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The Late Leo Steinberg and Me: Speaking of Michelangelo

Leo Steinberg

With wide-ranging interests from the Renaissance to Rauschenberg, the art historian extraordinaire and Penn professor emeritus Leo Steinberg, dead at the age of 90, was as provocative and profane as he was erudite.

Ken Johnson has written the definitive obit for the NY Times. But I have a personal revelation: He almost died prematurely at my own hands (just kidding, sort of), after a long late-night phone interview on the subject of the putative “Michelangelo of Fifth Avenue.”

The truth can now be told (and I doubt that Leo would regard this as an invasion of his posthumous privacy): Steinberg was the “highly distinguished art historian” (referred to in this CultureGrrl post) who had examined “The Young Archer” (now on loan from the French Government to the Metropolitan Museum) and declared that it had failed what I subsequently termed “the testicles test.” (I guess it figures that the author of The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion would be thus preoccupied.)

The reason I was never able to attribute this to him or use any of his more discreet comments from our conversation can be gleaned from this passage in my February 1996 article for the Wall Street Journal about the so-called discovery of a Michelangelo marble sculpture that had been hiding in plain sight:

The most decided detractor [of the purported Michelangelo] is Mr. Steinberg, art history professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, who states flatly that Ms. [Kathleen Weil-Garris] Brandt‘s attribution is wrong. In response to a request for comment, Mr. Steinberg prepared an erudite, detailed, two-page statement dissecting the sculpture’s anatomical anomalies, but he would only permit quotation in its entirety.

I knew that this wasn’t going to fly with my then editor at the WSJ. (I wonder if I could now rummage through my files and find it!)

Steinberg had just spent about an hour giving me his brilliant insights and some delicious quotes, when he flatly declared that I couldn’t use any of it. I never, ever let a source do that to me—tell me at the end of our conversation that the whole thing was off the record. But he was The Great Leo Steinberg, so what could I do? (Memo to everyone else: Don’t even think of trying that!)

He was, as Johnson of the Times rightly observed, a “maverick” and “adventurous scholar and critic who loved to challenge the art world’s reigning orthodoxies.” As such, he had a co-conspiring fellow provocateur in the late James Beck of Columbia University.

In tandem and separately, they were feisty, inspired rebels.

an ArtsJournal blog