BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

A Friend Indeed

Leo Steinberg's erudition, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and fine dining

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 05 MAY 09

Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d'Alger (The Women of Algiers), 1955. Courtesy: Libby Howie/Succession Picasso/DACS 2009

Forty years ago I heard a lecture that changed my life. I was college student interested in modern art but caught up in the political turmoil of the times. Although I often went to galleries and museums, sitting in dark rooms looking at slides had little appeal, and listening to professors hold forth on the finer points of their research had even less. Later, after a decade of teaching art history myself, I began to be haunted by the thought that I might become such a shadowy, disembodied voice. So I quit.

The lecture I attended when I was 19 was something different. The subject was Pablo Picasso. I was besotted by the man and his art; I had read everything I could find about him, saw everything I could see, and, with the ardor of a rock fan had – post Mai ’68 – hitch-hiked to La Californie, the mansion on the Côte d’Azur where Picasso held court, to see if I could catch a glimpse of him. However, the talk I heard a year after my trip did not celebrate his cult of genius, tell his life story, or parse the narratives of his pictures; it was about space. More particularly it was about Picasso’s variations from 1954–5 on Eugène Delacroix’s 1834 painting The Women of Algiers (In their Apartment) and how he returned to the template of classic Cubism, stripped it down, laid it over the deep perspective of that pre-modernist picture and sprung the joints of the combined structures so that every facet of the composition became reversible and fully plastic. It blew my mind more completely than any drug ever had. Or, better said, it awakened my consciousness, sprung its logical constraints and made pictures fully dynamic for the first time. The speaker was Leo Steinberg and the text he read soon found its way into his seminal book of essays from 1972, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art.

Over the years our paths occasionally crossed – our mutual friends Victor and Sally Ganz owned Picasso’s series ‘The Women of Algiers’ – and in due course Steinberg invited me to supper. Expecting to dine out, as is the art world custom, I was informed that we would, instead, eat in at his art- and book-dense apartment as restaurants no longer tolerated smoking and he smoked unstintingly. In the years since, our conversations over Chinese, Japanese or Indian food have ranged from the state of the field of art history, the socialism of Steinberg’s father, his family’s emigration from Bolshevik Russia to England, the practice of drawing, his ongoing study of Michelangelo, and my peripatetic life as a curator.

The New York winter this year was very cold, and I became concerned that the housebound Steinberg might get cabin fever, so I made him a present of Roberto Bolaño’s massive, innovative 2004 novel 2666. Bolaño has long been a favourite of mine and since he is currently much discussed in the literary journals delivered to Steinberg’s door I thought the Chilean iconoclast might pique his interest. Although graciously acknowledged, my attempts to convert Steinberg were unsuccessful. Instead they prompted a discussion of James Joyce whose work Steinberg had read and reread since the 1930s.

For me, the most important 20th- century vanguard writers were Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, though I read Joyce’s 1916 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in school and Sally Ganz put me on to his slightly earlier collection of short-stories, The Dubliners. But, I confessed to Steinberg, I had not cracked Ulysses (1922). Its length daunted me but above all I had heard too often that it was the great book by the great modern novelist, especially from people with too much, too obviously, invested in such ‘ex cathedra’ pronouncements. So far as I was concerned catechism and hagiography were the antithesis of modernism. Surprised but not offended Steinberg was pragmatic in his rejoinder. After clearing the leftover dumplings and announcing he would change my mind, he pulled a tattered, heavily annotated copy of Ulysses from the shelf and began to read aloud.

Russian was Steinberg’s first tongue, and even now – like someone discovering for the first time the language Joyce toyed with – he savours the sounds and cadences of the writer’s idiosyncratic English. Intricately polyphonic, Ulysses also called upon Steinberg’s erudition when the text veered into Gaelic, Greek and Latin; similarly, he illuminated Joyce’s ecclesiastical and liturgical references with his expertise in Christian art. Lastly he applied his wealth of knowledge about erotic and scatological subjects dear to Joyce in whose imagination the hauntingly sacred and the gleefully profane are inextricably intertwined. So too with Steinberg, the author of The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (which was published in 1983). It was quite an evening. In contrast to the usual fare in seminar rooms and academic conferences here was a true scholar with the power to make the word flesh. I owe him double.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.