There’s a an old Greek fable – it might be Plutarch’s, I forget: an old man has come to watch the Olympic Games, he looks all over for a seat, and there are none. And then, as he approaches the rows of the Boeotians, the whole of Boeotia stands up as one.
Leo Steinberg has died, age ninety, and the paper’s full of niggling praise. It seems that Ernst Gombrich didn’t find his criticism “scientific,” which, coming from Gombrich, is praise a-plenty.
I once had a solo show where no-one came. Literally: no-one. I felt like the Walter Mondale of the Art World. And then I got a note from Steinberg, whom I’d never met, thanking me for the invitation, apologizing that he couldn’t come, but the work looked interesting. Unlike Gombrich, Leo seemed to think that making art was more interesting than simply getting it right. Later, when I first met him, I told him he’d saved my life that time. Steinberg was really puzzled: he didn’t feel he’d done anything special at all.
When Matisse was an old man, and barely able to walk the streets of Cannes, the waiters would come out from the cafes and stand as he walked by. When Verdi was an old man, and took a buggy trip through the Italian countryside, the peasants would come to the side of the road to sing the chorus from Nabucco. The last time I saw Leo – he must have been eighty – he was patiently waiting in line to buy his admission sticker at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So here’s an old man, and that should be sufficient; an old man who has contributed immeasurably to art, and that should be sufficient, too. And yet he waits in line, unnoticed. I think, when Leo gets to Heaven, the artists will stand up as one, and offer him a seat among them.
Leo Steinberg has died.