of the Graduate Center. So despite budget cuts, the Graduate Center and the art history department stayed on. I don’t know if you’d heard that?
LS: No, I had not heard that. Well Milton would know this. I was married during the 1960s. My wife Dorothy, Dorothy _______________”she’d been the Head of the Art Department at Life magazine. She had a place in Westhampton, and when Milton and I got together on this project for the Graduate Center, Dorothy and I invited Milton and Blanche, his wife, for a weekend. During that weekend we drew up the program. But the politics and the financing of it was something I knew nothing about. All through my life I’ve managed to steer clear of any administrative positions, any committee work, any long-term financing, or fund-raising, and I don’t feel I’ve missed anything.
KK: Also at the University of Pennsylvania as well?
LS: Yes. [Long pause] Gregorian. [Vartan] Gregorian”he was Provost, First Dean of Humanities, at the University of Pennsylvania. When he came to New York as the President of the New York Public Library, we had lunch one day and I asked him, “Greg, tell me honestly, weren’t you disappointed in me when I came to Penn and you expected me to somehow vitalize the department and do things which I didn’t do?” He said, “Frankly, at the beginning, yes, but then I realized what you were doing, and I understood that my only obligation to you was to leave you alone. You may have noticed you were never asked to serve on any committee.” He said because “whenever your name was proposed by someone, I would say, “˜No, leave Steinberg alone; he has other things to do.’” That, by the way, is the mark of Gregorian’s genius as an administrator. He understood what people’s talents were, how to use them, not to waste them. There are people very good at committee work, who love it, and they should be doing it. Well, is that about it?
K.K. That’s about it unless there’s anything else you want to add. Any particular story or particular remark that’s important to add, for the history of Hunter.
LS: There’s one story I kind of cherish. It was very early in my teaching career at Hunter. I was teaching at the Bronx campus, now Lehman College. There was a young man who sat at the back of the class just listening, not taking notes. He was auditing. I paid no attention to him because he was not part of the class; I didn’t have any objection to his sitting in. There was also a bright young woman who was always shooting her mouth off. She liked to hear her own voice, sometimes saying very silly things. I was showing a Raphael painting of St. Catherine. It’s a very beautiful painting of St. Catherine with one hand over her breast and the other resting rather tenderly on the wheel of her martyrdom. This girl raises her hand, and says, “Professor Steinberg, why is it that Catherines always have such delicate hands? I’ve noticed that.” I was totally baffled by this question, so I said to her, “I think there are certain things you have to do before you are ready to ask that question. The first thing I suggest is bring together, at random, about a hundred pictures of St. Catherine and make sure that the generalization really holds”that they all have delicate hands. Then
I suggest, as a control, you bring together other pictures of St. Barbara and see whether they have, for comparison, dishpan hands, and if you find that it holds, then you’re ready to ask the question.” At the end of that semester this young man that sat in the back of the class came over to me and said he was a science major. He always thought that art and the people involved in art were sort of romantic, daydreaming, undisciplined, subjective, and the very opposite that is required of a hard-headed scientist. He sat in on my classes expecting to have this notion, or prejudice, confirmed. He said, “There was one moment when I suddenly realized that I was stupid, it was just nothing but prejudice. That was the time when you answered that question on St. Catherine’s hands; I realized your mind works the same way a scientist’s does.” That’s one of those moments in my teaching career that I remember.
KK: Did he go on to become an art historian?
LS: Who? The scientist? I hope not. He’d be out of a job.
KK: Yes, it’s much safer in science.
(End of interview)
Edited by Margaret Fiore, October, 2008