In 2002, the renowned art historian Leo Steinberg shocked the art world by selling his encyclopedic print collection — over 3,500 pieces spanning the Renaissance to Modern periods — to the Blanton, then a little-known museum at the University of Texas at Austin. Nearly 20 years later, a new display of 200 works from this collection, After Michelangelo, Past Picasso: Leo Steinberg’s Library of Prints, is the first exhibition to examine how Steinberg’s prints impacted his ideas and writing, which in turn shaped much of 20th-century Western thought on art.
Born Zalman Lev Steinberg in Moscow in 1920 to German Jewish parents, Steinberg and his family left Russia after his father ran afoul with Lenin’s government. The family moved to Berlin, where at age 12 Steinberg picked up his first art book, on Italian Renaissance painting. In 1933, the family fled Hitler’s Germany for London, where Steinberg studied sculpture and drawing at the Slade School of Fine Arts. In 1945, he immigrated to New York City, where he shifted his focus from making art to studying it. He would go on to become one of the era’s most brilliant art scholars, lecturers, and critics.
A heart attack and brush with death at age 40 pushed Steinberg to turn his nascent print collecting hobby into a passion: he even purchased a print sight unseen from his hospital bed. Within a year, Steinberg had collected over 700 prints. The era’s post-World War II art market slump made prints — especially lower-quality impressions and works by lesser-known artists — uniquely accessible and affordable. Scouring the bookstores, antique dealers, and frame shops of New York City, London, and Paris, Steinberg sometimes paid mere pennies for his astounding finds.
Prints’ low prices — and the thrill of the hunt — suited Steinberg’s modest part-time professor’s salary, and his insatiable curiosity about the unexplored corners of art history. “He has a super refined aesthetic sense in some ways,” Blanton exhibition curator Holly Borham said in a recent video call, “but people say he lived off of hot dogs and fish sticks. He was a refugee. He didn’t grow up with much, and he was frugal. So, he spent his money on his prints.”
By the mid-1970s, galleries and museums had caught on to prints’ importance, and Steinberg was priced out of his bargain bin collecting style. From then on, he saved up and sold from his collection to buy individual pieces.
The woodcuts, engravings, etchings, and lithographs in Steinberg’s collection encompass much of European printmaking history, especially the period between 1500 and 1800. It samples some of Western art history’s most acclaimed creators, including old masters like Callot, Goya, Rembrandt, Ribera, and Rubens. But Steinberg “wasn’t only after big names,” Borham insisted. Female printmakers and artists from 19 nationalities also appear in the collection, as do quirky animal portraits, landscape studies, ornamental designs, social commentaries, and political satire pieces.
As a scholar, Steinberg became known for his unorthodox takes on Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture. For example, his controversial book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983) argues that Christ’s exposed genitals in the era’s imagery are meant to convey his humanity. As a print collector, Steinberg was also unconventional. He actively sought out prints that others would have deemed flawed, such as prints that were traced and sketched on. These well-worn pieces offered Steinberg vivid clues about artistic processes, and about a print’s ongoing role as a creative tool in the studio.
“If you’re going to do art history,” Steinberg declared, “you’d better know what your artists were looking at. And that has to include prints.” Until the arrival of photography, prints circulated much more widely than any other visual media. Artists frequently copied elements they’d seen in others’ prints, and Steinberg’s collection formed a sort of visual library that helped him identify and connect chains of pictorial sampling across time, space, and media (sometimes prints inspired works in painting, tapestry, and pottery). His findings reveal that printmaking influenced artistic developments in Europe and beyond on a much larger scale than was previously recognized.
Steinberg also used his collection to seriously study copies. Copyists, he argued, gave crucial information about the original and the work it later inspired. Steinberg himself copied the artworks he studied to better understand them, as seen in a handful of his sketches on display in the exhibition. These works, along with his print purchase ledgers, form a picture of how prints fueled his thinking. Borham found, for instance, Steinberg’s handwritten notes on the mattes of prints that he later used as slides in his celebrated lectures, and to illustrate his books and radical essays about art.
Despite his interest in the past, Steinberg was by no means blind to contemporary currents. He also wrote about artists working in his own time like Guston, Johns, Picasso, and Rauschenberg. In fact, one of Steinberg’s book covers prompted the creation of a new art print. The cover of Steinberg’s book Jasper Johns (1963), featuring a photo of Johns’s sculpture “Painted Bronze”(1960) against a black backdrop, inspired Johns to create “Ale Cans”(1964), a lithograph based on the cover design.
Specializing in periods as disparate as the Renaissance and Modern ages may seem anomalous, but Steinberg didn’t see the need to divide them. “One thing to remember about Leo is that he was a trained artist,” Borham explains. “That gave him the confidence to see that no matter what period of art he’s looking at, artists are always trying to solve the same formal problems.” And thanks to his prints, Steinberg saw art in a much wider time frame, and with a much deeper imprint.
After Michelangelo, Past Picasso: Leo Steinberg’s Library of Prints continues at the Blanton Museum of Art (200 E Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Austin, Texas) through May 9.