03/15/2011 01:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Leo Steinberg, Giant of Renaissance and Postwar American Art History, Has Died

NEW YORK-- Leo Steinberg, the Russian-born art historian and Renaissance scholar whose work had a heroic impact on the understanding and reception of American postwar art, particularly Pop and postmodern art, passed away at the age of 90 on Sunday in New York. His death was reported in an email circulated by Utrecht-based art historian Gary Schwartz, and confirmed by University of Pennsylvania art history department chair Professor Holly Pittman.


Art historian Leo Steinberg / Courtesy Flickr

A writer and thinker of immense erudition, Steinberg is considered alongside with art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg as one of the most influential voices in shaping the way art was discussed and looked at in 20th century America. Writing and teaching in an era when the reception of new art was still largely codified by university art history departments, Steinberg electrified the art world in 1972 with his classic book "Other Criteria," which introduced the notion of the "flatbed picture plane" -- a potent entry point for understanding the dimension-annihilating flatness of work by Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns -- through essays on those two artists as well as Picasso, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, and Willem de Kooning.

An art historian whose career began with an explosive lecture series at the 92nd Street Y titled "An Introduction to Art and Practical Esthetics," Steinberg taught over the years at universities including Penn, Columbia, and Harvard. In addition to his work on postwar art, he is highly regarded for such seminal works of classical art history as "The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion," and his critical Picasso touchstone "The Philosophical Brothel" about "Les Demoiselles d' Avignon." Unusual among art historians of his traditional background, Steinberg favored writing in an accessibly jargon-free first-person style replete with anecdotes and a humane subjectivity.

According to Gary Schwartz, Steinberg passed away in his sleep at his home on New York's 66th Street. A memorial service is planned for March 17 at 12:45 p.m. at Riverside Memorial Chapel.

"He was a giant, but a giant of a certain age, and sadly we lose those giants," said Professor Pittman. "He brought great intelligence and wisdom to our department during the years he was with affiliated with Penn, and we will always remember him warmly."

-Andrew M. Goldstein, ARTINFO

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